Wednesday, April 28, 2010

True Religion

In my experience, most religious practice is self-idolatrous. By this I mean to say that most actively religious people don't worship God but themselves.

This self-idolatry takes many forms, not least among them the invention of a God who is a essentially a grandiose version of oneself: warm, loving eyes; a wise beard; a dulcet voice, etc.

But self-idolatry takes far more destructive forms than God as Wonderful Man. Its most awful consequence is that it turns a person away from others and toward the self. Self-idolatry encourages us to worry about our salvation, to focus on our progress along the narrow path to God. This self-involvement, sanctified and promoted by our esteemed religious leaders (case in point: Joel Osteen), leads us to think that we are, in effect, the source of our own salvation—that our religious destiny is not primarily the salvation of others but the perfection of ourselves.

The most obvious symptom of this anti-religious self-involvement is the link that American Christianity (in basically all its iterations) makes between one's material prosperity and one's status in the eyes of God. If one is self-idolatrous, it makes perfect sense to obsess about one's own perfection. And in America, there is no perfection—perhaps there's no person—without money. We've become convinced that the way to become more god-like is to be prosperous: riches are proof of personal excellence. Thus one's religious life becomes, in effect, an ongoing act of self-promotion. Most religion today, at least in America, is nothing more than a life of material and spiritual onanism.

I know the onanism well. I practiced it through my adolescence and well into adulthood. No doubt I continue to practice it. The greatest benefit I received for my years of practice is that I know how to spot it, if not avoid it.

So the question presents itself: What's the fix to this pervasive self-idolatry, which goes (wrongly) by the name of "religion"?

Since writing "The Religious Catastrophe," I've enjoyed an email exchange with some family members, and they've asked me about my current idea of a truly religious life. By responding to them here, as I've promised to do, I'll likely give the impression that I actually have an answer that's fixed, or fully reasoned, or by which I live. That impression would be false. I don't know what I think. At most I know just what I've said, that self-idolatry is not religion.

Nevertheless, I will suggest a few tentative principles that strike me as reasonable. They arise primarily from the problematic but transcendent ideas set forth in Matthew 25, when Jesus takes the first great commandant—to love God—and the second great commandment—to love one's neighbor—and says, in effect: They are the same commandment. The only way that we have to love God is to love each other. More succinctly: Your neighbor IS GOD.

That principle—and all that it implies ethically, politically, spiritually, materially—is my religion. Experiencing that principle as a true description of who God is and how God exists is my idea of true religion.

So understanding what Jesus means by our "neighbor" becomes our most pressing religious problem. In my view, one's neighbors would include, of course, the illegal residents of Arizona. I'll restrain myself from yet another diatribe against contemporary American right-wing hate-mongering. It's enough to note that the attitude toward those unlike oneself that permeates this country is absolutely a symptom of self-idolatry. If we take Jesus at his word in Matthew 25, our present treatment of illegal aliens is not just unconstitutional but unethical—particularly if one claims to be Christian.

I'd like to see the bumper sticker: Illegal Aliens Are Jesus.

I'll close by recommending a book. I recently finished reading Saving God: Religion after Idolatry, by Mark Johnson, having bought it because I thought by it's title that I detected a kindred spirit. I was proved right. Saving God is sometimes painfully dense—by which I mean overburdened by highly specialized jargon—but reading it is worth the work. It very nicely describes our ongoing struggle with self-idolatry, the ways that ritualized and dogmatic religious attitudes prevent us from approaching God, and the ultimate truth of all religious searching, which is: You live among God; be kind.

Here is but one of many worthwhile passages from the book:
Idolatry [meaning, for instance, the display and worship of idols, the rituals and demands of the priesthood, promises of an after-life, and the threat of the Apocalypse] is, then, invariably the attempt to evade or ignore the demanding core of true religion: radical self-abandonment to the Divine as manifested in the turn toward others and toward objective reality. (24, my emphasis)
I provide that quote as a hint of what's to be found in this fascinating and carefully argued book.

It's also a hint of where I am these days, at least intellectually, still a follower myself, I'm sorry to say, of the religion of self-idolatry. But I'm a follower who hopes to turn from his foolish ways. And hope, as Prometheus knew, is what keeps us going.


  1. Well said. The ONLY command of Christ is to love one another. The church has spent generations building doctrines and buildings without regard to the people affected. It is a choice to lay down your life (by not selfishly insisting on your own way) and serve others.

  2. thats why im drawn to eastern religions.