On the Incarnation of the Word 55 – Idolatry Diminishing?

I read Athanasius’ summation of much that he has already written and my first reaction on this reading, probably shaped by my earlier reflections on my pluralist formation, is almost one of confusion.

This, then, after what we have so far said, it is right for you to realize, and to take as the sum of what we have already stated, and to marvel at exceedingly; namely, that since the Saviour has come among us, idolatry not only has no longer increased, but what there was is diminishing and gradually coming to an end: and not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer advance, but what there is is now fading away: and demons, so far from cheating any more by illusions and prophecies and magic arts, if they so much as dare to make the attempt, are put to shame by the sign of the Cross. And to sum the matter up: behold how the Saviour’s doctrine is everywhere increasing, while all idolatry and everything opposed to the faith of Christ is daily dwindling, and losing power, and falling.

It is true, when you study history, that Christianity spread like wildfire through ancient pagan lands, overturning long-standing and oppressive gods and religious practices. By the time Athanasius writes the above, even the Empire is beginning its turn from its pagan gods.

But my life experience has been almost the opposite of the above. I absorbed the experience of one spirituality after another. And while Christianity was a part of the mix, there was often little in it to distinguish it from or elevate it above the rest. Indeed, some of my experiences with Christians were pretty negative and made it less attractive. Even now, Christianity is fading in lands where it was once the default, where the pagan religions had seemed to almost end.

Why?

That’s the question that comes to my mind. For Jesus of Nazareth is no less compelling now than he was when Athanasius wrote those words — at least, not if you really encounter him. And nothing else I’ve lived or experienced really compares with the vision of reality we see in Christ. Not the unending cycle of death and rebirth found at the core of nature worship. Not the karmic cycle on the wheel of samsara trapped in maya. Not the strict path of discipline of the Buddha seeking enlightenment. Not the vision of a reality devoid of deeper or lasting meaning that lies near the heart of many materialistic perspectives. I’ve explored and lived many of those along the course of my journey and I find that when I compare them to the God made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth, I agree with Athanasius’ sentiment. And I understand why the ancient pagan world turned so dramatically.

So then why are so many turning back to pagan paths? Why did it take so long for me (and others) to really begin to see this strange Jesus and be drawn to him? What is different in our world today?

That’s a complex question and there are undoubtedly more threads weaving the present tapestry than I can ever fully grasp. Nevertheless, I think part of the problem is that the Church has ceased to even try to be one. And in the morass of Christian pluralism, many of the pictures painted of Jesus and God, many of the ideas, many of the theologies are actually repellent.

It’s harder today to actually see Christ than it was when Athanasius wrote his treatise.

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