False Religion, True Religion

The problem of “false religion” displacing “true religion” is age-old and universal. It infects all the world religions. Note the superstitions, the superficialities and nationalisms of Buddhism, the violence of Orthodox Judaism and certain factions of Islam, the violence and xenophobia of certain strains of Hinduism and so on, and so on. In this reflection I just want to pay attention to the Christian version of this problem, and to push our reflection to some deeper roots than various social phenomena. Otherwise we will only be skimming the social surface of the problem rather than the roots. No matter how awful or how dramatic these various exhibitions of false religion, these are not the deep down problem; they are merely the symptoms of something else that’s hard to name. But we shall try to “circle” this falseness, at least as far as Christianity goes.

People who get fixated by this troublesome surface–and troublesome it truly can be and quite hurtful/discouraging–sometimes lose their own balance and make poor choices, like abandoning religion altogether. There’s a significant number of people in the West who grew up in some Christian ambience but can no longer stand it for its ossifications, obtuseness, narrowness, outright stupidity, petty dogmatism, authoritarianism, etc., etc. With a list like that who can blame them! Of those who leave religion, some simply turn to a kind of heedless hedonism of our current consumer culture; others turn to this new phenomenon of spirituality without religion, that is spirituality without any grounding in some institution of a religious tradition. They want to be “spiritual” without the confinements of a religious tradition–meaning its checkered history, its very human leaders, its seemingly limited belief system, its lack of what they see as necessary changeability, its tawdry witness, etc., etc. But I think this is a serious and an unfortunate mistake that will keep most of them from growing in true spirituality. In the midst of all the ugly and horrible stuff, or just the plain shallow stuff, the religious institution, the church, carries within itself also the wisdom, the knowledge, the discipline, the vision needed for true spiritual growth. I love these words from Lev Gillet, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, who saw very clearly the limitations of his own church but who also at the same time saw the riches it held(and who also wrote deeply about the Jesus Prayer), and some such words could also apply to the other Christian churches:

O strange Orthodox Church, so poor and weak, with neither the organization nor the culture of the West, staying afloat as if by a miracle in the face of so many trials, tribulations and struggles; a Church of contrasts, both so traditional and so free, so archaic and so alive, so ritualist and so personally involved, a Church where the priceless pearl of the Gospel is assiduously preserved, sometimes under a layer of dust; a Church which in shadows and silence maintains above all the eternal values of purity, poverty, ascetisim, humility and forgiveness; a Church which has often not known how to act, but which can sing of the joy of Pascha like no other.


Now let us turn to get a glimpse of what lies in the depths of this problem of false religion. Already in the oldest strains of the Old Testament this problem is at hand, and it is always called “idolatry.” The condemnation of idolatry is the bedrock of the Ten Commandments, and one might say that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of Western Civ in its social institutions and social life. Now many, many people see this problem of idolatry in a simplistic and crude way: like the fashioning of some idol and worshipping it, like the depiction in the Old Testament of the People of Israel when they fled Egypt and were in the desert and fashioned a golden calf for the purposes of worship. We have to understand these stories without our literalist and fundamentalist myopia. Certainly the mystics penetrated the real meaning of these narratives (and especially the Sufi mystics). They pointed to the images of God we carry in our head and our heart–they range from the crude and awful to the good, the benign and the sublime. But, we need ultimately to be freed of all these images; I repeat ALL these images need to be purged because they form some form of idolatry within us because the Reality of the Mystery of God is so far beyond anything we can imagine. And this we have emphasized over and over in this blog.

Recall that story of Elijah where he is going to encounter the Reality of God(1 Kings 19: 11-13), and he is convinced that this will happen in some great and awesome manifestation like a great wind or a great earthquake; but it happens rather in what can only be described as an unusual silence. So even a great prophet has to be divested of his internal images connected with God that lead to certain expectations because this Reality is beyond all images and all conceptions and all expectations.

