Rules, Freedom, and Christianity


A though in Christian theology

My church (Hillsdale Baptist) is running VBS this week, which I am helping with. The theme is "redemption", and there aren't a lot of Bible stories on that subject, so it may get a bit unusual. I understand the phrase "redeeming the time" is going to make a showing, and I'm not sure that's even an English idiom. But they've got a lot of people involved (>150), so I figure there must be some smart ones in there somewhere, so it will work out. VBS has what is probably the best souls-to-effort payoff rate of any church program, so people tend to be enthusiastic.

Oh. And you get to sing really fun songs (with actions) that are much better than typical church songs, although of course that had nothing to do with why I signed up to help. Personally, I wish we always did those songs, but I know that that's not going to happen. Maybe we could get 1 a week; I know I'm not the only one who likes them.

That is rather tangential, though. The important thing is that I now have a perfect excuse to write another rambling post about Christian theology without sounding like I am trying to Bible-thump people. (Have you been hit by the Word of God today? *holds Bible as club") And since the concept of redemption has been in my head lately, I'm gong to write it.

In the purest form, redemption means "buying back". I understand that if you sell something to a pawn shop, they hold it for a certain period of time before they sell it. If, during that time, you find some money, you can go and redeem the item (i.e. buy it back for the same price you sold it).

From this grows the world's implicosphere. For example, a slave is redeemed by someone buying him and setting him free. I understand that there was a charity (I can't remember the name) that collected money to redeem child slaves (I think they also organized escapes). However, they have since moved onto more abstract things like social change. It turned out that freeing child slaves isn't much use because whoever sold them as slaves in the first place just finds and sells them again. The child slavery is the most visible, but its not the root issue.

Christianity builds on this definition by saying that people are enslaved by sin. By this they mean that people have wrong/inappropriate desires/impulses/instincts.whatevers that control them. From there, the next step is that should be eliminated, so that it doesn't control people anymore. Which leads to the apparently-paradoxical claim that rules make people free.

A pretty obvious example of this is drug addiction. A drug addict is enslaved (or at least influenced) by the desire for the drug. This normally leads to theft, and if the addict is female, prostitution. She doesn't really want to do these things, but its the only way she can afford more drugs. And she ends up miserable: at the beginning she took the drugs because they made her feel good, but layer they are the only way for her to not feel horrible. (Given the state of her life by that point, feeling horrible may be appropriate, but it's still unpleasant). She's stuck.

Now we add a rule: No drugs. In practice, this involves putting our poor addict in rehab, where, essentially, there are people to watch her and make sure she can't get any drugs. In time, her disordered appetites return to their proper bounds, and she is no longer addicted. Instead, she has a proper wide range of desires and can control them as needed. And because she doesn't have to buy drugs anymore, she can get out of crime and become a paid-up member of society again, which is what she wanted all along. The rule, which appeared to take away her freedom, has really set her free.

At least that's the theory. In practice, rehab programs have a relatively low success rate (in the sense that many "cured" addicts go back to drugs a soon as released). I assume that there are many causes for this, but to me one stands out. Whatever circumstances caused our addict to become an addict in the first place haven't gone away. (Probably. Coincidences do happen.) If it was because her husband abandoned her, he's still gone. If she couldn't rind a job, she (probably) won't have any more luck. If she was trying to fit in with her friends, they probably haven't changed. Behind the addiction lies another, deeper problem.

This doesn't just happen with drug addictions; they are just the most visible manifestation of a broader pattern. People can have similar problems trying to get status (ambition), or money (greed). Or by endlessly needing to be reassured of their abilities or worth or looks or whatever by others. Or pursuing some physical pleasure (fine wines, sex, lying around on tropical beaches). But there are still more subtle forms.

Sometime in my twenties, I discovered that everyone else seemed to have a strong drive for "independence". To me, this seems absurd, but if they really want to, they could go to some uninhabited area (such as northern Saskatchewan) and spend a week living naked in the forest with no food or tools. But even if they could do this, they would still be depending on other people for their wilderness knowledge, and upbringing, and, less obviously, for law and order to keep them safe while they did it. Beyond that, they depend on the sun for light and plants for growing. And what about gravity? Or time?

(Note: I assume that this desire has an ordinate form where it serves a useful purpose. All evil things are good things in the wrong place. There is no other possible source for evil things.)

And I assume that there are still more subtle things. I only found this one because it's wrong in me, and so I saw incongruities. Who knows what I'm not seeing.

There is something else going on here. Redeeming slaves is relatively easy: all you need is money. Redeeming drug addicts is harder, but still within our abilities (as a society). But I have no solution to the others. For all the psychiatry is kind of nutty, it represents our best try at a very hard problem. And its not the hardest problem.

In Christianity, God is going after that hardest problem: the fundamental disorder buried at the core of people that causes the others. What it is is hard to explain, because we are well past the horizon where words become inadequate. Sometimes it's called original sin, as it is supposed to have be caused by (or be the continuation of) the original thing that went wrong in the universe (involving a possibly-symbolic story about Eve and an apple). