4 Turning Religion into an Idol
The primary difference between the Pharisee and the Christian is to be found in the area of their motives, we have seen. The Pharisee, as with all depraved humanity, suffers from a terminal disease called covetousness, which could be defined as the primordial desire and drive of humanity to regain what was lost with the spiritual fall of their ancestors. This drive towards self-assertion is well captured by the Greek concept of Eros, and lies at the heart of all idolatry. The New Testament introduces Jesus Christ as the bread of life for a starving world, and as the pearl of great price that makes a person gladly leave all he has in order to gain Christ, with thanksgiving and contentment being the reward and outcome.
In this chapter we shall ask the question: ‘Where does that leave the Pharisee who rejects Christ?’ The answer is not difficult to come by. The Pharisee, like all human beings, is an idolater. Idolatry, as we have seen, originates in the heart and manifests as desire. It is humanly impossible to overcome this inner force of desire through effort or will power, which is why no human being can effect his or her own salvation. To turn from the obvious idols of this world, such as money and sex, is to deal with a symptom and not a cause. A religious conversion is entirely useless if it does not address the state of the covetous heart within. The heart will remain idolatrous even if a man converts to religion. The only conversion in such a case will be the conversion of the idol, not of the individual. Carnal idols will be exchanged with religious ones, and this is where Pharisaism comes in.
The Pharisee’s error is that of confusing the law of God with an end rather than a means. Being blind to its real purpose, the Pharisee does not go beyond the law, but tricks himself into a position where the law becomes his focal point, and so the object of his idolatry. He believes himself to have found the pearl of great price, and this explains why he has no interest in rumours about other pearls. The very religion that was intended as a schoolmaster for a mere season in his life, to guide him to Christ and to maturity and freedom, has ensnared him and made him its slave. The object of his covetousness, which provides him with his reason for being, is his religion.
In this sense the Pharisee is distinct from the sinner. He fornicates not with the world, but with religion. He uses it as an object of desire, to calm the restlessness of his soul and as a substitute for God. This he does in the name of God. The Pharisee loves the law, but he hates the lawgiver. As his greatest interest is that of self, as is the case with all depraved people, every religious deed he does is for the sake of self. His religion is nothing but sophisticated paganism, and the god he confesses a mere projection of his own thinking, suited to his own desires, and created in his own image.
It is significant that Paul, in Romans 2:1, after having discussed the birth of Paganism and idolatry (1:18-32), says to the religious Jews: ‘…you who pass judgment do the same things.’ The statement is a strange one, especially if one considers how religious the Pharisees were. But the riddle is solved in chapter 7, where we see that even the most righteous Pharisee is a lawbreaker as a result of his inability to keep the tenth command. And so the damning statement of chapter 2:1 culminates in chapter 3:9-12: ‘…Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin…There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no-one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one…’
This explains why the Pharisee hates the message preached by Christ. Christ demands a denial of the self, even of the religious self.
The New Testament on Why the Pharisee is Attracted to Religion
The problem of Pharisaism might be described as that of religious Eros. It is a fascination with God, all for the wrong reason. It is the pursuit of spirituality motivated by covetousness. It is, to use Paul’s term, ‘godliness as a means to gain’ (1 Tim. 6:5), and it was pointed out by Christ as the driving force behind Pharisaic religion: ‘Everything they do is for men to see; …they love the place of honour…; they love to…have men call them “Rabbi”.’ (Matt. 23:5-8). The ‘hypocrites’ of Matt. 6 had the same problem: They gave to the needy to be ‘honoured by men’ (v. 2), they prayed to be ‘seen by men’ (v. 5), and they fasted to ‘show men they are fasting’ (v. 16). The point of Matt. 6, of course, is that we should not store up treasures on earth, but in heaven, for ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (v. 19-21), and the hypocrites are provided as an example of religious people whose treasure was on earth, as they prefer their reward in the here and now (The words ‘they have received their reward in full’ are repeated in each of the above cases, and each time contrasted with ‘your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’)
The New Testament authors were aware that it was possible to practice Christianity with ulterior motives. James, for instance, points out that it is quite possible to pray to God for the sake of self (Jas. 4:3), and Paul reminds us that it is equally possible to preach the gospel with impure motives (Phil. 1:15-18). Doing ‘the right deed for the wrong reason’ can therefore indeed be described as treason, as Blake reminds us, and nowhere is this more true than when those right deeds include religious acts.
