Friday, June 6, 2014

Worshipping the Idols We Create in our Minds

Much of what has seemed, over the centuries, like a vital defense of God, or of Jesus, or of the Christian faith, has in fact been a battle of concepts within a philosophical framework that is ultimately foreign to the God who reveals Himself in the Bible. Just because these debates have used biblical terms does not make the debates either holy or meaningful.


What is most insidious among those who claim belief in God is the idolatry of religious doctrine, worship, polity  and culture, and the use of disagreement on these as an excuse to mistreat others. This ranges from disregard to verbal attack to physical assault to murder to genocide. All in an alleged defense of God, who is omnipotent and needs no defenders. It would seem silly were it not so profoundly tragic.

There is a reason Jesus spoke of two great commandments rather than just the one to love God. He saw that those who claimed to love God were using it as an excuse for all manner of ungodly behavior toward other people.  He said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  Then He immediately illustrated the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” by describing to His listeners a neighbor who was a Samaritan—a despised outsider whose religious beliefs were flawed.  
Jesus eliminated the loophole of claiming “neighbor” to be someone like us who we love anyway (or who has religious beliefs we approve of). And on the outside chance that someone might claim that an “enemy” fell outside even the broadest category of neighbor, He said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” 

He didn’t leave any loopholes.

Why do we care? Because Christian thinking has worked out its ideas, year after year, since the time of Paul in a thoroughly Greek process, creating vast structures of themes and ideas: analyzed, extracted, abstracted, fabricated, and put up in giant conceptual arrays, like tall warehouses, filled with row after row, shelf after shelf, of analysis after analysis.

The problem is, they aren’t the story the Author wrote, and they aren’t the Author who seeks relationship with His followers. They are Concepts fabricated by the minds of people, based on a disassembly and analysis of the story.

Various groups and individuals have pulled from the scriptural narrative various themes and ideas, fabricated them into a philosophical structure, a religious Concept, have used this to guide the production of Doctrine, Ritual, Polity and more—as well as to interpret other themes and ideas in Scripture and in the world—and have given the Conceptual structure an independent status and reputation of its own.

Saying that various religious groups fabricated them is not meant to imply fraud, but rather an extended and complex process of analysis, extraction, abstraction, categorization, comparison, critique, deduction, induction and careful fabrication—piece by piece, category by category, syllogism by syllogism, reference by reference—until whole Concepts emerged from this pulling of themes and ideas from the scriptural narrative.

As these major religious Concepts evolved, they generated layers of subconcepts, including doctrines and practices, patterns of worship, methods of authority and organization (polity), forms of both promotion and defense, and more. Vast warehouses of Concepts, often each headed by a religious genius.

The whole fabrication process of Christian religious Concepts is simply Greek in its origins and methods. All of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East had been under the deep influence of Greek philosophical teaching and culture for centuries before the first New Testament book was written. Even the Old Testament itself had been rewritten in Greek  because it was a language most Jews spoke—like nearly everyone else in that day and place.

This Concept-building process, at least in its early stages, may not even have been an intrinsically bad thing. In humble hands such Concepts could help to share God’s love with others. One might even say that this is just what Paul did in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles. He “contextualized” the God of Israel into concepts that his hearers would understand, so that they might accept the invitation of forgiveness and salvation, the covenant that Jesus shared and embodied.

However, the key point is that much of early Christian writing and debate—as well as the establishment of the Church after Constantine, the complete integration of the Church into the Roman Empire, the energetic establishment of Doctrine and Creed, Rituals, Practices, forms of Worship, Polity, Hermeneutical methods, the development of Systematic Theology, and then the division of the Church into countless denominations (tens of thousands at this point)—all owe their foundations to Greek philosophical methods and culture.

These produced Concepts about God and man, and these Concepts multiplied and gained independent recognition and authority. They were about God, and about Scripture (the Story of Life with God: both Old and New Testament), and they contained vocabulary from Scripture (as well as Greek philosophy), but they were neither God nor Scripture. They were Concepts. 

It is worth noting that early Christian religious Concepts were not readily accepted as equals to the work of ages of Greek philosophical schools. Critics in the Roman and Greek cultures in the first two centuries found the Church’s philosophical efforts inept and even dangerous, and ridiculed them—beginning at least as early as Paul, recorded in Acts 17 and elsewhere. 

