Category Archives: Philosophy

Free Falling: The Slavery of Self

July 4, 2018 is coming soon. Two weeks from today America will celebrate another Independence Day with parades, backyard barbecues, fireworks, and so much more. This is the festive holiday in which Americans celebrate one of her most cherished values, freedom.

Free Falling PictureFreedom as Americans understand, is a “We the people” thing that embraces democracy and individual rights. In other words, America regards freedom as the ability of each person to think, speak, and act without restraint so long as such expression neither harms nor violates the freedom of another individual. So every person is individually autonomous and decides for themselves the sort of life they wish to live.

I’m not sure where this idea of freedom originates but we find it thoroughly embedded within modernism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant defined freedom as, “…the alone unoriginated [sic] birthrite of man, and belongs to him by force of his humanity; and is independence on the will and co-action of every other in so far as this consists with every other person’s freedom” (The Metaphysics of Ethics). Freedom then, according to Kant, is the right of self-rule for every individual by virtue of their birth. In other words, freedom is a part of the created order of life. Among America such freedom is also understood as a truth that all people have posses by virtue of their creation. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While freedom from the tyranny of oppressive rulers is a good thing and something I do appreciate, there is a problem for Christians with how freedom is understood in America. To put it bluntly, nowhere in the Bible is this understanding of freedom found. That won’t stop some people from misusing the Bible by proof-texting a passage of scripture from here or there, to make it affirm the American idea of freedom. Nevertheless, freedom as it is generally understood in America is not a part of the Bible. Those that try making it so offer one more example of how people co-opt the Bible to a later developed worldview. The Bible has a different view of what freedom entails but understanding that requires going back to the beginning Genesis and the original sin.

“The original and continuous sin is taking possession of the power to decide for ourselves what is good and evil or right and wrong. Yet neither Israel nor anyone else, including us red-blooded Americans, were ever created to live independent of God’s rule.”

You might recall how after placing the man and woman in the garden, God gave them permission to eat of any tree except the one tree known as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:15-17). So although much permission was given as to how these two people would utilize there abilities in taking care of the garden, they never were given total liberty. They were prohibited from acquiring the power to determine for themselves what is good and evil. However, the desire for having that knowledge and the freedom it appears to offer, rather than relying upon God, is too much to resist. So in comes the the serpent saying to the woman “God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). The text goes on telling us how the woman saw how good the tree would be — even for the purpose of gaining wisdom. So she eats from it and gives some to the man to eat as well.

And there it is… Verse 7 says “Then they both saw clearly…” They got what they wanted but at what cost?

Since I read the Genesis creation narrative as a text offered to Israel during her exile, the story is more than just about the origin of sin. The sin here is the sin that Israel continued making and it’s the sin that we continue making as well. The original and continuous sin is taking possession of the power to decide for ourselves what is good and evil or right and wrong. Yet neither Israel nor anyone else, including us red-blooded Americans, were ever created to live independent of God’s rule. As people created in the image and likeness of God, we were made to live dependent upon our Creator and that dependence means listening and obeying his word.

What America considers to be freedom is the first form of slavery. You see, once we take the power of knowing good and evil so that we can determine for ourselves what is right and wrong, freedom becomes a good we never can fully acquire. There is always another obstacle in the way… another war to fight, an appeal to make before the Supreme Court, and some more money spent chasing “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So freedom has become the pursuit of removing anything that hinders or restrains us from living as we have determined for ourselves. This pursuit itself then becomes the object of desire (Highfield, God, Freedom, & Human Dignity, 103-104) which makes it an idol we serve, making us slaves to the grind.

But for those of us, like me, who love freedom, there is some good news. Jesus once said to his followers, “You are my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31-32). So if it is freedom we want, then know that it is Jesus who gives us the opportunity to be free again. This opportunity isn’t a path where we can say whatever we want, live however we like, chasing after life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, Jesus gives us the opportunity to live life as God created us to live, free from the tyranny and slavery of our autonomous selves. With this opportunity we gain the freedom to truly live as humans by recognizing Jesus as Lord so that God may rule over us again. That’s why Jesus says that we’ll know the truth that sets us free if we remain faithful to his teaching. True freedom is living in submission to King Jesus, as his servants, by remaining faithful to his teaching so that God’s will is done in our lives as it is in heaven.

