I am busy researching for my next book project (with Mark Nelson) which is about seeing God, people, and mission through a much larger frame. Trying to expose damaging reductionisms in our thinking and practice that have all but obscured who God is in himself, but also have reduced the ways in which we can see what he is doing in lives beyond the narrowed confines of the church. Part of that research has taken me to explore the idea of theophany...the always surprising ways that God reveals himself to people...and how people encounter God in myriad ways without knowing it.
Anyhow, the book starts by addressing the the all-too-religious penchant for locking God down to selective doctrinal formulas. So, in my reading I came across this piece by a scholar called Matthew Skinner, in a book that explores the nature of theophany as expressed in the Acts of the Apostles. He shows great insight into religious pathology here....
“For another reason, the religious leaders who kill Stephen have, we might assume, allowed their responsibility to protect their understanding of God to become so pressing to them that it eclipses their ability to be curious about that understanding. That is, they cannot engage Stephen in authentic conversation about God because they (perhaps like him) have religious commitments that they will not permit to budge, commitments they will protect to the hilt before they consider other ways of understanding God. Their commitments might extend to presuming they know exactly how God works, and therefore they refuse to make room for anything a professed visionary like Stephen might say. They lash out in violence because they have fallen victim to the oldest sin in the book. idolatry,
Idolatry worships a creation instead of the Creator. Idolatry loves symbols more than the thing to which a symbol points. Idolatry satisfies itself with knockoffs and shadows. Idolatry imagines God an be contained and therefore controlled and owned. Because idolaters think they know where the treasure resides, they allow no alterations to their maps and they punish explorers—with violence, if neccesary.
Stephen's speech to the high priest warns about idolatry when it re-proclaims (following Isaiah 66:1-21) God's dwelling as encompassing all of heaven and earth, not limited to a temple on a hill. He does not say the temple in Jerusalem is inherently idolatrous but that some--including a core group in his audience--have come treat it in an idolatrous manner, giving it outsized importance and becoming unable to glimpse other places and ways where promised to be present.
The idolatry perverting Stephen's foes hardly afflicts them alone. It connects to more than a high regard for temples and rightly interpreting the Law of Moses. It involves temptations that beset probably all religious people (including Stephen?): to turn a quest for God into an enterprise of self-assured arrogance instead of a search requiring humble reliance on fellow seekers and openness to new and old ways of finding God. Steven's story is not about the bad guys. It's about coming to terms with the reality that all of us are prone to reject God's messengers and cling ferociously to what we already know, or think we know, very well.
The antidote to idolatry is not to avoid being religious. Violence and self-assurance are hardly limited to religious people. It is not to withhold passion and conviction from our beliefs, not to distrust all we think we know who can know about God. The answer involves keeping in view the object of our convictions–the possibility of encountering God. It likewise involves vigilantly noticing how our pursuing and safeguarding of these convictions leads us to deal with differences and dissent. If our convictions leave broken bodies in the wake, or if our pursuits of our religious values and prerogatives snuff out people's vitality in other ways, then we are almost certainly doing something wrong.
Fortunately, Acts, given its many connections to the Gospel of Luke, keeps our attention on Jesus's example. Not a high-octane Messiah but one willing to risk vulnerability, this Savior knows these dynamics of aggression and coercion up close, having suffered from them himself. Because of this, or perhaps despite it, he nevertheless remains committed to delivering us from our worst proclivities – even from our very violent selves.” ~ Matthew Skinner, Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel, P.48-9