So the first level of idolatry has to do with these images we have of that Reality which we call God. They can be crude, awful, and distorted, and then the consequences can be horrific, both at a personal and a social level. We won’t discuss this because in many ways the problem is obvious. However this inner image-making process can be quite sublime and benign and seemingly religious, and if we succumb to this and mistakenly equate God with our images, concepts and words, then our spiritual life will be seriously impaired by what is in fact a form of idolatry, benign and inevitable though it may seem but leading to “false religion.”   This is a special problem of theistic religion because God is conceived for all practical purposes as this “object,” personal though it be, as something “out there” to whom we relate in various ways. In a sense this is inevitable because of the way we function as human beings. But once a serious spiritual life is born and once we live a serious prayer life that takes us into our own depths, then begins a kind of purging process. The surrender to this purging process is extremely critical for authentic Christian mysticism. The Christian mystics have all written about this in various terms, and the scary thing for many people is that at the end of this purging there seems to be nothing left. You just seem to drop into this Black Hole. This is the critical point in real mysticism, this surrender to what seems like Nothing. The ones who cling to the “last image” that has comforted them over the years are in fact caught in a kind of subtle idolatry–they prefer the image to the Reality, but of course it never is put in those terms; rather the image is named “God” and so there you have the idolatry. Now think of a few interesting examples: Thomas Aquinas and Mother Teresa. In the last year of his life Aquinas seems to have had some mystical experience of the Reality of God. He calls all his great theological work “dung” (in polite medieval terms it was called “straw”), and he stops writing altogether. The Reality is so much beyond all his words and concepts that it leaves him silent–he became Chuang Tzu’s “the man who forgot words!” Then there is the example of Mother Teresa who spent several of her last years in total inner darkness. We know from her own spiritual diary that she felt like there was nothing out there, that her faith was collapsing, that there was no God. This is a classic and profound moment in one’s spiritual growth, the rooting out of every trace of false religion from the depths of her heart, but the astonishing thing is that she did not have adequate spiritual guidance to help her, so she suffered from depression in her last days.

Now as we said before we won’t even bother with the crude and awful images of God that people carry and act upon and cause havoc and superstition that masks for religiosity.  That is usually the main problem which religion manifests and a true headache for true religion. Idolatry, whether subtle and sublime or crude and distorted, leads to different kinds of structuring of religion both in our personal lives and in our institutions. And in a sense the purifying of this idolatry is the great work of religion, at least in its foundational aspects–because even in our “good works” and acts of compassion, these can be seriously compromised by whatever degree of idolatry persists in our depths(as I will further note later).

For Christians there is the special problem of the reality of Jesus Christ. On the one hand this person is, theologically speaking, the only true image of God. And in a sense that is the way most Christians worship him and look to him as the center of their lives. That’s ok, but it misses some important nuances that can keep them from growing into a very deep realization of who they are and who God is. This becomes what has sometimes been termed as “Jesusology,” or “Jesusolatry.” Hard to say for a Christian but it is true that there can be a kind of wrong focus on Jesus that leaves one on a kind of pious shallow surface of spirituality. I fault Church people for letting so many drift there in this shallow piety instead of saying to them, “Friend, go up higher.” Instead Jesus becomes a talisman, a worker of magic for people. So first of all, I would like to suggest that Jesus is the perfect “anti-image” or better “counter-image.” By that I mean that Jesus deconstructs all those images we have of God that range anywhere from inadequate to downright false. That’s why the Pharisees reacted so violently to him; he challenged their religious idolatry of the Law, their conception of God and of the human-divine relationship. They were and are the preeminent exponents of false religion, even though they were pious men of their time and saw themselves as the true upholders of true religion.

Jesus pointed to the really Real, the Reality of God, whom he called “Father.” Of course this creates another image problem because “Father” can be a very problematic term. For some people this turns into a nasty twist that distorts their view of religion. On the one hand, a father can be a brutal tyrant who abuses his children; on the other hand some conceive this father as a “sugar daddy” who is there to please their whims. Pope Francis pointed to this not too long ago when he said that for too many people God is there only to give them the life that they want. You tell God what you want and wait for the stamp of approval of your fantasies, dreams, whims, etc. This is another form of false religion even if it is “church-going” religion.

Returning now again to the “image” quality of Jesus, not many people consider that the cross is a shattering of all images, including the “pious Jesus,” and then with the Resurrection you would think that you transcend all images; but alas our image-making process is so strong that it can even turn these realities into forms of false religion. That’s why Jesus said that it was good and important for him to “go away” (the Mystery of the Ascension), so that we do not seek him amid all the words, concepts, and images out there but in the darkness of the depths of our hearts where we and God are One.

Now one more point in this regard: nothing said above should be interpreted as an argument against religious art. Authentic religious art actually invites us to encounter the Mystery which it suggests. That’s different from superficial or awful religious art which simply feeds our internal image-making process. The great Russian and Greek icons, for example, do not try to feed our imaginations but rather they put our hearts in the Presence of the Mystery they symbolically depict. Recall in Merton’s Asian Journal how he felt when he stood before the religious artwork of the Indian artist Roy, or for that matter how his illumination moment unfolded before those great Buddha statues. Profound and authentic religious art is a gateway to true religion.