Christianity: Reclaiming the Practice

According to Acts 11:26, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Before this, followers of Jesus were typically called “believers” or “disciples.” But now the citizens of Antioch said they were Christians and I’m pretty certain they were not meaning to compliment these believers. To say “I am a Christian” today may draw some sneers but not for the same reasons. So perhaps we can ponder a little more what it means to be a Christian.

THEN and NOW

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The words read “Alexamenos worships his god.”

In the eyes of this Greco-Roman city, these people were following someone who had been crucified and as the apostle Paul would later remind the Christians in Corinth, this was considered foolishness (1 Cor 1:23). As a matter of fact, Jesus was not considered a hero or a good honorable person among the unbelievers, to some he was a crucified ass as the third-century Alexamenos Graffito etching depicts. And I use this language not to be vulgar but so that we might understand the point. If hearing Jesus spoken of as a crucified ass makes you uncomfortable, imagine how Christians must have felt  nearly two-thousand years ago. Yet these Christians remained fiercely loyal, swearing their allegiance to King Jesus and embodying the way of life he lived while on earth — even to the point of suffering death themselves.

But my, my… How things have changed. I once was asked by a barista in a local coffee house if I considered myself a mainline Protestant Christian or an Evangelical Christian. Realizing that this person likely had assumption about both groups that I didn’t want to own, I was very thankful for my Restoration heritage which gave me the language of saying “Christian only but not the only Christians,” So I told the barista, “I’m just a Christian and nothing else.”

That seemed like a good answer in 2007 but ten years later, I’m not so sure. There are ideas associated with the term Christian that give me reason to pause and sometimes option to just say that I am a follower of Jesus. So it’s not that I’m ashamed to confess my faith in Jesus, as I’m not, It’s just that when Christianity has become so embedded in American politics that it’s nearly impossible at times to see any cultural difference between the two, then Christian means something very different from what Christianity should be.

GUITAR PICKING and CHRISTIAN LIVING

As already pointed out, Christianity began as a way of life. To be a believer was to be a disciple of follower of Jesus in community with other believers. That is what it meant to be a Christian and thus to be a part of the ekklesia of King Jesus. It was more than just believing. It was believers putting into practice what they believed about Jesus and the life he lived while on earth.

However, Christianity as a practice isn’t how we typically think of being a Christian. MacIntyre describes a practice saying:

“A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice” (After Virtue, 3rd ed., p 190).

In other words, every good has certain practices that must be followed for that good to exist. If the good is playing the guitar, then there are certain practices such as properly fretting chords and scales, picking techniques, etc…  that must be learned and followed to say I can play the guitar. Any person may be able to pick up a guitar and produce a sound from making contact with the strings but that does not make such a person a guitar player. The same is true with Christianity. There are certain practices that must be learned and followed to say that we are being a Christian (for an accessible read on such practices, I would begin with Fitch, Faithful Presence, 2016). While there is room for debate about what practices are necessary, there shouldn’t be any regarding the need for learning and following certain “standards of excellence” and “rules” in order to be Christian.

This MacIntyrean understanding of practice helps us as we think about our own confession of faith. To be a Christian is not just to believe in Jesus and have a set of beliefs about what is taught in scripture, it is to follow Jesus as a way of life. While that sounds so obvious, just a quick observation of society shows that it doesn’t always translate into practice. Yet it must. If we confess faith in Jesus then we must reclaim Christianity as a particular practice of which Jesus is the interpretive lens that focuses our understanding of what this practice involves.

SO THEN…

Our goal is the formation of Christ in our lives (cf. Gal 4:19) and it requires more intentionality on our part. If our desire to become like Jesus, then we must invest in the practices following Jesus. This isn’t a works oriented salvation, it’s called repentance and it is part of Jesus’s original call to come follow him… learning to be distinctly Christian.

“Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.” – Lamentations 3:40, NIV