Idolatry and Gnostic Catholics

Many Gnostic Catholics not only venerate the saints of mainstream Catholicism, but also worship Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Nordic, and other deities. As a consequence they are often accused of idolatry by not only Catholics but other Christians, and sometimes by Jews and Muslims. Scriptural passages, particularly from The Old Testament are sometimes thrown at them in a very aggressive and even overtly hostile way. This article, with its reflections on the concepts of dulia, hyperdulia, and latria is intended to be a quick reference for self-defense in the face of such accusations. The concepts, particularly in regard to the veneration of the Virgin Mary and other saints, constitute also perhaps the defense of mainstream Catholics when they are under withering attack from fundamentalist protestants and other religionists with similar views.

Dulia, hyperdulia, and latria are forms of worship conceived of in its earlier sense as honor or veneration. Dulia is the veneration accorded saints and angels and similar beings, as well as certain symbols evocative of the sacred, while hyperdulia is a higher veneration accorded to Mary, the mother of Jesus-- vehicle of the World Teacher during his incarnation in Israel two thousand years ago—presently Queen of the Angels and a symbol of the Divine Mother, the Deity in Its feminine aspects, although Catholics have never considered Mary to be a Divine Incarnation in the fullest sense, on a par with Jesus. Latria is the highest veneration, an absolute, unconditional worship accorded only to the Trinity, God as God, with no adulterating limitations of maya.

Catholics and Hindus, among others, are sometimes accused of idolatry by those who misunderstand the distinction between dulia, including hyperdulia, and latria. The Old Testament proscriptions of idolatry were aimed at the direction of latria to any recipient other than Yahweh: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”(Exodus:20:3). All dulia was not forbidden, obviously, since Yahweh enjoined perennial veneration of Abraham—“I will bless them that bless thee…and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed”(Genesis 12:3). And dulia toward angels was commanded in canonical an apocryphal Hebrew prophetic writing, as well as in the New Testament. Citing one such apocryphal Hebrew source, St. Jude castigates those who fail to extend dulia to angelic beings:

Likewise also these filthy dreamers…speak evil of dignitaries. Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee (Jude: 8—9).

Some dulia, of course, was forbidden—that directed toward the gods of neighboring peoples. This dulia, however, seems to have been forbidden not because it was dulia per se, but rather because because these gods were associated with iniquity, practices such as incest, human sacrifice, bestiality, etc.—inconsistent with evolution toward union with Yahweh. Thus the prophets often, in inveighing against idolatry, associated veneration of these deities with various “abominations” and “iniquities.” In this vein Solomon, the ascribed author of the Book of Wisdom, having observed the practices of ancient Middle Eastern cults, concludes that “…the worship of unnamed idols is the beginning, cause, and end of every evil” (Wisdom:14:27). He lists specific practices which he seems to have observed in connection with such worship:

In the great struggle to which ignorance condemns their lives
They give such massive ills the name of peace.
With their child-murdering initiations, their sacred mysteries,
Their orgies with outlandish ceremonies,
They no longer retain any purity in their lives or their marriages,
One treacherously murdering the next or doing him injury by adultery.
Everywhere a welter of blood and murder, theft and fraud,
Corruption, treachery, riots, perjury,
Disturbance of decent people, forgetfulness of favours,
Pollution of souls, sins against nature,
Disorder in marriage, adultery, debauchery.
For the worship of unnamed idols
Is the beginning, cause, and end of every evil.
Either that, or they rave in ecstasy,
Or utter false oracles,
Or lead lives of great wickedness,
Or perjure themselves without hesitation;
For since they put their trust in lifeless idols
They do not reckon their false oaths can harm them

Dulia directed toward the Patriarchs, by contrast, would not lead to such abominations, but rather to greater devotion to Yahweh, more rigorous adherence to the Law of Moses, and, consequently, spiritual evolution.

Sometimes, however, such dulia toward “false gods” seems to have been proscribed not because they were associated with wickedness, but rather because they were “dead,” i.e., impersonal, powerless beings: thus, to worship them was to locate one’s power outside oneself, to project it onto something impersonal, and, thus, to become less powerful, less personal, less completely human. This is the essential argument of Erich Fromm’s thoughtful classic You Shall Be As Gods. To worship a “thing,” Fromm contends, is to make oneself like it, a being with a predetermined nature rather than a free agent, an object rather than a subject. The inspired author of the Book of Wisdom is adamant in asserting this objection: The idolator, having constructed an image,

…makes a worthy home for it,
lets it into the wall, fixes it with an iron clamp.
Thus he makes sure that it will not fall down—
he is well aware it cannot help itself:
it is only an image, and it needs to be helped
And yet, if he wishes to pray for his goods, for marriages, for his children,
he does not hesitate to harangue this lifeless thing—
for health he invokes weakness,
for life he pleads with death,
for help he goes begging to utter inexperience,
for his travels to something that cannot stir a foot;
for his profits and plans and success in pursuing his craft,
he asks skill from something whose hands have no skill whatever

Idolatry is biblically proscribed, it seems to me, not primarily because of the injustice to God, but because of but because of the deleterious effects on man. When Moses, on coming down from Mount Sinai saw the golden calf and the Hebrews prostrating themselves idolatrously, his first angry words to Aaron concerned the injustice to the Israelites themselves: “What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them?” (Exodus:32:21). Moses was angered when he “saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them made them naked unto their shame among their enemies)” (Exodus:32:25).

