In my daily office readings of late, in the Hebrew Scriptures, there has been a lot of talk about worshiping God alone, and keeping apart from the gods of other people.  God gets very angry when Israel worships other gods.  And I find myself thinking about my universalist religious approach (as opposed to exclusivist Christian approach) in this context.

And I’ve got to say at the start, I have real trouble believing that all of this comes from God.  The idea of taking over the cities of people of other religions by force, and then (often) killing every living thing (including animals, men, women and children) as a way of staying apart and separate and pure in one’s religion doesn’t seem to go with the God I know and love.  Maybe that was the only way, when you were the only people around who worshiped a single God, to make the transition to monotheism.  But I can’t see myself following such a command if it were given to me.  And I cannot imagine God would give me such a command.

Usually, Christians have thought about this fight against paganism as a fight against other religions.  But I’m pretty sure this is to largely miss the point.  Religions in those days were personifications of particular values.  Baal, the main local competition back then, was a fertility god, with (I believe) cultic prostitution (our value judgement) as a part of worship.  One can see how this might be popular with the men!

But other gods personified military prowess, or wisdom, or home and family, or wealth …  And I think the real point was (then and now) that these might be good things, but they were not ultimate things.  They were not first things.  The first thing is always God.  And there is only one God.  Anything that threatened to come before one’s allegiance to God represented a warping of priorities.  It was idolatry.  Putting anything ahead of God is WRONG.  (And I would say, wrong for our wellbeing, ultimately, more than simply wrong in a moral sense.)

And, I believe, the fact is that we today (in this country and around the world) effectively do worship these things.  We don’t call them gods.  But we put them first in our lives.  Back in the 80’s we had people going around saying “greed is good.”  The pursuit of wealth (or power or wisdom or beauty or lust or family) are all common in our lives.  And sometimes, it seems to me, people are putting these things first in our lives.  And whenever we put any of these things first in our lives, we are worshiping and following other gods — we are idolators in the sense that this is talked about in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

I don’t think this gets anything like the recognition it deserves (and needs) — to our detriment.

In contrast, in my mind, the deep religious traditions seem to point towards one ultimate reality.  This even seems to be true of Hinduism (with its many manifestations and incarnations of the supreme reality).  So my sense is that we are traveling different paths towards what I know as my God.  (And there is the Christian wisdom tradition, from back in the second century, that sees anything that partakes of the truth as coming from God.  Since Jesus, as the logos, the word of God in creation, created and ordered all that is.)

The most powerful argument for this, for me, is the experience of the mystics from our various religious traditions.  While there are some differences of experience (primarily a difference between western mystics who talk about the state of union as seeming to be at one with God and eastern mystics who talk about union as being one with God), mystics from the deep faith traditions talk easily to each other about their experiences and are able to learn from each other is ways that feed their spiritual lives.

So, in my mind, at least the deep faith traditions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and the like) are not idolatry in the biblical sense.  They are different ways in which our God has invited people into God’s presence.  They are parallel paths to the same source.  I am a Christian.  That is my path.  But that doesn’t mean I cannot learn from the zen masters and the yogis.  In fact, a refusal to do so may make my path less rich (and harder).

The real idolatry is not to be part of another religion.  The real idolatry is to pursue something else in the place of God.  And I’m afraid we all do it, at least some of the time.  And if we aren’t aware of what we are doing when we do it, we suffer the harm of mishaping our lives, and literally lusting after other gods — gods that do not save, and which take us apart from the God of our salvation.