Friday, July 28, 2006

REBELLION OF THOUGHT TO CHEW ON... CHRISTIAN IDOLATRY

While editing a section of Rebellion of Thought called "Creating God In Our Own Image," I included this quote from our interview with Bruce Ellis Benson (Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College)...

"...we affirm as Christians that God does exists, and that our conception of God is not purely a kind of idolatrous conception of God. Now of course, there it gets a little difficult, because as Christians, I assume that our conception of God is probably never completely pure, that is to say, our conception of God is never completely free from idolatry. It's very easy for the conception of "Jesus, Lord of my life," to morph into, to change into, "Jesus, who is the granter of my desires." That's not a very big step, as it turns out, and indeed I assume that many of us live, in a sort of practical way so that Jesus is the granter of our desires, first and foremost, rather than the Lord and Master of our lives."

What are your thoughts on this concept of Christian idolatry? Please share them here...

14 comments:

dwb said...

Basically he's saying that we worship our own broken and perverted image of Christ rather than the true Christ. I'm having trouble thinking of that as idolatry because it's still pointing to Christ... except that it makes Christ the granter of our wishes and if Christ is granting our wishes then we must be god. The idol in this situation is ourself.

There are other "Christian idols" as well. We can all too easily get caught up in following one of God's servants rather than God himself. We can busy ourselves with God's work so we don't have to hear what He has to say. We can identify ourselves with a movement or minor doctrine or political system rather than placing our identity in Christ alone. We can be proud of our humility.

It's amazing how easy it is to drift off course... we're like a car whose wheels are out of alignment. We need to keep our hands on the steering just to stay on the road.

Thank God for grace and mercy.

Terri Moore said...

In today's society, I think we have definitely tried to put God/Jesus in a box that fits what we want. I think an attitude of worship and servitude is definitely nearing extinction. To borrow a phrase from Janet Jackson, our response to Jesus and God in our worship times has become, "What have you done for me lately?" Our prayers are filled with requests rather than thanks and praise. Our worship services have become huge productions designed to draw the crowds. The Word gets lost in all the trappings we put around it to make it "more attractive" If we don't wake up and realize that God has to be first and foremost the center of our lives, I see nothing but the downward spiral continuing. You cannot change God, by his very nature, He never changes. This is one of the things that is most desirable, and one of the attributes we tout when it is useful for our needs, yet when God's constant way is inconvenient for us or makes us uncomfortable, we want to "change" him into something He is not.
The biggest danger, as Christians, in this making God/Jesus our personal "genie" so to speak, our "granter of wishes" is that we lead others astray. We misrepresent our faith to others. Churches become fill-up stations where we get our weekly fix of "warm fuzzies" and "feel good" messages. Don't get me wrong, I believe with all my heart that God loves me. I am His child, but as His child I need to respect and honor him as a Father, and let him raise me to be the child He wants me to be.

Alec Miller said...

Something unfortunate has happened in Christianity that has become united with our view of God. Western socities have moved from a form of community existence to individual existence. It is harder to make God an idol when it is the God of the community and not of the individual. A community will tend to serve a God while an individual will tend to ask favors. Somehow, we live with doctrines and dogmas that exist and can exist outside of our own lives. Clans have movements and cultures, not necessarily dogmas. It is almost scary how the perception of God has changed form the wandering nomads to the stable cultures we have now.

Kent C. Williamson said...

Idolatry... from Wikipedia...

Idolatry is a major sin in the Abrahamic religions regarding image. In Christianity it is defined as worship of an image, idea or object, as opposed to the worship of a supreme being. In Judaism and Islam, the creation of imagery itself as well as its worship would amount to idolatry. In religions where such activity is not considered as sin, the term "idolatry" itself is absent. Some religious authorities and groups have used the term to describe other religions apart from their own.

Eric Williamson said...

Do any of us truly have a pure understanding of Christ and His nature? Scripture tells me that compared to God's understanding, my knowledge is as filthy rags. After contemplating, and debating, the concepts of Free Will and the Sovereignty of God for 10 years, I'm completely and wholly convinced that there are quite a few things which humans cannot, and (in my opinion) were not designed to understand. The human mind, as magnificent a creation as it is, remains limited in its ability to grasp the concept of a being which exists apart from time and space - and while I desire to know this being, I don't believe I will ever grasp His nature completely - at least not while I'm tied to "this mortal coil", as it were. So, while I desire to know this Person, yet I am physically unable to do so, and as such, my understanding of Him is necessarily limited. Does that make me an idolator, because the understanding of Christ which I possess is not identical to His reality? I think not - the proof of my idolatrous nature, or lack thereof, lies not in the defined differences between my idea of Christ and His true nature, but rather, like so much else in the Christian faith, within my own self. The evidence of my lack of idolatry will reveal itself in my actions - my "treasure" will be disclosed by the choices I make in my life. If I desire to closely follow Christ in all my ways, my lifestyle will reflect it. If, however, my hearts desire is for something else, even if my mouth boasts of my devotion to God, the way I live my life will most assuredly disclose that fact.

