Whether Metal or Mental

. . .it is just as much idolatry to worship God according to a false mental image as by means of a false metal image. (William Temple, Christian Faith and Life, p. 24)

Last week, while thinking about Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, I had a few words about idolatry. The quote from Temple came to mind, but I wanted to make sure I got his exact words before I wrote about it.

Earlier, I said that it seems to me that we’ve made the Christian religion itself an idol–we are more tied up with what we believe is the only correct interpretation of God that we might be worshipping that interpretation, rather than God. Our ultimate concern becomes protecting our verbal formulations, liturgies, traditions, even something as ephemeral as preferences for particular types of worship style.

I think Temple captures exactly what I’m feeling about this. Even as we are careful to say that all our ecclesial imagery–sculpture, icons, stained glass–are not things we “worship”, but are aids to prayer and meditation, we’re not so careful about making our words into the mental idols against which he warns.

We get ideas about what church is supposed to be, and think it is the only way to be a part of a spiritual tradition. We decide our way of interpreting scripture is the only way it can be read (this is, I’m convinced, a mistake Jesus did not make). We hear, or make, theological pronouncements, and somehow get the idea that they are somehow immutable.

Our mental images–our words about Christian belief–are, like our statuary and iconography and stained glass, aids to reflection and action. Nothing more. There is really nothing immutable about them. They are not ultimate. Even the historic creeds, to which most Christian denominations require assent, are no more than expedient ways of attempting to express what Christians believe. They are not exhaustive or exclusive. They have endured because they have been shown to be useful throughout the centuries, but they always require reflection and critique.

When we put things out of bounds for reflection and critique, they become those idolatrous mental images. Whether that means scripture, creeds, sacraments, or church structures, anything that cannot be questioned is in danger of becoming an idol.

Theologians and church leaders are in particular danger of this, I think. We get in love with our own words, or with the words of the talented (and sometimes authoritative) thinkers whose work we study and admire.

While I was in seminary, a wise professor gave me a list of questions I should pose when reading a theological text (and I include scripture in that). Some of the inclusions are:

1. What is the problem that the writer is addressing?
2. What answer does the writer give?
3. What are some alternatives, and why were they not chosen?
4. What is problematic now about the writer’s conclusions?
5. What is enduring?

This is a starting point, and I’m sure much more could be included in proper theological investigation. However, I’m convinced that any verbal formulation that cannot stand up at least to this minimal scrutiny, if we insist on its continued use, puts us at risk of mistaking an unworthy and potentially damaging mental image for what is ultimate.

And that might be more dangerous than worshipping any golden calf.

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