Christian Idolatry and Reality

Arnold Neumaier

Christianity is available in many brands, and some of them actually turn lots of people into the kind of narrow-minded, stifled personalities many people think the Christian God requires us to be.

I am very sad to have to say so, because this is not how it should be, and correctly understood and taught, the Gospel is an eye-opening, dynamic message that brings out the best from within people, and frees them to a more satisfying, more creative and more socially useful life.

Forcing people into a religious mold is far away from what God wants; he wouldn't have created people so diversely if diversity wasn't one of his objectives. In fact much of what goes under the heading of religion is nothing else than idolatry.

Idolatry is literally the worship of images, but it is most profitably interpreted with the more general meaning of worshipping dead things of any kind, including treating certain forms of religious life as more essential than God whom they should point to. This is, in the spirit of the prophets, the real idolatry (Is. 1:11). In ancient times (and still sometimes today), it took the dominant form of worshipping graven images, but this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Idolatry, the worship of religious forms, turns life into spiritual death. Jesus said, ``a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God'' (John 16:2). This happened often literally, and even more often spiritually. I am ashamed of much of public (and less public) Christianity because it is an offence to our Lord.

Jesus also said, ``I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm - neither hot nor cold - I am about to spit you out of my mouth.'' (Rev. 3:15-16)

So one is right to be cold and turn away from the idolatry that has the appearence of Christianity but is in fact a devil's trap. Jesus is approving of such a step in as far as one has become more genuine.

But one should not stop there but continue to search until one finds the real thing: the living God, who is worth all our worship (Matth. 13:44-45).

Having grown up in a Christian family, I became an atheist at about the age of 17, because what I saw of Christianity was not the Good News the Gospel was supposed to be. Turning away from my parent's faith was a healthy step at that time, but it was not to be the last one.

With 25, I had a wrecked marriage, and I knew that I didn't have enough love and strength to live according to my own humanistic ideals. I was reading the New Testament again, not by the rules of a bible club or anyone who told me how I'd have to understand it, but just as a book about people of old times, where one of them, Jesus, was depicted as a man successful in the art of loving, in the area where I had failed most, in spite of my sincere attempts.

I wanted to learn from Jesus, not dogma but the secret of his success, the art of leading a loving life, and I studied his character, his way of acting, his source of strength, etc., and that of the other people in the book. And this was a most interesting thing to do. I learned to observe more closely myself and others, to read between the lines of books and of people, and, to my great surprise, I discovered a God that was real, a god who had the power to change my whole outlook and philosophy, who was a source of strength and comfort in all my struggles for a genuine and loving life.

It took me a few years to resolve all the ambiguities of the biblical and sometimes conflicting Christian traditions, and to find a basis that was in harmony with my scientific education and scientific way of thinking. (I am a professor with a chair in computational mathematics.)

Now I'd never like to change back again - submitting to the real, living and loving God was the best decision I ever made. And now I understand my parents much better why they were Christians, though stricken within their own limitations.

Avoiding Idolatry

It takes some effort not to idolize traditions intended to be a helpful guide on the spiritual journey and not to let them become ends in themselves that kill your friendship with God and give you the appearence of godliness without its power (2 Tim. 3:5). You need to take care that you remain real in your relationship with God, and that God remains your passion, not prayer, the church, the bible, or spiritual exercises.

Learn by praying, by asking Christians, by reading the bible and by doing exercises, but learn the right way. The constructive questions to be asked while reading the bible (or while discussiong with friends) are like the following: ``How must this or that be understood in order that it is in agreement with reality as I know it?'' and ``What hints does this or that give me to allow me to see beyond reality as it seems to be, in areas where I perceive a need to grow?'' And the results are very rewarding.

Have you realized the freedom that the apostle Paul is talking about in 1 Cor. 6:12 (and 10:23-24): ``Everything is permitted to me, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permitted to me, but nothing shall enslave me. Everything is permitted to me, but not everything is constructive.'' And the Council of the apostles in Jerusalem confirms in Acts 15:28: ``It seemed good to the holy spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond [a few things offensive to everyone at that time].'' And Paul emphasizes at another place: ``Why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience?'' (1 Cor. 10:29)

All that counts is that you learn true communication with God so that you recognize what he wants you to do, and that you get the desire and the inner strength to actually do it. Yes, God will be your judge, but he is a loving judge helping you to grow into a person that will be a joy to yourself, to others, and to God.

It also requires care not to force onto others spiritual exercises that you found rewarding for yourself. Give advice as you would have liked to get it (Matth. 7:12), but also give the same freedom that Christ has given you (Luke 6:38). ``Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.'' (Rom. 14:4)

Then the Christians you are responsible for will grow into healthy children of God, living letters from Christ, walking sermons of His love.

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Arnold Neumaier (