14 November 2014

Idolatry is Both Unavoidable and Must be Avoided!

[[Hi Sister Laurel! You wrote that "idolatry is a temptation and reality none of us [can avoid]. It strikes all of us." I don't think I have ever committed idolatry so could you say more about this? Oh, I wanted to say I am sorry about your computer. I hope you are getting it fixed! Thank you!]]

Important questions and objections! I am glad you asked. You may remember that I once gave an Advent homily: In What Story Will we Stand?. It referred to the capacity for story which is part and parcel of being human. More specifically it spoke of a place in our brains which is responsible for spinning stories. We are in search of meaning and are terrified by absurdity and chaos; a central piece of having a meaningful life or appreciating the meaningfulness of reality involves context. Most of the time the contexts we supply to events are forms of narrative or story. Stories are the way we supply the context which combats absurdity and chaos. They are the way we give ourselves a place to stand in a universe which might otherwise be frustrating, terrifying, and even a source of desolation or despair for us.

Human Beings as Storymaking and Storytelling Animals:

When a doctor makes a diagnosis, for instance, she will tell (or rehearse!) a story which wraps the symptoms up or makes sense of them in a neat and coherent way; it will be a story of anatomy and physiology, how x is working with y, how z has ceased to respond to w, how t has gone off on his own and is creating chaos, or v is entrapped by the inflammation of q, etc. But it will also have personal dimensions: "When patient x experienced y, the reason was z and she responded by doing a, b, and c --- only to find these were not helpful. Together we have to find a better approach to y." When a cosmologist or astrophysicist discovers a new particle or something like dark matter, they will invariably begin to work out a narrative or story of how this fits in the universe's own story. Theories are, in fact, good stories which fit the facts as we know them; they are most effective when they have room for the developments called for by new discoveries. No matter who we are or what field is involved we try without ceasing to make sense of things. In part this "making sense of things" is an act of discovery but in part it will also involve us in the creative act of story-telling as a part of this discovery process. Often it is in the process of working out the story that the discoveries are really made.

Theology is no different here. Moreover our religious quest for an ultimate meaning, our quest for a God who will make sense of everything and in whom everything will cohere (hold together) is simply a deeper form of the process described above for the physician or the cosmologist. (Insofar as cosmologists are in search of a grand unifying theory they echo the work of theologians who believe God is the ultimate reality which cosmologists pursue.) In any case, we are constantly taking the bits of revelation we have and spinning stories about God which, we sincerely hope, provide a theological context for what has been revealed. Similarly, we spin stories about ourselves, our universe, the nature of hope, justice, and any number of other things which lead to a more or less consistent worldview glimpsed through the lens of this revelation. Systematic theologians do this in a formal, educated, and conscious way by relating the pieces of revelation (and thus, of the faith) to one another as they search for and formulate a consistent framework in which all of the partial and disparate pieces of theological knowledge can mutually illuminate and make sense of one another. Moreover, we do this with our eyes on the Christ Event where we believe the fullest revelation of both divinity and humanity was made real among us. This event/person is the norm which challenges, contests, or confirms every piece of the theological narrative we create.

But, whether we have studied systematics or not we all do theology! We can't help it!! We do it every day whenever we draw conclusions about God or explain why something in our lives ultimately does or does not make sense. Agnostics do it when they question the consistency of religious beliefs or try to measure these against "objective reality". Atheists do it when they deny the existence of God! (That God does not exist is a theological assertion and atheism is a religious position.) There is no such thing as a naked, uncontextualized, uninterpreted, or completely anomalous  experience in our lives. We simply cannot leave things that way. It is too uncomfortable and anxiety provoking. We NEED to understand and that means we need interpretive contexts which make sense of things, first smaller or more immediate ones, and gradually more and more ultimate ones. If I am in pain, for instance, I immediately explain it (" Ah, must be tension; it's a passing thing. No problem!) and determine how to stop it; less immediately, especially if the pain returns or is not eased, I try to find answers and solutions from professionals. Especially my concern here is what I can do to avoid or minimize the pain in the future, what can I do to function normally and live fully? Eventually with ongoing or chronic pain my questions become more ultimate ones: I wonder what it says about me, how it will affect my life; I want to know why this has happened to me, what has God to do with it, is it the way things are meant to be and if not why are they this way, etc etc. Bit by bit, in my ongoing grappling with this problem or experience, I build a personal theology of suffering, a theodicy if you will.

