Thoughts on a definition of idolatry

bronze Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja – one way to represent the ongoing character of divine creative transformation

Something caught my attention in Guthrie’s definition of idolatry as “giving absolute loyalty to something that is only a creature rather than the Creator.”1

It occurred to me that the definition provides a good opening for arguing that the practices of Hindu puja, that are so involved with representations of the many, many, many gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, are frankly not “idolatrous” by that definition, and are actually a lot less “idolatrous” than some of the misplaced loyalties of people ostensibly practicing one of the aniconic religions.

Hindu puja relishes and celebrates the representations of the gods and goddesses; it involves bathing and dressing and making offerings to the murti of the deities – understood by the worshipers to be offering devotion to the god or goddess represented by the image. But at the same time, most Hindus would also explain that devotion to the god or goddess represented by the image – the saguna deity, the god with representable qualities, or the ishta-devata, the particular deity to whom a person devotes him or herself – is something like a portal or way of approaching the one, Absolute, Ultimately real, Brahman, source of everything … the nirguna deity, the God beyond representable qualities … [On this, see the really great video introduction to Hindu puja, “Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion,” online at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery website.]

So, the ultimate orientation of that worship is precisely, in Guthrie’s terms, which are maybe not entirely apt in Hindu context, but maybe work well enough approximately in an interfaith dialogue context, oriented towards giving loyalty to the Creator rather than the creature.

The point is that this form of worship looks a lot less “idolatrous” on Guthrie’s definition than certain common cultural practices, that we might not even identify as “religious” if we weren’t thinking about it: like doing whatever one has to do to make money, or spending all of one’s time working out to get the perfect body, or sacrificing every other value for the sake of this or that political principle – reducing taxes, for instance, just to take a random example.

All in all, it made me wish I had read Guthrie before I tried to start the class discussion on the symbolism of the Shiva Nataraja figure many years ago by asking “so, what do you see in this image” (hoping for things like “flames,” “lots of arms,” etc.) and got back, from the student who was going through RCIA at the time, “a demon.” It was pretty hard to get past that.


1 Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr. Christian Doctrine, Rev. ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 163.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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