Now we turn to another level of idolatry which leads to false religion: the idolatry of self so to speak, and this is actually harder to get a handle on and even more insidious in undermining true religion, if you can believe it. Let’s begin by considering this quote from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. (This was one of Dorothy Day’s favorite quotes.) The scene is in Father’s Zossima’s cell, where there are a number of people and a woman has been publicly confessing her failings which amounts to her trying to be and look compassionate in a self-referential kind of way. In other words she wants her “reward,” recognition and approbation, for her “self-sacrifice.” Father Zossima’s acute diagnostic reveals her “false religion” to herself. To read the whole account is very instructive–it can be found in Book 2, Chapter 4. Fr. Zossima is speaking:

“Are you speaking the truth? Well, now, after such a confession, I believe that you are sincere and good at heart. If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it–at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”


So this idolatry of the self and its structuring of “false religion” will infect even our so-called “good works,” which we then use to prop up our own self-image and fortify it even more. Some of the radical sayings of Jesus in the Gospels have to do with a kind of deconstruction of this self. And the Christian mystics over the centuries have often developed their own language to deal with this problem. But I am afraid that the average Christian hardly is aware that his/her own religiosity may be intertwined with a bundle of falseness that amounts to a kind of self-worship. A spirituality that masks that self-referential dynamism churning away within us becomes the lifeblood of false religion.

Thomas Merton’s spiritual diagnostic spoke often of the “true self” and the “false self.” It’s not as if you were in some spiritual schizophrenia with a split personality, one true and one false. No, rather that you have this built-in tendency to form an image of yourself and act off that image and see the world off that image in a self-referential way. This is a totally illusory state of affairs, but it feels and tastes and sounds and seems like your self. This façade of reality, this construction of unreality, is no more than a wisp of smoke in its insubstantiality–ah, but how hard we try to make it “solid” and enduring. But any kind of “wind” (the Holy Spirit?) can come and blow it away, and then we are left with No-self, our true self. But let us listen to Merton in a more explicit Christian vocabulary, and here very much echoing the words of Father Zossima:

“The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we vainly seek to admire and idolize in ourselves—on the contrary, he has identified himself with what we resent in ourselves, for he has taken upon himself our wretchedness and our misery, our poverty and our sins…. We will never find peace if we listen to the voice of our own fatuous self-deception that tells us the conflict has ceased to exist. We will find peace when we can listen to the ‘death dance’ in our blood, not only with equanimity but with exultation because we hear within it the echoes of the victory of the Risen Savior.”


But Merton also learned to go much deeper into his Christianity from his deep penetration of the insights of Buddhism. His language changes, and one is not sure exactly how he was going to go with his new language, and how he might reinterpret Christian spirituality and mysticism after his return from Asia–as he was hinting he would do. In any case, borrowing from a quote that I used in a previous blog posting, here is Merton talking of authentic Buddhists who happen to convert to Christianity: “When Buddhists become Christian, they’re not just caught up into a rudimentary idea of the soul being saved by Christ. They find the Church an elaboration of Buddhism. It is not a deepening of their own Buddhism they come to, but a rethinking of it in personal terms. They retain their pure kind of consciousness; they don’t develop an ego to be saved. They remain stripped of this. And it’s within this deep emptiness that they see a personal relationship to God.”

And Abhishiktananda echoing the words both of Fr. Zossima and Merton and in his own context has this contribution: “For example, in my personal experience of God as ‘other’ or of myself as sinner, has my ego, my ‘I,’really been purified of its self-centeredness, its ahamkara, as Indian tradition calls it? To set God in front of me, and myself as creature and sinner over against him, could well be–at least sometimes–only a more subtle means of self-expression, of confirming my ahamkara and of asserting my ‘I’ despite all, although this experience ought to be one of complete surrender and self-abasement before the majesty of the Lord. In such cases it is all the easier to be deceived, because the subject matter is sacred and religious, and very few would be ready to suspect the presence of what psycho-analysis would call ‘substitution’ or ‘transference.’”


Whether you prefer the more traditional language or perhaps you see the potential deepening of insight in this kind of encounter with the great Asian religions, the point is that we are all invited out of the bondage of “false religion” into the exhilarating freedom of “true religion.”