The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
These have mouths but say nothing,
have eyes but see nothing,
have ears but hear nothing,
and they have no breath in their mouths.
Their makers will end up like them,
everyone who relies on them.
This selection from the Hebrew Bible's Psalm 135:15-18 is a relatively common trope in that collection of scriptures (an almost identical list is found in Ps. 115:4-8). Indeed, the commandment "You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth" (Ex 20:4) was understood to be one of the main distinguishing features between the Israelites and their neighbors. The Israelites were to recognize that the divine--"I am Who I am" or "I will be Who I will be" was well beyond their competence to understand, let alone depict.
This teaching is not confined to Judaism. The Tao Te Ching begins: "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name." In the early centuries of Christianity, there was a fierce debate over whether or not images, or icons, of Jesus and the saints could be made -- a debate that had resonances centuries later when the Puritans disfigured or destroyed statues and paintings in the churches of English Roman Catholics. And the recent uproar over the anti-Muslim film made here in the U.S. traces some of its intensity to an understood religious prohibition of visual representations of the Prophet Mohammed.
Attributed to 9th-century Buddhist teacher Lin Chi is the statement, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." Sam Harris, one of the so-called "New Atheists", in an online article in the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun suggests that "Kill the Buddha" should be replaced by "Kill Buddhism". His argument is certainly not that Buddhists should be killed, but rather that Buddhism has begun to obscure the teachings of the Buddha (he extends that claim -- that the 'ism' has replaced the heart of the teaching -- to all other religions as well). He thus stands in a long line of iconoclasts, stretching back to the Hebrew poets and prophets!
I sort of doubt that Israel's early neighbors were as clueless as they were painted, i.e., that they actually thought that the manufactured representations WERE the deities themselves. Who knows? They may have had internal critics pointing out the very same temptation? But what is it about us that we need to reduce an ideal to something controllable, something lesser, something more in our image? Certainly one of the dangers is that we can exclude others who don't agree with our depiction (a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the "color" of images of Jesus*). This is as true in politics as in religion, by the way!
Another danger, however, is that we can become so enamored with our representation that we begin to believe it. And, since the representations are generally pretty hollow, our own spirits become depleted, our compassion dimmed. In a recent interview, Rabbi Rami Shapiro said, "Theology is like going into a restaurant and eating the menu. I'd rather have the food."
Wouldn't we all? Then why are we so satisfied with the menu? And what might happen if we actually bypassed a predictable menu to what an unpredictable Chef might prepare for us?
*Blum, Edward J., and Paul Harvey, "The Contested Color of Christ" in The Chronicle Review (Sept 21, 2012), B6-9.