Friday, October 26, 2007

Reflection for 25 October 2007 – Romans 6:19-23

Apologies for the (perhaps) pedantic nature of what follows. It was the reflection I prepared for the daily mass, so it's not exactly the fun and games of my daily (mis)adventures, but hopefully it may still be worth reading.

In the series of readings from Romans that we hear this week, Paul is going on at great length about being free from the law by grace, about sin and death, and about life in the flesh vs. life in the spirit. Important themes, but confusing, and ones that we have heard, at least in caricature, so often that we can miss the depth of Paul’s understanding of our human condition. As I have written before, it isn't about seeing the body as bad and the spirit as good, but seeing the "bodily" (or better, the "fleshly") as bad -- living according to our passions. It isn't about seeing the world as bad, but about rejecting the "worldly" -- the attitudes and illusions of the mass mind. Unfortunately, our tendency is to see these texts through the mistaken lens of setting “the law,” i.e. Judaism and all the alleged nitpicky fussiness of their holiness codes, in opposition to “the gospel,” which, we say, is free from all that junk. All we need to do, so we say, is have faith, (which to our rationalistic mindset means to believe in a particular set of doctrines), and we’re good to go, we’re saved. [Note: Paul does not equate faith and belief -- faith is an existential stance, a manner of life, that generates and is generated by the ideational claims we hang on to.] Do you notice, though, that Paul talks several times about transferring our slavery from one master to another, but still being slaves? “For just as you presented the parts of your bodies as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness for lawlessness, so now present them as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” (Rom. 6:19) “[Y]ou have been freed from sin and have become slaves of God.” (Rom. 6:22) Paul has no silly notion of freedom as being free from responsibility to other people, or just doing whatever you want, nor does he even see the law as bad. Quite the contrary: he explicitly says a few verses down the road, “So then the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Rom. 7:12)

A few months ago I heard a speaker talk about Paul’s notion of freedom this way: who is the freest person in the world on a golf course? Or on a basketball court? Tiger Woods, maybe, on the golf course, or Michael Jordan, in his heyday, on the basketball court. It isn’t the kid who just goes and messes around, “doing whatever he wants,” but the person who submits to discipline, training, learning from the masters of the game. Michael Jordan was so free on the court because he had disciplined his body and mind to the point that he had the skills to do just about anything he wanted out there. That’s freedom. In the realm of transformation of consciousness that means freedom to do good, freedom to not be ruled by the falsehoods of popular society or of our own passions. Just like with those athletes who are free because they submit to learning from the masters of their craft, striving towards freedom means yoking ourselves to the spiritual masters – Paul, Augustine, Francis, Ignatius, Thérèse, Merton and more – and watching them in action. We read their books, not so much to multiply ideas, but to visualize them in action and to learn from them how to be. You see that in cultures in which a mentoring tradition is still alive and well, and it isn’t so much about passing on ideas, pedagogy, as it is about having people sit at the feet of the master, bringing people into the experience itself, mystagogy. Before and after the little section we read tonight, Paul talks about the members of the community being dead to sin, sharing in the death of Jesus, that “our old self was crucified with him” (Rom. 6:6) and that they are “raised from the dead to life.” (Rom. 6:13) While instruction is a part of it, and right speech does matter (I teach theology, so of course I think it’s important!), Paul emphasizes that they have been brought into the mystery, taught how to die and rise as it were, rather than that they have gotten all the doctrines formulated correctly. May we be “free to die” and allow what feels like breaking down to break us through. You know what that means -- mercy within mercy within mercy...

No comments: