In my experience, church frequently sucks.
Without getting into the details of why this is, I'd argue that this doesn't need to be the case, by any stretch of the imagination. In my experience, if the church were to actually relentlessly pursue the truth of reality, then it would probably be quite a bit more popular.
In any event, I recognize that a blog project ain't church, but why not try to pursue this ideal?
Shalom fam. Let’s talk about something which is near and dear to my heart, namely the increasingly common occurrence of Christianity becoming a form of Idolatry. This is also deeply juicy insofar as it also seems to indicate that a huge portion of Christians and a huge portion of Atheists have actually been making the same intellectual mistake; it’s just being manifested in two different ways (hence, the two worldviews that we typically treat as being diametrically opposed).
Neat neat neat. Ok, so before we actually talk about either Christianity or Idolatry, we need to have a quick discussion of two other topics: The Origin of the Religious Impulse, and the Insufficiency of Language in Describing Reality. Good heavens. I’m unsure why I’m capitalizing these topics like book titles or something. Well, I’m going to stop that now, and I think that we’ll both be happier because of it.
Alright. Let’s talk the origin of the religious impulse (see, that’s much better). Now, this phrase seems needlessly pretentious, so allow me to inform you that I’m really only attempting to answer these sorts of questions: “What is religion?” “From where does religion arise?” “Why is this something that seems to manifest cross-culturally?”
Those sorts of questions are a bit more palatable. And as such, let’s snarf ‘em on down.
Ok, so in order to start unpacking these questions, let’s actually take a quick peek into the contents of your mind. Let me ask you the following question: How does your brain determine what to do next, in any given moment? Good question! Also, let’s just ignore free will for a hot second here, because that’ll really complicate the present discussion.
Well, if you think about it, it would seem that your brain (both consciously and subconsciously) is continually presenting itself with a wide variety of different paths you could follow. Then, it would seem that the brain somehow selects the optimal path. Even if you’re lying in bed, doing nothing, your brain is making the decision to continue doing nothing instead of, let’s say, getting up and making breakfast.
However, this is interesting because it begs an additional question: how on earth does your brain determine the optimal path forward? Well, there seem to be a variety of forces in your consciousness that strongly influence the direction of your decisions. Hunger, love, passion, hatred, apathy. You know, the different voices inside your head. However, what’s particularly interesting is that the existence of these particular forces seems to indicate that there actually is an optimal path forward, and your brain is constantly scrambling to orient itself closer towards this implied ideal state of being.
Ok. I think that this is actually a sufficient framework for starting to understand the religious impulse. In order to see this, let’s take a look at Greek Mythology. What’s going on in that ol’ boi? Well, let’s look at the Greek Pantheon. You have a god of the sea, a goddess of the harvest, a goddess of the hearth, a god of death, etc etc.
But what’s really happening here?
Well, it would appear that the greeks deified the different aspects of reality with the greatest degree of importance to their lives. There wasn’t a god of the inside of a beetle’s leaf. But why would they do this? More interestingly, in looking at other cultures around the world, we see extremely common practices. Why do people engage in these sorts of behaviors?
Well, I’d argue that this is actually a genius thing to do. Why? Because in deifying different aspects of existence, you’re essentially creating a framework for orienting the individual and collective attention around different aspects of reality with the greatest degree of value. Why is that genius? Especially on a societal level, this particular mechanism can serve to be an extraordinarily powerful organizational force in increasing the society’s net output.
How? Well, let’s look in particular at the practice of ritual sacrifice. What is actually happening there? Is it just a purely transactional action between man and imagined deity?
It would actually seem that there’s much more going on. In a ritual sacrifice, you essentially have an external mechanism that aids in the construction of a shared value hierarchy. When everyone sacrifices the family pig to the harvest god, this forces everyone to consciously recognize that it’s more important to orient attention and actions towards next season’s harvest than it is to simply eat the pig that you currently have.
The effect of this practice is therefore allowing society to determine how to most efficiently use resources by precisely identifying which aspects of reality have the highest degree of value. Put in slightly different language, the religious impulse allows people to orient their attention on the paths that can be taken which might allow them to move closer towards the ideal state of being.
Well that’s super interesting. Ok, now let’s talk language.
What’s a cup?
At an intuitive level, you know what a cup is. However, think about how you would define “cup” as precisely as possible. Cups can be made of different materials. Cups can come in different shapes. Cups can have handles, cups can be tall, cups can have lids. In fact, if you think about it, by slightly morphing different physical constructions, there are at least an uncountably infinite number of occurrences within reality that we would refer to as a cup. So… what’s a cup?
Ok, let me nobly approach the abyss and take a shot at answering this question. It seems that a cup is a thing that you use to drink things. Perhaps this definition is too overtly teleological for your taste, and you’re welcome to spend some of your own precious time attempting to rectify my sins, but I think that this definition is sufficient to make my point.
Why is this important? Well, there are two things. Any cup you see is actually infinitely complex, insofar as it’s the byproduct of quantum interactions between subatomic particles (and whatever the flip shack frack causes quantum interactions to take place). The more you meditate on that fact, the more wild it might seem that we casually use a monosyllabic word to describe something of that degree of complexity. Perhaps more wild is the fact that other people also know what we’re talking about when we refer to a “cup.”
The second reason this is important is because it indicates that I (Danny P Geisz) have been incorrectly thinking about the purpose of language. First allow me to draw attention to the fact that the same arguments I made about “cup” also apply to effectively any noun in the English Language, insofar as there’s an ostensive mapping between your language and a particular occurrence within reality.
Now then, in a previous life, I used to think that we have language to describe the contents of reality, ideally in as much detail as possible. However, I’m now realizing that’s not quite right. As we see in the example of the cup, it would seem that much of what language does is allow us to ignore almost everything that’s happening within reality, and only orient attention on the aspects of reality with the greatest degree of value to us humans.
What’s wild is that this isn’t just language, this is also what your brain is doing at the level of perception. When you look a cup, you don’t see an interwoven array of countless materials dancing as parts to become a cohesive whole. You see… a cup. A singular thing. Which is really wild.
What you’ll notice in this particular description of language is that it would seem language plays an incredibly similar role for us as religion did for ancient civilizations. Both of these systems create a multi-part system that allows for the user to create a symbolic mapping between the system and some aspect of reality with a particular degree of value. This mapping then allows the users of the system to orient themselves more closely towards their primordial, subconscious, and largely-undefinable conception of the ideal mode of being, or perhaps the optimal way of being.
Isn’t that so cool? It seems that there’s increasingly an attitude amongst “intellectual” circles that religion has been an absolute waste of time. That religion’s only purpose has been to allow humanity to daydream about what it wishes it could have, and is at best nonsensical, and at worst, existentially misleading and overtly tyrannical.
However, this discussion seems to indicate the religious impulse, and the advent of natural language arise from the same source within the context of human cognition. That, in turn, further seems to indicate that the effect of religion on humanity has been at least proportionally positive to the effect that language has had on humanity.
And wow. What a realization.
Ok, before we move on, there is one more thing that we ought to discuss. I’ve asserted that one of the most powerful purposes of language is that it allows us to ignore almost everything that’s actually happening in reality and narrowly focus on the objects of value. However, there is one particular thing that we humans have a strong incentive to understand in as great of depth as possible. And what is that? The implied ideal itself. By definition, the closer you can align yourself with the ideal state of being, the better you’ll be (assuming that human well-being forms a reasonably smooth manifold as a function of the different states of being). However, because reality is infinitely complex, and the implied ideal state of being is a hypothesized configuration of reality, then the implied ideal is also infinitely complex. Thus, no matter what you’re up to, or how well you understand reality, it’s a probabilistic certainty that you can always further align yourself with the implied ideal state of being. Thus insofar as language provides an imperfect means of orienting attention towards valuable aspects of reality, we might informally say that “there’s always work to be done” when it comes to achieving a better understanding of the ideal.
Ok. Enough about that. Let’s talk Christianity, and then let’s talk Idolatry.
Why on earth should anyone care about Christianity? Well, even if you’re a battle-hardened atheist, there’s absolutely no denying the popularity of Christianity. There just seems to be something about that particular belief system that has fundamentally captured the human imagination. But, dear lord, what is it?
Well, I think that in order to get to the bottom of that question, we should probably discuss some of the most important aspects of Christianity.
So, to that end, let’s start with this notion of “God.” What on earth do Christians mean when they use the term “God”? Hmm. In order to understand this, let’s perhaps look at some of the adjectives that are typically associated with “God.” There seems to be frequent discussions of the “King of kings, and Lord of Lords.” He’s described as “Perfect” and the essence of “Good.” He’s “all-knowing, all-seeing, ever-present.” He’s “perfect in his love for humanity.” Well, what the #$%* does any of that actually mean?
Well, if you think back to our discussion of the religious impulse, we had seen that the greeks used Greek mythology to deify different aspects of reality with the greatest degree of importance. Properly oriented interaction with the “gods” allowed humans to move closer towards an “ideal mode of being.”
However, if you look back at our fascinating collection of God-adjectives (patent-pending), it would appear that in the Christian sense, God is the supreme ideal of reality. He’s the greatest good imaginable. He’s identified with the notion of the highest aim of reality. He’s the fulfillment of everything that reality could be, in a profoundly divine sense.
Well, that’s interesting. As a side note, this conceptualization of God actually provides an improved context for understanding a variety of different Christian constructions. Take “sin” for example. Ah, sin. My old friend. Given my upbringing, I heard countless pastors squawk about how “sin separates us from God”, and given my naive conception of Christianity, this meant that I essentially conceptualized sins as containers of guilt and shame that arose from quasi-arbitrary actions. So yeah, really just lots of guilt and shame.
However, if you understand the idea of “union with God” as essentially the participation in the realization of everything that could be good and perfect about reality, then this entirely changes the idea of “sin.” Instead of sins being arbitrary actions that lead to a guilty conscience, sins are better understood as anything that manifests within the context of your reality that moves you away from this state of supreme ideal. In that sense, sins are tragedies, not arbitrary religious failures.
For me, this realization has been immensely satisfying because my adolescent conception of “sin” was either misguided or blatantly caustic, depending on which period of my life is under inspection.
Now you might be wondering: “you said you were going to discuss important aspects of reality; when are we going to talk about Jesus?” Ironically, the idea of “Jesus” isn’t actually particularly important within the context of the present discussion. I fully intend to discuss the symbolic significance of “Jesus” in much greater detail in a future post, so hold your raging metaphorical horses.
Perhaps to satisfy the masses, what I will say for the present moment is that “Jesus” is presented in the Bible as a response to the prevalence of “sin.” Using the language we’ve developed in this particular post, this asserts that the death and resurrection of Jesus (who can be thought of as the supreme ideal manifest in objective reality) fundamentally dealt with all the forces that arise within reality that keep it from realizing the highest ideal. Interesting, to say the least.
Ok, now that we’ve discussed some aspects of Christianity, let’s move on to a discussion of Idolatry.
But what even is Idolatry? Perhaps a better way of approaching this question is to ask what the Christians mean when they say “Idolatry.”
I’d argue that the best way to get to this is by inspecting the first two of the Ten Commandments (remember those lads, back from Exodus?).
Commandment numero uno: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Commandment numero dos: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image… You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”
Hmm. Ok, so what is this saying? Well insofar as God is taken to be the supreme ideal, it seems that God is basically telling the Israelites “don’t aim lower than the highest realization of everything reality could be.”
Well that’s actually pretty useful, because the definition of an “idol” seems to fall right out: it seems that an “idol” is anything that someone might orient their life and actions around that isn’t this supreme ideal.
To put this in other language, we might say that in “worshipping an idol,” you’re confusing some tangible aspect of reality with the highest ideal of everything that reality could be.
However, given the current discussion, you might be justifiably asking the question “why on earth would anybody ‘worship an idol’ if it’s clearly to their detriment?”
That’s actually just a super good question. There are two main reasons I can think of that someone would do this. I think that in worshiping an idol, you’re essentially making a mistake of ignorance or fear.
Why ignorance? Let’s say you literally don’t have a conception of the highest ideal. In that case, I’d say it’s forgivable if you just latch on to some reasonably satisfying aspect of reality and hold on for dear life, literally because you don’t know any better. With that said, I’m not sure how prevalent this is, simply because we humans seem to have a subconscious current within us that continually tries to orient us towards a better state of reality.
Ok, with ignorance out of the way, why might fear cause you to practice idolatry? This is actually super interesting, and I think that this speaks to something extremely fundamental about the nature of human existence. Earlier we had asserted that given the fact that reality is infinitely complex, the implied ideal state of reality must also be infinitely complex. This also immediately implies that this highest ideal actually defies description in any finite system of representation, which further means that the highest ideal is far beyond human conception and written description.
But wait. If the highest ideal is beyond comprehension… then what’s to say that it actually exists? Think about this for a second, because it’s wildly important. Let’s say that you’ve found something within reality that provides a reasonable amount of fulfillment. If you’re actually aiming at the highest ideal, then you should be willing to cast aside what you have for the promise of something greater, even if you can’t conceptualize what that might be in the particular moment.
After actually meditating upon this, it would seem that actually orienting your life and decisions around the pursuit of the highest ideal is actually the most supreme act of faith imaginable. In a very legitimate sense, I’d argue that this is what it actually means to “believe in God.” And as we’ve seen, this is a wildly difficult thing to do.
Ok, in an effort to keep us moving, let’s take what we’ve discussed, and go straight for the jugular.
In a manifestation of unimaginable intellectual irony, it appears that many modern manifestations of Christianity are blatantly idolatrous. **gasp**
What do I mean by this? Specifically, it seems that a huge number of modern Christians have taken to worshipping the different aspects of the Christian story, instead of pursing the aspects and ideals manifest in reality that Christianity attempts to describe.
Perhaps some examples are in order?
My first two examples of Christianity becoming a form of idolatry are more, shall we say, institutional, whereas my final example is a bit more informal.
I think probably the first immediate example of this phenomenon is fundamentalism. For the unfamiliar, Christian Fundamentalism is essentially the belief that everything that is written in the Bible should be taken to be literally true. This is essentially asserting that the propositions written in the Bible almost become akin to the axioms of the reality, and are true without need for justification. Or perhaps the justification is that everything fundamentalists witness within reality is corroborated directly by the literal contents of the Bible. According to them, at least.
I’d argue that this is a clear manifestation of idolatry because this seems to assert that the pursuit of God is essentially equivalent to the pursuit of the Bible… which basically asserts the Bible itself is the supreme ideal.
A huge part of the issue here is that these sorts of arguments attempt to assert that reality is something which can be understood in terms of a finite set of propositions constructed using language. However, if you remember back to our discussion of language, language can at best provide an incomplete symbolic description of the contents of reality, but there is by no means a one-to-one mapping between language and reality, at least within the context of any language that’s remotely useful to humans.
Another reason that fundamentalism seems to be strikingly idolatrous is that in making a claim about objective truth, you’ve essentially planted your flag in the fields of Christianity, and seem to be utterly intellectually unwilling to consider the possibility of its insufficiency. Which seems to be exactly what we were describing when talked about how people practice idolatry from a place of fear.
The second example of Christianity as Idolatry that seems particularly potent is an effect I call Pastoral Totalitarianism. I define this to be when a Christian who has gained some degree of leadership or power in some Christian context asserts that their subordinates or congregation ought to believe their particular interpretation of Christianity, simply on their authority. In other words, the congregation is forced to believe a particular set of propositions because “the pastor says so.”
Aside from being horrifically nauseating, we can effectively use all our arguments regarding Christian Fundamentalism for Pastoral Totalitarianism. However, what’s even more gut wrenching is that whereas the fundamentalists seem to make their claims about the objective truth of the Bible using “the Bible,” “God,” or perhaps even “Reality” as their authority, under Pastoral Totalitarianism, the pastor is making claims about objective truth on his own authority! Can you possibly think of anything more narcissistic, arrogant, or repulsive? Dear lord! How utterly hideous!
However, to give the devil his due, the impulse that leads to Pastoral Totalitarianism is arguably just the totalitarian impulse that we all carry within us, to a certain degree. And perhaps I react so violently to it because I’m viscerally aware of my own tendency towards this particular behavior. Perhaps not within the realm of pastorship, given that I’ve hardly ever held a Christian leadership role of any value, but certainly within the context of other intellectual pursuits.
In any event, I think the other reason Pastoral Totalitarianism seems particularly odious is because there are typically certain members of the congregation that enter church in an emotionally vulnerable state. As such, these people have an increased susceptibility for emotional and spiritual manipulation, making them a particular good target for Pastoral Totalitarianism. Utterly tragic. One could bring to mind one’s favorite cult for additional evidence of an analogous phenomenon.
I think I should probably move on in an effort to prevent myself from becoming overtly judgmental and reprehensible. Let’s talk about the final example of Christianity as Idolatry.
This final more informal example is what I call the “Christianese effect.” In case you haven’t interacted with American Evangelicals in a phat minute, there’s a remarkably widespread phenomenon of Christians essentially parroting a finite set of slogans amongst themselves. Constantly.
Any of these sound familiar? “Hedge of protection” “Guard her heart” “Wrestling with Doubt” “ Saved by Grace” “Fellowship” “Do Life Together” “Traveling Mercies” “Body of Christ”.
If you know, then you know.
Ok, now I’d argue that this isn’t necessarily an issue in and of itself. Jargon naturally arises in almost every group that’s united by a singular pursuit, and “Christianese” just seems to be an instantiation of this effect.
The broader issue arises when Christianity becomes increasingly distilled down to a particular set of historical propositions with an associated set of fairly shallow implications, which are generally taken as the metric for determining whether you’re a “believer.” And this is actually potentially quite intellectually dangerous, because if these particular “beliefs” aren’t allowed to be challenged, then a person’s Christianity, which genuinely may have started from a place of authenticity, can quickly trend towards fear-driven idolatry (as previously discussed).
