I have been writing on the subject of how the concept of idolatry applies in our modern age. This post is a continuation on this theme – if you have not done so already, you might want to read the beginning of the series:
- Part I explores the idea that God is not like an idol which can be manipulated to fulfill our desires
- Part II explores how our limitations prevent us from understanding infinite reality
- Part III explores how the Bible is worshiped over the person of Christ
Leave the Shire
In my last post, I wrote about a phrase that was used by ancient Jews to describe the relationship between a disciple and his/her Rabbi: the dust of the Rabbi. This phrase described how a disciple would follow their Rabbi so closely that the dust from the feet of the Rabbi that was kicked up would cover the disciple.
I believe that this picture adds clearer meaning to a strange story in Matthew 14:22-33. In this strange and miraculous tale, Jesus has instructed his disciples to part ways with him for a while, and sent them in a boat to cross to “the other side” – Decapolis, on the other side of the sea of Galilee. As they are crossing this body of water, Jesus decides to catch up with them and, according to the story, walks right out on top of the water. When the disciples see him they react with terror, but Jesus assures them that there’s no need to be afraid.
With the picture of “the dust of the Rabbi”, Peter’s next move comes as no surprise – as a disciple, you would see every action of your Rabbi as part of a lesson of some sort, and you were to learn through mimesis. So Peter says “if it’s you, tell me to come out on the water!” Jesus simply says “come”, and Peter jumps out of the boat. You see, in Peter’s understanding, Jesus wouldn’t do anything in view of his disciples that he didn’t believe his disciples could also do – the whole point of the Rabbi/disciple relationship is to transform the disciples into the character of the Rabbi.
So, with this understanding in mind, the next part of the story is illuminated further. Peter is out of the boat, and he starts walking on the water towards Jesus. But then his focus is diverted, and he notices the wind and becomes afraid. As a result of this loss of focus and fear, Peter begins to sink. In verse 31 of the passage, Jesus explains this reaction as a result of a lack of faith. But it’s not Peter’s lack of faith in Jesus that is the problem – Peter sees Jesus walking on the water and believes he can do this! The problem is Peter’s lack of faith in himself! Peter didn’t believe that he could do these great things that he saw Jesus doing!
You see, much of modern Christianity has made Jesus into an ancient superhero – we read his comics and say “oh, how cool is that?”, and that’s the whole point of it all: to read about Jesus and profess our belief in and affection for these stories.
But Jesus cuts right into this idea in John 14:12:
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
Did you catch that? The followers of Jesus will do greater things than what Jesus has been doing?
Later on in the passage, Jesus drives the point that belief plays out in action home in verse 23 when he says:
Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.
There’s a simple analogy that can be made to clear this up a bit. Jesus’ story is an embodiment of the truth within the common themes in every hero myth in literature. This is something that the author J.R.R. Tolkien picked up on, and which was alluded to in various ways throughout his most famous fantasy series, “The Lord of the Rings”. The story of Frodo in this series follows a very common pattern – the pattern of the hero’s journey.
The hero’s journey starts out with the hero – who at this point is a very plain and ordinary person – being called to go on an adventure by a mentor who often has a supernatural appearance. Often in these tales, the call is resisted or refused at first and various excuses are given – the hero has important things at home to attend to, the journey is too dangerous, the hero feels that there’s no way he could possibly make any difference, etc. But in every hero’s journey tale, these excuses eventually fade away in light of the importance of the adventure, and the hero makes the decision to commit. Often, in return for this commitment, the hero receives some sort of talisman that gives him supernatural aid – in Frodo’s case, the ring of power.
But once the hero makes this commitment and sets out, he or she is immediately beset by a challenge of some sort – this is called the Threshold Guardian. The Threshold Guardian’s goal is to prevent the hero from leaving the safety of his or her home, and in Frodo’s story this Threshold Guardian comes in the form of the fearful Ringwraiths, whom Frodo faces again and again throughout the story, which is part of the temptations and sufferings that every hero experiences.
At some point in every hero’s journey, the hero experiences a sort of death of his old self, which always occurs when the hero faces his deepest, darkest fear. But the hero overcomes this great fear and emerges through a type of resurrection, where their true nature – much greater than what they were before – is then revealed. They return to their home a much different person and often find that the darkness outside – which the people of their home were ignorant of and even in denial of at the beginning of the story – has invaded their home. And it is only because of the hero’s journey and resulting change that they are then able to help the people of their old home overcome difficulty and conflict.