Now, does the church today care about that? I'm not really convinced that it does. Too often, as others have pointed out, the church seems to concern itself with filling the seats and the offering plate at the expense of the filling of the Spirit. Maybe I'm just cynical, but I think I would fall down and weep if my pastor, just once, stopped the "program" on Sunday morning because he sensed the Holy Spirit leading him a different way than he had planned. So I'm not sure that anyone, other than myself, is really concerned if my heart passionately follows after Christ, or whether I choose a cheap imitation instead. I sense that I'm to be left to my own devices to decide when, or even if, I will devote my life to the one true God. Will anyone even notice if I choose to pursue happiness instead of obedience? This is the state which I believe much of the American church is in today - if our actions are an effective witness, we apparently don't really think it matters that much whether we serve the true Christ, or just our idea of what we would like Christ to be. So we buy into the idea of "Christ as the grantor of our desires" because that's what we want Him to be. And by wanting Him to be something He isn't, we take that fatal step into worshiping something that isn't God.

So we have to ask ourselves - who do we think we are, trying to mold God into our own image? When will we remember, or realize, that the Potter isn't the one that's to be molded, but rather the clay? When I look at it like that, it seems the pinnacle of hubris - and yet I do it myself, over and over and over again. Like dwb said - thank God for His mercy and grace.

You know, the older I get, the more I identify with Paul - "who will save me from this body of death?"

Fr. Wade Fahnestock+ said...

In Search of...
... the New Testament Church!

From time to time I hear the desire of earnest Christians longing for the intimacy, love and manifestation of the Holy Spirit as recorded in the book of Acts. "If only we could be like the New Testament Church, without all of the backbiting and politics that seem to 'get in the way' of the freedom and passion I read about in the Bible. (The problem is that the backbiting, politics and dissension existed even in with the Apostles.) If only I could find a New Testament Church." So the search is on!

How would you define a "New Testament Church?" Would it be one that is free from controversy? (There has always been controversy - matters were settled by a coundil of Bishops.)Would it be one that lived the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles? (Now that might be the real issue.) In your mind, can you envision such a thing? Or do you see yourself as a 'lone wolf' searching for others who share you passion, surrounded by religious trappings and dogmas that don't seem to 'fit in' with the call that's burning in your heart?

Do you believe the words of Jesus when He said that "the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church?"

What if the Church that Jesus founded was still in existence today? Would you be willing to REPENT - that is, to cast aside your preconceived ideas of what the Church should be? For many, that answer is, "NO!" (This is idolatry - to elivate our opinion over the self-revelation of God to man through Jesus and the Church.) Many want to find a church that fits into their understanding of what they read in the Bible. What if that understanding is clouded by Western thought and tradition? Could we be so bold as to really humble ourselves before God and admit that our understanding is flawed?

We have been so conditioned by our culture which has touted the supremacy of the individual and our 'right' to worship the God of our understanding, that we could be totally missing the truth. Maybe we need a 'rebellion of thought,' a 'metanoia,' that will 'remove the veil' from our eyes.

Are you bold enough to join me on a 'journey quest' to discover the faith of our fathers? Are you bold enough to forge the forgotten waters of the mysteries of God?

Many have reached the summit of intellectual revelation as seen from their denominational teaching. But the heart is still longing for that "Connection with God." Is this a call to you?

Will you join me on my quest to discover the Church that our Lord founded? What really happened after the book of Acts ended until Martin Luther posted his 95 theses?

When was the last time you read about the Church during the first 1000 years? Maybe that time is now!

There's more to come!
I wish you peace!

Fr. Wade Fahnestock+

Kent C. Williamson said...

Alec Miller commented above...

"Western socities have moved from a form of community existence to individual existence. It is harder to make God an idol when it is the God of the community and not of the individual. A community will tend to serve a God while an individual will tend to ask favors."

