>Why is Galatians 5 such a pivotal text for my understanding of my call? First of all because it is an impassioned call for walking freely. As part of my understanding of how to live out my call I am to be open to God and to mimic Him in my life.
But first a step back. Monastic life for millennia has been an attempt to live as completely as possible in Jesus. To this end since the Desert Fathers & Mothers men and women sought out ways to create an environment which was acoustically perfect to hear God’s Voice. By definition such an environment is artificial. A monastery is as close to real life as a university. Sure a young man or woman in college discovers a new world, and learns many things about real life which they would not otherwise find back at home. But a college is also as far removed from life as possible – ask anyone about a year out of college int he ‘real world’.
I am not putting down artificiality. It is important to design habitats where we can exercise certain facets of our existence. A good university is optimally constructed to maximize exposure to learning opportunities, be they intellectual or social. A monastery is a similarly structured environment (in fact it is no surprise that the first universities were monasteries) – it is designed to maximize the individual’s exposure to prayer opportunities. Everything is focused on that. To take this further, even a home is artificial. It is a place where I can maximize my exposure to my family. The same approach can be applied when thinking of an office. And so on.
In fact, I am hard pressed to come up with places or spaces where we do not artificially arrange our environment to maximize some facet or another of our lives. I am not in any way pleading for sort of fantastical ‘noble savage’ ideal, where all is ‘natural’ nothing is artificial. This is a fantasy, and it too, in its own way, is artificial!
The first step is to simply recognize all these various artificial environments. How many do I enter into every day?
After recognizing them for what they are, the next question is to ask ‘What are they teaching here?’ What is this environment designed to do? What kind of opportunities does it afford me? I have worked in a company whose sole focus was making money, and it designed its environment accordingly. I have also worked in non-profits whose goal was serving others, and it was designed very differently. Even within companies each dept. has its own environment. I have worked in accounting which works one way, and I have worked in marketing which is different.
All these environments have rules. There are clear and codified and often written down rules and regulations for behavior. There is a lot here that can be drawn from Game Theory, but essentially there are two critical things to grasp: one is that each artificial environment is designed and developed to maximize the opportunities to exercise a certain trait; two all social environments are artificial.
So far so simple. The tragedy comes when people simply lose sight of the artificiality of their environment and take it as an immutable law of nature. “This is the way things are”, they will say. They then become trapped within the ‘game’, within the confines of the environment – just like the ‘permanent student’ who goes to college for 12 years without graduating and who lives with his parents – unable to transition out of the safe and nurturing environment of college.
So where is freedom in all of this? Well the first step of freedom is to recognize that in Christ you do not need to be limited to a few of these ‘games’. This is part of what Paul means by being all things to all people. Jesus blew through social conventions in ways which we are still discovering to this day – he touched the outcasts, he broke Levitical law, he had close women followers, he called YHWH ‘Daddy’, and so on.
When I am in Christ, that is when he is before me and behind me above me and below me to my right and to my left as St. Patrick suggests, then I am not imprisoned by these rules. I am free.
But Paul, a savvy student of human nature, predicted a danger in this freedom. If I can see the artificiality of my environs, and if in Christ I am freed from such bondage, then what stops me from indulging in, let’s say, less than Biblical behavior? After all aren’t some (all?) of our social mores and taboos just ‘game rules’? Well yes and no says Paul “do not use your freedom to indulge in your sinful nature”.
This is quite a subtle piece of advice. On the surface Paul seems to say what most have come to equate with church-speak, a condescending form of sermonizing, which pretends to talk about freedom just to go right back to the old standards. But looking at it more carefully I can see that what Paul is suggesting is that I drop my hypocrisy! What he is suggesting is that to be the freed of Christ, I need to be completely free. I must not allow this gift to lead me back into slavery.
The insight here is simple: recognize that social rules are artificial, but also recognize that inner tendencies are artificial also. There is not much space to discuss whether this is an innate or learned mechanism. Ad in fact it does not matter. The simple fact is that my inner drives are compulsive and most often unhealthy. If I ‘let go of the reins’ in some misguided attempt to be free I will end up enslaved to much worse things than stifling social conventions!
And here’s the final piece: while all society is a large artificial environment, some of these rules are healthy (just as some of my inner drives are healthy). Just not all. To be free one must pick each one at a time and discern its spirit. Ask yourself is this environment a spirit of good or evil, one which leads me to health or to illness? Is this environment one which teaches me how to be less selfish, more loving, more prayerful, or is it one which glorifies power, greed and hubris?
My freedom lies in choosing – today, now – between life and death. Meditate for the next week on the passage below, especially next to Galatians 5.