How to make an idol

3 03 2008

thoth2.jpgOr: Fr. Ficino plays with fire

For a few years now, my admiration of paganism has become almost obsessive. My exposure to the idea that Catholicism is just a veiled form of paganism dates back to my youth. Of my mother’s eight brothers and sisters, three of them became evangelical Protestants shortly after coming to this country. The youngest, my tía Ale, married some evangelical guy from Michoacán (or “Michigan” as we affectionately call it thinking that it just might fool some people), and went off with him. They got a small house outside of Hollister nestled in a walnut grove. My new tío Paco was a cool enough guy. He took us kids walking through the countryside around the banks of the San Benito River. We picked tule and pretended to fight with it, and we saw crashed cars abandoned in a creek. We once played at a local park rolling down hill, and I got really sick to my stomach and he made a tea out of yerba buena, which settled my stomach as if it never happened.

Tío Paco, however, also had a lot of Jack Chick tracts lying around, and being the precocious eight year old that I was, I understood immediately the point that Mr. Chick was trying to make when he put statues of the goddess Isis and the Virgin Mary side by side. Indeed, the Regina Coeli (the Queen of Heaven) is a pagan title originally that seems to go quite well with Our Blessed Mother’s dignity as the Deipara. It didn’t really disturb me at the time, I would only become overly pious later. But the event still sticks with me to this day, and I still think that Jack Chick comic books are some of the creepiest things on the planet.

The fact that Christianity defeated classical paganism and threw it in the gutter of history is something that I think was more than necessary. As one who follows Jesus Christ, I can’t help but think otherwise. But credit where credit is due, and we should not belittle the opponent that we defeated, especially since we seem on the verge of a similar defeat to a different enemy (secular agnosticism). In the last few years of study, I have discovered that the battle between the sophisticated pagan philosophers and our Church Fathers was not as black and white and clear-cut as many scholars would like to think. Between the emerging new Faith of the Nazarene and the Neoplatonic attempts to rescue the pagan cult, a certain symbiosis, cross-fertilization, and influence through competition forged both rival systems into formidable feats of human thought. By the time Justinian closed the Academy in Athens in the sixth century, Neoplatonic paganism had become a highly sophisticated system that had both influenced and grown up with the triumphant Christian religion. It is arguable that it was the mysterious figure of St. Dionysius the Areopagite who influenced the ethos of traditional Christianity more than any other Father, East or West, save for maybe St. Augustine, who was also formed by Neoplatonism. These thinkers were far cries from the caricatures of paganism as base idol worship given over to temple prostitution.

So even in the most offensive of pagan behaviors, the worship of idols, it would be useful to see how  the worship of an inanimate object actually formed in late Neoplatonism a vision of the cosmos eerily similar to the “Incarnational” idea of early Christianity. Gregory Shaw in his book Theurgy and the Soul writes about how the Neoplatonist Iamblichus viewed the way in which idols were made:

The fragmentation of material souls required a corresponding multiplicity in their worship. Material souls had to gather a multitude of objects to represent and contain their own dividedness.  To consecrate a statue, worshippers collected various objects through which they could invoke the deity. The statue was a mean that functioned both as a projection of the soul’s powers and an image of the powers of the god revealed in single coherent form. To ensure the effectiveness of the rite the objects had to be fitting to the god invoked and to the material attachment of the soul. These collections formed “receptacles” for the gods and Iamblichus says that theurgists created them with “stones”, “herbs”, “animals”, “aromatics”, and other sanctified objects that possesed intimate affiliations with the gods invoked. These material objects were necessary for worship and therefore Iamblichus warns Porphyry that [quoting Iamblichus] “one ought not to despise all matter, only matter that is estranged from the Gods, for matter that is related to them should be chosen since it is able to be in harmony with the shrines built to the Gods, the erecting of statues, and also with the holy acts of sacrifices. For there is no other way that places on earth or men who dwell in them might receive participation in the Superior Beings unless a foundation of this kind has first been established.”

In Iamblichus’ system, as in all Platonism, embodiment is a horrible fate, and matter is a sign of having fallen from the ultimately simple One. However, in embodiment and climbing back up the cosmic ladder through worship and theurgic practices, man ultimately becomes an image of the Demiurge in his descent to shed light into all things. The vindication of the material cosmos through theurgy is thus the ultimate way to be god-like in late Neoplatonic thought.  In the old rites, the fallen cosmos becomes a means to ascend back to the One. And it also makes the theurgist well aware that the highest name of the One is the Good, since the Good is the giving of itself to all things, no matter how lowly (bonum est difusivum sibi). This idea was passed onto Christianity via Dionysius: the Good is highest Divine Name, higher than Being itself. 

