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Monday, November 10, 2014

Idolatry, Unitarian Style

They say never start a talk or an essay with a fussy, dictionary definition-type overture. Like you're the only one who's bothered to nerdily pore over the OED. (And if split infinitives piss you off, you'd probably better stop reading now).

But two words key words-- "Idol" and "Icon"--describe a useful set of polarities in the "better religion" Unitarianism has been trying to build. And in common parlance, they're often poorly understood and freighted with baggage. So, with that justification out of the way (and eschewing the OED), try these on for size:
  • An idol is object you worship (something 'raised to worth') in itself, for itself. It is something looked adoringly at. Examples--venerated statues that may be touched only on certain days, the 'flag my daddy died for', reading sacred texts literally.
  • An icon is an object that is entirely symbolic, something you look through like a lens to the larger, inexpressible something it stands in for. Examples--stained glass, a mandala, reading sacred texts figuratively.

Got that difference? Now, my point...

Unitarians will never be the truly free church they imagine and proclaim themselves to be, until they are disenthralled from idolatry. But...but...but...Unitarian idolatry? Surely not--these are rational people, self-critical, they scorn any vestige of superstition, they know religion is largely a matter of metaphor and symbolic language. How could reflexive, stone-age idolatry find its way past this well-fortified bulwark against bullshit?  MMmmmmweeeeellll....lemme tell ya.

Here are a few examples of Unitarian idolatry common in my (wide, though not entirely comprehensive) experience:

1. The idolatry of the church building.

"This ark of our collective history must be preserved at all costs. Why, what would we do without it, where would we meet? My God, we'd LOSE people if there were no building festooned with relics they neither know nor care about? We'd disband, 'cause what else holds us together besides convenience, routine, and familiarity? And besides it's on my bus route."

Crap, saith the prophet. A church is an exoskeletal creature. The shells are changeable. A church is not the building; church is what caused the building to be built. Can't see that thing that caused it to be built? That doesn't mean it's not there. A little thing called faith built it. You remember faith, "The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Remember: the ministries of Jesus and Buddha were entirely peripatetic, moveable feasts, and look at them.

All these lovely shells were moved out of, to another shell.

2. The idolatry of our inviolable financial capital which we must handle like eggs.

"We can't save the world by ourselves, so let's don't even consider divesting from planet-poisoning, low-wage-enslaving, proletariat-addicting financial conglomerates whose sole logic is its own bottom-line. What's good for them is good for us. We can't possibly be a solution to the financial injustice and environmental degradation of the world, so we might as well carry on being part of the problem. Hey, every else is doing it!"

Crap, and self-defeating crap. As if the integrity of religious organisations hasn't suffered enough in recent times. You'd think it rather behoves any group that calls itself a church to practice what it preaches. Money is not an end in itself; money is a tool, a means to working the church's mission in the world. In Unitarianism's case, to liberate people from the idolatry of old religion, that they may each confidently and joyously seek their own religious understanding, their own spiritual way.

See what I mean by self-defeating? "Put away your childish idolatry," we say. And then we make an idol of our money, complete with high priest apologists of 'financial wisdom'.

About half of Jesus' spoken words had to do with our relationship to money and possessions. No prizes if you can guess the gist of what he said about them.

The fear in his eyes derives from what he's doing with his hands

3. The idolatry of "Ye Great and Famous Unitarians of the Past".

"Unitarians have a proud tradition of claiming important and accomplished historical figures as adherents. Never mind the details about actual membership, or explicitly stated affinity, or whether the term 'Unitarian' had even been invented or not, or whether they just stopped off here for a while as they were passing through. Just feel the heft of that borrowed greatness. In the name of the Joseph Priestly and the Tim Berners-Lee and the holy Bertrand Russell. Amen."

Crap, crap, and self-loathing crap. This is the low self-esteem of the stage mother, the name-dropper, the groupie, and the stereotypical physician's wife. As if a sense of accomplishment derived outside the self were anything other than the hallmark of the truly tragic. To bask in the reflected glory of famous UUs of the past lets us off the hook of accomplishing anything original, brave, or meaningful ourselves as a church. My partner is an extremely accomplished academic. But if I ever reach that point of complacency at which my healthy self-regard is dependant on her stature, I hope, dear reader, that you will steal into my house in the night and smother me with a pillow.

If this example of UU idolatry is a symptom of low self-worth, the solution is healthy self-love in the here-and-now, of taking their achievements seriously enough to emulate them.

Yes. Yes, it is.

SO: what if we disenthralled ourselves from these false idols, if we regarded them as the icons they truly are?
  • and saw through our buildings not as old-timey dioramas to maintain and retro-fit at great expense, but as the temporary shelters all dwellings in fact are
  • and saw through our capital not as a thing to hoard, but to invest in creating the better world we hope to build
  • and saw through our famous forebears not a something to boast about, but role models to emulate
If we did, we might love ourselves a little better, we might rediscover the witness and mission of our faith, and we might finally evolve into the idol-free zone we once claimed to inhabit. These things aren't really God, but we've made them so. That is idolatry.

Buddhists aren't immune to idolatry.

Let us look through them instead, as we would through a stained glass window, to the pure light beyond, light that is everywhere and nowhere and endless. That's what icons are for.

This isn't Jesus. It's a picture of Jesus. He didn't sit for the painting, and the artist never met hm.

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