You can find this picture together with a discussion on whether or not it is disrespectful to put a statue of Buddha in a bathroom as a decorative piece.
Comments range from 1. It is offensive to Buddhists. 2. It isn’t offensive to Buddhists who “really” understand their religion. 3. Would you put Jesus in the bathroom? 4. People can put whatever they want in the bathroom. Who cares?
The Buddha, especially his head seems to be the most popular in terms of religious statuary employed for a chic decor. A secular context which loosens religious imagery from their underlying meaning or narrative seems free to appropriate that imagery with greater and greater promiscuity. Past generations may have been more offended, or perhaps were more superstition, imagining that it would be safer to avoid the possibility of angering a god, inviting a spirit or offending your neighbor.
I remember an HGTV show where a young couple who identified themselves as Buddhists, who were trying to redesign a room that already had some Buddhist statuary demanded every increasing luxurious and costly reconstruction because they couldn’t live in what appeared to me to be an already comfortable space. The scene seemed ironic given their devotion to the image of someone who saw desire as the enemy and the bringer of suffering. Can you be a hedonist AND a Buddhist? I don’t know.
Secular AND Spiritually Chic
While secularism continues to disconnect people from religious traditions the appetite for spiritual visual aids continues to increase as people are driven to “spirituality” from the emotional vacuum abandonment of religious has left behind. This transition leaves people divided and confused. You can find a Facebook group named “Hindus have statues not idols” while other Hindu pages boldly declare “Yes, Hindus worship idols” and then go on to defend the practice and explain how it fits in with their tradition. The landscape of “no-god, all-god, which-god” is complex indeed.
It Used To Be Such An Easy Commandment to Comply With
Last week we noted that the first three commandments are the most troublesome for our context. Growing up in a rather bare bones Protestant context, the “graven image” commandment was one of the easiest to find overt compliance with. A tradition of Protestant iconoclasm had left sanctuaries and homes devoid of religious statuary and any “myth of progress” thinking might lead a good Protestant to imagine that of all the commandments we finally had this one beat.
Why Idols are Useful
One Hindu sight offered ten reasons why Hindus worship idols and why this is a good and helpful thing.
- It is the easiest way to install faith in a man (or woman I guess)
- It is a way to acknowledge the omniscience and omnipresence of God
- In Hinduism there is religious sanction for this practice
- the idols help the devotee become deeply religious
- aid to concentration
- in idol worship the “true” worshiper becomes God!
- the statue reminds one of the ephemeral nature of our existence
- the best means of silent communication
- acknowledgment of one’s ignorance and helplessness
- worship of God is worship of Self
There are of course similarities and differences between Christian and Hindu theologies. Many Hindus will assert that there is one god in many manifestations or forms and so through the various forms of the gods we can connect, approach, understand god itself.
The nations and religious surrounding ancient Israel felt similarly to the Hindus. Archaeologists have recovered hosts of Canaanite idols. Rachel stole the household idols from Laban her father. Archaeologists are still trying to account for the strange Judean Pillar Figurines that have been discovered from 7th and 8th century Judea even in Jerusalem. Was the embrace of Jerusalemites to Asherah Pole religion that strong even at the center? It seemed it took nothing less than the exile to finally drive the physical idols out of the lives of the Jewish people.
“You Shall Not Make For Yourself…”
In comparison to all of this the second commandment seems overwhelmingly stark and demanding.
“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 on the earth beneath or that is in the water below.You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me,and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
If Yhwh had had religious advisers one might imagine they would council him to go big on the statuary. It worked. It worked for the Canaanites. It works for Hindus and Buddhists (of some stripes). It worked for the followers and artisans of Artemis of Ephesus and how many other Greek and Roman gods. Not sanctioning official statuary seems to be a handicap in the religious marketplace vying for hearts and minds.
Not too long after the command is given in fact Israel will go ahead with the help of Aaron and have a golden calf probably as an image for Yhwh. A calf might seem like a strange choice of image to us but it wasn’t for an ancient group of herders. Cows have for many cultures been banks on four legs. They are a hardy animal that provides milk and can be eaten and they multiply on their own.
While Yhwh strongly prohibited images of himself, he seemed quite fine with other images. Words make images and the Bible is big on words. The tabernacle and temple were replete with art and images of angels (cherubim and seraphim) and lots of images from nature. What could this prohibition be about and what should we take from it?
Isaiah in the Temple
Years later the prophet Isaiah would record his face to face meeting with the imageless God in the temple of Jerusalem
Isaiah 6:1–3 (NIV)
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Holy Holy Holy
We have trouble understanding the three “holy”s here because our culture doesn’t talk this way. The Hebrews used repetition to communicate the superlative. We would have “holy, holier, holiest” so three “holy”s were the holiest.
“Holy” means to be apart, to be different. In the angel’s declaration of Yhwh the “holy holy holy” meant that the LORD was beyond our comprehension. No image from anything in the creation is capable adequately conveying this being. This shouldn’t be too hard for us to grasp.
Given what we know about the universe what kind of being would be capable of creating it whether you believe this being zapped it into being or used processes that took billions of years to create billions upon billions of galaxies? I can understand how many don’t find it believable that any such being could possibly exist, such a being would have to be so great in power, splendor, majesty, and intelligence that we can hardly imagine to comprehend such a being much less relate to him/her/it. I can see why some mock theists by claiming that they believe in some old man in the sky or a flying spaghetti monster.