The idol, at least for our philosophers, was not to be worshipped in and of itself, but was rather an image of the Divine descending into the cosmos to redeem it. Still, we must add some nuances to this. One such nuance comes from the mysterious source of Hermes Trismegistus, in the discourse Asclepius, in which he says:


Just as the master and father – or God, to use his most august name – is maker of the heavenly gods, so it is mankind who fashions the temple gods who are content to be near to humans. Not only is mankind glorified; he glorifies as well. He not only advances toward God; he also makes the gods strong. …

I mean statues ensouled and conscious, filled with spirit and doing great deeds; statues that foreknow the future and predict it by lots, by prophecy, by dreams and by many other means; statues that make people ill and cure them, bringing them pain and pleasure as each deserves …

It comes from a mixture of plants, stones and spices, Asclepius, that have in them a natural power of divinity. And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind. Thus does man fashion his gods.

In these quotes, we see the Neoplatonic hierarchy between gods and God.  In their system, there is only one God, the One. But the One is mediated by various gods, some supercelestial, some celestial, and some terrestrial or sublunar. The gods that are in statues are thus terrestrial gods, mixtures between the divine and the material. It is through the bond between all things, which Renaissance Neoplatonists would give the name of “love”, that higher things could be manipulated by lower things. All things are in all, say the Neoplatonists, according to proportion. The statue in this case, the mixture between the celestial and the terrestrial, was a symbol of this cosmic sympathy.

The Renaissance Neoplatonists, after a thousand years of Christian hegemony, had to tread very carefully when addressing these aspects of Neoplatonic religion. The injunctions against idolatry were taken seriously, but nevertheless, some of the more adventurous figures sought to play with idea that matter on earth could invoke the powers of the heavens. Among them was the Florentine priest and philosopher, Marsilio Ficino.

Ficino felt himself justified in trying to summon the powers of the cosmos for the benefit of mankind. He did know that there was some danger in this. Indeed, he only hints at having tried it a few times, and desisted when he could no longer tell if the influence was from the innocuous forces of planets or the influences of demons in the Christian sense:

 As soon as I had explored these things thus far, while I was still a youth, I greatly rejoiced, and I planned to engrave a lodestone as best I could with the figure of the celestial Bear when the Moon was in one of her better aspects with it and then to suspend it from my neck with an iron thread. Then at last, I was hoping, I would share in the power of that constellation. But when I had explored further, I found in the end that the influence of that constellation is very Saturnine and Martial, I learned from the Platonists that evil demons are mostly northern … I learned from the theologians and Iamblichus that makers of images are often possessed by evil daemons and deceived …

His Christian instinct saved Ficino from falling into idolatry. One could argue, however, that Ficino was never in much danger in the first place. For even when Ficino speaks of “gods” in his writings, he is speaking of something “natural” and not supernatural. He is speaking of higher orders that are neither angelic nor demonic but natural that still influence our behavior. This is what magic is, and Ficino asks: But why do we consider love to be a magician? Because the whole power of magic reposes on love. The work of magic is the attraction of one thing by another.

And in this, perhaps, we see our own apparent “idolatry” in a new context. It is not so much that we think that our statues contain the saints and God, but rather we see them in the context of a universe where everything is bound to everything else. It is this sacramentality, this vital penetration of all things, that is at the heart of the Christian imagination. Catholic statues, no matter what “abuses” might take place, like the burying of St. Joseph in your backyard, are reminders that the Divine is in our midst, and that the universe works in far more quirky ways than we care to admit. Absent these reminders, we forget these all important principles. The Protestant crusade against Papist idolatry thus cleans up the cosmos in a way that makes it barren of God as I said in this post. It is this lack of a sense of the interpenetration between the divine and the human, the sacred and the mundane, that is our greatest theological problem in my opinion. It is a fracture that the Christian imagination must once again heal.




8 responses

4 08 2011

Don’t Byzantine Christians have a concept that parallels Regina Coeli or Maria Regina? I’m under the impression that the Byzantines venerate the BVM as the “Queen of the Trinity” or similar. How is this different than the Latin “Queen of Heaven”? I’d be interested to find out if this is the case or not.

I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the veneration of Mary as Regina Coeli. I understand, and can accept, that Mary could be conceived of as the gestational “exoskeleton” for the LORD and God who conceived the universe ex nihilo. In this way Mary not only plays a part in salvation history as Theotokos, but also, for a time, is the nurturer and supporter of the cosmos.

