How Symbols, Gods & Religions Become Idols (And the relation to Moral Relativity)
For as one star differs from another star in glory, even so differs one from another in glory in the telestial world… These are they who say they are some of one and some of another—some of Christ and some of John, and some of Moses, and some of Elias, and some of Esaias, and some of Isaiah, and some of Enoch; [Some of Joseph Smith] But received not the gospel, neither the testimony of Jesus, neither the prophets, neither the everlasting covenant. These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie. These are they who suffer the wrath of God on earth. These are they who suffer the vengeance of eternal fire. (D&C 76:98–100)
It’s interesting to note in the above quote from Joseph Smith’s vision of the afterworld concerning the lowest level of heaven that it is populated by religious adherents who profess to be of Christ or culturally accepted past prophets, but in reality “receive not the gospel, or Jesus or the prophets”.
This scripture presents an idea that’s been continually confirmed to me to longer I live — that most religious people in this world actually worship an idol. In fact, I have slowly come to realize that I have worshiped an idol for most of my life. In other words most people’s (including my own) idea of God, eternal truth and morality is, and has been, inescapably a projection of their own biased, rigid set of perceptions and interpretations. An incomplete or false idea of divinity carved by human pride and imperfection. Give me a minute to unpack what I mean with that statement for you.
Truth as a whole, and especially moral truths concerning what it means to be a “good person”, are abstract principles and because of this are nearly impossible to explain in words. Give a selfish jerk a set of rules and social mores which define a “good person”—and you’re often left with that same selfish jerk, who keeps those rules and feels like he’s a ‘good person’—but now simply exhibits that same degree of selfishness and meanness in other ways. In order to try and explain moral truths, religious systems in particular have come up with sophisticated sets of symbols and archetypes which ‘point to’ the truth, but are of course unable to fully represent that truth. Historically speaking, it’s typical for the very symbols and systems which wise past generations devised to point to “truth”, to become mistaken for the truths they are meant to represent. For example, a culture coming to confuse baptism as a symbol of salvation (a symbol of a needed character rebirth which brings personal happiness, harmony and salvation); with baptism as some sort of mystical or magical rite which brings an imaginary salvation simply by virtue of the ordinance—with little regard for the character rebirth it was meant to symbolize. When that happens in a religious context, those symbols have become idols.
As an example let’s take the nature of God. The Bible and LDS scripture give us a lot of purposefully paradoxical information concerning God. They say he’s unapproachable (Ex. 33:20, Jn. 1:18), yet approachable (Matt 11:28–29, Moroni 10:32). Invisible and unseeable (Col 1:15, 1 Tim 6:16, John 4:24, Ex 33:20), yet visible and seeable (Ex 33:21–23, JS-H 1:16, D&C 76:23), both Creator Father and yet also Created Son (Mosiah 3:8; Mosiah 15:1–5, John 10:17–18), both universally ever-present (D&C 88:6–11, Jer. 23:23–24, 1 Kings 8:27, Acts 17:24–28) and yet anthropomorphic and limited to a given space and time (Ex 33:21–23, D&C 76:23, JS-H 1:16), Beyond understanding (Job 36:26, Romans 11:33) yet relatable (1 Cor 2:16). One monotheistic being, yet three polytheistic deities (1 Cor 8:6, John 10:30, D&C 121:28,32). Indeed the very Christian concept of Christ stands in opposition to—or at least paradoxical companion of—the Old Testament God.
Now if you are a prophet trying to teach these complex paradoxes concerning the nature of the underlying unity of intelligence in the universe (which religions call God) to the masses, you might use all sorts of symbols, religious rites, pictures, illustrations or even sculptures to illustrate your limited understanding to them. But whether your symbols are of a strong, radiantly floating, white bearded arian man-god, or a wise short, plump asiatic man-god, or simply a symbol of the highest conceivable principle called the Dao — they will be just that. A symbol. An approximation to the truth that in and of itself is completely untrue. And you can bet that in time, those masses will come to hold up that symbol as the only truth. History has shown that they will build a religious system around those symbols which serves as a basis for contention, egoism and war. They will form a religious elite that is considered a trustable source for religious information and reject all others. They will build shrines and temples to the dead prophets and mystics, but reject any modern prophet or teacher that doesn’t measure up to their culturally defined concepts of what a “prophet” should be, or that doesn’t jive with their idyllic concepts of divinity. I believe a deep insight to human nature is the reason Moses was given the revolutionary 3rd commandment.