But the hardest part of the story is always that first step – in “The Fellowship of the Ring”, Bilbo says:
The scariest thing on earth is stepping out of our front door, because we don’t know what adventures we’ll walk into.
We see so often this version of Christianity that protects its idolatrous ideas – its conceptual forms of stone – by withdrawing from the world. Like the people of the Shire, they are completely unaware of the darkness of the world outside. What so often happens when a person withdraws like this is that they construct their own false reality in their mind.
But the funny thing about the story of the hero’s journey that Jesus presents is that Jesus is not the hero of the story. Not if you believe John 14:12. No, in light of this passage, we learn that Jesus is the mentor character – the “Gandalf” of the story! He is the one calling us to go on a hero’s journey! He is the one telling us to leave our comfortable world to face the death of our false selves and emerge in resurrection, refined to reveal the nature of our true selves! We are not called as Christians to withdraw from the world – we are called to embrace it and through this embrace, we learn who God is, and thus who we are!
The Christianity that withdraws from the world is a religion of idolatry – it remains safe in its home in the Shire, ignorant of the troubles of the world around, even denying their existence when word from the outside arrives. I see this so often in Christianity: an attitude that says that even the act of engaging with “outsiders” – people of differing cultures, political identities, theological ideas, scientific ideas, etc. – is a transgression. Knowledge is dangerous to this form of Christianity, and it is treated with contempt. And those who live in this environment build for themselves a reality that looks nothing like the world outside. Whenever anything from the outside world comes into their perspective, they immediately reject anything that does not match this construction of ideas. This often results in a complete rejection of science – or to put it more precisely, Christians often seem to construct their own version of science by starting with the image they already had and building science around it.
But the Bible does not teach withdrawal from science as the way to understand God – the Bible teaches that it is the creation itself which teaches us about God! Psalm 19:1-2 says that the heavens declare the glory of God, and that they “pour forth speech” day and night, revealing knowledge! This Psalm declares that the skies are a love note from God Himself, and by reading it we learn His character!
In the story of Job, when God answers Job, He continually asks Job to contemplate His greatness by…pointing to various acts of creation! This section even starts out by saying the God spoke out of a storm! (See Job chapters 38-41)
Romans 1:20 continues this theme and says that God’s invisible qualities can be understood through what has been made!
When Christians withdraw from the world of science and treat it with contempt, what they are really doing is rejecting God in favor of an idol. Christianity has a duty to engage creation to discern the glory of God. Pope John Paul II once said:
Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.
In one of my previous posts, I wrote about a view of God that perceives God through embracing all of creation in love. Through this embrace, we experience the miracle in the mundane – as Albert Einstein wrote:
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
Not only can we challenge our idols through a continual contemplation of creation – embracing scientific methods of perceiving the logos – but we must also seek to find Christ in our neighbor. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (see Matthew 25:31-46) Jesus implies that the way to experience God is through embracing our fellow man in love and caring for the needs of “the least of these”. Jesus also said that “where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20). This helps us to understand that in order to challenge our own filters of understanding, we must seek to understand our neighbor (and even our enemies are our neighbors, since Jesus commands us to love our enemies in Matthew 5:43-48) in order to experience Jesus.
So often we make idols out of false realities – false images of ourselves based on what we own, what we profess to believe as true, or political identities. These are the Threshold Guardians – the Ringwraiths – which prevent us from taking the first step out our front door and beginning our journey out of the Shire. But when Jesus says that he is found when two or three gather in his name, I believe that this does not mean “two or three people who are exactly like me.” Because all throughout Jesus’ life, we see him with people of all different kinds: fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, Roman centurions, and even Pharisees! In order to find Jesus, we cannot huddle in the dark corner of safety – we must leave the Shire! Through Jesus, we see that the love of our neighbor – who might even be our “enemy” – is the lens through which we will see the Truth in the scriptures! To follow Jesus is to transcend tribalism and idealism – to cast off our false, ego-driven images of self – and to embrace those who are “different”.
Through the love of our neighbor, we discover our true self.
In my next post, I will explore the meaning of resurrection in our daily lives.