Monday, November 13, 2006

Thinking Out Loud on Law and Freedom

I say “thinking out loud” because I don’t really want to present this as a teaching. I haven’t quite come to my own conclusions on this elusive and complex matter of freedom (free will and the biblical “freedom of the children of God”), something that I’ve wrestled with for many years. But here are some tentative reflections.

I wonder sometimes if we even know in what consists the freedom the Gospel grants us. Many seem to like the “security” (even if rather confining) that the clear Old Testament laws give us. St Paul says to the Galatians: “You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid I have labored over you in vain” (4:10-11). We too observe all these things in our liturgical calendars. He says to the Colossians: “Why do you live as though you still belonged to this world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch?” (2:21). We have similar regulations and prohibitions. Have we merely substituted the words "New Testament" for "Old Testament," but do not live much differently? Have we changed the subject matter of the ordinances but left the basic structure and mentality the same?

We may well wonder, along with Dostoyevsky, if human beings even want to be free, really, if we aren’t rather terrified with the true meaning of it, if we will do anything to avoid the frightening responsibility of real freedom, though we still champion the cause and use the language of freedom. Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor takes up the matter with Christ: “I tell you that man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born… Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either… Instead of taking over men’s freedom, you increased it and forever burdened the kingdom of the human soul with its torments. You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely… Instead of the firm ancient law, man had henceforth to decide for himself, with a free heart, what is good and what is evil, having only your image before him as a guide—but did it not occur to you that he would eventually reject and dispute even your image and your truth if he was oppressed by so terrible a burden as freedom of choice?... You thirsted for love that is free, and not for the servile raptures of a slave before a power that has left him permanently terrified…” Do we not secretly prefer to be subject to the terrifying power of the Almighty than to be responsible for the terrifying power of the freedom He has given us?

I wrote the following a few years ago and have yet to find truly satisfactory answers. It may seem to be a bit of a rant, but I wonder if others sometimes think the same:

“Being ‘in Christ Jesus’ is what the New Covenant is all about. But for many people such an intimate relationship is so unsettling, so resistant to control and calculation, that they much prefer someone just to tell them what to do and what not to do, so they can perform the prescribed practices and feel secure in their righteousness. Grace departs, law returns.

“What has happened in the Church over the centuries? Has she lost (except in her saints) the original awareness of the radical newness of the life of Grace, the meaning of the covenant, of the relationship that really is new? Why are Christians, after 20 centuries, still acting as ‘unregenerate’ as everyone else? St Paul had adamantly affirmed our Grace-given freedom from the 613 ordinances of the old law, but our present Code of Canon Law contains 1546 ordinances! What went wrong? Perhaps the Church really has preserved the Gospel truth but has deemed the ‘unwashed masses’ to be of insufficient intelligence, perception, or spiritual maturity to handle the challenge and responsibility of living in true love and freedom—hence the laws and censures are meant to be a kind of fence around the flock, to keep them from doing really seriously evil things. Perhaps experience has proved this. But is not replacing Grace with law too high a price to pay? People who really do not wish to know Christ and who prefer to do evil things will not be deterred by ecclesiastical laws anyway. Those who know God live by Grace. Those who don’t, don’t. ‘He who does not love does not know God’ (1John 4: 8). Or is it a numbers game? Is it better to have a billion lukewarm Catholics on the roster or a couple million true believers, on fire with the grace and love of Jesus Christ? Which group will be a leaven for the salvation of the world?

“If the Church would expend more effort on really showing the face of Christ to the people, with vibrant faith moving the mountains of baloney that are offered as substitutes for true spiritual nourishment, the laws would eventually become superfluous. For when people genuinely meet Christ and open their hearts to Him, their ‘conscience wants to owe him, knowing that it would be a dishonor to fail to honor through gratitude the gratuitousness of God’ (François Varillon). And they would begin to walk in love.

“There is a place for law in the Church, especially for the sake of the smooth functioning of the institutional machinery. But that does not concern most of us, especially in our relation to God. Children, however, often need to be trained by means of rules. But like St Paul, eventually we have to get beyond the things of a child and live in a mature manner (see 1Corinthians 13:11). In general, rules are for the unruly, and Christ is calling us to a nobler way of life.

“I suppose I could be accused of being an idealist, because after all, fallen human nature being what it is, people will always need to be herded and corralled by law, punished and then threatened with worse punishments, to deter them from doing worse things than they’ve already done. People nowadays tend to exploit every loophole. They rail against rules and demand freedom, not because they’ve transcended rules and understand true freedom, but because they want to go on doing wrong, only now with impunity. They think freedom means liberation from biblical morality. But should it be that way with Christian people? We are fallen, yes, but are we not uniquely regenerated by Grace? Well, you might say, just look at Church history—right up to the present day—and see for yourself. Yet I would have to maintain with Chesterton: it is not that Christianity has been tried and found to be a failure; it simply hasn’t been tried yet (excepting the notable exceptions).

“But we probably must admit, as a testimony to our near-universal failure in responding to Grace, that laws are necessary for the Church’s mission in her present condition. There’s so much arrogant dissension, selfish shenanigans, and ‘trafficking in iniquity’ on all levels of the Church today, that without the force of law there might be nothing but anarchy and caprice. Practical as law is at this time, it is a sad commentary on the heights from which we have fallen.”

St Paul deals fairly extensively with the matter of freedom in Galatians. He was concerned about their reversion to “works of the law,” which cancel out the newness of the new covenant. But when he goes deeper into the relation of freedom to morality, in the context of faith and love, he gets to the heart of the matter. On this level, freedom is not liberation from something, but for something. The bottom line is that faith in Christ brings us freedom to love. This combination of faith, love, and freedom by its very nature excludes enslavement to evil, which is how Jesus described sin (John 8:34). Since this is so hard to understand, Paul gives a list of the “works of the flesh,” the practicing of which bars one from Paradise (stay tuned for a brief analysis of these works in a couple days). But constrained as he is to warn people of what leads to damnation, he doesn’t really want to give still more laws, for “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). He had just finished saying: “you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.” We just don't seem to get it.

To be free is to look into the face of Christ and to live by what you see. The problem with most champions of freedom (or should I say, of license) is that they mistake the face of Christ for what they see in the mirror and project their own agendas and opinions upon that holy face, as surely as his torturers covered it with spittle and blood 2000 years ago. What would Jesus do, they might say, in response to the vexing moral and spiritual issues of the day? He would do what they would do, of course!

So it looks like we haven’t yet found the true freedom. Either we fear it and take refuge in rules for their own sake, or we misinterpret it and use it to justify sinful and self-serving behavior. We may say we need laws to mark the boundaries of right and wrong. So did St Paul, but that only created a kind of vicious circle that led him to an intolerable anguish for which he begged deliverance (see Romans 7:7-25). And he was set free only by “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (8:2). I think we are truly free only when we don’t need the boundaries anymore—not because we’ve given ourselves permission to sin in the name of freedom, but because we are so caught up in our quest for the face of Christ that we’re no longer in danger of stepping over those boundaries anyway. We’ve taken flight, we’ve allowed the mystery of divine grace to make us new, we’ve ceased to look for a liberation unto license, but have bound ourselves in love to our Lord. “And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2Cor. 3:17).

I still don’t know if I understand it any better, and I’ll probably go on struggling, but thanks for giving me a chance to air a few thoughts on the subject!