Friday, June 19, 2009

Christian idolatry

I believe Christianity has made an idol of Jesus Christ. When most Christians pray, they do not distinguish between Jesus and the highest value of the universe, what we call God. Idolatry substitutes an image of God for God, and this describes the worship and belief of most Christians. Serious theology does not teach that God is the same as Jesus or that God is just a great, great, great man, but can anybody tell the difference when most Christians are praying?

We can relate to God in a personal way—I do it regularly—but we must know that God is not a mere humanlike individual. I like what New Testament scholar S. Sandra Schneiders says,
God is our father and God is not our father; God is our mother and God is not our mother. If we forget the “is not,” then we create an idol—that is, we make God into the image of a creature.
This idolatry is what Christianity allows in its prayers. It's not what Jesus of Nazareth wanted.


February 10, 2011.

Last evening someone called to thank me for my letter in the National Catholic Reporter. I hadn’t read as far as the letters in the February 4th issue and had forgotten that I wrote it. Upon reading it, I decided it serves well as my confession of faith. Because it's not available at NCRonline, I include parts here and invite readers to see if they, like the caller, believe as I do.

Unless Christians can transcend literal interpretations of our myths and symbols, we will continue to collide with other ways of imagining the spiritual realm and eventually become obsolete.
I do not believe Jesus is uniquely divine or that the God-image “Jesus Christ” is better than God-images in other religions. At Mass I don’t recite the Creed because I don’t believe it literally and, to preserve my integrity, I need to make an outward sign of that. As I watch others in church mouth the words, I pick out those who probably understand them symbolically as I do.

The Incarnation does not refer uniquely and exclusively to one man named Jesus; it refers to all humans as well as to the entire universe. The spiritual master Jesus talked about the reign of God, the realm of Spirit, not an exclusive kingdom ruled by a lord. Each of us is incarnated—spirit becoming flesh or spiritual soul living within a body. The Incarnation is about Spirit over, underneath, within, and through the physical universe; it is not about worshiping a certain man.


Christian idolatry January 30, 2012
It took guts to write this title. I was surprised to find the title in my old posts. Amazing.
A friend asked me if I remember when I started thinking that Jesus is not God.

As a child I sought closeness to God, never to Jesus, because Jesus was just a man. In a vague way I knew that God was infinitely greater than the man Jesus. This was not a clear thought; I simply didn’t pray to Jesus.
A college friend told me I used to say in college, "God is not just a man!" Fr. Jerome Theisen (later Abbot Theisen) taught us theology in our senior year and introduced us to historical-critical research on the Bible. That started my serious questioning.

A few years after college I left the church and tried being an atheist, but I noticed that anything about religion or Catholics held intense interest for me. In the ‘70s I read Teilhard de Chardin and Jung, who fed me delicious and wholesome spiritual food, whetting my appetite for more.

In 1980 I joined Al-Anon and its concept of the Higher Power opened a new vista of revelation. Out flew atheism, which never had satisfied my spiritual yearnings, but my brief sojourn in atheism gives me understanding and sympathy for atheists, most of whom reject religion out of a spiritual sensibility.

After 1980 I read fiercely in women's theology and liberation theology. By the time I landed in the School of Theology in 1986 (obviously arranged by my Higher Power, but that’s another story), I had a pretty good idea of Christian myth and everything else I've been articulating since then. The work of articulating is hard, not so much the realizations—they come unbidden.

Giving up the god Jesus was no big deal for me, but I saw others struggle with it. I value the confession of one, who said that a theologian told her very few Catholic theologians believe Jesus is God.

One reason for the religious ferment in our Christian culture is growing realization that Jesus is not God. It could soften the blow to see Jesus as a God-image and a symbol of Divinity. He has become a mythic image who, indeed, can lead us to God.
But we should be aware that much Christian language leads to idolatry, which substitutes an idol for God—the inexpressible reality that is more than any particular image or idea.

February 6
My "Christian idolatry" post generated many reactions, almost all positive. Next time, my reply to a person disturbed by it. This time, a positive response that expresses the feelings of many Catholics and other mainstream Christians I meet. Jean gives permission to quote her.
I think I have been wanting to find out that exact information about you for a long time.  It was, "Wow!  That is what I have been wondering!"  You managed to be very succinct in your answer, and that is not an easy task given the subject matter.

