Freedom and Responsibility II: The Draw of Legalism

Some folks can’t handle their freedoms which I think gets to the heart of the draw of legalism. People are afraid to make their own choices and their own responsibilities. Too much freedom is scary. Rules are comfortable. Rules are easy to follow. Rules are safe. You don’t have to think about your faith. Mystery is hard. Not having all the answers is hard.

Laws are an attempt to get at the idea of Justice. Ultimately, Justice is largely unattainable by human limitations, but the law works toward it. Similarly, Doctrine is an attempt to get at Truth and in the same way, with the same human limitations, the idea of Truth is largely unattainable. We see through a glass darkly and hope to get as close as possible.

It’s like the fish being bounded by an ocean vs. fish bounded by a tank. In the tank, the boundaries are easy demarcations, so you can be “sure” of what’s right. It’s not even as if the entire ocean is bad, but you know that within the confines of the tank, you are absolutely safe. In fact, you can even have the illusion of complete freedom. However, this ignores the fact that some of us need bigger tanks or at least that the dimensions of your tank might not allow me to swim as I need to swim (because what’s safe for you might not be safe for me – so my tank might not be and, in fact, shouldn’t look like your tank).

We like to define and categorize; it’s our effort to understand. We love to ascribe order to chaos. We want to believe in something bigger than us, but the something bigger is scary. Strict rules are tantamount to us trying to exert control, placing ourselves above God. In our quest to make sense of the universe, and worship at the altar of our “need to know,” it feeds our need to self-blame and self-save. It’s SPIRITUAL SHORT HAND.

Rules also provide a defined walk, a way to quantitatively measure your spiritual walk. They become simple measures of what spirituality should look like, a certain brand of spirituality, anyway. Fundamentalists are well-intentioned believers. Think of them as guard dogs. They are afraid of heresy creeping into the church and their protectiveness of truth (as they have defined it) leads them to pre-emptive snarling and barking.

Spiritual walks are messy. Chaotic. People will turn toward anyone who offers control, even at the expense of freedom, however, we don’t want to forget to live, nor cripple one’s walk, while focusing on an ever growing list of dos and don’ts. If your faith, the doctrines that you hold dear haven’t translated into action (dare I say, good works) then your faith is a lie and amounts to a big steaming pile of crap.

The Colossians placed great emphasis on rules and regulations, promising depths of greater spiritual insights: observing certain feasts and holy days, ecstatic spiritual experiences, feasting, self-denial, abstaining from certain foods and sex, and included harsh treatment of the body. Yet the rules were of no value when it came to fighting self-indulgence (Col 2:20-23) and they made you look real humble (denying self, etc.), but it was a fake, puffed up humility. People have to draw their own lines, but if you teach a line, people will go to the line, but more often than not, they’ll cross the line.

Doctrine is an attempt to get at Truth and in the same way, with the same human limitations, the idea of Truth is largely unattainable. We see through a glass darkly, but shadows that point to a greater object, and hope to get as close as possible to the incarnated Truth, Christ. That is our hope.

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Freedom and Responsibility

Freedom is a gift, but it’s a gift that comes with certain responsibilities. It requires us to be accountable for ourselves. On the one hand, we don’t want anything to get in the way of our freedoms, but on the other hand, some folks can’t handle their freedom. In America, we want the right (and have the dream) to work and supply for ourselves, without government not as supervening mommy. Leave me alone and let me make my own decisions. Yet already we’re seeing breathalyzers built into cell phones to prevent drunk-dialing or cars to prevent drunk driving. We’ve seen the demise of super sizes because McDonald’s made us fat. Not us. We didn’t drink too much or eat too much. Other people were responsible for that.

It’s a vicious cycle: we want options, freedoms, choices; but when things go wrong, we blame others, be they government, church, or our circle of friends. In the larger scheme of things, society tends to over react and, as a consequence limit (or at least encroach on our) freedoms in order to protect the few that can’t handle their choices. We have this fear of ourselves, of others, of community, of government, religion, and of the unknown. We definitely have a fear of taking chances, making mistakes, and being held accountable.

Truth be told, too many people want to be told what to do; that’s why there is such a comfort to rules, that’s the draw of becoming legalistic or fundamentalist. They want the black and white picture of reality and hate (or at least distrust) anything that smacks of gray. And they don’t mind the encroachment of their freedoms in order to secure their vision of safety.

The price of true freedom is personal accountability. Freedom goes against our sense of control, and ultimately, that’s what the extra rules that make up our walk boil down to. Freedom means challenging yourself and exploring new ideas, not sealing yourself away from everything that you might consider an evil influences. No amount of rules or intervention by the government in the name of safety and security is going to keep everyone from abusing the freedom that they have been given. Or being abused by it. There are simply consequences to our choices. With great freedom comes great responsibility.

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