The SoMA Idolatry Quiz
Is your faith honest and genuine, or do you worship a golden calf? Answer these 10 questions to find out.
By John D. Spalding
The theologian Paul Tillich said we commit idolatry whenever we ascribe infinite significance to anything finite. Because there’s nothing infinite but God, it’s easy to do, especially for religious people who often mistake their beliefs, traditions, rituals, and sacred texts with the reality (note: lowercase r) to which they’re supposed to point.
However wrong it may be to confuse, say, the word “God” for the entity “God,” it can also provide a lot of comfort; imagine, something that we cannot by definition possibly comprehend—God—nevertheless contained not only in the word God, but in a 66-book tome that every American either owns or can find in any hotel nightstand! That’s why people who blur the distinction between religious words and their referents freak out when someone exclaims, “God damn it.” Such an outburst could easily cause a sudden lightning storm on a clear-blue day—indoors, no less.
That’s also why some people get upset when you’re critical of religion or, God forbid, irreverent towards it. I know. I started writing about religion back in college, and over the years I’ve accumulated a veritable Mount Sinai of angry and benighted mail and email.
I received more last week after I ran Bill Maher’s “New Rules for Religion.” One reader informed me that “Bill Maher will surely burn in hell for making fun of God,” adding that I might join the comedian in eternal flames for having published him (good company for me, at least). I was tempted to ask the idol-obsessed reader how Maher could have possibly made fun of God, but I already knew his reasoning: He has arrogantly equated God with his own personal religious views, so when he perceived Bill Maher making light of something he believes, he felt God was under attack.
Since there’s a growing confusion in America between idolatry and true faith, I’ve created the following quiz to help us better distinguish them. Each question comes with two answers, A and B. Simply pick the choice that better expresses your views, and don’t worry—Zeus won’t strike you dead. I’ve got a statue of him on my desk, and I made him promise not to throw a hissy fit if he doesn’t like your answers.
1) Ways of envisioning God other than mine are: A) wrong, because my way is right; or B) limited—like mine—because no formula can capture the essence of God, unless “God” turns out to be a designer perfume like Calvin Klein’s “Eternity,” Bvlgari’s “Omnia,” or Yves Saint Laurent’s “Opium” (which, at $100 a bottle, may be a little out of the masses' reach).
2) When God is being criticized, I: A) believe it is my duty to defend God; or B) recognize that it is an “idea” that’s being criticized, for St. Pete’s sake, and that God doesn’t need to be defended.
3) I believe that “religious symbols” are: A) those brass things the church drummer hits with his drumsticks, or are those “cymbals”? or B) words, ideas, stories, and events that convey religious meaning by pointing beyond themselves, but that are finite, thus lacking “eternal truth” themselves.
4) My love for God and love for country are: A) so closely related I sometimes can’t tell where one stops and the other starts! or B) distinct—after all, didn’t Jesus separate his love for God from his, er, patriotic devotion to the Roman Empire, in which he was born?
5) When Jesus said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off,” he: A) meant it literally, or else I wouldn’t be surfing the Internet with my elbows, now would I? or B) was exaggerating to make a point, perhaps that religious truth can’t always be communicated directly.
6) The point of religion should be to help us: A) know God as the divine parent above who watches over us, correcting and protecting us; or B) understand God in a way (e.g., as the source of life and love) that enables us to grow more whole and authentic.
7) People who critique religion: A) are enemies of the Lord, pure and simple; or B) recognize that religion is human, and therefore fallible, and that just as we have a right to practice religion, we have a right, even a duty, to question it.
8) Those who find humor in religion: A) don’t take it seriously enough; or B) care deeply enough about it to realize there’s a danger in taking religion, or themselves, too seriously.
9) I believe that dogmatic ministers tend to: A) empower the faithful with God’s truth; B) enslave the faithful by telling them what they think is true and insisting people accept it, untested, on their authority.
10) Ministers who are obsessed with church size: A) know that God blesses the righteous with success and exponential growth—just look at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church; or B) are false prophets who’ve watered down the radical message of Jesus, which demands so much self-sacrifice that it should, in our self-obsessed nation, turn away more people than it attracts.
Score: If you answered A to any of these questions, you may want to get a hammer start smashing idols. If you answered B to most of these questions, you probably own a hammer and realize your work is never done. Idols are like weeds, to recklessly switch metaphors—they’ll overtake our gardens if we don’t keep pulling them.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Laughing at Death.
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