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Idolatry

Unfortunately, it is scorn for others that often marks religion’s public face in America, leading me to suspect that one of the most popular idols around today is still the Pharisee’s prayer as recorded in the Gospel of Luke—when he prays, it’s to thank God that he is not like other people, who don’t go to church, or if they do, don’t say the right prayers. Idolatry in this sense is the original equal-opportunity employer, and anyone can play: the Protestant fundamentalist looks down on the mainstream one as not “really” Christian, the conservative Catholic despises the “cafeteria” one, the self-proclaimed spiritual seeker sneers, “You go to church? I find God in nature.” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, 1999 Riverhead, pg. 92)

Biblically speaking, idolatry is a pretty strong word. It doesn’t refer merely to worshiping created things (though it does refer to that), but perhaps especially to worshiping human concepts. “Idea” and “idol” share a root. Neither one is evil, of itself. Graven images and concepts are never dangerous of themselves. Always, always it is the use to which humans put them that comes to either good or ill. The created gods (Apollo, Thoth, etc.) are no more demonic than the Archangel Gabriel; studying their ways, the myths and stories about them, and the ideals for which they stood is a powerful experience, and God can speak to us through the created gods as well as (and more easily than) he can do through our fellow humans who often lack faith and put up obstacles to God’s grace.

Our human concepts are more harmful still, as they themselves are the obstacles we place between ourselves and grace. These ideas include the comparisons of which Kathleen Norris speaks. Since becoming a Christian, I have heard many times from my friends and acquaintances something along the lines of, “Church is so dead. I can find the Divine Force in the woods and flowers.” Before I was a Christian, I often heard, “God is beyond trees and rocks, not in them. Those of us who worship in a church can look past mere pantheism.” They both hate it, but they’re both right.

The religious life is not about dictating to one another where God can and can not be found, least of all telling God where he may or may not go. Instead, it is about gradually coming to the realization that God can be found anywhere if we are willing to open up to his Presence. It is best, of course, if we all begin where we most easily sense God’s Presence by temperament. For some people, it is the church in which they grew up, or at least a church or temple of the same religion or denomination. For my girlfriend (a Pagan) and I, we share a sense of the divine at our local botanical conservatory (Phipps Conservatory), the deep woods, fire spinning events, art and natural history museums, and Easter Vigil at her grandmother’s Byzantine Catholic parish. We are not limited to those places and times, but each have our own as well. We share meditation, but I also find God in the Bible, while she finds him instead in the act of creating art. Am I wrong for not finding God in drawing or painting? Perhaps I am, and maybe that will change as I try my hand more and more at those arts. Is she wrong for not finding God in the pages of the Bible? Certainly not, for reading the Bible is as much an art as writing poetry or drawing, and just like poetry and drawing it can require a lifetime from those not born with something of a knack.

Heaven and Earth are not coterminous, are not the same. They are also not separate. God’s dimension meshes with our own, combines with it, dances with it and unites with it in Love in an infinity of ways, many of which we cannot begin to guess or imagine. We must not blaspheme the Holy Spirit by trying to tame it, placing it in a box labeled “Christianity” or anything else, and claiming that God cannot minister with the Holy Spirit to those who have never heard the name of Christ or even those who have heard the Name and despise it. We will be forgiven our curses of the Son, our blasphemies against the Father, but if we live, think and speak in a way that says, “God cannot reach people of those religions,” we have set ourselves up for the fall of pride and have forgotten some of our most precious missions. The religious life is not about dictating to one another where God can and can not be found, but instead making of ourselves one of those place-time junctures wherein God dwells in our universe.

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