Kevin J. Rice, Kevin@justanyone.com, http://JustAnyone.com
Religion Paper 7, Operative question: Is Iconography Idolatry?
Iconography is art in the form of pictures, images, and statues, which can have symbolic as well as apparent meaning. The purpose of iconography is to depict some of the moral aims and fundamental dogmas of the religion involved, and thereby to spread those moral aims and dogmas to more people in an easily understandable fashion.
Idolatry is the worship of an object that becomes deified either by magic or by the power of an outside supernatural deity. In Judeo-Christian tradition, any object that is worshipped is an idol.
So, it seems that the fundamental difference between idolatry and iconography, at least from a biased Judeo-Christian tradition, is that the God resides in the object. There is a continuum here between the extremes that a God can or cannot exist in any one place more than any other. To simplify this distinction, let us assume that there is one God in the universe. The first extreme is a logical extension of a statement that this God is omnipresent in infinite and indefinable quantity, and basically stating that She is equally present everywhere. Thus, it is not in Her nature to concentrate Herself in any one place more than any other (being present in infinite quantity, the question is meaningless). The other end of the continuum is that She resides wholly (no pun intended) in an object. Iconography then becomes idolatry if one attempts to pray through an object such as a statue of a saint and one's basis for judgement lies towards the omnipresent end of the continuum.
If we leave out the idea that one can pray through an object to obtain greater religious power through the intercession of another spiritual force (such as with saints), all that remains are the educational and guidance forces exerted by the objects. At this point there remains the question of the worshipper being aware of the symbolic significance of the object as opposed to just the physical representation of the object. I would make no claim that this distinction is made by all worshipping peoples, especially mentally impaired ones.
Another thing to consider is if the worshipper realizes that the symbolic nature of the object is not that which is being prayed to. For instance, a Christian doesn't pray to peace, they pray for peace, to God, in whatever unknowable infinite form she exists. Let's take the example of a statue of a dove in flight in a Christian setting. There is the dove, the idea of the dove representing peace, the idea of peace on the move represented by the dove flying, the idea of God having created the dove and set the dove in motion and thereby peace in motion, the idea that God is a source of peace and can give out that peace, the idea that the dove actually is just flying along blissfully without any religious knowledge or nature different than a random algae cell, and the idea that it is humanity that imbues the dove with the significance thereby signifying that it is only humans who can do anything tangible about peace.
I know that most people who have some sort of religious training would probably know about the dove = peace equation. I also know that half the people in Texas don't know the name of the country immediately south of them. Besides the debate over where to draw the line in the continuum of God being concentrated in one place more than another, I think that the rest of the argument about iconography being idolatry is whether the symbol is help or hindrance towards that end as a teaching tool to the semi-literate majority. As for myself, I have faith in human intelligence, but not necessarily in the channels of human communication that are supposed to bring this knowledge forth. My prescription: mandatory (sentence for failure: capital punishment) worldwide religious schooling on the intricacies of idol/idle time in worship being wasted. Not to mention another course in the importance of satire. The only worry is over who I could get to teach it.
A Saintly Flying Dove Statue in Texas:
A Communications/Continuum Conundrum
by Kevin J. Rice
Tuesday, November 20th, 1990
Introduction to World Religions
Tues & Thurs 9:30 am
Fall Semester, 1990
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