What’s wrong with idol worship?

The lesson in priesthood this past Sunday was on signs of the second coming (based on the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church book on W.W.). It was a fairly uneventful lesson until we started talking about how to interpret the signs and one good elder shared the experience of his brother who lived in Sri Lanka shortly before the Tsunami. He commented, “My brother told me about how ripe the place was for destruction. With all the idol worship going on and all, it was no wonder what happened when it did.”

I usually try to tone down my thoughts a notch or two before letting them escape my mouth, and fortunately in this situation someone else had their hand up befor me, so by the time it came for me to speak, I had translated the thought “I’m swimming in a Tsunami of ignorance” into something much more cordial.

Now, I think most of us would agree that such a comment is utterly ridiculous, but it did get me thinking about a few other issues that are relevant to raise here. The first is about idol worship. How do we make sense of idol worship given the injunctions against it in the Bible on the one hand, and our inclusivness of other religions on the other (most people believe in a supreme being, yet call him by different names)? Should we dismiss the Bible as culturally insensitive? Reinterpret “idol” to mean something else that qualifies the Biblical warning and yet disqualifies other sincere religious belief as “idolotrous”? Or maintain a position that much of the world are worshiping “false gods”? Or another alternative?

16 Replies to “What’s wrong with idol worship?”

  1. Holy Crap I can’t believe that someone actually said that. This is an excellent post following up on the previous one about material religious practices within Mormonism. I tend to think of “idol worship” as a rhetorical denunciation rather than an objective category, especially because the biblical accusations against idolatry don’t really correspond to how other religions used religious images.

  2. I thought that the standard North American LDS way of dealing with the Biblical injunctions against idolatry is to interpret the term to mean (oddly enough) consumerism or materialism. That definition gives meaning to the Biblical warnings without devaluing other sincere religious belief.I served a mission in a country were real idols were worshipped everyday. I even brought back a couple of household altars which I sometimes display. Perhaps the biblical injunctions maintain their original meaning outside of Jewish-Christian-Islam cultures?

  3. Trailer,In Biblical accounts against idol worship, what is it that’s being denounced? I would imagine that one could assert that some type of objective category could be derived from pursuing the issue this way (although, not that we would agree such a creation). IMO this would be something similar to what I was suggesting about “reinterpreting” idol worship. In other words this could lead us to say that what is being banned is not alternative forms of worship, but certain types of unrighteousness that are not necessarily associated with those ways of worshipping (such as what we could call nowadays “materialism?). Although, to be honest I have little clue as to at what is meant in most situations in the Bible.PS-I’ve always wondered where “Holy crap” came from. Any ideas?lief,I’m not so sure that in the Bible there isn’t a connection besides an injunction against being “worldly”. For the most part I think this is what we want the text to mean so we don’t have to explain a more direct contradiction. The biblical scene seems to be one of competing gods, and the Bible’s claim could be understood as an argument as to which god is the best (or perhaps which god is real). I think one way to see our current situation is similar to the Bible in that there are competing gods/religions but now we have the added worldview of reconciling them in a different way than in the Bible (although it could be argued that hints of a more inclusive position are in the Bible). I think the tension lies here.

  4. It seems to me like most of the Biblical injunctions against idol worship are given to the Israelites when they start abandoning the God of Israel and adopting the religious practices of their neighbors. I would be unsurprised if there were Biblical punishment of idolatrous nations (because the non-Israelite nations are regularly punished so the Israelites could have a homeland), but maybe, if we want to find current LDS lessons from the OT, we could focus on the injunction not to abandon the true God for something else?

  5. I agree with your reading of the OT and am often dissappointed in the standard answer that simply equates OT idol worship with modern day materialism.Still, though, I’m not sure I see the tension. Although we welcome people of all faiths to enter the investigative path and learn about the church, we certainly expect them to drop idolotrous practices once they join, don’t we? I’m not sure that recognizing the intrinsic good in all religions goes beyond living an ethical life to include veneration of catholic icons, or in my experience, placing offerings before and praying to buddhist or shinto deities, for instance, in the sphere of Mormonism.To the extent that there are still competing gods in this modern world, don’t the OT injunctions still aplly?

