William Stringfellow, Imposters of God: Inquiries into Favorite Idols – Part I

Developed as the 1968 Mendenhall Lectures at DePaul University, William Stringfellow’s Imposters of God begins with this insight:

Nothing seems more bewildering to a person outside the Church about those inside the Church than the contrast between how Christians behave in society and what Christians do in the sanctuary.

This contrast is not, I suspect, just taken for granted by outsiders as evidence of the hypocrisy of professed Christians. It is not simply that Christians do not practice what is preached and neglect to authenticate worship by witness. The non-churchmen is, I suggest, much more bewildered by the difficulty of discerning either connection or consistency between social action and liturgical event. The two apparently represent not only distinguishable but altogether separate realms: the former deals with ethics, the latter with aesthetics; the first is empirical, the second theatrical; the one is mundane, the other quaint. For the stranger to the Church, to whom the churchman appears to act in the marketplace much the same as everybody else, the straightforward and cogent explanation is that these peculiar sanctuary activities are sentimentally significant—as habit, tradition or superstition—but otherwise irrelevant, superfluous and ineffectual.

More or less secretly, or at least quietly, legions of church people suffer this same sort of bewilderment. If these people sense any relationship between practical life and sacramental experience, it is tenuous, illusive and visceral: a felt connection, a matter not readily elucidated, a spooky thing. On occasion, when a priest or preacher goes forth from the sanctuary to affirm in the world what is celebrated at the altar, he is usually ridiculed for meddling in affairs outside his vocation. Or when, in the midst of worship, a pastor ventures to be articulate about the relationship between ethics and sacraments, his effort is apt to be regarded as an intrusion defiling the congregation’s ears. (pp. xxi–xxii)

The book, which is essentially a series of studies on St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, proceeds to name and speak to a number of our culture’s idols (namely religion, work, money, status, race, patriotism, the Church, and education, which ‘clearly has many ideological components, including the worship of middle-class values good and bad, and of an egalitarian type of democracy’ (p. 17) – all of which compete ‘for the very lives of men’ (p. 18) – convinced as Stringfellow is that ‘a significant clue toward understanding what society and sanctuary have to do with one another can be found in examining the common idolatries of men and also that peculiar freedom in Christ from all idolatries, the freedom in which human beings are no longer slaves, but become sons and heirs of God’ (p. xxiii).

Throughout Imposters of God, Stringfellow is concerned to demote what he calls ‘the prevalence and present practice of idolatry among us’ (p. 5), convinced, as he is, that our contemporaries in the West are as enslaved as ever, and perhaps more than ever, to the idols that we suppose our ‘less civilized counterpart[s]’ were. Whether those idols be our children, or the ‘present idolatrous fascination with science’ (which is not significantly ‘distinguishable from the adoration of fire and thunder’), or with the ferocious homage exacted by state leaders, or by the State itself, which is no less idolatrous than the allegiance commanded by Caesar Augustus. Whatever the form taken, ‘all idols are imposters of God’ (p. 6). Indeed:

Idolatry is the worship of what man has turned into such an imposter. In other words, idolatry means honoring the idol as that which renders the existence of the idolater morally significant, ultimately worthwhile. The idolater believes that his virtue or worthiness depends upon the consistency, zeal, and appropriateness of the devotion, service, and elevation he accords to the idol. Thus Americans who have devoutly served the idols of respectability and status all their lives feel threatened in their very being when their children refuse to offer these idols the same worship. (p. 6)

While constituted by the Fall which ‘begets the human quest for meaning in existence’, and after which human persons searching for their lost identity seek ‘somehow to bridge the brokenness of their relationships within themselves and with others and with the principalities and powers’ (p. 15), and to grope for justification, humanity is then – by the event of euchatastrophic love, that is, in the ‘embodiment of God’s action in the midst of the Fall’ (p. 16) – reconstituted, justified. Stringfellow bears witness to this new decisiveness, this new location of human personhood, when he recalls the Christian claim of justification in Christ as ‘the event in which God gives and establishes the moral significance of human life in this world’ (p. 6). It is the event of truth, and of truth-making. Conversely, idolatry, or what I call the praxis of death, both defies God and dehumanises human persons. ‘Every idol is an acolyte of death’ (p. 63), writes Stringfellow. It represents the attempt to return to the time of death, and a refusal to live in the new time, the time of eternal life. And Stringfellow maps the consequences of such a decision: ‘Where idolatrous patriotism is practiced, the vocation of the nation so idolized is destroyed. When money becomes an idol, the true utility of money is lost. When the family is idolized, the members of the family are enslaved. Every idol, therefore, represents a thing or being existing in a state of profound disorientation’ (p. 9).

And again: ‘Thus idolatry means more than that men are religious. It means that they are religious in a peculiar way: they are pantheists. The contemporary, Western, urban man is in truth as much a pantheist as any Greek or any Inca. Discussions about “secularism” – whether for it or against it – would be more realistic if they took this fact into account’. (p. 19)

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