4 You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God (Ex 20:4–5 NLT)
God is Truth in its Entirety
Like the Koran or the Tao de Ching, the Bible seems to suggest that “God” is a being or consciousness attached to the ultimate truth, the ultimate reality and the primal cause and sustainer of creation. HE IS WHAT HE IS. As one of his mediators said, “I AM THAT I AM”. (see wikipedia article on tetragrammaton) He is not simply what me, you or any particular religion, prophet, philosophy or science defines him to be. He is not what man as “telestial” earth beings thinks he is. (see my article What is Truth). He is much more complex than man’s understanding, but every culture, religion, science and mystic has been given the difficult charge of describing what they understand of Creation or Him/It to their children. To do that they use tokens (which is is defined as “an individual aspect of a sign”), signs, symbols, types (which are defined as “a person or thing symbolizing or exemplifying the ideal of something) and shadows. However those symbols are not God — but symbols to point us to Him. God reveals Himself/itself to prophets and seers in “sundry times and in divers manners” (Heb 1:1), but in reality they only see the aspect of Himself which they are ready to receive (which is always through a heavenly mediator). Most of the world’s mystics tend to “see” god or have visionary experiences which accord with their own cultural biases. Those prophets may describe Him in words, or with symbols, or with temple rites. They may even carve his image or words in stone, but those images and words are not God or Truth they are a symbol pointing man toward them, nor are their descriptions of “righteousness” actually righteousness. They make statements and rules which try to point men to righteousness, but these are commonly misunderstood and misapplied and turned into “wickedness”.
The Christian liturgy and Judeo-Christian scriptures themselves try to teach us this lesson, with words associated with God or the gospel like “tokens, symbols, types, shadows, etc.” God himself being the “WORD of God” (John 1:1). A Word is a Symbol. The letters composing the words are Tokens of the Symbol (Psalms 65:8). The printed word is a ‘Type’ (Alma 13:16) of the Word which is a symbol of the Reality. A Shadow (Col 2:17, Heb 8:5; 10:1) is a distorted illusion of the Reality formed from the light which the reality blocks. The Reality dwells in an unseen realm above us which we can not see or fully comprehend, but the type casts a shadow from the higher realm to the earth so that we can begin to understand the meaning hidden behind the symbol.
The problem which the CREATOR/CREATION has always run against is that when He/She/It reveals himself to man, and man describes him with symbols, in time man comes to worship the dead symbols, images or letters instead of the living God. Man turns the symbols into idols which become their own false gods & doctrines.
10 The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (Hebr 10:1 NIV)
This happened to Judaism, it happened to Christianity and it happens in Mormonism. Words and symbols pointing to the truth become chiseled in stone through creeds, decrees, proclamations & dogmas and become dead idols sapping the living spirituality out of the churches or cultures who adopt them. In Joseph Smith’s vision, one of the two higher beings which he interpreted as “God”, said of medieval Christendom “that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” and that they “taught with their learning but denied the Spirit” (JS-H 1:19). This can be seen as another way of saying, their teaching had become idols—or in other words the religions had become somewhat corrupted as they looked beyond the mark of what was intended by the creators of the religious system. Paul declared this same concept with the words “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor 3:6). He taught that after submitting to the schoolmaster (Gal 3:24) which is the lower law, one must be reborn or “become alive in Christ” (2 Ne 25:25). This concept of growing past the limited knowledge of God’s mediators and lower laws toward a knowledge of the Eternal God of all Creation is the entire point to the preparatory Gospel and the primary lesson being taught by the fall of Adam and Redemption of Christ (1 Cor 15, 2 Cor 3, Rom 7, 8, 2 Ne 25, 31-32).
34/9.12. What comes to you from a man is indirect inspiration; what comes from an angel is indirect; and what comes from the Gods is indirect.
34/9.13. No direct inspiration by Me can come to you from a book, or a sermon, or from anything in all My creations, but only from Me, your Creator.