It is very hard for me to admit that I don't think Jesus is God.  That seems like going against the very essence of Christianity.  I try to believe in the Trinity and yet it is like believing in three gods.  I so admire Jesus the man and I do believe he is in heaven on an elevated plane. (I better check your blog to see what you have to say about heaven.)  My husband and I go to Mass just about every Sunday.  We have a church and a pastor which we are comfortable with most of the time.  We consider ourselves "cafeteria Catholics."   

Although I love your book I have never been able to definitively say "Jesus is not God."  When I pray, however, it is to God the Father/Mother most of the time.  Since there are so many gospel stories of Jesus the healer I often think of this as I pray for healing for someone or myself. 

Your faith journey was meticulously researched.  I have allowed mine to remain inconclusive.  This way I can attend Mass while knowing that I believe women should be priests and also hold on to my pro-choice stance.   I do admire your intellect, your courage and your fervor.  I am so glad that your blog will be made into a book.
                        Jean
Jean speaks for thoughtful Christians who in their maturity abandon childish beliefs but don’t abandon God or even their religion (although many do that too). They don’t join the ranks of atheists because their religious training, despite its teaching of incredible myths, fills a need, and they realize that not all religious talk is nonsense. A deeper Truth, a spiritual Presence abides in the innermost recess of religious myth.

They continue as cafeteria Catholics or, I suppose, cafeteria Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, etc. but church talk leaves their questions unanswered.  These are the people for whom I write; they have a need I try to fill. There are theologians who can answer their questions but the official church suppresses such voices.
I suggested to Jean that admitting our true beliefs seems like gays coming out. She replied,
That's funny!  You are right, it is like coming out of the closet.
A lesbian to whom I once said this, agreed that, in our culture, a Catholic coming out to disavow belief in Jesus’ uniquely divine status could be more difficult than for gay people to come out.

Next time: more follow-up to “Christian idolatry.” 

February 16
I write this to a former instructor at the School of Theology who is sorry I call myself Catholic but don’t relate to Jesus as God.
Dear _____, To say I don't believe Jesus is God does not adequately explain my belief. From p. 4 of God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky:
       I do not regard Jesus of Nazareth as essentially or structurally more divine than the rest of creation. . . . Divinity resided in Jesus as it does in all human persons—and squirrels and rocks and thistles and the entire universe . . .
So I disagree slightly with biblical scholar Robert Funk, who stated,
            We should give Jesus a demotion. It is no longer credible to think of Jesus as divine. Jesus' divinity goes together with the old theistic way of thinking about God.
I do believe Jesus is divine, but I am also an atheist in the sense that I do not worship an external God-image. God is not an individual alongside other individuals. To worship such an individual is the “theistic way” to which Funk refers. Buddhists also are atheists in this sense and, although he would never have claimed the title “atheist,” so was Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, because this esteemed 20th century thinker stated that God is not an individual alongside the other individuals in the universe.
Typical Christian teaching promotes the idea that God is an individual. I saw this in the Sunday Visitor:
            One of the truths that reason can discover is that God is a person, and the central claim of the Bible is that this person has not remained utterly hidden but has, indeed, spoken.
Rahner would disagree, and so do I. What Catholics are forced to hear and recite at Mass reinforces the idea that God is merely a humanlike person or set of persons—three guys in the sky.

At some phase in my spiritual quest—it might have been at the School of Theology—someone told us about Rahner’s statement. Immediately it rang in me, and later I saw that it could unite atheists with spiritual seekers, especially science-loving thinkers.
            Later I found Rahner’s full explication of the insight in his Foundations of Christian Faith, but being Rahner, he is difficult to understand.
             The mysterious and the incomprehensible . . . can never be defined by being distinguished from something else. For that would be to objectify it, to understand it as one object among other objects, and to define it conceptually.
            Indeed, we must express it as something distinct from everything else . . . God is the absolute reality, the original ground and the ultimate term of transcendence. This is the element of truth in pantheism. . . .
            [God is not] one individual object alongside others.
So then, what or who is God? God is nothing, the nothing out of which come all things. Hindus and Buddhists speak about the Vastness, the Void. Westerners talk about Mind or Consciousness.

I know. It’s hard to think about such abstractions. The simple human impulse is to just worship someone and let it go at that. And just obey religious authority without figuring things out for ourselves. And worshipping Jesus comes so naturally to Christians; all our God-talk directs us to it.

This last disturbs me greatly. I understand that religion teachers cannot explain the insights of Karl Rahner to people in the pews, but there’s no excuse for church authority forcing people to recite words that train them to believe falsehoods. As I argue in my Sermon to priests, prayers to Lord/Father/He/Him/His train minds to accept as normal the unequal treatment of the sexes. Indirectly it promotes sex abuse by making the subordination of females seem right and proper.