Similarly, if something good happens to us we spin a narrative explaining that. Our "story" will reflect on the universe, on our worthiness or unworthiness for this good thing, on the place of God in this good thing, etc, etc. Wherever there are gaps in our understanding, wherever we are restless and feel incomplete, we will search for answers AND we will spin stories (e.g., theories, hypotheses, theologies, philosophies) to provide meaning, understanding, and intellectual and emotional rest. This does not mean there are no answers and we have to make them up; it does not mean that these explanations or narratives are necessarily fictions (much less complete ones!) or some sort of "opiate" for the merely insecure. It means rather that we open ourselves to the One who is the ultimate answer via these stories. We hold these stories lightly allowing God to change and expand them as they need to be changed and expanded. They are vehicles through which we pose the question of our existence and attend to the answer to that question. When these explanations harden into certainties which cannot be changed by new more ultimate revelations of Godself, certainties we grasp at in spite of these revelations, then we are in trouble. It is here that idolatry becomes particularly problematical.

The Place of Idolatry in all of this:

Our own incompleteness, our yearning for an ultimate story in which we can rest, an ultimate narrative in which everything in our lives is rendered meaningful and coherent coupled with our innate tendency to spin stories which give us temporary rest even as we search for something more final is the source of both our openness to God's own revelation of Godself, and our daily acts of idolatry. There is the additional fact that everything we say and think about God is entirely inadequate, always partial, and often downright wrong. Theologians know they are on the verge of committing heresy and betraying the very God they so love and serve with every word they write, every theological conclusion they come to, and so forth.

When I was first studying theology as an undergraduate I had a professor who allowed us to take a theological position and explore it by arguing for it as fully and convincingly as we could. He did this again and again through the years I studied with him (I also did most of my MA work under him). We held a position until we clearly saw its defects (usually because of the counter position someone else assumed) and then we took up another one --- often one which exaggerated its move away from the distortion or defects in the earlier one just like all heresies tend to do --- and the same process occurred. What my teacher was doing was a kind of recapitulation of the history of heresy and of theological and doctrinal development. We would fall into an heretical position until we understood it from the inside out and then, in correcting the heresy, innocently fall into another one and so forth. Over time we adopted more and less sound theological positions which made pastoral sense but were measured against the norms (and especially the norma normans non normata) of theology as well. We came to understand the history of theological thought, the development of doctrine and dogma, and the nature of heresy as well as specific heresies per se pretty well in all of this.

But we also came to understand very clearly that every position a theologian adopts and argues is inadequate to a transcendent and ineffable God. That simply cannot be avoided. Our language is inadequate, our categories of thought and our understanding is inadequate, even our sense of the questions which human beings pose (and are), the questions which give rise to theology and the articulation of the ultimate answer which is God are partial and more or less inadequate. The images of God we draw or conceive are, to one degree or another, idols. This is always and everywhere true. They must always be submitted to the norm which is the Christ Event for correction, and they must be held lightly in a way which is open to clarification or restatement, correction, challenge, and purification. God is always greater than anything we can conceive. The prayer of the theologian is always, "God forgive us our theology, perhaps our theology most of all!"

