The Idol of Christianity

Another LinkedIn conversation, another reason to heave a heavy sigh. . .

Supposedly good Christian people are condemning Islam in all its complexity as “of Satan.” It is meant to “deceive” and lead people away from Christ. Once again, if you are not a conventionally-churchgoing Christian, you are of the lost, the damned.

I have a bit of trouble with this. I think Tillich would agree. As I wrapped up my reading of Dynamics of Faith, I came to this utterly stunning quote (which I’m surprised hadn’t stayed with me for the last 20 years):

Doctrinal formulations did not divide the churches in the Reformation period; it was the rediscovery of the principle that no church has the right to put itself in the place of the ultimate. (p. 96)

It should be completely self-evident, but apparently, we are very happy to claim that if one is not “Christian” (and even the “right kind” of Christian, which usually means “my denomination”), one does not share a vision of what Tillich calls “ultimate concern”. Which is rather ridiculous, because to be human means to have such an ultimate concern. This can often be unmaksed as something less than ultimate, such as power, wealth, fame, social prestige. But every human being and social seems to have something that makes living worthwhile–and without which, would find death preferable.

But the churches, whether Roman Catholicism (pre- or post-Reformation), or the various churches born of the Reformation, have always been happy to inform others of their own lack of ultimacy (i.e. idolatry)–whilst at the same time, setting themselves up as ultimate. No salvation outside the church, and all that. So long, of course, as it is my church outside of which you do not worship and believe. Christians can be just as bigoted about what is or is not “true religion” when they are comparing various churches as they can be about non-Christian belief systems.

There’s a special word for that kind of bigotry. It’s called idolatry, and anyone in the tradition of Jesus Christ has been given a rather stern warning about it–Exodus 20:4-5 about sums it up. It is, as Postman indicated, a transition from the pictorial imagination to only being allowed to use words to describe the most meaningful entities and concerns, to imagine what is beyond what we can see and touch.

Christianity is indeed a beautiful, noble religion–but Christianity as a religion is not ultimate. It is a path toward divinity, but it may mean that the god we set up for ourselves in a particular way of religiosity has to disappear for us to be in contact with that divinity.

I worry that loyalty to particular religious formulations may actually shield us from that happening. And my form is no less prone to that criticism than your form, or anyone else’s.

Spiritual insulation. Get cozy enough with a particular form of worship, and you can’t see the divine in any other form. And when you can’t see the divine, it probably means you can’t see the demonic either.

So, maybe setting institutional religiousness aside–or at least holding to it a bit less desperately–might be a way to stay spiritually sensitive to both the divine and the demonic.

Including religions with which we are less familiar than our own. Perhaps especially that.

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