to walk worthily of the Lord, pleasing him in all respects

Monday, April 02, 2012

Lent, day 35: The first of six things I am learning from Colossians

                                              …for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall
           from John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV

We’ve been studying Colossians over the last five weeks. We first looked at the problem that prompted the writing of the letter; troublemakers who were cajoling the Colossians into practicing a religion from below, into reliance on their own efforts to divest themselves of the influence of the flesh and to appease spiritually superior and potent forces (I referred to this as ‘buying the stairway to heaven’). Paul wrote the Colossians to remind them of what it means to believe in Jesus Christ. The first thing he does is to recite the Song of Christ (Col 1:15-20), effectively a beautiful hymn that expresses the sweeping grandeur of Christ’s relationship to God and to creation as well as the surprising and radical humility of his humanity, where the fullness of God reconciles and pacifies the universe through a bloody death on the cross. Paul then highlights how, instead of climbing a spiritual ladder, we’ve been transported directly into Christ via our baptisms. Baptism is God’s work where we receive his judgment on us through the death of Christ to the end that we share in Christ’s resurrection life. That resurrected life is mysterious in that we are hid with Christ at God’s right hand and yet still live here on earth. Paul encourages us to discover this new life we’ve been given through stripping off sinful vices and to embrace new humanity which renews not just us but all humanity sot that Christ is all and in all. We highlight this new humanity through putting on the attire of Christ, the Christian virtues and especially love. And this new life transforms every aspect of our lives, including our familial and social relationships, which we now live ‘as is fitting in the Lord.’ Hopefully my blog posts have illuminated these different features of Colossians.

As we finish the season of Lent by making our way through Holy Week, I want to offer six ways that this understanding of Colossians informs my own life (or ways I believe it should, even if I fail to let it). Today, I want to focus on Paul’s warning in Col 2:8, “Look out, lest someone take you captive through philosophy and empty deceit according to human traditions, according to the elemental forces of the universe and not according to Christ.”

Paul has me at ‘philosophy,’ since, as an academic and especially as one who researches the relationship between early Christianity and the Greco-Roman world, I want to know how philosophy positively and negatively affected Christian thought and living. But Paul writes not to titillate my research fancy but to wake me up to those who would lead me astray and, more frighteningly, whisk me away from Christ. He uses ‘philosophy’ because it sounds so reasonable, so thoughtful. And he throws in some technical language, ta stoicheia tou kosmou, because philosophers always have their jargon. But his point is to wake me up lest someone delude me by means of persuasive language (Col 2:4).

My fellow ‘academic elites’ may point out that this sounds eerily like ‘fundamentalist religion’ which encourages people away from reasoning and toward blind fideism. I share their prejudice; I value critical thinking, rigorous analysis, and questioning the status quo and am skeptical that simply clinging to long-held beliefs is beneficial to human thriving. Still, just because I hold a doctor of philosophy degree doesn’t mean I am not susceptible to empty or deceitful philosophy. It may even mean that I not only am prone to it, but I may–in my role as teacher–be at risk of becoming one of the deluders, one of the troublemakers.

Paul’s warning does not call me to quit the life of the mind or to choose faith over reason. But it does call me to make a choice; do I cling to a way of thinking that tells me I’m free but leaves me no ability to overcome the imprisonment of my sin and mortality, let alone the forces of this present darkness; or do I let go of all pretense and accept the captivity of Christ. After all, Paul says ‘do not let anyone take you captive…according to human traditions …and not according to Christ’ in Col 2:8, seemingly implying the right choice is to be taken captive according to Christ. This might not be what he’s saying, but it is not opposed to it. Elsewhere, he identifies himself as a ‘slave of Christ’ (Rom 1:1, Titus 1:1) and he points out that all of us who are in Christ are “enslaved to God” (Rom 6:22).

The myth of our age is that we can stand on our own, thinking and acting for ourselves, and it is a myth held up by just about every institution of our culture, including higher education. But the myth isn’t true. We are not free. Or rather, we are not free by ourselves. The captivity of Christ is a captivity of generous love, a passionate enthrallment where our creator takes us to himself (via his own arrest and execution) to set us free, to make us more freely ourselves then we could ever be on our own. What looks like capitulation, is. But it is capitulation to the one alone who can help me become truly and fully human, the Image of God himself.

Should I claim freedom and remain in chains? Or should I accept captivity and discover freedom?

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