Thursday, April 18, 2013

Idolatry or openness?

Almost all religion begins with a specific encounter with something that feels “holy” or transcendent: a place, an emotion, an image, music, a liturgy, an idea that suddenly gives you access to God’s Bigger World. The natural and universal response is to “idolize” and idealize that event. It becomes sacred for you, and it surely is. The only mistake is that too many then conclude that this is the way, the best way, the superior way, the “only” way for everybody—that I myself just happen to have discovered. Then, they must both protect their idol and spread this exclusive way to others. (They normally have no concrete evidence whatsoever that other people have not also encountered the holy.)

The false leap of logic is that other places, images, liturgies, scriptures, or ideas can not give you access. “We forbid them to give you access; it is impossible,” we seem to say! Thus much religion wastes far too much time trying to separate itself from—and create “purity codes” against—what is perceived as secular, bad, heretical, dangerous, “other,” or wrong. Jesus had no patience with such immature and exclusionary religion, yet it is still a most common form to this day. Idolatry has been called the only constant and real sin of the entire Old Testament, and idolatry is whenever we make something god that is not God, or whenever we make the means into an end. Any attempt to create our own “golden calf” is usually first-half-of-life religion, and eventually false religion.

Richard Rohr, June 2012

The church [is] no other thing but the society, gathering or company of such as God hath called out of the world and worldly spirit to walk in his light and life... Under this church ... are comprehended all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be, though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts... There may be members therefore of this Catholic church both among heathens, Turks, Jews and all the several sorts of Christians, men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart, who ... are by the secret touches of this holy light in their souls enlivened and quickened, thereby secretly united to God, and there-through become true members of this Catholic church.

Robert Barclay, 1678

God is so very much greater than our minds can themselves comprehend that it is simply foolish to feel we can legislate how he may or may not communicate with our fellow human beings. It is also very shortsighted indeed if we feel that we can legislate where our fellow Christians may or may not turn for inspiration and comfort along their spiritual journey. To say, “You mustn’t read that, it’s influenced by another faith!” or, “You may not publish that, we have withheld our imprimatur!” is so far from Christ’s way (consider his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4.1-42), and its consequences) that it is one of the great acts of unfaithfulness, not to mention foot-marksmanship, in the history of the church.

May we be known by our generosity, our open-heartedness, to all women and men of spiritual yearning, of whichever faith, or none. May we become a refuge and a comfort to them, through the indwelling Christ who loves through us… and may they be a challenge, a comfort and an inspiration to us too.


  1. What seems difficult to balance is a sort of middle road. Many, many practices (which is what many "rules" were initially intended to be by the founding teachers of various traditions) are intended to train one, to point one to deeper truths, to cultivate factors that support insight and wisdom. Turned into rigid dogma, they lose that quality. But tossed out as stupid... then one often misses the value in them.

    The value in them is often uncomfortable. Most wisdom traditions include practices that are by nature uncomfortable because they undermine our self-centered way of being. They are intended to help us identify and break our attachment to idols. Take, for instance, fasting, which is a very interesting way to explore the "idolatry" of food. Obedience (such as a practice of general surrender to the rules of a monastic order or religious system) is an interesting way to explore the "idolatry" of "I'll do what I please and I'm in charge of my life."

    In a deep, personal relationship with God these sorts of things become quite interesting, subtle and profound.

    The clever "me" is quite apt at avoiding leaving idolatry behind, even as spiritual practice deepens. Losing the attachment to food, one may move on to "Ha, look at me, I am so good at fasting, aren't I special!". Or, horrors, "Look how blessed I am, God does everything for me, I'm so special..." Idolatry again.

    So I agree, Mike. But I think there's great insight to be had in studying the many subtle ways in which idolatry interacts with our spiritual processes, and that the roots of many of these rules (which have now taken on a life of their own or are maintained more as a form of social control and institutional power) are still quite valuable places to explore.

  2. Yes, Ona, I do very much see what you're getting at, and indeed I've struggled with this in understanding my own Franciscan vocation, especially concerning my growing appreciation of, and involvement with, Quaker insights and worship.

    I can only say that, in the absence of dogma, rules, creeds, statements of faith and so on, the Quaker way frequently gets much closer to the humility of not saying, "Aren't I special?" than almost any path I've so far encountered. In part, I suppose, it may be the particular lack of what might be called reinforcements - preferment, leadership roles, vestments, ceremonial - that reduces this tendency. There really isn't too much you can do as a Quaker to show you're special!

    But you're right, there is much we can learn from the long history of humanity's struggle with our own lack of humility and gratitude, and the many ingenuities of those tasked with spiritual formation. Richard Foster, often, is an example of how this might turn out in practice...

  3. Mike, do you find in hindsight that your experience in your Franciscan vocation was "necessary"? That is, that only by having had that experience and formation did you reach a place where grace could act as it did. Or perhaps that even all of the past experiences of your life, including the sidetracks and tangents, were simply what had to happen in order for you to work through various veils and blindnesses that prevented you from recognizing the grace that was always there? I ask because my own path was quite strange and wandering, and in hindsight I see time after time where God dropped bricks on my head, as if to say "Hello!!!", and I blithely ignored them. Because until I had done what needed to be done to exhaust the belief that I was in charge of my own life, I could not see and accept His grace. It feels like that now, at least. God was very patient with me.

    1. All I can say, Ona, is Yes! It's uncanny how accurately your experience mirrors my own. My life too has been a series of attempts to ignore divine brick-drops, which possibly explains why my favourite Scripture is Romans 8.28!