Sunday, 20 May 2012

Learning to drive is a pretty significant milestone in my life, but not one I noticed.  Rather, I focused on getting to drive.  Oddly, it was freedom which required time consuming commitment and unquestioning submission to myriad rules that are frequently inconvenient and often seem arbitrary.   I don’t mean to say that I always follow the rules, but I accept that I’m supposed to follow them, and that I’ll be punished if I get caught not following them.  Nevertheless, I’ve never minded; I always focus on the freedom instead.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly can probably guess where I’m going with this:  Christianity is freedom, even though it makes enormous demands on my life and the way I live it.  It’s freedom even though it requires me to accept that I’m subject to a God whom I don’t get to question, whom I can never hope to equal, and who has the right and authority to punish me for transgressions.  Just like with driving though, it doesn’t seem unusual that enormous opportunities for reward might entail responsibility.

Of course I learned to drive as a teenager, when I couldn’t think so clearly.  The only reason that I didn’t object to all the rules and commitment was because I was too distracted to notice them; driving is fun.  In every other area of my life–areas that weren’t attached to the ability to drive myself out for snacks–responsibility grated on me.  I don’t think that this made me unusual; I think all teenagers want the benefits of adulthood without any of its obligations.

And all adults understand how pitiable that desire is.  First, because it nearly never matches reality.  The occasional celebrity gets away with juvenile antics for awhile, but there’s usually some sort of horrifying fallout that strikes eventually.  Second, because it isn’t as appealing as it seems.  Irresponsible people are frustrating to be around, and being irresponsible oneself generally takes more work in the long run.  Third, because it traps a person in meager dreams.  People think small until they’re willing to put in some work; they want to eat, or be left alone, or do nothing but relax.  In short they want to be farm animals.  Fourth, and most subtly, because responsibility is good.  Meeting deadlines, being able to pay bills, managing errands, making a spouse happy–it’s satisfying to do these things well, even if you didn’t want to do them in the first place.

Religion works the same way.  Because I believe in God, I have to accept that certain things are unavoidable; God has established a system of sin and righteousness, and obliged me to favor one side of it.  I don’t get to kill people if they make me angry.  I don’t get to steal my neighbor’s nice new truck, no matter how much I may want it.  I wouldn’t get to cheat on my wife, even if I were to find her more annoying than attractive.  However, those obligations are attached to an incredible gift: eternal life and joy in the presence of a God who liked the idea of me so much that he arranged for my existence and salvation so that we could be together.  That’s a pretty steep payout, next to which it doesn’t seem very severe to ask that I not murder people, steal their cars, or break their heart.

Of course, not many sensible people object to those requirements even if they’re not religious.  The trouble is that God’s system is a bit more comprehensive.  I don’t get to lie to people just because the truth might reflect poorly on me or hurt someone’s feelings.  I didn’t get to have sex with a bunch of people before marriage, no matter how much I wanted to or how reasonable it seemed.  I’m not authorized to rethink what lifestyles are appropriate, even if it seems generous and loving to do so.  If I believe in God, I accept that he’s the one in charge and that I’m responsible for following him, even when it feels inconvenient, unpleasant, or unpopular.

The payout of Christianity is still incredible, but it’s a lot easier to get distracted from that when I’m embarrassed and don’t want to get in trouble, and a simple lie would cover me.  It was certainly a lot easier to get distracted from that when I was younger and dating, and moments got intense.  I know it’s got to be difficult to remember it for those whose lifestyle is prohibited.

Which is why it makes sense to me when so many people claim to be spiritual rather than religious.  Spirituality is the teenage dream applied to God.  It wants the comforts of embracing a larger reality, the satisfaction of depth and truth, even the joy of purpose, but it doesn’t accept any of the pesky obligations.  It wants all the benefits of religion without a deity claiming to be in charge.  It can even seem like freedom.

As a Christian though I can’t help but view that approach with pity.  Spirituality is too small a dream.  It’s not good enough for people; I want something better for them.  In short I want them to have all the joys and freedoms of adulthood, obligations included.

G. K .Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and then left untried.”  Christianity certainly has it’s qualities that can make it seem unattractive.  It’s easier to ignore God than to submit to him.  Submitting to him, though, is the only avenue to real freedom and happiness.  As hard as it may seem, the reward is incomprehensibly good, and easily worth any trouble.

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One thought on “Sunday, 20 May 2012

  1. Excellent, Daniel! True freedom is not the freedom to do whatever we want. it’s the freedom to do whatever we ought. In the Christian sense, this of course implies freedom from sin and submission to God.

    I don’t know if this is at all applicable, or if it would take us on a tangent too far afield of your article, but I’m reminded of a discussion from one of my philosophy classes this past semester. The professor brought up the differences in how people perceive rules, regulations and laws. specifically, he was talking about the differences between the “typical” American mind’s understanding of law and the “typical” European understanding. The argument being presented was that Americans are much more literal in our legal understanding. So, if an American pulls up to a red light in the middle of the night with no cars around for miles, he or she may very well stop until the light turns green. A European (my professor claimed) would speed right through the thing without a second thought. (He had spent a considerable amount of time studying in Rome, so his perception of European driving may admittedly be skewed.)

    Americans, he argued, see laws as set in stone. Follow them or there will be consequences. Europeans, he claimed, see law as the ideal toward which we strive. So, for instance, an American Catholic who is on contraception might feel the need to justify themselves or explain away Church teaching on the subject, whereas a European Catholic on contraception would say that even though they don’t follow that particular Church teaching they still respect it and might even agree with it. But it’s the ideal, not the reality.

    I don’t know if my professor’s characterization of the two mindsets is correct. It strikes me as overly simplistic. However, I would think that both are right and wrong in different ways. The “American” mindset seems too literal and dogmatic, and the “European” too loose to have any kind of casuistic thrust. I’d want to find a happy middle, and I’m intrigued by the question of what that middle would look like in our paradigm of freedom-as-law.

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