Light and Darkness

Light and Darkness:
Idolatry as a Category in the
Hindu-Christian Encounter
Roman Catholic Viewpoint
by Daniel P. Sheridan,
Saint Joseph’s College of Maine

Catholic Theology

Catholic theology, systematic reflection on the believing of the Catholic Church or community, is a wide ocean. The ocean has shallows, bays, currents, riptides, stagnant pools, and occasionally hurricanes. The place in which I wish to situate a discussion of “idolatry” a category in the Hindu-Christian encounter is at the deepest point in the ocean.1 This point must have historical depth since idolatry is not a major issue in contemporary Catholic theology and is not receiving much attention at present. The deepest point in the ocean will also have ecumenical breath since it encompasses the theology of the “Great Church,” that is, the Church that included what came to be called the Catholic Church before the division of 1055 A.D. between the Catholic and Orthodox communities. Thus the deepest point in the oceanic Catholic theology is that which is based on the creeds of the Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church. These creeds focus on the person and role of Jesus Christ. The Council ofNicea in 325 A.D. developed the teaching of the divinity of Jesus Christ within the triune nature of God’ “and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the reality of the Father as only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father.”2 The Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. developed the teaching of the unity within one person of the divinity and the humanity of Jesus: “the one and only Christ —Son, Lord, only- begotten —in two natures without confusing the natures, without transmuting one nature into another, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. 3

For Catholic theology, idolatry is defined as adoration directed to a creature instead of to the God who was revealed personally at Sinai and who is incarnate in Jesus Christ. Concretely, idolatry is usually applied to the adoration of material images that represent spiritual realities other than God. Thus the second prohibition of the Decalogue in Exodus 20:4: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water underneath.” For prophets like Hosea, idolatry is a form of adultery in relation to the covenant which he compares to a marriage between God and the covenanted people of God.4 Idolatry would then be the supreme sin that betrays the covenental relationship between God and this particular people.

After the first century, Christians who suffered martyrdom because they refused to sacrifice to idols, similarly proclaimed the unique transcendence of God. Generally, they were not saying that idols were mere empty representations of that which lacked reality. To the contrary, the image represented a spiritual and personal reality that was not the unique and one transcendent God. Since the images and the realities they represented were not God, the adoration they received was an idolatry that was judged to be demonically inspired. Therefore, the spiritual realities so adored were demonic spiritual realities in revolt against the one unique transcendent God.5 Their existence was not denied.

For Jews, and at a later date for Muslims, it seemed that Christians engaged in idolatrous adoration when they worshipped Jesus, that is, Christians worshipped/adored someone who was not God as if he were God. According to the teaching of the Great Church, and thus according to an oceanic Catholic theology, when a Christian adores Jesus, the Son of God made flesh, it is the ultimate Personhood of the Son of God that receives the adoration given to the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, joined hypostatically to the Person of the Son of God. The incarnation of the Son of God does not cause loss to the transcendence of the divinity. The source of the divinity of the Son, the Father, does not become incarnate and thus remains absolutely transcendent, although the Father does beget the Son who does become incarnate. This is the reason why Christians down to the Middle Ages did not allow representations of God/Father, only representations of the humanity of Jesus, the incarnate Son.

Catholic theology makes several further important conceptual distinctions. Adoration, under the denomination of the Greek term, latria, is the worship to be given to the transcendent God alone, or to wherever and/or to whomever, within whom that transcendent God has become incarnate. Thus adoration is properly given, without in any way losing transcendence, to the single reality of Jesus Christ, inseparably true God and true human being, or to the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Dulia, a Greek term meaning service, is the veneration or homage given to saints, images of saints and relics, in emphatic contrast to the latria or adoration to be given to God alone. Hyperdulia designates the unique form of veneration to be given to Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. She was, according to the teaching of the Great Church, the Mother of God, the one who gave birth to God, incarnate in Jesus Christ.

On the one hand, Catholic theology shares with Judaism and Islam, an insight into the unique transcendence of God, and thus the prohibition of idolatry as misplaced adoration. On the other hand, Catholic theology affirms the unique incarnate presence of the transcendent God in the single person of Jesus Christ, who is thus a material reality uniquely worthy of the adoration due to the transcendent God alone. In understanding Catholic theology, it is very important to understand the distinction between this adoration, and the reasons for this adoration, from the veneration of the saints and of Mary, and the reasons for that veneration.

Openings to the Hindu-Christian Encounter

1. The previous presentation is theological and not phenomenological or a posteriori. I have not discussed whether the “homage” rendered to God in “adoration/latria” is phenomenally, or phenomenologically, the same or different from the “homage” rendered to the saints or to Mary in “veneration/dulia/hyperdulia.” This would be a very interesting area for empirical study. The results would possibly provide a methodological basis for comparing phenomenally “adoration” with bhakti or puja for example.

