In Exodus 22, we read, “Whoever sacrifices to any god, except to the Lord alone, shall be doomed.”
The word “sacrifice” in this passage means to offer an oblation whose consummation acknowledges the Lordship of Yahweh over all things. By extension, it forbids the performance of any act that implicitly praises or honors a god who is not the Lord. It also implies that we can know the difference.
In our time, all religions, at least in liberal societies, are politically “created” equal, and it is thought arrogant to suggest that one way of worshipping God is not equivalent to another. No doubt in the Muslim world, in the Hindu world, in the Chinese communist world, there is little hesitation to impede or suppress claims to a proper understanding of God or reality that do not conform with the accepted conclusions of the religion espoused by political powers in control of the local state.
Against this background, it might be useful to spell out why it is that God, insofar as we know Him, seems actively concerned with man’s accurate understanding of Himself, not only in His inner being but also in His relations ad extra, to the cosmos and world of man.
The Catholic Church conceives its central mission to be the evangelizing of all nations so that they might have an accurate and complete understanding of God. This understanding, as the Church sees it, is provided primarily by God Himself in revelation. This revelation is also addressed to reason. Some effort to understand its dimensions is possible, and an enrichment of reason itself.
In what must be considered a rather one-sided approach in the past half-century, the Catholic Church has largely taken the initiative to institute forms of discussion with other Christian groups — with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Marxists, Buddhists, with almost anyone who has an established position about the divinity and man. The results of these numerous dialogues have been mixed, but that might be expected.
In all cases, discussions have been based on what is held in common, in an accurate statement of points of difference, and in possibilities of agreement on theoretical or practical points. What is rejected is any position that would deny honest and accurate discussion of issues, especially external threats of physical retaliation. The civil regime is charged with the protection of this possibility of mutual discussion, but the discussion itself is beyond politics. Various religions and philosophies need to come to terms within the confines of their own positions. It is the truth, not politics, that is to govern all such discussions.
But my essential question here is: “Why does it make any human difference what anyone holds about God?” Why, in short, is the accurate understanding of God the first Commandment? Many of the strictures against worshipping false gods in the Old Testament are awesome.
The New Testament, for its part, is the identification of the proper worship of God with the Word made Flesh. We are to worship God in truth. Indeed, it might be said that the long history of mankind on this earth, at bottom, is a search for the proper way to worship God. In this process, almost every conceivable way to worship God has been attempted, all of which seemed to verge on the same idolatry that was so often forbidden.
In retrospect, we must conclude that man did not and could not by himself find the proper “sacrifice” that would worship God as He is. The New Testament bequeaths to us this command: “Do this in memory of me.” This is stated to be the proper way to worship God. The history of theological thought has often been an effort by every means conceivable to avoid the logic of this conclusion.
To go back to my initial question, it seems clear that if we do not understand God properly, we will not understand the world or ourselves properly. It is not somehow that we could get one of three right but the other two wrong. If we get any of them wrong, we will get them all wrong. Pope John Paul II was fond of saying that man does not fully understand himself if he does not understand Christ. The risk of getting God wrong is the reality of getting ourselves wrong.
Behind this discussion of the worship of God, of course, is our freedom. Ultimately, we are free to reject what we are. We are not only a certain given kind of being; we must also choose to be the kind of being we are. Such a choice involves our first knowing that we do not cause ourselves to be what we are. What we are is gifts to ourselves, but not from ourselves. In the end, we must come to an understanding of a God who could, while remaining Himself, cause what is not Himself, including ourselves, to be.
The First Commandment, thus, is not irrational. Rather, it is the first step in understanding what we are. It is also the last step, for it explains how we are to worship God, not after our ways, but after His ways. The proper worship of God is both our end and our final joy.