A reflection on what's behind my poem "Point to Love."
I wrote the previously-posted poem "Point to Love" in January on the flight back from Vietnam. I was not impressed by religious devotion in Vietnam, though there were Buddhist shrines and some Roman Catholic churches. But, for some reason, I was impressed that there is a universal search for the sacred and for God as people variously and diversely conceive of a higher being--in Vietnam and every place.
I tried to conceive of myself in the shoes of an unwitting or naïve worshiper. I would hope this poem describes me as well as one who has been led into a devoted spiritual life via another religious tradition.
I was also thinking of this: often, as a child and adult, I have heard pastors and Christian teachers reduce, mock or dismiss religions other than Christianity as mere idolatry. This has always bothered me. Such judgment is not necessary, not helpful, and not in the spirit of Biblical Christianity, it seems to me.
In Athens, the Apostle Paul points to a statue inscribed “to an unknown god.” He says that many simply worship “what they do not know.” Perhaps many worship as well as they know or have been taught, which may be as well as you and I know regarding the terms and understandings of our faith. Paul doesn’t say they are wrong or that they are worshiping idols. His statement is not spoken to reduce, mock or dismiss. It is spoken in consideration, exploration and invitation. Can we not do the same?
Paul is finding common ground with those he addresses. He recognizes that the unknown god whom his hearers may venerate is the same God whom he worships. This is critical. Unlike some in my faith, I am convinced that all who look to or call upon God by various names and understandings are calling upon the same God. Muslims call on Allah, who is not a different “god” than the God referred to in the Bible. The same can be said for some other faiths, as well. The presumed attributions one makes to God may diverge, but what is conceived commonly is significant.
Calling upon God from within divergent cultural backgrounds and frameworks is different from what is described in the ancient days of the Old Testament as turning away from God to mere idols. In the situations described in those Scriptures, the emerging Hebrew culture is grappling with its own unique call to believe in and rely on God as unseen, known by faith, and who provides graciously. This wrestling is done in contrast to conceptions of gods as human-made images infused with some personified power that somehow can be cajoled to benefit people through acts of human sacrifice, work and/or appeasement. The transition away from conceiving of God as contained in inanimate objects and/or needing to be appeased or cajoled is a continuing invitation.
But it is difficult for me to equate ancient idolatry with the contemporary use of images and icons as aids to devotion in various faiths today—including the use in Christianity of crosses, nativity crèches, images of Jesus, and icons of saints. To me, the bigger issues of contemporary idolatry relate to the basis of our sense of security and well-being (i.e., money, investments, wealth, national security, violence, and domination).
Of course, Paul contrasts whatever “unknown god” or unknowable god, along with the God of Abraham as he had understood God prior to his experience on the Damascus Road, with what he encounters in Jesus Christ. Paul’s enlightening experience, changed perspective and new outlook is, to him, all-surpassing. He finds—or is found by—something that surpasses everything he has believed to be true about God, law, culture, community, relationships, life and love. And this surpassing experience is what he spends the rest of his life trying to describe, trying to share, trying to help others experience, trying to understand and explore and expand his previously-prescribed boundaries into. And the most, the best, the highest, the simplest way he describes what he experiences and is trying to share comes down to one reality: love.
Paul is ready to meet people where they are in their diverse conceptions of God, in their search for meaning, in their culturalisms and spiritualisms and religious iconographies and, yes, even and particularly in their entrapment in Christian Phariseeism and sense of superiority over all other religions, in the hope and confidence that love—transcendent and transformational—will have its way. Paul is confident that this love is embodied in and found through Jesus and he is more than ready to assert powerful claims and arguments in support of that conviction. But, remember, for Paul—as for many of us—the way into faith defined by love was not via exclusive claims and arguments, but through an experience of grace. Perhaps we can find it within ourselves to offer such grace to other seekers and worshipers, too, in hope and confidence that they, too, will experience such love.