If we take the above seriously, then we must admit that we are dealing here with two very different species of religious people, and, indeed, two very different religions. ‘Godliness as gain’ and ‘godliness with contentment’ (1 Tim. 6:6) are two bipolar opposites that have nothing in common, and never will have.
Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Religious Orientation
So great and obvious is the difference that it has been identified in the field of psychology of religion, with Gordon Allport’s concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic religious orientations representing the backbone of the research. The difference between the two orientations are defined as follows by Allport and Ross (Cited in Kahoe 985:24 (4) 409):
‘Extrinsic Orientation: Persons with this orientation are disposed to use religion for their own ends… It serves other, more ultimate interests. Extrinsic values are always instrumental and utilitarian. Persons with this orientation may find religion useful in a variety of ways, e.g., to provide security and solace, sociability and distraction, status and self-justification. The embraced creed is lightly held or else selectively shaped to fit more primary needs. In theological terms the extrinsic type turns to God, but without turning away from self.
Intrinsic Orientation: Persons with this orientation find their master motive in religion. Other needs, strong as they may be, are regarded as of less ultimate significance, and they are, insofar as possible, brought into harmony with the religious beliefs and prescriptions. Having embraced a creed, the individual endeavors to internalize it and follow it fully. It is in this sense that he lives his religion.
The well established Allport and Ross Scales have been used in numerous studies focusing on the correlation between religiousness and a variety of personality variables and prejudices. For instance, in a study of 850 volunteers, reported in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity (Watson, Morris, Hood & Biderman 1990, 9 (1): 40-46), it was found that ‘Intrinsics’ were lower than ‘Extrinsics’ in what is called a ‘pathological form of narcissistic exploitativeness’. Extrinsic religious orientation was also shown to be correlated with ethnic prejudice in a 1967 article by Allport and Ross (1967, Vol 5, No 4, 432-443).
By pointing to the above, I am by no means implying that Allport has given us a psychological definition of the difference between Pharisaism and Christianity. His concepts involve much more than this, but they are helpful as a scientific confirmation of the fact that the locus of religious people can generally be defined in one of two ways, and, of course, one cannot help but to notice the resemblance between these definitions and the conclusions drawn thus far in these articles.
The Murder of God
Another helpful perspective from the arena of psychology comes from psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. Peck’s interest in human evil is rather unorthodox for a psychiatrist, especially one as famous as Peck, and comes under scrutiny in his People of the Lie (1983). Peck converted to Christianity after he authored the bestseller The Road Less Travelled, and followed it up with this study on human evil. Peck has been somewhat of a controversial figure in Christian circles, but I quote him here primarily in his capacity as a scholar and student of human behavior.
Frustrated with the lack of a ‘body of scientific knowledge about human evil deserving of being called a psychology’ (43), Peck wrote People of the Lie, drawing, amongst others, from the works of Erich Fromm and Malachi Martin. Peck’s definition of evil is helpful to us, as it touches on the very issues addressed above, albeit with a different focus: In The Road Less Travelled, he defines evil as ‘the exercise of political power – that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion… – in order to avoid…spiritual growth’ (298). In People of the Lie, he says: ‘It would, I believe, be quite appropriate to classify evil people as constituting a specific variant of the narcissistic personality disorder.’ (1983:145). According to Peck, evil is ‘live spelled backward…Evil is in opposition to life. It is that which opposes the life force. It has, in short, to do with killing…I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is also that which kills spirit…’ (1983:46).
