Of all church teachings, probably one of the most ignored is that about the second coming Jesus Christ. We await a miraculous intervention, a complete change of times, or the abolition of time as we know it. Christ’s rule effects the perfection of the world, whatever our efforts may have accomplished for good or ill. At the level of individual salvation, while we wait, we make the effort to live obediently, to contribute to others’ well-being. Our actual successes and failures are not ultimately decisive, for we are saved by grace alone.
It is hard to give up the idea that what we do, or at least our willingness to do right, somehow enters into the transaction. The only alternative seems to be a doctrine of double predestination, leading into all the insidious anxieties of Puritanism in search of assurance, letting moralism in again, through a side door.
With that our own theological terms come round to clobber us. Which is it to be? Does faith make us free, or does it threaten us with an unholy stew of private neuroses and public contentions? Surely the correct answer must something to do with freedom, the sine qua non of love. How did we get so far off track as to forget?
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My friend Ken read an old Owl screed and observed that people’s actual behavior often seems not be much changed by faith. If that is the case, if faith doesn’t improve us in concrete behavioral ways, how can we say it has made us free? free from what? I replied to him:
I suspect you object because, like many people, you want to be in charge of yourself and, knowing faith requires fainthfulness, i.e., actually doiing for others, concretely, you want to see results. This resembles what is essentially a romantic idea of the self. Our contemporaries, each a hero in his own eyes, speak of themselves as self-made, of constructing life as a work of art.
The Apostle Paul stands over against these notions. He speaks of the freedom wrought by faith not as self-realization, but as death. By that he meant escape from living death on the way to the new life that is true freedom. His description of freedom is not attractive to the romantic; it does not open onto adventures. It is not about how to live, or what we shall do, but whether we shall know ourselves as authentic humans, i.e., people of God.
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In day to day life, what we call freedom is reduced almost entirely to market choices. So pervasive are the market, and its prophet television, and the new technology driven by algorithms, that many people can’t imagine any other meaning for freedom. The self that such people cherish so warmly is a demographically engineered bundle of purchasing decisions, a style of consumption which has been assigned to them. Our politics is a subsidiary of that industry; one does not have one’s opinions or commitments as matters of choice; one is chosen for a team and the data in support of the team is meted out, again according to prescribed determinants.
This ought to be the motto for our time: You can always turn it off. Otherwise intelligent people nod in witless assent. But can you? It is as if there were no world outside, offering a range of choices every moment for whoever ventures there. Instead, people settle for what is on the screen, which steers their works, their money, and their votes into their oppressors’ hands.
We begin to escape such living death—we move up a degree in dignity—when we recognize overwhelming oppression for what it is. For that presents us with a more complex set of choices, as to how we will deal with the oppressor: identify with him, fight against him, or acquiesce more or less helplessly. I hope the Owl’s readers will know how to answer.