Sunday, August 10, 2014

My First Sermon: "In Praise of Idolatry"

This sermon was preached on August 10, 2014 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.

The Bible says “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” (Exodus)

In fact, as far as I know the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are the only ones that forbid the creation and worship of idols. We find many “idols” in other religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, African religions, Native American religions, et cetera.

I don't know about you, but I was brought up to believe that all those other religions were false. My parents didn't make a big deal about religion – they didn't go to church – but I didn't get any education about world religions either. And the information I picked up from the people around me was that you only had two religious options: you could be a Christian or an atheist. That's it.

Now many of us here are aware that there are other options. In this sermon I'd like to go back and re-examine some of the things that the Bible says about idolatry and the worship of “other gods.” I'd like to suggest that maybe idols are not exactly what the Bible says they are. And that other gods can be acceptable too.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of idol is “a representation or symbol of an object of worship; broadly: a false god.” Who gets to decide which gods are true and which gods are false? Idolatry means the worship of idols. idolatry is defined as “the worship of a picture or object as a god.”

The Bible mocks idol-worshipers on the grounds that an idol is an inanimate object. The 135th Psalm says “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths.” Now that's true: an idol is the work of human hands. It's not actually a god – there is no god inside it. And our understanding of idol-worshipers is that they are stupid enough to believe that it really is a god.

I put it to you that it's not necessarily so. Take Buddhism, for example. If a Buddhist puts a statue of the Buddha in their house, or on their altar, they don't believe that the Buddha inhabits that statue. The same goes for other Buddhist idols . . . I guess I'll use that term. People like to have statues or pictures of the bodhisattvas, they like to have Buddhist mandalas. They find that these things are helpful to their religious practice. They may venerate these sacred objects. They don't believe there is a god inside them.

Here's another example: our flaming chalice. It's a physical symbol of our faith. Is it an idol? We don't believe there's a literal god or divine spirit inside it. But if it got damaged, I think we'd feel bad about that. And if someone came in here and said they were going to smash the chalice because it is a symbol of our faith, I think we'd all be outraged. Not because we think the chalice has a god inside it, but because such an action would be profoundly disrespectful. To an outside observer, it might look like we were upset because our idol had been destroyed.

I have a little anecdote about the UU chalice. Back in 2004, the UUA sent out a survey to all of its member congregations, asking them what elements they used in worship. It had questions like, “do you sing hymns?” “do you share Joys and Concerns,” and so on. But there was an error in the survey. They meant to ask “Do you do the chalice lighting?” but it accidentally got left out. It was an accident, okay, but I find it a very interesting little accident.

I read about this in a book called Worship That Works – it covers all aspects of Unitarian Universalist worship practices – and the authors of that book remark that “A legacy of our Puritan Protestant heritage is the modest use of symbols, and of rituals surrounding symbols, in worship.” Note that they refer to “symbols,” not to “idols.” Although according to the dictionary, an idol is “a symbol of an object of worship.” They can't call the chalice an “idol.” That would be going too far. But the chalice is a physical symbol of our faith.

Why do we like the chalice as much as we do? You might be asking yourself why I wanted to talk about idols in the first place. What is the use of idols? Do they really matter? We've been taught that physical objects are not important in worship. We've been taught that God does not inhabit physical objects, that God is transcendent. And yet many people use objects, symbols, idols, in their religious practices. And when we, Unitarian Universalists, had the opportunity to start using a flaming chalice in our worship services, most of us were happy to do it.

There does seem to be something attractive about idols. Physical symbols of our faith. I don't know exactly why. I can just see that they are very common throughout world religions. Maybe people just like physical objects. I do have one theory.

I don't believe that god, or the spirit of life, or whatever you call it, is something that only exists “up there.” I believe that god is present in the world. I believe that each one of us embodies a divine spark. Our bodies are in fact physical objects which hold within them the spirit of life. In that sense, each one of us is an idol. God inhabits us. And our bodies are perishable. Just like idols, we're made of clay. I believe that idols symbolize the presence of the divine in human form.

One last thing about idols, before I move on to a related topic. The Bible talks a lot about idol-worshipers. Many people in Biblical times worshiped idols, and we still have some of the actual idols that they worshiped. We have archeological remains. On the cover of your order of service you'll see an example of the most common type of idol that was worshiped in the land that was once called Canaan. This goddess was usually called Asherah, and there are more idols of her than of any other gods. They did worship other gods, gods and goddesses. But when the bible talks about idols, this is the most common example of what they had in mind. I'll let you think about that for a minute.

The other thing I wanted to talk about was polytheism. Polytheism and idolatry seem to go together. The Bible quote I started with says “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself a carved image” of any god. We know that the inhabitants of Canaan were polytheists and idol-worshipers. It kind of makes sense that polytheists would also create images of their gods. When you have multiple deities, how do you tell them apart? Well, this one looks like this and that one looks like that. Then you have to make pictures of them, so you know which is which.

I find it interesting that the two religions which are most strictly monotheist also have the strictest prohibitions against creating images of God. I'm referring to Judaism and Islam. Christianity is technically monotheist – Christians think of themselves as monotheist – but some people believe that the doctrine of the Trinity disqualifies them from being true monotheists. (I guess Unitarians can sympathize with that point of view.)

It's also true that Christianity is a little fuzzy on the “graven images” thing as well. On the cover of your order of service you see an image of the Christian god, a very familiar image. Is it an idol? No, it's just a picture. But a picture like this would be forbidden in Judaism and Islam. We also find in some versions of Christianity veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints, which tends to detract from a pure monotheistic principle. I'll talk more about that in a bit.

But first I have a confession to make. I am a polytheist. Does that sound strange? It does seem a little odd to stand up in a Unitarian church and say that. But bear with me.

