Of late I’ve been reading John MacQuarrie’s tome Principles of Christian Theology. MacQuarrie, a Scotsman, and Anglican was a systematic theologian and taught for some years at the Union Theological Seminary in NYC. As theologians go, he is more readable than some for the lay reader.
I have found his take on sin quite interesting. He points out that much of Christian theology has gone off the road in its assignment of sin as individual for the most part. I’ve mentioned this before, that many of our churches spend an inordinate amount of time on personal salvation, and never get to the institutional sins we face.
MacQuarrie is four square with the idea that sin is both individual and communal. Along with that he claims that the worst sin of all is idolatry. Not in the sense that the average fundamentalist would define idolatry, but in many more senses, some of which we don’t think of.
So we are not talking about “other gods,” the bugaboo of so much of the first 1500 years of identifiable Hebrew/Israelite history. You remember, I’m sure, the constant refrain, “but X worshiped other gods and did what was evil in the sight of God.” Much of the Hebrew scriptures is in fact a constant refrain, of turning away, punishment, repentance, turning back to God, and then repeating the cycle.
We are talking about the “idols” we are more familiar with in the New Testament. Money of course comes to mind a good deal. Jesus uses the incident about the wealthy young man to illustrate that we can love God or we can love the personal world we have created. Not both. We can be wealthy, and love God, that is a very different thing. But our money must be seen as a means to an end, and the end is not our personal comfort and leisure. It is garnered for a higher end, the betterment of those in need.
We of course, can add power, position, fame, and tons of other substitutes for money. We can idolize beauty, or knowledge for itself. The list would be endless, limited only by the uniqueness of the human being.
What was funny, and a bit of a surprise is that MacQuarrie argues that atheists are idolaters. Their idol is humanity. They cannot, through the use of their senses, see God in creation, and so conclude he cannot exist, and that all that has been achieved in human history has been the direct and complete result of man’s actions alone. They have come thus to idolize themselves as the creator. In some haunty arrogance they pat themselves on the back and deny any other superhuman force can be at play.
He is also a firm believer that we should never over extend one of the natures of Jesus over the other. Both are essential and as human, MacQuarrie even suggests that Jesus at least at some points, sinned. Else, he could not be truly human. But, and this is an important but, when Jesus gave everything up on the cross, he gave up the last idol of all–the human ego. He surrendered all to the Father, and thus made perfect the modeling of humanity.
It is because of his utterly true and real humanity, that we have the opportunity to reach for Christ mantle. It is only because of his complete self-giving that we are shown the way to also strip ourselves of that which holds us back. We of course, never succeed completely. Not even the saints, the mystics, the desert fathers and mothers ever attained perfect self-giving. But we known the means of attaining it, and we can try again and again.
So, the answer to the question, “are you idolatrous” is a resounding yes. We all are. We are caught up in our own dramas. Yesterday I was reading the story of Jesus teaching in the temple in John’s gospel. Jesus spoke of the Father, and the Pharisees asked, “where is your father?”
I pondered that, and concluded, that my Father is in the neat box I’ve constructed for him, and which I have placed in the closet for safekeeping. He’s safely out of the way, not interfering with my life much. I and you and all of us construct a God that “works” for us. One that comports with our personal “theology.” We give lip service now and again, by volunteering, giving money, and attending services of worship.
Jesus shows us that we have a very long way to go. In some sense, it is hard, yet, the truth is freedom comes from complete obedience. The reason? Once we abandon our own “needs” and desires from the equation, we almost always know exactly what is the right thing to do. We are freed from the constraints of having to balance our lifestyle against what our heart tells us we should be doing. We are no longer trying to find the balance between self giving to self and self giving to others. We realize finally that the self giving to self comes naturally when we empty ourselves entirely to God’s call of radically open love to all.
It’s an uncomfortable realization to be sure. It’s so much easier we think to keep God boxed, like a toy we take out to admire from time to time. Jesus had a lot to tell us about temptation and sin. But when we take up the cross as our own, we will see more clearly I suspect, not as Paul said, as through a glass darkly. No we will see with eyes unscaled.