Giving up on the Too Small Gods and Understanding our Idols

Dear Friends,

I sometimes poke around the Patheos channels for inspiration and ideas and leadings from Spirit; much in the same way that I will sometimes click on random links from my ridiculously long blogs listing.  Seeking inspiration and guidance and wisdom and leading for my journey.  I will go through the Pagan and Hindu and Buddhist and Spirituality sections, I will also look in the Progressive Christian channel.

I look there, because as a Pagan who is also a Unitarian Universalist, one of the Traditions I belong to (while it is no-longer exclusively Christian) has deep roots within the Christian and Abrahamic Traditions.  I look there, because in my own journey I have recently come to terms with the fact that despite often speaking out against anti-Christian prejudice in the Pagan community, I have carried such prejudices in my heart.  I look there because I wish to be challenged and inspired and forced to think and question my ideas and understandings of the Divine and the Deities, in my own spiritual journey.

So in looking around at Patheos I came across the article Giving Up a Too-Small God by Christine Valters Paintner in the Progressive Christian channel.  In it she discusses the idea and the rewards (from a monotheistic perspective)  of letting go of ones preconceptions and ideas of God and not engaging in idolatry…

“The via negativa or apophatic way in Christian tradition, which means the way of unknowing, demands that we talk about God only in terms of negatives, or what God is not. It helps to cleanse us of our idols. Alan Jones, in his book Soul-Making, writes, “We can only say that God is both unknowable and inexhaustible.” Humility is required. We are so attached to our ideas of who God is and how God works in the world. Ultimately, what the desert journey demands is that we let go of even this false idol and open ourselves to the God who is far more expansive than we can behold or imagine.”

Now, as a Contemporary Pagan I have no problem relating to a God or Spirit through the communications tool of a Cult Image or of a Religious Image, after all Idolatry is only problematic for other faiths….. and yet, and yet…

I remember once reading of the Celtic invasions of Greece in the 3rd Century BCE, and the story that when they saw the statues of the Gods in the Greek Temples the Celts simply laughed, amazed and amused at the idea that the Greeks thought an image could be captured of their Gods.

I can certainly get behind the idea of not committing the hubris of thinking that the image we have in our hearts and minds of a Diety is ALL that that Diety is, or is capable of being.  I think it is sometimes easy to take the most widely known stories of various Gods, and the most widely known ideas about and imagery of Them and think to our selves that ~this~ is what they are and nothing else…

An Idol is a tool, a sacred image of a Diety meant to provide a focus for our worship and honoring of that Diety.   We do not worship the idol, as much as we use it as a focus through which we may reach out to the Diety wherever They and Their attention may be at the moment.

I think that sometimes, partly as a result of Contemporary Paganism’s continuing emergence in a society enmeshed in Monotheism, that we tend to have limited views of the Gods.  We pigeon hole them into a God of Love or a Goddess of War or this or that, and many times knowing only a few of the many and complex stories of Them we lose sight of Their complexity.

While I do not have any problem with my Agnostic or Atheistic Pagan brethren who deal with the Gods as Ideas and Archetypes, I think the sometimes seemingly prevalent idea of the Gods as ~only~ Ideas and Archetypes can limit our experience of Them… even in experiencing them as Ideas and Archetypes.

Whatever we conceive of the natures of The Gods, They are not just to be thought of, but experienced… and I think sometimes a lot of the worship and some of the discussions I have encountered relating to The Gods,  sometimes they seem to put that experiencing of the Mysterium Tremens and Mysterium Fascinans at some sort of ‘safe’ distance…

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Giving up on the Too Small Gods and Understanding our Idols

  1. Steve Tanner

    There are many distractions in this world. It does not seem unreasonable to use “graven” images to refocus our attention in a world of abundant distractions. However, the folly of human weakness that might eventually have some people relating to the graven image, instead of divinity, lends wisdom to the Abrahamic prohibition against graven images.

    I walk a spiritual path of personal freedom and personal responsibility. I have an alter with graven images upon it. However, this alter is meaningless without the real world manifestations of divinity; it is no more than midden. The more experiential my path becomes, the more my alter seems to collect dust.

    “Ideas and Archetypes” are Jungian concepts concerning the workings of the human mind to the best of my knowledge. The human body is viewed as a machine, and these concepts are an attempt to understand the “operating system.” Certainly it limits experiencing the divine because such experience becomes a figment of the human mind. However, within Hermetic concepts this is inconsequential because the universe is mental.

    I agree that the divine is to be experienced. This cannot be accomplished if we keep them at a “safe distance.” We need to let the divine reveal itself to us, not just read about them in books and online; to let them reveal themselves is to experience “revelation.” Observe the world’s religions and you might notice that those not experiencing revelation are experiencing stagnation and repression.

    I think my short answer here would be that your question is important and far deeper than one might suspect upon first glance.

    1. Pax

      Thank you for all of your answer/reply! Food for thought there, especially the reference to the idea of Hermetic ideas of the universe as entirely a mental construct.

  2. credencedawg

    There’s a lot here Pax. We (neopagans) have our own forms of “idolatry”, which is to say places where the window blocks out the sunlight rather than being illuminated by it. I think modern Paganism has made it’s choice overwhelmingly in favour of gnosis, mysticism, direct experience of the Divine, but it balks at the prospect constantly because it wants a consensual credibility, and feels the need to apologize for (or devalue) that very directness. On the other hand, there is relatively little guidance for the great mass of modern Pagans in terms of a truly mystical path, so a lot of people probably also feel insecure in their paths.

    The “path of unknowing” is definitely part of the relationship to the gods though, because how else can you come to a real meeting with them. Many who are dogmatic and demanding re the nature of the gods are I feel “idolizing” other things; history, lore, social consensus etc. Even those who decry treating the gods as “psychological archetypes”, do the very same thing by treating the gods as characters with an unchanging story.

    I am a polytheist, but the relationships of my polytheism have to luminous. “Idolatry” is not finally an issue ties up with images so much as our own falling short of union with the sacred.

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