34/9.14. Though one man receives direct inspiration from Me, and he writes it in a book, yet, when it comes to you, it is indirect inspiration, and is not binding upon you, except only so far as My direct inspiration upon you moves you to receive it. (Oahspe, Book of Inspiration, 34/9.12-14)
Moral Relativism, Idolatry and Polygamy
Just as the Universe as a whole is steady and unchanging, but each component of it is constantly moving and changing in relation to itself, so also truth as a whole is steady and unchanging but each aspect of it constantly moves and changes relatively. Even more-so, mankind is unsteady and changing so his perception of revealed truth or instruction moves and change relative to absolute truth as well. As Joseph Smith taught concerning the relativity of God’s moral instruction,
That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.”
“God said, “Thou shalt not kill;” at another time He said “Thou shalt utterly destroy.” This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted; by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed… If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. So with Solomon: first he asked wisdom, and God gave it him, and with it every desire of his heart, even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation.”
“A parent may whip a child, and justly, too, because he stole an apple; whereas if the child had asked for the apple, and the parent had given it, the child would have eaten it with a better appetite; there would have been no stripes; all the pleasure of the apple would have been secured, all the misery of stealing lost.” (History of the Church, Vol. 5, p.134-136. Letter of marriage to Nancy Rigdon)
For Christians and particularly Mormons this statement and its relationship to polygamy is very pertinent to the idea of idolatry, because it reminds us how morals and values also become idols. Rules chiseled in stone which are intended “to be right” in one circumstance, are often horribly wrong in other circumstances. In the above quote, Joseph points out in his letter to Nancy Rigdon (as a justification for his plural marriage proposal to her) that the Bible teaches a sort of moral relativism and not simply moral absolutism as so many suppose, and how God’s mediators give man laws and morals in order to help them accomplish the aim of their desires. To a modern Mormon or victorian Christian, polygamy for instance, may seem abominable and against the commandments of the Biblical god (even when the prophets and holy men of that Bible were often polygamous). But according to Joseph’s ideas, God gives prophets, individuals and societies the freedom to fulfill their desires, even to the point of socially sanctioning sexual practices like Polygamy that have a high possibility of abuse and social damage (see Jacob 4:14, 1 Sam 8).
The point is that no law or description of truth or morality can be set in stone—not laws governing life or death, not those governing sex, not those governing substance abuse, not those governing God. Looking at the vast array of apparent contradictions in the commands and behaviors of the Old Testament and New Testament God, or the God of Christianity verses the God of Islam or Eastern Religion we must eventually concede to the idea hidden within those very religions; that divinity leads all mankind and religions according to what the people and their culture need and desire at the time. Or looking at it from a more agnostic perspective; the god’s men worship as the ‘Most High God’, are largely idol projections of man’s own needs and desires.
Christians and LDS people are instructed to keep idolatry at bay by living by “every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of God” (Deut 8:3, D&C 84:44, 98:11); instead of just living by every page which proceeded from his prophets long ago. We must learn to be governed by the Spirit or the things which God speaks to us in our logic (minds) and emotions or hearts (D&C 8:2). We must seek out the words and wisdom of our modern cultural prophets (those in our culture who have meaningful logical or emotional concepts to share) and not just our culturally accepted religious leaders. Most importantly we must find God in each other (Matt 25:40).
I think some of these concepts are expressed well in the words of the following song by the Goo Goo Dolls.
I [God & Man] am a question to the world
Not an answer to heard
Or a moment
That’s held in your arms
And what do you think [I’d] ever say?
[You] won’t listen anyway
You don’t know me
And I’ll never be what you want me to be
And what do you think you’d understand?
I’m a boy [Son], no, I’m a man [Father] You can’t take me
And throw me away
And how can you learn what [can’t be] shown?