The man Jesus was turned into a mythic Jesus, a god, an external object I cannot worship, but I revere the extraordinary spiritual master for the wisdom of his teachings. My beliefs differ, not from theology, but from typical Christian preaching:
• Yes, God walked on earth two thousand years ago, but God walks on earth no less today.

• Yes, Jesus was an incarnation of God. No, he was not the ONLY incarnation in human history, not the once-and-for-all event changing everything for all time.

• Yes, Jesus had a particular mission. No, he did not found Christianity.

• Yes, Jesus had an intimate relationship with the Mystery we call God. No, the universe was not qualitatively changed at his conception.

• Yes, Jesus’ suffering and death contributed to universal salvation. No, his was not the ONLY salvific suffering and death.

• Yes, Jesus had uncommon wisdom, strength, and character. No, his perfection did not surpass human perfection.

• Yes, it is helpful to relate to a living Jesus. No, he is not the only door to salvation and not the final, definitive revelation of God for all time. He is one legitimate God-image, not the best or only one.

 Was Jesus the most perfect human being who ever lived? What does it matter? This is another empty and insupportable claim of Christians to supremacy. Let us give up this triumphalist attitude. It is enough that, in the West, Jesus is the most accessible great figure of antiquity to inspire right living for us. Instead of clinging to a belief that limits Incarnation to one specific man, we could use a phrase that comes out of scripture—the Body of Christ, of which we are all members.   

11 comments:

Florian said...

I know that you have mentioned before that my comments can be repetitious, and you say that is why you don't bother to post them again and again. But, you know, your posts are also repetitious. I guess that, after a while, one runs out of new things to say about your book.

Your first sentence is, "I believe Christianity has made an idol of Jesus." We know that; you have said that many times before. So, I may repeat comments that I have made before.

The second sentence is, "When most Christians pray, they do not distinguish between Jesus and the highest value of the universe, what we call God." Actually, I contend that most Christians do distinguish between Jesus and God.

Christians who are children, or who are rather uneducated, or who are new converts who still have much to learn about Christianity, may fail to grasp the doctrine that Jesus is God. This is because neophytes spontaneously attach different meanings to these two words "Jesus" and "God". The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus has to be learned; we can't expect it to be accepted spontaneously.

As for the educated Christians, like theologians, they also distinguish between Jesus and God. Though they will accept that Jesus is divine, they will also say that Jesus is but one divine person, and God, or "the divine", is the nature in which all the divine persons participate, not just Jesus. And that nature is the Trinity which all three divine persons are a part of.

Yes, "idolatry substitutes an image of God for God", as you say in your third sentence. But Christians believe that Jesus IS God, not just a God-image; and that is how they get around the charge of idolatry. Creed-believing Christians would find your premise that Jesus is just a God image to be question begging.

In the fourth sentence you say, "Serious theology does not teach that God is the same as Jesus..." This is true technically. But serious theology does teach that Jesus is God.

Or do you mean that "serious theology" does not even teach that Jesus is God? That is false. Of course, there are "serious" theologians who teach the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus. You can say that such theologians are incorrect; but it is an insult to say that they are not being serious. They are dead serious about their views on doctrine. Liberal theologians who can't take Christian doctrine seriously are actually the ones who are not being "serious" theologians. (I'll give you one name from SOT who does take the doctrine of Jesus' divinity seriously: Miguel Diaz.)

As for God as personal, it is axiomatic in Christianity that God is a personal God. This is because God is a person. This is literally true; this is not metaphor. True, God is a divine person, not merely a human person, so we are not saying that God is a mere humanlike individual. But we do not need to relegate the personhood of God to metaphor in order to avoid idolizing God as a humanlike individual.

You speak of forgetting the "is not". But I think you have forgotten the "is", or rather, you have misconstrued it, regarding it as meaning "is metaphorically". S. Sandra Schneider does indeed say, "God is our father" (as well as "not our father"). She does not say,"God is only metaphorically our father." Jesus never said that either. Nor did Jesus say that God is not our father. He said that God is our father; and there is no question that Jesus took the fatherhood of God very seriously.

So who are you to say,"It's not what Jesus of Nazareth wanted" as you say in your last sentence? Even scholars don't agree about what Jesus really thought concerning many issues. You should have used the verb you used in your first sentence: believe. Say, "I don't believe that is what Jesus wanted." In that way, you are indicating that you are offering an opinion. Too often, you try to sell your opinions as if they were verified historical facts.

