On Tuesday, Professor Elliot Wolfson ’86 returned to the room where he defended his dissertation to lecture on the relationship between theology and idolatry that has puzzled philosophers and scholars for hundreds of years.

Wolfson is the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair of Jewish Studies and a professor of religious studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.

More than two dozen members of the Brandeis community crowded the conference room in the Lown Center for Near Eastern and Judaic Studies to hear Wolfson’s lecture, “Imagination, Theolatry, and the Compulsion to Worship the Invisible.” Wolfson examined the writings of dozens of philosophers to understand how imagery and iconography are related to monotheistic conceptions of an invisible God.

Sigmund Freud, for instance, argued that the aniconism of Judaism — the lack of explicit visual representations of God and certain religious figures — “is indicative of the intellectual overcoming of the sensual, and the repudiation of instincts.”

Freud, Wolfson said, believed that the absence of depictions of God in Judaism forced Jews to grapple with the abstract concept of God as an omnipresent and omnipotent being, a struggle that empowered them to think in a more sophisticated way than non-believers. Wolfson noted, “Jesus is described in Colossians 1:15 as the ‘icon of the invisible,’” — a physical representation of the invisible God.

Wolfson argued this connection between theology and idolatry is central to religion, and that it is impossible to eliminate all idolatry from religious belief. For instance, in the eleventh century the Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote that anthropomorphic references to God in holy texts were metaphors, not literal representations. But Wolfson said this did not solve the problem of representations of God, since metaphors imply an ability to “know” God, an entity that is fundamentally “unknowable.”

Later philosophers, including Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger, grappled with this imperceptibility of God. Heidegger attempted to describe a hypothetical postmodern religion that lacked idols, termed “negative theology.” Wolfson argued that this negative theology fails as a religion on two fronts.

First, he argued, Heidegger’s writings are full of apophasis, which is the rhetorical device where a speaker alludes to something by denying that they will mention it. (For example, saying “I won’t discuss her past crimes” in fact alludes to the person’s past crimes.) Heidegger, in denying that he will mention God, alludes to God, and therefore falls into the same trap of representation that Maimonides did centuries earlier.

The second failure of this postmodern religion, Wolfson said, is its failure to find an audience of believers, something he believes is fundamental to any religion. “Negative theology,” he said, “has failed to court the mind of God-worshippers.”

This thinking led Wolfson to conclude that the existence of an invisible God necessitates idolatry. He coined the term “theolatry” — a portmanteau of theology and idolatry — to capture this tension between the two. 

Indeed, metaphors and representations of God are essential to our ability to try to understand something that is fundamentally unknowable, he said. Without those representations, we would be unable to meaningfully interact with God. Wolfson concluded that because language is itself a representation, all our conceptions of God are imperfect ones.

In other words, Wolfson said, “Every theological figure is ipso facto a disfigure.”