Idolatries of the Mind and Spirit

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie‘s video recording of this reflection.

The great Forrest Church, long time senior minister of All Souls NYC, along with John Buehrens, at the time President of the UUA, wrote the essays that created the book A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism. Their book, considered for a time to be the one “must-read” for every UU, was published in 1998.   

In Church’s essay titled “Beyond Idolatry,” he talks about our fifth source: “The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources.” The first through the fourth sources refer to direct experience, the words and deeds of prophetic people, wisdom from the world’s religions, the Jewish and Christian teachings about loving our neighbor. It is the final and fifth source that remind us that our UU faith draws from “those humanist teachings that counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”

Why do we need that warning? What are idolatries of the mind and spirit? We don’t lift up graven images to worship, or express our loyalty and devotion to statues, do we?

And we surely have no sacred cows!

But we do sometimes become dogmatic, fixing our opinions, our conclusions in stone; making up our minds, once and forever more.

We do try to capture what ought to be a temporary conclusion, hoping that it may serve us well for a time. We want our most important conclusions to be true forever, to be permanent! But, may I suggest that when that happens we are likely practicing idolatry, the kind we have been warned against. 

Why do we do it?

Because it is exhausting to have to constantly deal with change and impermanence. 

We plead, like most humans do, Just tell me what the truth is. Make it simple!

But our way of being faithful UUs isn’t that way. We don’t subscribe to the simple “tell me what to believe and I will” way. We don’t accept that there is a place where we can stop being open-minded, where we can stop being open to the Spirit of Life or Love and what it may be calling us to not only consider, but be, or become. There is an ever-present need to for us to use both science and reason, while being open to the spirit of love, to both assess where we are now, and to continue moving towards an ever fruitful conversation that will (more than likely) take us to a place we never dreamed of being before.

This being a UU takes courage, and the willingness to risk, an expectation of changing one’s mind, one’s habits, one’s conclusions. Being UU is about being fluid, resilient, open-minded and open-hearted.

So many of us think we know what it means to be a good UU, even to be a thriving congregation. Maybe we did, 25 or 15 or even five years ago. But circumstances have changed and will continue to change. And so must our understanding of what it means to be a UU now, in this place and in this time.

In long-ago religious history, the sanctions against idolatry, which seemed on the surface to mean that one should not worship a statue, came to mean—especially to the ancient Hebrews—that one must not become rigidly fixated on a conclusion about who or what God is or will be. Ancient Hebrews were not even to say God’s name, as that was considered idolatrous. Yahweh, the term used most often in the Hebrew scriptures, contained only consonants and literally meant “I am who I am.” It wasn’t a proper name. It was an injunction against naming God.

Our fifth source counsels us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, AND warns us against the idolatries of the mind and the spirit. To be faithful to our living tradition is to stay in a relationship with what we might term the Spirit of Life or of Love, to respect that which is beyond us and among us as dynamic, unfolding and always more than we can imagine.

It was the humanist tradition that arose from within Unitarianism that rejected the very notion that there is any credence in lifting up a God who matches any of the conclusions that humankind has ever come to. They realized that ANY fixed definition of the most holy is both dogmatic and idolatrous.

I have had this very close friend for over 40 years. She has always been driven by a sense of freedom that meant for her that she never wanted any external object to control her. She had and still has a regular practice of what she calls smashing idols. The first time I saw her take an expensive, precious object—that had for some reason taken on a place of too much importance in her life—into the back yard and smash the thing to bits, I was shocked. 

But I am not shocked anymore. Things are not and should not be gods. Objects should not control us. That which is holy is never a definable object. Our past conclusions, about who or what God was, don’t define who or what God is now.

You’ve probably heard a version of the Buddhist teaching that one should not make the mistake of worshiping the finger that points to the moon and thus miss the moon entirely.

What are you worshiping that is distracting you from what is really worthy of your attention? Really worthy of your being in relationship with?

Idols are those images, or ideas that get fixed in time, fixed in our minds. Idols are whatever turns into concrete, unmoving anchors that hold us in place, that keep us from moving with the spirit. There are times when we need anchors, but not when they get in the way of free thought, free spirits, relationships guided by love and compassion.

What I am about to read you was posted this week by one of our UU military chaplains.

“I spent a large portion of this week doing interviews with Soldiers seeking a religious accommodation to the DoD mandated Covid-19 vaccination. My responsibility is to provide my opinion—ultimately to the Surgeon General of the Army—about the sincerity and religious basis of the request.

“I sat an hour each with two senior officers who believe that the pandemic is being used as—and is evidence of—Satan’s attempt to condition society to accept “The Mark of the Beast” and usher in the final tribulation. This is something they are deeply afraid of being a part of, as doing so (for them) will assure their eternal suffering in Hell.

“Not long ago I would have laughed at these beliefs. Today I saw two men openly crying in fear and desperation that they may be forced to participate in what they believe is inherently evil and wonder if they will give up their careers to remain steadfast in their beliefs and save themselves and their families from eternal suffering.

“This has not changed my belief in the science behind vaccination nor the belief that we must continue to require vaccines to assure the health and well-being of others and the readiness of the US Military to defend the US from potential threats.

What is has changed is my compassion for those whose hold these beliefs. They are not so different than me. They love their families; they are truly afraid for their own and loved ones’ lives. Simply dismissing them as deluded does not work. That’s too easy. It requires no connection or understanding of those I am called to serve.

“Today I found compassion for those who were truly hurting, even as I knew they were incorrect in their beliefs.

“My compassion may have helped (or maybe it didn’t).

“But I know for sure it was right. Compassion regardless of my beliefs reminded the person sitting with me they were sacred in my eyes. That was the right thing to do.

“I did that much.

“I hope that was enough.”

May compassion always be enough.

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