Ours in the West is largely a secularized society. However, especially after 9/11, we have become much more aware of the influence of religion—mostly bad in many people’s eyes. This, I believe, is a bum rap for authentic religion, which I would describe in a phrase as “within me, and between me and thee.”
I cringe, for example, when someone says of a Jewish person that she is “religious,” meaning, of course, that she does all the externals. That is not only a wrongheaded understanding of what religion is, but it is precisely wrong. To stick with Judaism for the moment, according to the rabbis the heart of what Judaism is all about is kavanah, interior intention. The same is true, of course, of all the major religions. In Confucianism, for examples, the rituals, Li, are for the sake of forming an authentic human, Ren. The externals are supposed to be helps to get our head and heart right, and then to act accordingly— “within me, and between me and thee.”
If the externals—which include not only “doing” all the prescribed things but also “saying” the correct formularies of doctrines (which is a special problem for Christians)—in fact distract us from the righting of our head and heart and consequent action in the world, we should reevaluate and perhaps even drop them. After all, the greatest “sin” in the Bible is idolatry. This is so not because God is thereby maligned—surely God cannot be injured by humans. No, there is a constitutive reason why idolatry is the “worst” sin. Idolatry is so bad because, as long as we hold on to it, we are incapable of becoming authentic humans.
Idolatry literally means “worshiping an image” (Greek: eidol, image, latria, worship). It is to focus on the finger pointing to the object, rather than on the object. The whole purpose, however, of the pointing finger is for us to look at the object, not the finger. In the case of religion, the finger is the externals and the object is the interior thought and desire and consequent action: “within me, and between me and thee.”
The two major Semitic religions, Judaism and Islam, both tend to concentrate on what to do, on actions, whereas Christianity (“half” Semitic) stresses much more, though of course not exclusively, what to think. Hence, the greatest temptations toward idolatry for Jews and Muslims are the external actions: I must not eat certain food; I must stop what I doing and go pray now; I may not join with you at these times. All these prescribed actions are doubtless good, as long as they are for the sake of persons (for we truly “love God with our whole heart” by “loving our neighbor as ourselves”), not for the sake of an action.
For Christians, although they are also tempted to idolatry by way of external actions, the most deceptive temptation comes from their adherence to doctrines. For example, Protestantism classically claimed that truth is to be found solely in the Bible (sola Scriptura), and yet in the United States alone there are over 350 different Protestant denominations. Have they made an eidol of their doctrine of what the Scriptura teaches? Catholicism, of course, is not any better off, with its doctrine of papal infallibility. Has papal infallibility become an eidol that is focused on with latria?
Many examples of authentic religion could be lifted up. Let me pick just one here that, in different ways, reflects all three of the Semitic religions. The Jew Rabbi Jesus from Nazareth, whom both Christians and Muslims call the Messiah, said that “it is not what goes into the mouth” (an “external”), but “what comes out” (an “internal” reflecting the kavanah in action) that makes a person good, or not—and elsewhere: “What you have done to the least ones . . . enter into the reward prepared for you.”
Authentic religion is “within me, and between me and thee.”
Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 45:1, Winter 2010