We see, then, that dulia can be bad for us in two ways: it can lead to immoral conduct if directed to an evil source—an angelic or other discarnate entity on The Left-Hand Path, for example; and it can enslave and devitalize us if we project our power onto something alien to ourselves, as in The Book of Wisdom’s example of the man entrusting the success of a journey to something incapable of walking one step. This would lead to what Herbert Marcuse, Gerald Sykes, and others have termed alienation. We would seem to avoid these problems by directing dulia to such biblically mandated recipients as Abraham and the other Patriarchs, Mary, and holy angels. They would use their influence to direct us toward good, not evil, and we would be honoring real persons, not empty ciphers.

Some qualifications are in order, though. Dulia directed to a good source could become disordered by being excessive. It is good to be patriotic, for example, but we ought not to venerate our country to the point of acquiescing in serious injustices. Similarly, we ought not to venerate a saint so much that we uncritically choose to imitate him in all respects. St. Jerome, for instance, was extremely intolerant and had a terrible temper. I once read that, being told of the ideas of a certain contemporary theologian, he once railed, “If my own mother had uttered such heresies, I would break her blasphemous jaws like those of mad dog!” Similarly, St. Thomas More once callously referred to Lutherans burned at the stake as “the devil’s stinking martyrs.” Also, when sexual thoughts come to us, we would be well advised not strip naked and throw ourselves headlong into cactus patches, as St. Jerome was wont to do. We would indeed be wise to heed Aristotle’s recommendation of moderation in all things, even in the dulia we extend to saints. Certainly dulia extended to even the holiest beings ought never to become latria. That would be disordered devotion because all beings, even the highest, have relative goodness only: they reflect more or less perfectly some aspects of the Divine Reality, but fall short of the infinite perfection of Nirguna Brahmin. To grant them the full devotion of latria is to insult the Divine Reality and retard our own evolution. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus: 20:3). Jesus echoes this commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment” (Matthew: 22:37—38). The angel who spoke to John on Patmos insisted on observance of this commandment. John says,

And I John saw these things and heard them. And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things. Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God” (Revelation:22:8—9).

Can proper dulia exist when no deity is involved? Dulia mght be directed not at an angel or patriarch or some other personal being, but instead toward some symbol of the sacred; and this might not be the alienating idolatry which the Book of Wisdom condemns. We might use an image, for example, to evoke latent divinity within ourselves—courage, strength, etc. rather than entrust our fate to something dead. Thus veneration of Mercury might evoke our “magic” powers of transformation in business or science; worship of Aphrodite might evoke our sexuality, and worship of Diana the chastity which is a necessary complement to healthy sexuality; veneration of Persephone might evoke our latent powers of intuiting hidden things; and worship of Mars might enable us to manifest our own strength.

Anent this, in Living the Martial Way, Forrest E. Morgan, former Secretary General of the United States Chung Do Kwan Association, discusses the elusive nature of kami, Shinto dities, statues of which are found in many martial arts academies. He tells us that

The exact nature of kami is difficult to explain. In ancient times,

they were generally considered gods, or people with godlike

qualities. But even the great eighteenth century Japanese Shinto

scholar, Norinaga Motoori, confessed: ‘I do not yet understand the

meaning of the term kami (248).

The modern understanding seems to be that kami are symbols, not deities per se.

Today the Japanese still venerate the kami as spirits, though not

quite in the sense that Westerners envision when they hear that

term. To the modern Jaapanese, a kami is an attitude, a sense of

awe or dread. It’s a spirit in a sense similar to when we refer to

the ‘spirit of valor’ or an ‘air of death, but much stronger. The

kami are still considered divine, but they aren’t gods or ghosts…(250).

Obviously, one could go astray in venerating such symbols. In World War Two idolatrous Shintoism was responsible for many atrocities and other destructive excesses. But what we think of as latria toward God Himself can reach a similar negative terminus. Think of the suicide bombings and other reprehensible acts of some contemporary Islamic fanatics. In these cases latria supposedly directed to God is instead mistakenly directed to a false and limiting concept of God; and this is an ill-advised step that Christians and Jews are always in danger of taking. And, conversely, devotion to kami and similar symbols need not progress to a negative terminus: think of the beneficial effects it has had on many martial artists and others.

Dulia, hyperdulia, latria—they all have their place, but they all, if mistakenly apprehended, can ensnare us. We need to work out our salvation, as the Buddhists say, “with vigilance,” or, as the Christians say, “in fear and trembling.”

Work Cited

Morgan,Forrest E., Living the Warrior Way. Fort Lee, New Jersey: Barricade books, Inc., 1992.