Yeah, you stand here on your own
They don’t know me
Cause I’m still here
Organized Religion always becomes an idol
Much like words and cultural concepts of God, all religions eventually turn into idols as well. Religions, like governments, have a cyclical lifespan of usefulness. I believe higher beings create these organizations to help people progress, but they always go through cycles of apostasy and eventually have to be destroyed and restored anew. And the apostasy cycles are almost always caused by idolatry; or in other words, because the people come to rely on their distorted concepts of God and ancient scripture over the living Spirit. Joseph Smith compared the building of God’s Church to the building of a temple, with foundation, walls and spires (TPJS p.335-340). I think he did this with Acts 7:48 and Acts 17:24 in mind, where we are told that God does not dwell in temples made of human hands. As Christ and Stephen before his martyrdom tries to point out, it is human nature to accept what is culturally acceptable instead of relying on direct revelation from God’s Spirit or self evident truths,
“Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet… Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?” (Acts 7:48–51)
Every religion thinks they have it all figured out, and their leaders are inspired and if they had lived in scriptural times, they would not have rejected God’s living messengers. But history shows this is rarely the case. If you are not constantly looking for God “hiding” in groups you despise or are biased toward, chances are you are looking beyond the mark which your religion is symbolically trying to point you toward. Religions, like symbols or words on a page try their darndest to point people to the true principles of exaltation (which is a divine character), but people always mistake their religion for salvation itself, instead of seeing it as a symbol pointing to it. They mistake the ordinances of salvation for the principles of salvation. They mistake the dogma of salvation for the philosophy of right living. They mistake the rigid, human built “temple of God” for God Himself & His true abode, when it’s actually just a vehicle fully designed with planned obsolescence, made to take you in the right direction and then be destroyed by the very God its members have mistaken it for.
2 Lo, the [Gentiles] imagine a vain thing; their mind is in league with deception. Each man formeth me in their own image, and if I were to send them a prophet they would not hearken. Not with stones form they my image, but with their vain minds and self-seeking spirits form they my image. Better they made a dumb idol than pollute my ways, saith the LORD. For an idol hath no power of itself to teach any man its dumb ways nor enlighten a suppliant with its ignorance. The ignorant seeketh an idol and remaineth in his first estate, but a fool seeketh the counsel of the foolish and is made like unto his foolish image.
3 Vanity [pride] is deceit itself, above all deceptions wherein the sons of flesh deceive themselves. And I the LORD regard no one more foolish than they who fear not at my word. Is not an idol worshiper and him that revereth a carved trunk less foolish than they who take my name upon their lips and do not my ways? who declare I live and then declare I speak not clearly, and that I have not made the heart in mine own image? (Book of Ben Kathryn 19:2-3)
Idolatry in Mormonism
Like all religions, Mormonism has a good amount of idolatry and idol worshipers. I certainly confess that in different times of my life I have been one of them. I think doing a little bit of self evaluation I would say that anytime we get caught in pride and self-righteousness we are one of them. When we behave like pharisees and get caught up in feelings of “righteous indignation”, thinking we need to defend orthodoxy in egocentric ways, we become one of them. When we believe our mediator gods are the Most High God we become one of them. When we get up on our Rameumptom and thank God that we are “the only true church” and have “the truth” and are not like all the other lost souls in the other apostate religions of the earth we become idolaters just like them. More properly we become idolaters when we mistake our perception of God (or our church’s), for God himself. Or mistake our religion’s tenets or commandments which are meant to teach us of righteousness, for righteousness itself.
I really liked this post. I liked how to tied it into our need to follow the prophet today and live by “every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of God”.
I have a questions though: could you consider giving a few examples of how MODERN teachings have been turned into idols?
To some extent all the symbols and liturgy of our Church become idols when we loose focus of the meaning behind them. The Mormon temple becomes an idol when we go to sooth our guilt instead of to learn. Or when someone gets married in the temple just because its socially acceptable. Adultery and Idolatry are closely related, when we focus primarily on the outward appearance of an individual we are approaching adultery, and when we focus primarily on the outward manifestation of symbols we approach idolatry.
The sacrament is an Idol to me often. I take it because I’m “supposed to” and people are watching, but with no thought to what it really means. The financial prosperity of the church I think has become an idol to many. They think it is a symbol of God’s approval of us. Many might look at the Saints or Christ statues in Catholic cathedrals as idols, but are our paintings or Christus statues in the temple visitors centers any different? They are idols if we loose the meaning they represent and loose our connection with the principles and God they are pointing us to.