Peck acknowledges his indebtedness to Fromm in this regard: ‘Erich Fromm…broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others – to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line. Distinguishing it from a “biophilic” person, one who appreciates and fosters the variety of life forms and the uniqueness of the individual, he demonstrated a “necrophilic character type”, whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.’ (1983:47).
Reading the above, it becomes clear why Peck sees evil as a variant of narcissism. To use our terminology: It is a coveting of the other for the sake of the self. As such it could be described as love gone toxic, parasitical rather than life-giving, a black hole rather than a light. It is a desire for the life energy of another, a type of psychic vampirism, resulting in the murder of his or her spirit. The case studies discussed by Peck in People of the Lie clearly show how this toxic love is fostered by an underlying sick dependence on one or more other people, and even how narcissistic personalities could be attracted to one another with the sole purpose of having their desires gratified in and through such a sick relationship, or ‘incestuous symbiosis’ (1983:133), such as in the case of ‘Hartley and Sarah’ (1983:122).
Evil, therefore, can be described not only as the opposite of ‘life’, but also as the opposite of love, as Peck’s definition of love includes the nurturing of another’s spiritual growth (1978:85). Evil, according to the above definitions, could therefore be seen as an inversion of the second of the two greatest commandments. It is not love for the sake of the other, but love for the sake of self, and therefore the exact opposite of love.
The question that arises at this point is this: Is human evil a phenomenon that is only prevalent in human relationships, or can it also present itself in the relationship between a human and his god? To put it another way: If the inversion of the second commandment is such a real threat, why not also, and even more so, the inversion of the first and greatest commandment? If we can love others for the sake of our selves, why can we not also love God in this way?
What would one call an imposition of the will not only on others, but also on God, and, if I may adjust Peck’s terminology slightly – a desire to make him controllable, to diminish his unpredictability and originality, to keep him in line, to foster his dependency, to discourage his capacity to think for himself? I believe the word is ‘crucifixion’. What happened on Golgotha 2000 years ago is not only a timeless display of the love of God, but also a brilliant analysis of human evil as it boils over the brim of history. Nowhere exists a better and more graphic picture of humanity’s attempt to put God in his place than that of a band of wicked men nailing Christ to a wooden cross.
The sad part of the story is that the murder of God took place in the name of God, as it always does. It is the religious who make it their business to determine the place and the purpose of God, not the sinners, and so it is the religious who get upset with the God that does not fit into their scheme. As Peck put it in What Return Can I Make?: ‘ They [the Pharisees] murdered Jesus. The poor in spirit do not commit evil. Evil is not committed by people who feel uncertain about their righteousness, who question their own motives, who worry about betraying themselves. The evil in this world is committed by the spiritual fat cats, by the Pharisees of our own day, the self-righteous who think they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination.’ (Cited in Peck 1983:80).
The Enchantment of Religion
It needs to be stated that the phenomenon of Pharisaism is a product of both people and context. We have thus far focused mainly on the human motivators behind Pharisaism, but we dare not ignore the motivators inherent in religion itself. As these articles are about the former and not the latter, a few brief remarks would have to suffice.
There is no place that offers better concealment and disguise for the person with narcissistic tendencies than the religious environment. Keeping in mind that ‘the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it’ (Peck 1983:77), a great many sick people find solace within the four walls of the church, oftentimes to hide not only from others, but also from themselves. No doubt some of these ‘conversions’ could be described as ‘religiously-colored psychological conversion which brings some unity and harmony to a troubled person’s life’ (Conn 1986:9). Moreover, the church offers great social benefits for the lonely soul, and it is one of the few places in the world where people will politely listen to you if you have something to say, regardless of whether it be a testimony, a word of encouragement, a prophecy or a tongue. Indeed, it is the one place on earth that will still give you acceptance when all other institutions have ceased to do so. If we talk about a platform from where the self can be asserted, actualised and authenticated, then few places offer such an ideal one as the church.