  6. because the non-Israelite nations are regularly punished so the Israelites could have a homeland I think this is close to the heart of the issue. If we look as idol worship vs. no idol worship as a distinguishing characteristic of Israelites in comparison to their surronding neighbors, and the justified punishment of them in creating an Israelite nation as a result of their unwillingness to worship the god of the Israelites, then are we justified in assuming as the brother in my elder’s quorum did that calamities on todays “idol worshipping” nations are simply contemporary manifestations of Old Testament experience?Lief,I think you make a good point. But allow me to try to highlight the tension.I think the larger problem I have is creating a clear conception of what idol worship is, and how it is wrong. If we say that idol worship is worshiping other gods, then I don’t see how this cannot but conflict in situations where we want to create an inclusivness that recognizes that we worship the same god, but with different names. Which the church has done in Chinese speaking places, BTW. The sacrament prayer starts off with calling on “Shang Di”, an early Chinese deity. This is one place of tension. On the other hand, if we do say that there are clear circumstances where other gods are being worshiped, then to what degree is this wrong? Is it misguided, or immoral? The feeling I get is that we (Mormons in general) tend toward the latter. In other words, idol worshppers are viewed not just as “lost souls” but souls worthy of punishment.

  7. I’m personally more sympathtetic to Jean-Luc Marion’s views on “conceptual idolatry” (reducing God to a concept of our own creation) than I am to the materialism view of idolatry. Regardless of one’s take on Marion, I think his approach of considering the eastern/orthodox notion of iconography is an important consideration. Wikipedia’s article on idolatry makes the point a lot of the views on idolatry changed after God took on human form in Christ, since before then YHWH was essentially the unnamed one. I’m not sure if this can be translated into a Mormon view, but I do think we should look at what was essentially wrong with idolatry worship historically more than just taking the literal kind of idolatry worship, and I think this approach justifies thinking about idolatry in terms of materialism as well as (and especially) conceptual/philosophical/theological idolatry….

  8. Robert C.,If we were to talk about a Mormon view of idol worship, what would it be? Both descriptively and presciptively?I agree that regardless of accepting or rejecting Biblical statments we should try to historically understand what was at play in their creation; but at the same time I’m also more prone to purposefully (mis)interpret idolatry as consumerism simply for the sake of allowing for a larger measure of respect in other religions.To pick up the issue of Marion’s view momentarily (and perhaps you could help me here), does his notion of reducing god to a concept of our own creation only apply under the assumption that we are worshiping the same god?

  9. I think a Mormon view of idol worship is a bit complex. Idolatry doesn’t seem to me a major theme in the BOM like it is in the OT–it’s mentioned, but it seems each time it’s mentioned, it’s sort of in passing, not really focused on. Idolatry is mentioned even less in the D&C, though I think D&C 52:39 is very interesting b/c it does seem to suggest a materialism interpretation (“let them labor with their own hands that there be no idolatry” is juxtaposed in the next verse with remembering the poor). I also noticed this talk by Pres. Kimball that emphasizes a “trusting in the arm of flesh” interpretation of idolatry (slightly different from materialism/consumerism I think).I think a good tack for advocating respect for other religions is in terms of hypocrisy and materialism as a more subtle but repugnant form of idolatry. The tsunami-as-judgment comment seems ignorant to me on so many levels I’m not quite sure how best to address it, though I’d be inclined to take a love-others-don’t-judge-approach rather than a much more complicated ‘that isn’t really idolatry’ approach.On your question whether Marion’s notion only applies “under the assumption that we are worshipping the same god,” I’m not sure I understand your question–what do you mean “same god”? I don’t claim to understand Marion all that well, but I think he’s talking principally about the way that we view God, but also has in mind the way we view others (building on Levinasian ideas) so I don’t think the worshipping aspect is very central, if that’s what you mean. He talks specifically about icons and argues they are good/valid forms of worship when they are offered in a way that honors God at the same time acknowledging that God transcends any representation of him. He talks a lot about idols being like mirrors whereas icons are transparent (figuratively of course) and let us see beyond the representation of God (or saints or whatever) to what God is “really like” (something we never fully grasp). So Marion tends to talk more about the way one looks at things as being an iconic vs. an idolatrous gaze–projecting our own concepts, ideas, aims, desires, etc. onto others (God esp.) is an idolatrous gaze b/c it doesn’t treat the Other as its own entity (in this sense, I think an others-as-gods view fits nicely with Marion’s views though I don’t think he talks in such terms…).