Another doctrine that has become an Idol is our view of God. We view Christ and the Father as two distinct personages with resurrected bodies, which is perfectly true, but I dare say it would offend most members to say that the Catholic/Nicene view of a knowable yet unknowable God as a Spirit that is Omniscient and Omnipresent, everywhere and nowhere is also true (or a just as good approximation to it). Our view of God is largely a product of our faith in the picture Joseph Painted to us from his experience. But what of this God of all other gods God in D&C 121:32? If we are to follow the logic of the King Follet Discourse to its end, we must ask if the plural Eloheim is the Father of Christ, who is the Father of the Father? And if space has no end, does the family tree of existence? Sounds to me like there’s an unknowable, yet knowable God of all other Gods (notice the big G this time) out there somewhere. And it also seems as though there’s room in LDS theology for him to be One with us through his long line of Sons. But I sure mocked that God a good number of times on my mission before I had learned to look beyond our own idols. I could offer a similar example of how we have turned our “resurrected”, material God into an idol which causes us to mock other religions “immaterial” Spirit God (in reality matter, spirit, immaterial and material are all just approximations to the true differing densities of what some might call the “ether”).
Is the Word of Wisdom an idol to anyone? Do you think you are better because you keep your interpretation of it, while judging someone of another faith who is vegan or has some other healthy dietary principle… I have at times. My reasoning for my judgment was not any “pure knowledge” on my part, but simple because the written word said we weren’t to teach not to eat meat. But did I ever stop to think that maybe the living Spirit might tell an individual to do what the dead scriptures said not to? No! Because our dogma says that would never happen… (well, you get my point). Polygamy is certainly an idol. Not many really understood it, or understand it now, and so it is used and abused and judged incorrectly. Blacks and the priesthoods is similar. An outdated scriptural interpretation was dogmatically held as church policy, until the leaders joined heart and mind and asked the Lord for living guidance. (not that I’m criticizing the church or supporting the predominate view with that statement- see my article here) I believe that same revelation would have come 50 or even 100 years earlier had a united twelve asked the question with a desire to recieve that answer. Dogma in general eventually approaches idolatry. Dogma can be defined as, “an established belief or doctrine held by a religion, ideology or any kind of organization: it is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted or diverged from”. It is a doctrine or tenant carved in stone. Many historians have noted how the schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Western Roman Catholic occurred along doctrinal differences relating to dogmatic vs. free thinking approaches to religious philosophy.
One historian writes, “..The eastern Christians engaged in high intellectual speculation on theological and Christological questions with a fervor unmatched in the West. You might say that the model of Christian belief in the east was more mystical and philosophical while the Christian belief in the west was more practical and obedience-centered”
The east had an aversion to dogma and idols as was epitomized by the iconoclasm issue, while the west capitalized on these issues. But there is an important lesson in this. During the relatively dark spiritual times of the middle ages, the Western Dogmatic Church seemed to prosper while the East withered and was conquered & converted. So there are times when this approach is the most effective means of maintaining organized religion. But that same highly ritualistic, dogmatic approach to religion has seemed to zap the life out of the Catholic Church during the last few hundred years. A more enlightened people thirst to be freed from dogma and idols and liberated into the light of the Spirit. I believe much of the success of the Mormon Church is its divinely inspired capitalization on what I would call aspects of the Aaronic Priesthood (dogma & icons), but at the same time encouraging people to see past the limitations of icons and to spiritually progress past the limitations of dogma. On the flip side, I also read too many things from enlightened, truth seeking X-Mormons that shows me that the Church failed in help them make that transition. A bishop or a Sunday school teacher too persistently taught you must do things this exact way or that way. An institutionalized ritualization of worship (You must come to this building at this time on this day and worship in this exact manner). We had a returned missionary come back from inner Philadelphia and talk about how he loved how different the branches were there, because people stood up and “Praised the Lord”, and shouted “Hallelujah” and did other things that are socially taboo in Utah Mormon Culture.
I’m not saying the Church or any Church is doing it wrong, but I find it interesting how God has placed the rigidity of the “law” in opposition to the freeness of living by “the spirit”. Philosophically, it would seem to me that the law is the straight and narrow gate through which all must pass in order to enter the realm of freedom and lack of external restraint. I believe like Oogway, that there are no accidents. That everything happens for a reason following God’s plan. But I also believe that in the future the Church will be run differently. That it will progress through differing styles of administration just as it has in the past and as both Israel and Catholicism did through their history. Ultimately, I believe during the millennium that there will be virtually no need to excommunicate or estrange. Nor will there be any distinction between this religion or that (to some extent); but under the direction of the wise all will judge themselves by one light. Whether they are moving toward or away from their desired light.