Friday, May 11, 2012

Idols of the Tribe: Chasing Francis Series

Let’s call Sir Francis Bacon the father of the scientific method. We can do that without much exaggeration. He is the one who best articulated the process through which one tests a theory and supposition to arrive at fact.

In his book, Novum Organum, Bacon outlines the courses of study that would advance our scientific knowledge and technology. He invents academic disciplines that would not surface for another hundred years. And, he describes various intellectual traps that would hinder our progress. He called them idols.

Bacon calls our mental traps 'idols' because they capture our attention and devotion. Because we are emotionally attached to them, we refuse to question them. Indeed, it usually doesn’t occur to us to question them.

What Bacon calls idols, Charismatic Christians call 'strongholds'. Strongholds are complex systems of thought and habit that become dwelling places for powers of darkness that control or influence our lives. But let's stay with Bacon’s language for the moment.

Bacon listed his idols under four headings.

Idols of the Marketplace involves corrupt communication. We corrupt our communication when we use meaningless words, words that have a double meaning, and jargon that those outside our occupation do not understand. We also corrupt communication when we use inflated vocabulary to impress others because it actually obscures the conversation. Obviously inaccurate or inflated marketing corrupts human discourse. Anything that makes it difficult to arrive at truth through discussion, debate or conversation is an idol of the marketplace.

Idols of the Cave are obsessions with one’s own mental habits. An unreasonable conservatism or an unreasonable attraction to novelty, intellectual sloth, limiting one’s intellectual curiosity to his own small part of the world, and irrational appeals to authority are all examples of idols of the cave.

Idols of the Theatre are unreasonable attachments to the ideas and practices we receive from the past. Habits, protocol, and traditions can all become idols of the theatre.

I am ending this series on Chasing Francis with reflections on Bacon’s fourth category of mental traps.

Idols of the Tribe are the errors and limitations we accept from our society.

Common sense can be an idol of the tribe. Common sense is the collection of judgments and beliefs human beings throughout history have been gathering from experience. We absorb it as we grow from infancy to adulthood because all human families have at least a measure of access to this accumulated wisdom.  However, common sense is not always right, as discoveries such as the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics have shown. Reality, as it turns out, is very different than what common sense suggests. As in the case with all these idols, the gifts we receive from our tribe are nearly always helpful unless they become idols.

Applying Bacon’s idea to spiritual life, I would suggest another idol of the tribe: sectarianism. This is the practice of honoring the beliefs and practices of one’s sect as though they are the final word in spiritual life. If one becomes sectarian, the ideas, vocabulary and habits of his sect set the boundaries of his relationship with God and with others.

A sectarian Christian cannot envision how other kinds of Christians might even be sincere or authentic. If one is radically sectarian, then the music of other Christians, or the way they organize, the way they practice communion, or even their architectural preferences can become insurmountable barriers for fellowship or friendship.

However, with few exceptions, doctrinal and cultural differences between Christians have arisen from their race, nationality and/or their language. This blog is too short to demonstrate why I say this, but I believe it can be easily proven.

I mean, how many African-American Presbyterian Churches have you visited?

How about Swedish Snake Handlers?

Have you ever met a French-speaking Amish believer?

Can you imagine a group of Arabs forming a Messianic Jewish congregation?

Our various Christian communities are rooted in a particular tribe. The tribe forms our theological language, our ways of worship and the practices of our faith.

That brings us to the most powerful stronghold of all the idols of the tribe: nationalism.

As a missionary kid, I used to hear older missionaries discuss nationalism. They viewed it as a spiritual problem because it so easily becomes an obstacle for new converts. Missionaries discovered that if the faith and the customs of the convert’s nation came into in conflict, it was often difficult for that convert to understand why it was such a big deal. Polygamy, the veneration of ancestors, nudity and many other issues come to mind here.

“He’s a good man and a great preacher", the missionary would say while shaking his head, “but he’s such a nationalist.”

It was years before I realized that the missionary’s own nationalism was often invisible to him. In fact, missionaries who confronted and deconstructed their own nationalism were usually viewed as odd by the other missionaries.

“Poor thing, he’s been here so long I think he’s gone native,” one might whisper to another.

Going native was such a dreaded thing!  Missionary kids were especially vulnerable to the sin of going native. They might even fall in love with a native girl. That serious sin could destroy decades of missionary service. It could undermine the essential difference that needed to be maintained between missionaries and native converts.

The missionaries were preaching the gospel, but the gospel as understood and practiced through their own nationalistic parameters.

Nationalism becomes an idol if it demands our deepest devotion and our highest loyalties.

To determine if you worship your nation, just ask yourself this: are you an American who happens to be a Christian? Or are you a Christian who happens to be an American?

If someone walks down the aisle of your church with an American flag are you surprised? Offended? Delighted? Moved?

What if someone walks down the aisle of your church with a cross? Are you surprised? Offended? Delighted? Moved?

Do you find yourself having two different reactions to those two scenarios? Why? Does your imagined reaction to each reveal anything about your deepest loyalties?

And how do you feel about other types of Christians? Is it possible for you to receive ministry from Christians who practice their faith a bit differently than you? What do you think are the essentials of your faith? What sorts of things create the boundary and border that defines where your faith ends and begins? Do you know the difference between a sect and a cult? Can you learn from a person of another religion without blurring the lines of your own faith? Can you honestly listen to and process a challenging question posed by an atheist? Do you react in such situations with fear or anger?

In Chasing Francis, the pastor of a nondenominational mega church hits the wall. He learns that his faith has been too limited by trite answers to serious question. His observations about the world have proved superficial. So he goes to Italy and explores the history of his faith. He realizes that although he is a Christian, he has been experiencing Christian faith as an expression of contemporary American culture. He learns that becoming a Christian involves stretching beyond ones own time and place to become a citizen of the Timeless Kingdom of God.

The pastor meets a fellow citizen of God’s kingdom named Francis. The saint just happens to have been born in a different country and a different century than he. After walking with Francis for a while, the pastor discovered that he too is now living by a different set of values and reaching toward different goals than what he had known while he had worshipped the the idol of his tribe.

He doesn’t become a Roman Catholic. He doesn’t become an Italian. He doesn’t become a medievalist. He remains a contemporary Evangelical American. But these things are now the spice rather than the substance of his identity.

Because they are no longer idols, they become adornments, baptized elements of a faith that receives the gifts of every tribe, kindred and nation and lays them down before the One we call King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

1 comment:

Cathy R. said...

Speaking of "Idols of the Tribe," I love this quote from Richard Rohr's insightful book,"Falling Upward," which I am currently reading:

"If change and growth are not programmed into your spirituality, if there are not serious warnings about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always end up worshipping the status quo and protecting your present ego and personal advantage--as if it were God."