Once again, I’d like to make it very clear that I don’t want to be condemning towards this, because this is a wildly difficult thing to address. If Christianity has provided you with the symbolic language for understanding notions like love, grace, redemption, and sanctification, you’ll be forgiven if your first impulse isn’t to abandon your beliefs. However, the danger here is that the language that symbolically spoke to an individual in a moment of divine revelation can easily lose meaning with careless overuse. The reason why this can easily occur is because in living life, we naturally move between different physical, emotional, and spiritual contexts. Thus the language that carried such weight and meaning within one particular context may be effectively meaningless and arbitrary in another.
This is why it’s so unbelievably important to ask what people mean when they use Christian terms, because that brings to mind the intangible, and perhaps divine, aspects of reality towards which language points. The dangerous thing is when Christians (or really anyone) confuse language for that which language references, in all of its complexity. It’s in these moments that I’ve found aspects of Christian teaching can easily become idols, in that either the associated language or propositions are worshipped instead of the aspects of reality that these teachings reference.
Specifically, one might encounter many situations in which people worship the idea that “Jesus died for our sins” without actually attempting to reference the cosmological significance this action purported to have both within the context of human lives, and objective reality on the whole.
Frankly, I’m not fully satisfied with this discussion. I think that I haven’t properly articulated the point that my conscience wants me to make, but I think what we’ve discussed is at sufficient for you to get an incomplete sketch of the broader argument. As always, if anything about this captures your attention, please reach out to me.
Anyway, to continue moving forward, I believe that we should discuss what actually happens when Christianity becomes a form of Idolatry.
At a very high level, Christians have to understand that the claims they’re making about reality sound insane. Or, perhaps to be courteous, different Bible stories aren’t generally repeated in day-to-day life. People don’t typically rise from the dead. People don’t typically walk on water. People don’t typically transform five loaves into five-thousand. Thus, the immense danger when Christianity is distilled down to a finite set of propositions and transformed into an idol is that to the outside world, it appears that you are choosing to believe an arbitrary set of propositions. Even worse, the most important of these propositions seem to be blatantly impossible under a first-order inspection, like the idea that there was a perfect man who died and came back to life.
This is interesting because it allows us to get back to what I claimed at the beginning of this post: it would appear that a huge number of Christians and Atheists are making the same intellectual mistake. And what's the mistake? The belief that the contents of reality can be distilled down to a set of exact propositions.
More specifically, this mistake also manifests as the belief that religion is something that can be distilled down to a finite set of propositions. The major distinction between these two groups is whether they are willing to accept said propositions.
And can you really blame either group?
The atheists are essentially rejecting propositions which seem blatantly insane. They’re basically saying “No! I’m not going to believe something arbitrary that seems to make impossible claims! That’s literally just dumb!” Fair point.
However, the Christians are on the opposite end of the spectrum. In looking at the atheists, Christians are essentially saying, “Ok, yeah, but your life just seems so… empty and dead. Really not worth living. Because of that, I’m willing to take a leap of faith and choose to believe things that sound impossible, but might just give life meaning.” This is either stupidity or supreme courage (hi, Kierkegaard!), but the wild thing is that this decision actually seems to have profoundly positive consequences on people’s lives.
So what’s the fix? Well, as you might expect, I think the thing that needs to be deeply understood is that reality (and necessarily matters related to the divine) can’t be fully understood in term of propositions. Language and propositions aren’t a sufficiently robust technology to make that mapping. And I think that this is incredibly important because there seems to an underlying belief in our society that language directly corresponds to reality. As we saw with the example of the cup, language serves to help us ignore almost everything about reality, and only focus on that which manifests within the context of reality which has some degree of value.
I’d argue that perhaps a better way of viewing language is as a mechanism that aids in our negotiation with the contents of reality, but doesn’t take away from our reverence and recognition of its infinite complexity. Language references reality, it doesn’t directly correspond with it.
With this stated, one might ask what this means for atheists and Christians.
It seems that atheists are broadly rejecting belief in deities that can be distilled down to finite propositions. Great. However, to the atheists I say: throw away the shackles of arbitrary propositions! Strive to move towards a better understanding of the aspects of reality that can’t be understood in terms of finite propositions, yet nonetheless capture the human heart, mind, and soul!
To the Christians, I would say that if you truly believe in the meta-existence of this supreme ideal that you call God, then worship God, not Christianity! Perhaps another way of saying this is that if you truly believe in the validity of the ten commandments; if you truly believe that no gods should come before God, and that idolatry is a sin, it seems that one of the most “Christian” things you can do is strive to move beyond that which you believe Christianity is.