This is an interesting point, the lack of true community within our Western culture. I would have to say that this is probably the number one item that drove us OUT of the traditional modern church environment and into our current model. The longing for true relationship (not merely the smiling faces, handshakes and God bless you's of modern Christianity) but deep, meaningful relationship shared with others on a faith journey can only be denied for so long.

I believe this concept will continue to spread like wildfire through the lives of believers as we continue to move further into the post-modern age.

The modern age did great things for the "individual" in the West. I hope the pomo age will do even greater things for us "individuals" as we learn to rely, depend, and lean on each other in the form of community.

What I find in dialogue with many of my traditional church friends is that most claim that THEIR church offers true community... maybe it's just me and my poor church selection abilities... they all couldn't be wrong, could they?

I've also seen and experienced the correlation between the increase of church size and the direct increase of an artificial sense of community. I imagine I'm probably not alone on this...

Kent C. Williamson said...

I just came across an article in the New York Times online edition about Rev. Gregory A. Boyd called "Disowning Conservative Politics Is Costly for Evangelical Pastor"...

Here's an interesting paragraph that relates to Christian Idolatry...

Mr. Boyd said he never intended his sermons to be taken as merely a critique of the Republican Party or the religious right. He refuses to share his party affiliation, or whether he has one, for that reason. He said there were Christians on both the left and the right who had turned politics and patriotism into “idolatry.”

Anyone seen examples of that type of idolatry?

The other half of the Brothers Williamson (Brad) was/is in a church that wouldn't fly the American flag in the sanctuary... when I first learned of this (10 or 15 years ago) I was shocked... now down the road a stretch it all makes sense... it's a short jump from patriotism to idolatry...

postmodernegro said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
postmodernegro said...

I believe we can know Christ truthfully as a product of our wrestling with scripture, Holy Spirit, the tradition and community we find ourselves.

However, there has to be a place where we acknowledge that the 'truth' we do hold regarding Christ is a truth that has landed in our time and place. Which means that we have to admit to some level of fallibility and creatureliness in the truth we confess about Christ.

As an African-american Christian this reality of white Christendom seeing itself as a universal truth claim has been a struggle. For a long time, before I came to Christ I thought Christianity was a European racist religion in principle. Recognizing that our theology is situated and finite can aide Western Christianity in sheeding the normativity of the white aesthetic and grammar that is dominant in the West. That's why I think particular elements of postmodern thought are helpful. Firstly, it points us to pre-modern sources. Secondly, it demonstrates to us how racialized and enculturated our Christianity can be.

I can't tell you how many times I have been angry when conservative white Christians brandish their particular theologizing aesthetic and grammar as absolute truth. Because they are so concerned about brandishing their particular epistemologies they do not see it that way. They cannot see how much of Western Christendom has made Jesus in the image of a white culture that has consciously and unconsciously presumed itself to be normative, universal, standard, 'human', and bearers of the true true Christianity.

Eric Williamson said...

As I think on this more, I become convinced that the focus of American Christian Idolatry (ACI, to us government types) at this point in history falls squarely into the worship of man's ideas - materialism (the worship of goods), workism (the idea that my works, whether "religious" or secular, make me a better person), humanism (the idea that man can resolve any problem given enough resources), intellectualism (the idea that we are more enlightened than our forebears - "how could they believe such archaic ideas?"), and legalism (the notion that if I obey a specific set of rules, I'm a good person and therefore qualify for a reward). How many churchs do you know that expect, either overtly or by silent intimidation, adherence to an invisible set of rules not laid out in Scripture? Things such as certain ways of dress, or hair styles, types of allowable music, "no smoking", etc.? If you're like me, you see these things everywhere. What about the guy who, judging by his lifestyle, believes that if he just works hard enough he can end up being happy? Or the folks who drive the $50K Lexus to church? Am I hitting too close to the mark here? To show that I'm an equal opportunity pointer-of-fingers, I'll throw in the -ism that I wrestle with the most - fun-ism. What's fun-ism, you might be persuaded to ask? Fun-ism is the worship of fun, of course, and I'll illustrate from my own life. I often find myself struggling to tithe - yet I own a $10,000 motorcycle, the primary purpose of which is that it's really, really fun to ride. Yes, I commute on it, and yes, in many ways it's cheaper than owning another car - but I have it, first and foremost, because it's a hoot to ride. Now I ask myself - wouldn't that $10,000 have been better spent on the things of Christ than so I can have a good time? When phrased that way, the only possible answer is "Absolutely". It's 'way more important for sinners to hear about the Redeemer than it is for me to have a good time riding down some twisty mountain road, but I'm not out selling my bike and giving the money to the poor. THAT'S FUN-ISM, and I'm guilty of it. So the question that must be asked is "What am I gonna do about it?"

clara said...