Jeanette said...

First correction: This is the very first time I have ever written, "I believe Christianity has made an idol of Jesus."

“God, or ‘the divine’, is the nature in which all the divine persons participate, not just Jesus.” ---Excellent. Correct.
Divinity inhabits the whole universe. Any particular human—Jesus, for instance—who manifests divinity so well that she or he becomes a God-image must not be substituted for God or take the place of God in prayer. Such a substitution is idolatry. To use Schneiders’ words, it forgets the “is not.”

“God is a person.” ---Incorrect. Trinitarian theologian Catherine LaCugna explains that God is personal as well as impersonal, but the Divine is not merely a person or set of persons. And Karl Rahner’s states that God is not an individual. Their theological insights match well with mystics' experience of union with the Divine.

I have not examined Miguel Diaz’s works but am confident he would not disagree with LaCugna.

“She does not say, ‘God is only metaphorically our father.’” ---Incorrect. I quote Schneiders: “All our language of God is metaphorical.”

“. . . you are offering an opinion. Too often, you try to sell your opinions as if they were verified historical facts.” ---I suggest you take your own advice.

Florian said...

"Any particular human—Jesus, for instance—who manifests divinity so well that she or he becomes a God-image must not be substituted for God or take the place of God in prayer. Such a substitution is idolatry."
Again, this is question begging. It assumes that Jesus is merely human.

Florian said...

If Catherine LaCugna says that "God is personal", then how are we so confident that she would disagree with the statement,"God is a person"? Do you still have hang-ups over these indefinite articles? I have already explained to you before that God is AN entity, which, if personal, then it's perfectly reasonable to say that God is A person.

The only problem I see with the statement "God is a person" is that the indefinite article derives from the word "one", and so the statement might seem to deny the Trinity, i.e. there are three divine persons, not just one.

I seem to remember Miguel Diaz using the slogan, "God exists hypostatically," that is, exists by being a person. Which of the three persons? It doesn't matter because each of the divine persons is God. If I understand the slogan right, then by "existing hypostatically", God is being a person.

Of course, God is being a person in a mysterious way: by being a person in communion with other persons, namely the other persons in the Trinity. The persons can't be solitary, separate from the others, otherwise the the Trinity would be a set of three individual entities; but no theologian says that's what the Trinity is. The Trinity is one entity; one God, not three.

Any impersonal-ness of God would have to be embedded in the triune personhood of God in some mysterious way, and in such a way that it takes nothing away from the idea that God must exist hypostatically, as a person in community with persons. God is by nature a trinity of persons. If God were not being a person, or "hypostasizing", God could not exist.

Needless to say, Trinitarian theology is not simple. I suspect that you often miss the import what people like LaCugna or Diaz or Rahner are actually trying to say. Certainly, it isn't their primary intention to give credence to things like Eastern mysticism.

Florian said...

If Schneider says that all of our God-language is metaphorical, then I will simply have to denounce her as being incorrect. Actually, I don't have to denounce her; I can prove that she is incorrect. Consider the statement, “God exists.” If all God-language is metaphor, then that statement means that God can only exist metaphorically and so does not exist really. That is the logical conclusion of all of this “all God-language is metaphor” baloney. And, indeed, I have noticed that you yourself have come to that conclusion that God does not really exist and so you are technically an atheist.

The reasonable alternative to the extreme position of all of our God-language being metaphor is the postion of Thomas Aquinas that the best way we can speak of God is the analogical way. Even God's existing is only analogically similar to the existence of other things, but it is nevertheless a real existing. So what Thomas means by “analogy” is not "metaphor”.

Have you done your homework and studied the doctrine of analogy, like I told you to do over a year ago now? I am not asking this just to be funny. Any theologian would be dismissed as a rather uneducated if he/she studied God-language but never heard of the doctrine of analogy. You must have heard of it before... yet you never comment on it.

Jeanette said...

That God-language is metaphorical is a common assertion by theologians, not a singular statement by Sandra Schneiders. One doesn’t do theology with scientific language. All God-talk, all language describing unseen reality is figurative—an elementary theological concept. It’s the reason we’re often told that the Bible is poetry. “God exists” does not describe God; that’s the difference.

My chapter “The Role of Myth” in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky explains further.

. . . how are we so confident that she would disagree with the statement,"God is a person"? Because she explicitly states it in a quotation I don’t have in hand—I’ll have to find the writing again.

