Close to finishing up for the moment a round of reading about Hinduism to be able to conclude that the discourse about images and idolatry in modern Jewish thought is fundamentally confused. But maybe Jewish Studies scholars interested in visual ideas and material we shouldn’t have to feel so bad. Reading Gods of Flesh/Gods of Stone: The Embodiment of Divinity in India, co-edited by Joanne Waghorne, my colleague at Syracuse, and Norman Cutler, I’ve come to understand that the problem is not unique to Jewish Studies. Published in 1985, the volume is very self-conscious about the image in Hindu Studies. Joanne observes that the larger scholarly interest in images was spontaneous and sudden and that prior to this date very little had been written by academics in the west about the sacred image in the religions of India (pp.1, 10).
Reading Max Müller, also under Joanne’s influence, I see why. About him, I’ll write later. The antipathy to images is indeed a western phenomenon, with roots not just in Judaism, but more so in Protestant iconoclasm and anti-ritualism. But it’s not just a western phenomenon. Throughout Gods of Flesh/Gods of Stone, there is a concerted attempt at conceptual pushback. The attempt is to resist how, even in India and especially in the modern period, the mostly monist and largely anti-dualist form of Vedanta philosophy and consciousness, with its emphasis on oneness and formlessness, came to dominate the representation of Hindu “theology,” overwhelming bhakti intellectual and popular traditions, in which the veneration of images is a central and philosophically developed component.
Of particular interest to Jewish thought and philosophy is the very strong pushback by William Deadwyler in what is a decidedly confessional and polemical piece. Inverting the way in which abstract conceptions of divinity are privileged by philosophical readers as a higher stage of religious awareness, he wants to argue that God has features. Indeed, what we in the west call negative theology is “just an intermediate stage” meant to check materialism and the more gross forms of materialistic religion. But by this model, the highest form of religion would be the Vaishnava (Vishnu centered) form of embodied divinity fusing gross form and abstract formlessness into “spiritual form.”
About the problem of anthropomorphism, the notion that the gods appear in human form, Deadwyler makes the exact claim made by Franz Rosenzweig, in his own defense of personalist theism. Rather than say that the gods or God are anthropomorphic projections of human qualities onto an abstract emptiness, this is to say that human being itself is theomorphic, i.e. made in the image of God, that the human is a projection of divine potencies. It should also remind Jewish readers of Kabbalah and Zohar. It’s an interesting claim here about energy and material energy and the grounding of God as a spiritual form in the material energy of physical shape and place (pp.76-82).
Take it as you want. There’s more to Gods of Flesh/Gods of Stone, which is largely anthropological in its orientation. But the theological truth claim pushed by Deadwyler would have to hold if one wanted philosophically to make sense of bhakti devotion. While anthropological essays in this volume can be recommended as such, what underlies all of them, for me at least, is the ongoing and critical reflection on dynamism, process, embodiment, ritual, form, sense perception, potential, perfection, and impermanence as forms of religious life. Again about the publication date, I want to repeat that, across the board, all of these topoi seem to have been quite or relatively new in 1985 for Religious Studies, even in the scholarship on India, of all places.
Then what about “idolatry” and does this kind of devotion have anything to do with it? The answer I suspect is probably not and nothing. This judgement, however, is based only on the assumption that the monists and Maimonideans are wrong, that nothing is simple, not even God; that place matters theologically; and that things always already break apart, including spiritual energy. Idolatry, I think, means other things. I suspect that, visually and ideologically, the kinds of things that the biblical authors rebelled against were not the same kind of images as the ones that define the Hindu iconography. More to the point, what we think idolatry means (in terms of “representation” and the “confusion” between prototype and figure) is not what it seems to have ever meant in India. As a reader of Franz Rosenzweig, I should have not been surprised to find this bit of theo-morphism in Hindu religion.