What did Jesus say, you shall 'know' the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind? We are more capable of loving God than knowing Him, but not as willing.
clara

Ron Goetz said...

Interesting posts. Eric, of all the posters, I think you are the most overtly personal, confessing your attachment to your bike.

You are absolutely correct when you write that "idolatry will reveal itself in my actions--my "treasure" will be disclosed by the choices I make in my life." Talk is cheap.

And when you write that you're "not sure that anyone, other than myself, is really concerned if my heart passionately follows after Christ, or whether I choose a cheap imitation instead," you are again dead on the money.

It is not in anyone's interest that you actually live out a life like Jesus'. In fact, if you do live like Jesus, and follow his commands, you'll only be accused of being an extremist or a kook. You'll make people who are lukewarm look bad, in particular the Scribes and Pharisees. So just be warned: Jesus, Paul, Peter--they all came to sticky ends.

In terms of your bike, maybe you should trade it in for a Moped. I just bought one used for $100.

Terri, I totally agree with you in your "criticism" that "Churches become fill-up stations where we get our weekly fix of 'warm fuzzies' and 'feel good' messages."

I think church structure is the culprit where this is the case. To be a successful pastor or priest, you have two choices. First is to preach non-controversial feel-good messages. Or, you have to stake out your claim to have THE answers, whether that theology is based on the Bible, or the Church Fathers, or someone like Luther, Calvin, Fox, or Wesley. Either make people feel good, or let them know "we're right and everyone else is wrong."

Postmodernegro, I'm sure most of posters would agree, as you say, that "we have to admit to some level of fallibility and creatureliness in the truth we confess about Christ."

I think Eric was addressing this when he wrote, "while I desire to know this being, I don't believe I will ever grasp His nature completely."

I also agree that knowing that "our theology is situated and finite can aid Western Christianity in shedding the normativity of the white aesthetic and grammar that is dominant in the West."

We are saddled with theological formulas we inherited from political and ideological debates which raged in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East as far back as 2,000 years. When I approach the Bible, I have a very different set of problems and questions.

For example, when I look at Paul, I see an example of how one Christian worked to create a new religious thought system, one more suitable for reaching people with the love of God. This to me is one of the central tasks of the Emergent Church.

Being white, I don't emphasize that element of the crime the way you do. I do, however, disagree with any group's attempt to "presume itself to be normative, universal, standard, 'human'... [the exclusive] bearers of the true true Christianity."

Wade, forgive me, but but your attempts to smuggle devotion to the early church fathers into various threads is...interesting. And your apparent belief that a single, organizational repository of Spiritual and ecclesiastical truth exists on the planet is a debatable question, to be sure.

DWB, you hit on this, I believe. "There are other 'Christian idols' as well. We can all too easily get caught up in following one of God's servants rather than God himself."
Whether the servant is named John Wesley or Irenaeus or Margery Kempe, they're only people.

Clara, your comment was perhaps the most significant. "What did Jesus say, you shall 'know' the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind? We are more capable of loving God than knowing Him, but not as willing." Talk is cheap. Talking is easier than selling your bike. (Oops! sorry . . .)

The posts talk a lot about images of Christ and concepts of God, our understanding and our theology. But Hebrews and Jeremiah tell us that God no longer reveals himself to us in mere words, but in a person whose behavior we can (could) observe and emulate.

The idol of materialism? It was never a problem until I hit my 40's, saw the prospects of institutional ministry evaporate (thank God), and my only financial arrangements were with creditors. Then it was a question of, "What good did all this devotion and zeal do me?"

"I'm not dead yet," is the only answer to that.

clara said...

Eric,
Don't go out and sell your bike just yet. Instead, next time you want to ride your bike, offer as a sacrifice, not riding. Do something good for someone else and offer that up to God. There is no sin in having fun, but we can pray with our body by giving up something we enjoy to further the kingdom of God. It can be a source of pride to make big sacrifices that everyone can see and think that is holiness. It is sometimes more difficult to sacrifice little things that only God can see. It doesn't take long to realize how attached we are to the insignificant details of life.
clara