I don't know if you've ever heard our minister, Rev. Paul, say that god is a symbol. He's said that here in the pulpit a couple times. If you asked him, I'm sure he would say it again. God is a symbol. I agree with that. But for me personally I find that I need more than one symbol to convey everything that “god” can be. I like having multiple symbols to express the diversity of the divine and of divine creation. If “god” is in each one of us, if we were created in “god's” image, then it just makes sense to me that we should have multiple images of the divine. We are multiple images of the divine.

And I have to say, if as Unitarian Universalists we support diversity then I'd argue that we ought to support polytheism as well.

One of the interesting things about polytheism is that it often combines a sort of monotheism – the existence of one supreme Creator – with the diversity of polytheism. I discovered this in Daoism. When I was a freshman in college, I read the Daoist sacred text – the Dao De Jing – and I loved it. It was saying things I had always believed, that I never heard anyone else say, and they had been written down in China thousands of years ago. It was crazy.

Daoism is not strictly monotheistic, because it's not theistic. The Dao is not a god, it's a universal principle. So it's mono-something, but not monotheist. I don't know what the technical term for that is. Anyway, I've called myself a Daoist for a long time, but I was always interested in other religions as well. And I found myself drawn to a polytheistic world view. I just found out just recently that Daoism, as it was actually practiced in China, accumulated a host of goddesses and gods and demigods and spirits and so on, in addition to the universal concept of the Dao. This is Daoism as a popular religion, as opposed to the philosophical type of Daoism which is best known in the West.

Another example of a mono-something type of religion is Buddhism. Again, Buddhism is not monotheistic, because the Buddha is not a god. But it started out as the teachings of one person, and as it traveled across Asia, Buddhism also developed an entourage of bodhisattvas, and local deities who were converted to Buddhism and became “protectors of the faith,” and all that sort of thing.

So we see how some religions developed in complexity. They didn't stick with the notion of one god, one person, one organizing principle. Another example of this, which everyone who lives in New Orleans must be familiar with, is Catholicism. Technically, Catholic saints are not gods, but people pray to them and ask them for help because God is busy with more important things. You can't ask God to help you find your keys, so you ask Saint . . . help me out here. [Anthony]

It's very interesting to see what happened when Africans were brought as slaves to the New World. They were forbidden to practice their religion, but they discovered that the hierarchy of Catholicism, with one supreme deity at the top and a group of lesser saints or divine beings underneath, was very much like the arrangement of their own religion. So they identified Catholic saints with their own African spirits, which was the origin of Vodou.

Polytheism is also important to me because it seems to reflect my own psychology. I've been strongly influenced by Carl Jung and his concepts of archetypes and the collective unconscious. In his book The Structure of the Psyche, Jung said:

“The collective unconscious - so far as we can say anything about it at all - appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious... We can therefore study the collective unconscious in two ways, either in mythology or in the analysis of the individual.”

Well-known mythological scholar Joseph Campbell also remarked in his book Myths to Live By that:

“According to [Jung's] way of thinking . . . our outward-oriented consciousness, addressed to the demands of the day, may lose touch with these inward forces; and the myths, states Jung, when correctly read, are the means to bring us back in touch. They are telling us in picture language of powers of the psyche to be recognized and integrated in our lives, powers that have been common to the human spirit forever, and which represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the millenniums. . . .

“Through a dialogue conducted with these inward forces through our dreams and through a study of myths, we can learn to know and come to terms with the greater horizon of our own deeper and wiser, inward self. And analogously, the society that cherishes and keeps its myths alive will be nourished from the soundest, richest strata of the human spirit.”

I'd like to finish up this sermon by talking a little more about mythology, because it is where many people get their ideas about polytheism from. I've always loved mythology, ever since I was a kid. But mythology is not the same thing as religion. Mythology is a bunch of stories, which were usually written down by people who didn't practice the religion in question. It doesn't usually describe religious practices. It doesn't tell the whole story. Here's an example, from Greek mythology.

Apollo was the Greek god of the sun. He represented light, order, rationality. His major temple was at a place called Delphi. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, and he was the polar opposite of Apollo. He was associated with darkness, chaos, irrationality, madness. I think it was Nietzsche who developed a philosophy based on the dichotomy between “Apollonian and Dionysian” modes of being.

Apollo's temple was at Delphi, and we have a description of that temple. On the eastern wall of the temple there was a large sculpture of Apollo and the Muses, who were his female attendants. On the western wall of the temple was an equally large sculpture of Dionysus and his female attendants, who were called the Maenads. The ancient Greeks believed that every winter, Apollo left the temple and Dionysus came to live there. So during the winter months, they worshiped Dionysus in the temple of Apollo.

There must have been some explanation for why this happened, obviously. There was probably a story about it. But we don't know what that story was. That story never came down to us. If all you know about Greek religion came from Greek mythology, you'd never know that Apollo and Dionysus were worshipped in the same temple. In fact, off the top of my head I can't think of any Greek myths which talk about Apollo and Dionysus doing anything together. You never see them together. They're not friends, they're not enemies, they don't hang out . . . nothing.

Apollo and Dionysus were worshiped in the same temple. I find that absolutely fascinating. We don't know what it meant to the ancient Greeks, but it must mean something. And I have to say, you can't get this sort of thing with monotheism. You can't have that kind of complexity. I just think it's really cool.

Apollo and Dionysus were worshiped in the same temple. I'm going to leave you with that thought. Thank you.


Bible quotes are from here: Note that many of the quotes refer to worship of “other gods” and other frowned-upon practices, without specifically using the term “idol.”

Worship That Works, Arnason, Wayne and Rolenz, Kathleen, Skinner House Books, 2008, pp. 42-43.

Carl Jung quote:

The Joseph Campbell quote is from:

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