If I understand the slogan right, then by "existing hypostatically", God is being a person.” You don’t understand it right. I see much to explain and will do so in future posts. “Hypostatic union” and “person” plus other terms need explaining.

Evelyn A. Guggisberg said...

To say that Christianity has made an idol of Jesus Christ, really makes no sense since Jesus Christ is God & Scripture makes that so very, very clear in so many, many ways, too numerous to even begin to mention. But to mention one, Jesus said, "Before Abraham came to be I AM."
There is a difference between between the 3 distinct persons of the Trinity...All of whom are God. Christians do distinguish between all 3 persons. We pray the Our Father for example. We say prayers to the Holy Spirit, & we give Jesus His worship that is due Him, as our Saviour who the Father sent to us out of His Love for us.
Jesus of Nazareth knew who He "is", even though you, unfortunately do not & He does want our worship of Him as well as the Father & the Holy Spirit. Jesus is even offended by those who do not accept Him as Lord & Saviour.
Evelyn A. Guggisberg

Kathleen said...

This was an interesting exchange between Florian and Jeanette. I am certain that at some point the two of them will have to agree to disagree. It seems Florian is intent on "teaching" Jeanette as if she were a schoolchild, i.e., "Have you done your homework...like I told you to do...?" Florian is following and defending his faith and long held beliefs. Many feel that is admirable, but I am certain that Jeanette is not going to give up her theological research either or defending her faith and beliefs either.

Leading contemporary scholars on the Historical Jesus bring the disciplines of anthropology, history and archeology to bear in reconstructing life in the decades of the 30's and 40's AD. So much of what was passed on by word of mouth or fabricated, we now know because of our cosmology and science was false and we use our intellect to know that what was impossible to imagine years ago. Today, the questions may be more important than the answers. We know now that many of the "truths" we were given were perhaps needed for a particular historical biblical period, but are no longer relevant today. (If the husband dies, his brother doesn't have to marry his widow to produce children, etc.)

The references to G-D, the Divine Mystery or the Creator are all language terms that are still lacking because they are human-sourced and we cannot speak of that which defies even our contemplation.

Anonymous said...

Everyone of course has their own insights. I am glad that practice of compassion is the most important, and that as theology goes sometimes we agree to disagree.

Evelyn A. Guggisberg said...

Kathleen says that "Florian is intent on "teaching" Jeanette as if she were a schoolchild,"
We should never come to the point of feeling that we have arrived & have nothing more to learn. That is pride. And when one professes beliefs that are contrary to Christianity & wants to publicly dialogue about those beliefs, I would have to say that the least one should do then, is to study the arguments that the opposition presents rather than just dismiss them as unimportant & not even look at them. To my way of thinking, not studying opposition viewpoints is just plain being dictatorial & even going against what Kathleen says is so very important & that is, asking the questions.
Kathleeen, I feel, is also much too dependant upon intellect to provide all of the answers or as she puts it, ask all the important questions. That again is a stumbling block since human intellect can be a source of too much pride which can stand in the way of faith in God. Scripture is the inspired Word of God which is relevant to ALL ages as God intended. Scripture is very relevant today whether people accept that or not and is dependant upon the Holy Spirit for proper interpretation who is also working through proper church authorities. I would have to say that intellectual pride is what would stand in the way of people accepting that Truth. There is such a thing as absolute Truth, whether people accept that or not.
Evelyn A. Guggisberg

Anders Branderud said...

Le-havdil, A logical analysis (found in www.netzarim.co.il (Netzarim.co.il is the website of the only legitimate Netzarim-group)) of all extant source documents and archeology proves that the historical Ribi Yehosuha ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) from Nazareth and his talmidim (apprentice-students), called the Netzarim, taught and lived Torah all of their lives; and that Netzarim and Christianity were always antithetical.

The original words of the pro-Torah teacher Ribi Yehoshua were redacted by Roman Hellenists, and the redaction is found in the “gospels”. J…. is described in the “gospels”, and le-havdil the teachings of the historical Torah-teacher Ribi Yehoshua from Nazareth are found in the reconstruction (using a logical and scientific methodology to create the reconstruction), Netzarim Hebrew Reconstruction of Hebrew Matityahu (NHM).

The historical Jew Ribi Yehoshua is not the same as the Christian "J...." The historical Ribi Yehoshua was a human.

He admonished his followers to pray to the Creator of this universe. To become one of his followers one must learn from www.netzarim.co.il

Anders Branderud