Yhwh wants to impress upon us that he is not simply another “thing” in the universe. David Bentley Hart asserts that much of the criticism of the new atheists doesn’t really address the king of being most theists assert God to be. God is the ground of all being, not just another being that we can look for and locate if we try hard enough. Such a god may reveal himself if he wishes but just as the characters in a story cannot find the author by their own resources so we cannot lay eyes or hands on this God if he does not wish it so.
It would seem reasonable that any image we could derive from the creation we can see would be insulting to such a being.
Imagine if you were the inventor of pizza, a food whose popularity and fame is enormous. What if, it was imagined even by fans of pizza that you yourself were a pizza. Now I know pizza is popular but at some point you’d probably want to remind people that although you are pleased that they enjoy the product of your culinary creativity you would like to be known as a human being and not as an article of food. While inventing pizza is a wonderful thing, every human being is vastly more than pizza and to associate, venerate or attempt to control you via the image of a pizza would be an insulting and misleading thing indeed.
If you imagine that religion is the product of human creativity and our desire to gain control of the universe and our neighbor through it, the prohibition on creating images of the creator god is either an incredible stroke of genius, or speaks to the outlandish possibility that this god in fact has spoken and relayed his preferences to how we might imagine and relate to him.
The Whole Earth is full of his glory
In the second part of the angel’s song we find the source of our idol making. The earth is full of God’s glory and we’re just dying to get a piece of that glory for ourselves and figure out how to use it to our advantage.
To the frustration of so many atheists humanity seems to be incurably religious. An old friend of mine who lives in India sometimes asks why I bother talking about atheism on Facebook. Can’t I see that the the whole world is religious and getting more so every day? The “nones” might be growing in America but religious is as hot as its every been around the world.
I’ve been into a number of books lately that have told stories of tremendous pain and suffering. It is amazing how often in these stories where even from the depths of human depravity a poor suffering soul catches a glimpse of the beauty or goodness in this cruel world. How can there be so much beauty and how can such pleasure be so commonly found in the simplest of things?
The earth is full of glory but the moment we glimpse it we want to put time in a bottle and beauty in a safe and make it our slave instead of simply receiving it as a gift we have no control over. So we try to capture it in pictures, or commit it to stone or to gold or silver.
We deeply distrust that unless victory comes by own own hand, our own strength, our own design and cleverness our hearts cannot rest and we can have no peace. The glory must be ours and receiving it as a gift is not enough for our anxious minds.
The Icon of the Invisible God
The book of Colossians calls Jesus the icon of the invisible God. Jesus comes to replace images of wood, stone and metal but because he was not silent and subject to our control and manipulation even dire enemies who couldn’t agree about religion or politics could agree that the world in their estimation would be better without him.
In the debates whether or not you should put the Buddha in your bathroom some noted that the Buddha never claimed to be god any more than he thought all people are god. Others asked if it would put a statue of Jesus there.
One of the strange mysteries of the incarnation of Jesus is that God put Jesus in harms way, available for our mistreatment, our image making, our abuse. It was in fact the reason he came to be mistreated by us.
Japanese author Shusaku Endo wrote the book “Silence“. It is novel based around the attempt to end Christianity in Japan during the 17th century. In the novel a young priest is sent to investigate the apostasy of a Jesuit brother.
Christians are being arrested, tortured and killed. Those alive are being coerced to renounce their face by stepping on the “fumie”, a crudely carved image of Christ.
In the climax of the novel Christ breaks his silence and invites the priest to trample upon him.
Yet the face was different from that on which the priest had gazed so often in Portugal, in Rome, in Goa and in Macau. It was not Christ whose face was filled with majesty and glory; neither was it a face made beautiful by endurance to pain; nor was it a face with strength of a will that has repelled temptation. The face of the man who then lay at his feet [in the fumie] was sunken and utterly exhausted…The sorrow it had gazed up at him [Rodrigues] as the eyes spoke appealingly: ‘Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.’
The Heart of Idol Making
At the heart of all idol making is the confidence that we possess in ourselves the moral strength to better ourselves and our world if only we had available to us the power of God. In Jesus God comes to us and makes himself subject to humanity and with this power we crushed him. He indeed came to be crushed by us. In this moment the image of the crucified Lord becomes a testimony to our cruelty and avarice. When we put him in the bathroom, on the front lawn or hang him around our neck we remind the world of who we are and what we do.
Jesus himself gave us something to know ourselves by and to know him through it. He gave us bread and wine and said that when we eat it, we remember him.
The bread and wine, however, is not a testament to the fabrication of gods we can employ to save ourselves from ourselves, but a sacrament that speaks to the gift that we had not the wisdom to recognize when it was lifted up as bloody flesh on wood.
This is true gift, not something we could make for ourselves. It tells us of the forgiveness offered to us, something we could not do and commonly fail even to extend to each other. It tell us of the new flesh from the crucified body that rose from the grave, new flesh which too will be His gift to us.
Idol makers are invited to lay down the chisel and mallet so that our hands may be free to receive that which we cannot make, the gift from the one we cannot see of a new world he is happy to give.