The Church’s development of detailed and extensive philosophical Concepts arose in part in response to the ongoing and condescending criticism it received from its critics, and in part as various Christian religious Concepts arose and conflicted with each other.  The works of Origen (Against Celsus and On First Principles ), Justin Martyr (First Apology), Irenaeus  (Against Heresies) and Tertullian  (Apologeticus) are examples of just such responses. 

Attack and defense occurred on both sides of the debate, and over the course of centuries.The problem begins to unveil itself here: Once a Doctrine gains sufficient prominence, it tends to draw not just advocates, but worshipers. Instead of worshiping God alone, we worship Doctrines about God, and promote and defend them passionately. They are easier to understand and control than a Being Who is Holy, Wholly Other, Omnipotent and Omniscient.

Even if I believe God loves me, and desires loving relationship with me, His power and otherness frighten me—as they should.

Doctrine doesn’t scare me. As with wealth, fame, success and possessions, I want to hold on to my doctrine and defend it. And like wealth, fame, success and possessions, I can and do make an idol of it.
We die for and kill for idols all the time. Humans always have. We still do. Whether “honor” or position, fame or religion, nationalism or race, gender or beauty, we tend to idolize what we want or want to keep, and we fight for it, often regardless of the harm we do to other people or to our world.
We make idols and fight to defend them. We justify such battles with self-righteous explanations, and we labor to get others to bend to our will or submit to our vision. Such idolatry is not unique to Christians, or even to religion, but it is common to our humanity. This is why Scripture is so compelling, and why we must listen again to God’s first commandment:

"You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods." (Deuteronomy 5:7-9)

In the event that anyone thinks this passage is simply about tribal gods made of stone or wood, and not about idols like pride or fame or property or wealth—or idols of Doctrine, Ritual, even Hermeneutics—just read the Bible. It is replete with such idols and exhortations against them. We began all of those kinds of idolatry right at the beginning, and they were well-known to God and to the ancient authors of Scripture. We were warned early!

Our idolatry of Concept—especially the part called Doctrine and supposedly all about God and holy behavior—leads us to attack, disfellowship, injure and hate others who cling to different Doctrines, or to none.

Even if their Doctrines are wrong, we conduct our debates as if we are exempt from God’s commandments about loving neighbors and even enemies. We attack and belittle others. We treat them with condescension and sarcasm, full of ourselves and with self-righteousness. At our worst, we murder our opponents en masse. The partisanship for and the idolatry of our Doctrine wounds the heart of God. Our actions are wrong—even if our Doctrines are right.

The problem is rooted in our focus on Doctrines, and debate about them, rather than on loving relationship with God and neighbor.

This rabid debate over Doctrine stretches from the authors of our day back to Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, Irenaeus and others. As respected as anyone might be for contributions to the faith, to the development of settled Doctrine, or to a rigorous debate on a point of theology, each also is personally culpable when engaged in loveless attack. The former does not justify the latter.

With every debate over Doctrine, division follows. People are kicked out, or leave, and another sect or denomination arises—another group with its own correct way, and defenders of its correct way, angrily contesting against the “false way” of the group they just divorced.

The children of such divorces learn from their parents what to do when they disagree: Attack the person, and divorce again. It is ironic that voices who most loudly denounce divorce in the marriage of people often celebrate the divorces of churches—their own, or those of their founders.

“So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say? I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it. It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against that house, it stands firm because it is well built. But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins.” (Luke 6:46-49)

The foundation Jesus speaks of here is not transubstantiation, Trinity, inerrancy, systematic theology, baptism, apostolic succession, textual criticism, epiclesis, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism or any such thing. The solid foundation is following what Jesus taught: “when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it.” 

If we want evidence that the Church has forgotten what Jesus taught, we need only consider the state of the Church—disputing not over how better to live as Jesus called us to live, or about love of God and each other, but over Concepts: doctrine, worship, authority, liturgy, baptism, gender, Communion, translation, hermeneutics, tradition, tongues, evolution, end-times, titles, music, Rapture and the internal structure of God. And a thousand thousand more. We have collapsed into a heap of warring factions, followers of this Concept fighting followers of that Concept. We are obsessed.

The problem is that our foundation is not God, not even Scripture. It is instead Philosophy, and its Concepts. We worship our own ideas.

We are not doing what Jesus told us to do.

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