What is true of trained theologians is even truer of the rest of us who naturally and often unthinkingly carve out theologies every day of our lives. Is someone we know suffering? We spin a story, a theology in fact (the technical word for this kind of theology is theodicy), which explains and makes sense of it. Is our world chaotic? We spin a theological answer to explain it. Does something happen which seems unfair? Again, the reason we tell ourselves to explain the presence of injustice is a theological narrative, whether that is explicit or merely implicit. Are we aware of good things happening to us each day which are entirely undeserved? Once again the explanation we conceive is a theology (or at least a theological one). We may borrow bits of theology from those who lived before us, we may make these theologies up out of whole cloth (mistakenly thinking we have come up with something new!), but how ever we do it, we are idol-making factories because we are in search of and made for meaning. We are meant to be completed by and rest in the Ground of Being and Meaning we call God and until we do, we naturally work to make it true. This is the source of sin and to the extent it causes us to theologize endlessly about a God we can never truly comprehend, it is also the source of idolatry.

The Forms Idolatry Can Take:

Thus, I am not necessarily speaking of idolatry as adopting or making golden calves we can worship. Usually idolatry is much more subtle (and so, more dangerous) than that! Anything in our lives which pretends to offer us a sense of rest and completion apart from God, any image of God which falls short of the whole truth but which we embrace with an ultimate concern, anything at all which takes the place of the real God in our lives is, at least potentially, an idol.

In the post I put up about a week ago I was thinking about a situation in which some truths about God had been distorted by human ideas of justice and perhaps more so by a tremendous need for meaning and yearning for a life of true significance. Our God is a God of justice; in loving us and our world he recreates these in his image, he perfects them, completes them, and raises them to new and abundant life, significant life. He loves them into wholeness and makes them to be all they are meant to be. This is the very nature of Divine justice. To substitute distributive or retributive justice for the love that does justice by freely and mercifully recreating things is a serious theological error which substitutes an idol for the real God. Similarly, to take a theology of divine sovereignty and conclude that God wills us to be miserable or live less than fully human lives, to suggest or affirm that God authors or is the architect of the misfortune and tragedy in our lives. is to believe in an idol. Moreover, to adopt a piety which calls sadism love and cruelty justice may make one unable to hear the Gospel message of gratuitous love. When this occurs the enmeshment involved may rise to the level of unforgiveable sin, again, not because God will not forgive this, but because he has been shut out and made incapable of effectively forgiving (healing) it.

While idolatry is unavoidable it must be avoided (or, better said, perhaps, since we can't avoid it we must be rescued from it). That only occurs when we allow God to be God within our lives, when we let the God of life and love reveal Godself on his own terms and to do so again and again every single day! Our faith involves knowing but even more it involves being known. The cure for idolatry is a faith which is really an openness to being grasped and shaken by the eternal and always new and surprising God. This will involve us in attending to the spirits at work in our own lives. Do they make us deeply and truly happy, whole, and alive? Then they are good spirits even if they cause a bit of discomfort in the process. Do they make us miserable, less open to love, more concerned about the preciousness and meaningfulness of our own lives? Do they lead us to partial images of God which speak of his justice as retributive or distributive for instance? Then they are "bad spirits".

The dynamic of theology is one of searching and openness --- we are open to having our theologies informed and changed by the real God, our certainties made uncertain and questionable by God's own truth. We keep our eyes on the cross of Christ because it is there that the deepest truth of ourselves, our capacity for idolatry and the cruelty, intolerance, homicide and Deicide associated with our incompleteness and terrible insecurity (as well as our idolatry!) are revealed. Similarly it is here that our capacity for sacrificial love and real obedience to God are most clearly revealed. Of course, it is also the events of the Cross which reveal the humbling depth of God's unconditional, gratuitous Love, and so, the very nature of God as Love-in-Act. God's own Self and presence is the only sure solution to idolatry. God must be allowed to bring us to rest in Godself. When that occurs our searching is really at an end, and so too is any grasping at false (or partial) gods, any profound unhappiness, any incapacity to love others, any fear that our lives are wasted or senseless, etc. These are also part of what we call the fullness of redemption.