However, the crossover from theological concept to a venerable title might (but does not necessarily) demonstrate a certain type of material idolatry within certain aspects of Roman devotion and liturgy. The addition of the “coronation of Mary” to the mysteries of the rosary, as well as the relatively recent custom of May Crownings, can be viewed as an idolatrous reification of a theological concept that should never have been attached to devotional practice or liturgy, let alone placing garlands on Lourdes statues.

The devotional and liturgical developments that have grown up around Regina Coeli can’t be rolled back. However, priests and catechists should focus more on the theological implications of Mary’s role in salvation history without encouraging idolatry. If I were a priest, I would not permit May Crownings for this reason. Yes, this custom is deeply embedded in some cultures (e.g. the Irish), but I’d try to find a substitute which is less likely to lead towards idolatry and superstition.

2 08 2011


9 03 2008


It may be more accurate to say that deism emerges from unitarianism and Calvinism, since Calvin’s God is rather proto-deist.

However, I would argue that Calvinism does two things in this regard. First, it, and the course of the Reformation in general, creates the space for the emergence of the likes of Servetus, the Socinians, and “liberal” theology in general. We see the effects of this in Protestantism to this day, the events within Anglicanism only being the most recent prominent example.

Second, following Augustine, Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity obscures the distinction between the Divine Nature and the Divine Persons. This also helps open the door to unitarianism
(And it’s sidekick, Arianism. Moltmann wrote several years ago, before Western theologians began revisiting trinitarian theology, that Western Christianity in general is largely crypto-Arian, meaning that a crucial connection had been broken between the doctrine of the Trinity and the rest of theology, especially soteriology and Christian anthropology.)

7 03 2008

Out of curiosity, FrGregACCA, how do you draw a line from Calvin to unitarianism?

6 03 2008

I read Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska a while back. Dzielska covers some of the same material you point out, especially the intermarriage of Neoplatonic and Christian thought in the 4th and 5th centuries. Two of Hypatia’s pupils ended up becoming bishops: the well-known – for being a student of Hypatia’s – Synesius, who highly praises her and in his letters makes clear that Christians too sought her out for instruction, and another whose name escapes me at the moment. Too bad that it is unclear what Hypatia actually taught, other than that she was the head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria. (Dzielska also makes this provocative proposition: Hypatia may very well be the historical figure for St. Catherine of Alexandria, the latter known only through legend recorded a full century after the death of Hypatia. Certainly, the apocryphal tales of Hypatia’s rejection of marriage and St. Catherine’s are remarkably similar.)

On another point, in our rush to proclaim the superiority of Western Christian civilization over all others, I think we sometimes forget how pagan the Incarnation is except when atheists remind us, which is when we are too quick to dismiss what they say. Several other cults worshipped a Man-God who was killed and resurrected: Mithra, Dionysius to name two. To be scandalous for a moment, the profound truth of the Christian Incarnation is not the fact that God deigned to become man – the interplay between man and god/s was strong throughout the ancient world – but the manner in which we in turn become united to God. Unlike many other ways of knowing the One – through the reading of Egyptian hieroglyphs or mathematical rules or drugged-out bacchanalias, Christianity requires mere acceptance, the profession of faith. It is then God who acts with us, not our ability to decipher sources of knowledge to get closer to God. But when we reject ritual we likewise deny to ourselves the ways that our human minds and bodies come to know God – not through book-learning or the orientation of the musical scales to the planets, but through experience.

On a side point, briefly, I think secular agnosticism has already triumphed in Europe, dating to the end of WWI and the influenza of 1918. I do not strictly mean the political destruction of those two poles of divine monarchy – the emperor of Austria-Hungary and the tsar of Russia (both of which had geographical areas that fell, at different times, to atheist communism), but the psychological defeat inflicted. It’s in the wake of WWI that we see rapid acceptance of changes in music, literature, art, tied to hatred and despair over the old forms. We in the U.S. have just been a bit more insulated because of our lack of dependence on Europe (an independence such places as Asia, Latin America, and Africa are not able to boast about).

3 03 2008
John J

Jack Chick is funny though. The cartoon drawing is good. They are interesting.
I especially like the ones about Islam where the Pope created Islam to kill the real Christians and Jews. The Godfathers is also good where the Roman Catholic Church created the Masons, the Mafia, Communism, the KKK–Jack Chick has solved all conspiracies. He portrays Jesuits as different from the modernists I had in high school.
If Chick was not so sick he would be funny.

3 03 2008
Wolverine Cardenas


3 03 2008

One can draw a straight line from Calvin to unitarianism (and, by way of reaction, to universalism) and from unitarianism to deism, and from deism to atheism.

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