Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why Jews Think Catholic Statues are Idolatry and a Catholic Response

 I recently had an awesome conversation with some Jewish friends on Reddit.  It started on the topic of morality and the law, corresponding to last week's blog post.  However, we ended up having a discussion on idolatry.  They seemed to think that Catholic use of statues constitutes idolatry.  I, of course, took the opposite position.
      We Catholics have our great thinkers, people who's contributions to the theological world seem to dwarf the works of most others, people like Saint Augustine.  Judaism has it's great thinkers as well and perhaps chief among them is Mosheh ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides.  Think Aquinas and Augustine rolled into one.  In fact, even we Catholics owe a lot to Maimonides for his influence on the scholastics, people like Saint Thomas Aquinas.
      Maimonides, this great philosopher and theologian, gives a definition of idolatry containing three parts;
  • to do an act of worship toward any created thing
  • to believe that a particular created thing is an independent power
  • to make something a mediator between ourselves and God
      I would not object to any of these three points in of themselves.  At their core, they give the same definition of idolatry Catholics receive from Thomas Aquinas, to give honor due solely to God to another.  Here then, there are two issues which must be raised in concern to the Catholic view of statues.  The first concerns statues of saints and the second concerns statues of God.
      I think it is fairly easy to show that none of these aspects of idolatry correspond to statues of saints.
  • There is no worship towards any created thing for we do not worship saints or their statues.  We honor the saints as we honor Moses or Elijah, or to a much lesser extent great sports players and war heroes.  Worship is for God alone.  
  • The saints are completely dependent on God, just as we are.  The saints are to God as the moon is to the sun.  They reflect God's glory, God's magnificence, they contain none of their own.    They are most definitely not independent powers.
  • The saints serve as examples and intercessors. They give us images to model our own lives after, in order that we might better enter into the service of God.  An intercessor petitions on behalf of another.  We on earth can serve as imperfect intercessors for each other by praying for one another.  The saints in heaven are perfect intercessors, for they are unimpeded by their own sin and now dwell within the true Holy of Holies, in the celestial temple.  However, they are not mediators, we have no mediator apart from God Himself. 
      Perhaps we are guilty of idolatry elsewhere, but hot here.  We do not worship saints, we do not see them as independent powers and we do not see them as mediators.  If this is the case for the saints themselves, how much more for their statues?

      In concern to statues of God, it gets a little more complicated.  On the first two points we come out smelling like roses.  A statue of God is not a mediator between us a God, it is meant to lift our eyes to heaven, similar to the serpent Moses crafted in the desert. (Although distinct in that the serpent lifted eyes to heaven in a more literal fashion while the statues in Catholicism do so in a more figurative fashion.)  A statue of God is not a mediator, it is not even an intercessor, it is more like a sign post, and a sign pointing the way to Chicago is not a mediator between me and the windy city.  Similarly, a statue is not an independent power.  By virtue of the fact that the statue is made in the image of another, it cannot be independent of the other's power.  A picture of me is valuable to my mother because it bares my image.  If it did not bare my image it would be of no value at all.
      At first glance it seems that the issue of worship should be simple as well.  It is the one God Himself who is being worshiped and not any created thing.  Idolatry is literally "image worship" and the image is not here being worshiped, directly or indirectly.  Catholics recognize that no statue can represent what God actually is, for God cannot be limited to any physical form.  Statues and other images can only display an aspect of who God is and even then only imperfectly.  They are sacramental signposts, not objects of worship.
      However, it is not that simple.  For Maimonides, the use of any image in worship is idolatry and we do use images in worship.  By the definition of Maimonides, Catholics are idolators.  To get around this is one would have to refute the very definition given by this great Jewish thinker.  I am a 25 year old Catholic graduate student with a blog.  I do not presume to critic such a mind as Maimonides.  I leave that for those with greater credential than I. 
      If a person were to try and refute this position, perhaps they could start by pointing out all the times God is described by analogy throughout the scriptures; God as a shepherd, God as a potter.  Both of these images are employed in prayers, times of worship.  If it is permissible to use literary images in the directing of our worship, why not a picture or a statue?  I do not see any real difference.  Much more would need to be said before one could call this a true refute, but perhaps there is a hole here.

      More importantly, when one who is versed in Thomistic philosophy reads Maimonides, it is not difficult to see parallels.  One of the things Maimonides taught was that Abraham came to know God as the final cause.  He saw his neighbors worshiping these created things and realized there must have been something greater than them to create them, there must have been a first cause, an uncaused cause, an unmoved mover.  Perhaps Aquinas was more of a thief than we realize.
      There are only two things of which i am certain; i am certain of my own existence for to me this is self-evident, and i am certain this God of Abraham exists for if i exist there must have been something prior to me to cause my existence.  Catholics and Jews disagree on a lot, but on this we agree; we agree that our God exists, and we agree on who He is.  He is that which is and from Whom all else came.

1 comment:

  1. Hi , My name is Rupak Kujur from India and I'm a Catholic. I face this kind of debate with my Protestant friends often. They always raise a question that why would we worship a statue when it is prohibited in the testaments? I don't know how to convince them our beliefs. Please suggest me something that will clear their way of thinking. Thank you . My email I'd is