2. The categories are theological. The disciplinary parameters of the history of religions/religious studies are quite different, although the categories of the history of religions/religious studies are to a great extent derived and transmogrified from the inventory of theological terms used in Catholic and Christian theology. Within inter-religious dialogue, and within the Hindu-Christian encounter, it is my judgment that a great deal of equivocation has taken place. I think that we have only begun to make careful distinctions. Many of our categories do not serve us well when we do not make these distinctions. The tenor of some of the reactions to the Vatican document, Dominus Iesus, reveals that a lot of work needs to be done to achieve mutual understanding. Part of mutual understanding is careful drawing of distinctions as the basis for the formation of truly illuminating categories for an on-going Catholic theology, an on-going history of religions/religious studies, an on-going inter-religious dialogue, and an on-going Hindu- Christian encounter.6 These four “on-goings,” and their need for illuminating categories, are related, but different. They need to be distinguished in order to be united.

3. Affiliations and negations are theologically different. They also may differ to the extent that they may be a priori or a posteriori. An affiliation that is a priori is essential to believing. A negation has a greater need to be a posteriori, based on a judgment that has attended to the evidence. Affiliations are at the heart of Christian believing, and thus at the heart of Catholic theology .Negations and prohibitions are seldom absolute, and are secondary to the affiliations. They have specific historical contexts. When the historical contexts change, what was previously negated or prohibited may also change. The key is whether the affiliation is maintained. The affiliation of light does not necessarily imply that an affiliation of darkness is called for.

4. There are several affirmations from the oceanic Catholic theology I have described that may be useful for consideration within the Hindu-Christian encounter . This encounter should not take place solely on the basis of the history of religions/religious studies and its categories. At least from the Catholic side of the encounter, an oceanic theology may bring surprising insights to bear from its affirmations. Some of these might be:

a. the existence of real spiritual beings [angels, demons, saints, the souls of the deceased, etc.] is presented within Catholic theology not as a conclusion of believing but one of reasoning, not one of theology but of philosophy [although of a particular kind]. As Karl Rahner, one of the great Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, states in regard to angels: ” As such they are at least in principle not inaccessible to natural empirical knowledge (which latter is not identical with scientific, quantitative experiment), and so they are not in themselves directly and necessarily a matter ofrevelation.”7 If real spiritual beings exist, they may be encountered.
b. the affirmation that spiritual beings may exist in relationship to the material universe. Again in the words of Karl Rahner: ” At the present time when people are only too ready to think it reasonable to suppose that because of the tremendous size of the cosmos there must be intelligent living beings outside the earth, men should not reject angels outright as unthinkable, provided that they are not regarded as mytholigcal furnishings of a religious heaven, but primarily as ‘principalities and powers’ of the cosmos.”8 The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed affirms that God is the creator of all things visible and invisible. This is not just an affirmation about God, but also that the universe includes both the “visible and the invisible,” that is, both material and spiritual realities in interaction.
c. the affirmation that images/material objects within the cosmos [“idols” within a negative theological judgment] may really present or re-present real spiritual beings. Even if this affirmation was in the past a negative judgment that the images were “idols” since they represented what were thought to be demons, and indeed may have been demons, there is no reason why the affirmation could not be that they represent positive spiritual realities. The criteriology for such an affirmation on the basis of the affirmations of Christian believing remains to be established.

5. As a participant within the Catholic community of believers, and thus a Catholic theologian within the oceanic Catholic theology, it is possible for me to speculate as an individual theologian about certain issues that have never yet been raised or, if raised, not yet answered in the affirmative. For example, I have asked whether there is any set of premises/affirmations within Catholic believing and within Catholic theology under which it would be possible to answer in the affirmative that Muhammad is a prophet.9 Similarly, I have explored the question, both theologically and phenomenally, whether there really is a Krishna.lo An affirmative answer based on the premises of the oceanic Catholic theology would open up exciting possibilities for the Hindu-Christian encounter. It may really be possible to affirm the Light without having to affirm that particular religious and spiritual realities are its negation, i.e., are Darkness. It may be really possible within an oceanic Catholic theology, based on the Great Church’ s affirmations, for pula toward an image of Krishna to be affirmed positively as dulia/veneration, or even [ more wildly] possible that it be affirmed as latria/adoration, and not as “idolatry” [ understood here theologically, not as a category of the history of religions]. These possibilities may arise only have careful distinctions within category formation have been worked out. The Hindu-Christian encounter would be enriched.


1. Several influential studies by Catholic authors are not written, in my judgment, from the deepest point in the ocean. The first is Paul Knitter, No Other Name? A Critical Survey ofChristian Attitues toward the World Religions (aryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985}. The second is Raimundo Panikkar, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism: Toward an Ecumenical Christology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1981 }.

2. Cited from John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1973}, p. 30-31.

3. Creeds of the Churches, p. 36.

4. See Hosea 1.2: “for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”

5. See 1 CO 10.20: “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God.”

6. See J. A. DiNoia, The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992).

7. Karl Rahner, “Angels,” in Karl Rahner, ed., Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), po 5.

8. “Angels,” po 5.

9. Daniel P. Sheridan, “Christian Faith’s Judgment of Muhammad as a Prophet,” The Journal of Religious Pluralism, V-VI (1995-96), p 1-27.

10. Daniel P. Sheridan, “Faith in Jesus Christ in the Presence of Hindu Theism,” in Joseph Prabhu, ed., The Intercultural Challenge of Raimon Panikkar(Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996), p. 145-161. See also, Daniel P. Sheridan, “Stations Keeping: Christ and Klrishna as Embodied,” Cross Currents, XXXVIII (Fall 1988), 325-339.