  10. I live in an area that is mainly Catholic and of course they have all their saints they pray to asking to interceed with God for them. As an artists, who is interested in how cultures function, I love the saints of my Catholic brothers and sisters. The saints all have great stories behind them and are strong images.(I like the images so much I have made LDS retablos see; larryogan.visualserver.com) The Moromon in me cringes a little bit when it looks like the Catholics worship paintings and statues. I know they are followers of Jesus Christ, so I go between thinking they are idolotrous to thinking they have been mislead by the early Roman Christian Church. They claim they don’t worship them. It is a real gray area.Having said that about idol worship, I also agree that chasing material wealth and worshipping movie stars, sports figures and the like is idol worship. They are called idols after all. Hopefully nobody prays to them but in today’s world anything is possible.

  11. Doesn’t LDS doctrine impose some sort of spiritual scienter requirement on transgressing laws, such as the commandment not to keep idols?In other words, shouldn’t idol worshipping be morally wrong only when the worshippers have received some kind of heavenly witness to the contrary, such as the the ancient Isrealites had in abundance? I would think that a reasonable member should view with indifference idol worshipping by persons with no personal experience with the Christian God – and therein lies the insensitivity of the comment.By the way, we hardly need to look to China – the word “god” meant something else in English or Low German or whatever long before it referred to the Christian God. In my experience, the church standardizes the form of address for deity in different languages – and would dissaprove of sacrament prayers, for instance, adressing deity by any other name. Are you asserting otherwise, in reliance on the phrase “we worship the same god, but with different names”?

  12. Hey guys and gals, I’ve been traveling for the holidays and so my apologies for not responding sooner. I hope I’ll have more time later today to develop my thoughts, but for now I’ll have to cherry pick.Lief,What do you mean that the church “standardizes the form of address for deity in different languages”? Are we to assume for instance that Shang Di in the Chinese case is actually the same god that we worship?Robert,I think I’m going to have to disagree about the best way to resolve the idol worshipers deserve punishment mentality. While it may be pragmatic to employ the “do not judge” motif, I don’t think that gets to an issue that is one level deeper–making sense of the “other” and figuring out how to live as a part of a global church that is supposed to encompass multiple cultures. People that are saying these ridiculous comments are leaders in the church (not GAs, granted, but still local leaders).Sorry, I’ve got to run.

  13. Oh, if it’s leaders, I also would push harder for a deeper understanding, though it’s still a complicated issue that I don’t feel I understand very well (which is why your post is interesting and helpful!).

  14. diahman,I simply mean that, throughout China, “Shang Di” is the standardized LDS way of addressing deity in sacrament prayers (at least) and that addressing deity in some other way would probably (never been there) either be viewed suspiciously or not tolerated at all. Therefore, even though “Shang Di” may traditionally refer to another form of worship in China, the Church has appropriated the term to mean the LDS God in the church context regardless of other meanings.

  15. “In other words, shouldn’t idol worshipping be morally wrong only when the worshippers have received some kind of heavenly witness to the contrary, such as the the ancient Isrealites had in abundance?”Lief, I’d recommend reading Romans 1, where Paul touches on this subject. The short answer is that idolatry is morally wrong in all cases.

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