When it comes to the ministry the lure is even stronger. The advantages, both temporary and eternal, of being a mouthpiece for God are great. With the package comes status and influence, and other benefits might range from mystical powers to material wealth, depending on the context of the ministry or denomination. Walter Conn, in his book Christian Conversion: A Developmental Interpretation of Autonomy and Surrender (1986), provides fascinating insight into the psychology of conversion, and shows how people convert to religion for different reasons. No doubt the same can be said about the call to the ministry, and a theological case might even be made out of the life of Judas Iscariot, who clearly had ulterior motives for joining the band of disciples. Perhaps it would be correct to say that the ministry is the one occupation that simultaneously appeals to the two greatest needs of humanity, namely the need for self-actualisation and the need for God. You can, in other words, get the world with heaven thrown into the package. You can eat your cake and still have it. You need both, or the equation won’t work. As one of the world’s top female televangelists said recently, ‘If God’s not going to work for you, then why serve him?’
The Enchantment of Theology
An area that requires a separate treatment, albeit a brief one, is that of theology. Is there any true theologian or student of Scripture that cannot identify with C. S. Lewis’ comments on doctrinal books being often more helpful in devotion than devotional books? As he puts it: ‘I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.’ (1985:30). Fundamentalists might frown about the pipe, but the principle remains true. Theology has an inherent enchantment that is unlike that of any other discipline, and I can barely imagine a professional life more perfect than one spent studying the thoughts of the great Christian minds of history.
Yet this is exactly what the Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer warns against in his Faith and Justification: ‘Theology is not a complex system constructed for their own entertainment by scholars in the quiet retreat of ivory towers. It must have significance for the unquiet times…’ (Cited in Lane 1984:182). Karl Barth, who also had a reputation for clenching a pipe between his teeth, warns against ‘scientific Eros’, namely Eros, as defined in the previous chapter, in intellectual form: ‘It is the soaring movement by which human knowledge lets itself be borne towards its object and hurries toward them in order to unite them with itself and itself with them, to bring them into its possession and power, and to enjoy them in this way…When scientific Eros evolves in the field of theology, it characteristically and continually confuses the object of theology with other objects. So far as Eros is the motive of theological work, God will not be loved and known for God’s sake, nor man for man’s sake. This situation can only explained by the nature of Eros: every attempt to love and know God and man is made in the quite conscious and deepest interests of the theologian himself, in the self-love of the one who produces this theology.’ (1963:198-199)
In a chapter with the telling title The D-minization of the Ministry, David F. Wells makes the following comments: ‘Insecure ministers who are stripped of importance hope to be elevated through professionalization to the same social standing as other professionals, such as physicians and lawyers. And the Doctor of Ministry degree (D. Min) is the principal tool that seminaries offer to achieve this parity.’ (Guinnes & Seel 1992:175-176). He adds: ‘…among those who have graduated with the degree, 78 percent said that they expected to be more respected in the community and 73 percent expected to be paid more. (p 180).
It is clear, therefore, that the study of God can serve as a substitute for God himself, and so as an idol. It is also clear that the Pharisee, especially, is highly vulnerable to the power of this idol. ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (John 5:39, 40).
Theology as entertainment, theology as scholarship, theology as status, theology as a motivational tool, theology as a prosperity message; whatever the case may be, theology as anything but service and love unto God and others is toxic theology, and should be discarded like all waste.
The Bottom Line
This, then, is the heart of Pharisaism. It is the coveting of God and his things for the sake of self. It is religious utilitarianism, and it always includes the murder of the true God for the sake of setting up a counterfeit, fashioned to our image and likeness, behaving like we want him to. The basic problem of sin, as expressed in human covetousness, underlies the phenomenon of Pharisaism, and it gives rise to motives and intentions that are much discussed by psychologists but oftentimes ignored by theologians.
The irony of the Pharisee is that his effort to keep the law makes him blind to his impotence to do so. The tragedy of the Pharisee is that he exchanges the idols of the world for religious ones, without knowing it. And so, whilst appearing righteous on the outside, he is unrighteous within:
‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness’ (Matt.23:25-28).
‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men …Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:6-8, 18-23)