“You shall have no other gods before me”: On Idolatry and Religious Mediation

by Nestor Ravilas

Social history proves that religious differences are crucial factors in obstructing humanity’s journey towards peace and cooperation.  One simple infringement of one’s revered beliefs could provoke a vicious war.  A supposed picture of Jesus for one dangling on display in a wall of a house inhabited with people from various religious persuasions might bring discomfort to those who professed Evangelical faith in which its immediate obliteration has to be carried out to redress them of such religious torment.  I was probably referring to myself when, out of discomfort, I stashed away my mother’s image of the Madonna and her Child and odiously placed it as cover to our clogged and reeking toilet bowl.  What transpired next was indeed a violent war; in which I endured much of the blows.

This affection of the Catholics for aesthetic representation of the divine is what keeps them forever suspects to Evangelicals.  Attempts for ecumenical dialog bungled and collapsed whenever the talk drifts to those images.    Having felt offended by this affront, Catholics in turn protect their “divine representations” against the iconoclasts by keeping the Evangelicals at certain distance. Regretably, my mother crossed that distance.  The rift therefore stays and has not promised adjudication in spite of many attempts to bridge the tension between the two of most overt groups of Jesus’ worshipers.

In retrospect, the Evangelical’s disgust seemingly valid since the Bible is littered with divine condemnation against idol worship.  With these “authoritative” pieces of evidence, it seems that the preponderance of obstacle is insurmountable that nothing could reconcile the two houses, let alone uniting them into one body of Christ.  Enfeebling the situation might be, it does not however stop me from dreaming; imagining myself overcoming the divide together with a number of other dreamers.  For I found the power of imagination powerful than any fixed boundaries that separate and divide us.  Against this particular fixation, against this theological certitude, allow me to take my stride out of this socio-religious orderthat has been regarded as designed and willed by the divine herself.

It tickles me always to ponder whether the divine could ever be an object of thinking, of comprehension.  The enlightenment thinkers first registered the doubt if humans could really encounter directly the divine apart from any form of mediation.  As delineated more by post-structuralists, they ask if we could solve the appearance-reality distinction by penetrating the appearance and touch reality as it is.  Could the transcendental God be a victim too of transcendental reduction?  If so,nothing then stands beyond time, beyond history and beyond space?  Even the divine has no help to escape the power of human grasp.  The comprehending mind could bring the divine into light; and make the divine known by representing and describing her.  Humans then in this case are the ultimate beings, for none could escape their knowing activity and their capability to reduce God into human categories.

Against this assumption we insist that God actually escapes our knowledge and our propensity for naming.  The divine stands beyond the horizon of human faculties, of human discourse and categories. We attempted in different occasions to describe our experience with the divine, but none among these descriptions could make God their property or to represent God on her totality.  God remains outside of those naming, of those descriptions, of those representations.   Nonetheless, God has to be part of human activities, of human categories, of human consciousness as she willingly enmeshed herself in the created world. The need then to represent the divine is necessary to mediate this relationship between the finite and the inconceivable infinite.  What come therefore between us and God are forms of mediation in human categories in order not to predict and control divine activity, but primarily see the divine’s shadow in relation to her entire creation.

All forms of mediation therefore are metaphorical in their true sense since none of them is fully identical with the divine.  Created with natural wits and skills, humans perceived their world in different ways and communicate this perceptions indifferent manners.  Some see language as best way of mediation for the purpose of clarity and efficiency of communication.  Language on the other hand tends to reduce the infinity of things they tried to represent in small chunks of vocabularies as Emmanuel Levinas inveighed this in his writings saying, “Language is taking us away from things it describes rather than bringing us closer to them”.  Poets and artists then are much disposed for an artistic mediation which is more flexible, loose, and free that provides more space for the incessant eruption of meaning of things, events, and symbols that would continually intimate themselves to one’s vast imagination.  What is more efficient therefore between the two methods of mediation depends much on one’s natural inclination, whether one is a philosopher or an artist.  Whatever people might find congenial to their interaction or relation with the divine, whether in “words” or in “images,“they must put in their mind that the divine remains outside of these categories and they who are facing nothing than mere mediation are actually engaged in some sort of forgivable idolatry.

To think of the mediation, however, as identical to the thing it tries to represent is to engage in egregious form of idolatry.  When the divine was reduced to those “idols” and the worshiper sees no distinction between the image and the divine then we have a serious problem of idolatry.  The poets and artists, however, are not the only people susceptible to this error. Linguistic descriptions too could easily be mistaken as the reality themselves than mere descriptions.  The Western tradition of logocentrism was charged of the error of transcendental reduction that it reduced everything and anything in concepts and ideas.  When language, words, and vocabularies and any linguistic symbols for that matter stand identical with the divine and the worshiper could not see any longer distinction between these linguistic descriptions and the divine, these descriptions supposedly describing, then we have here another serious case of idolatry.  The idea is simple: the divine escapes all forms of representation whether in arts or in words and she stands beyond and above them. To take any of them as identical with the divine or regard it as the divine herself is engaging in disgusting idolatry.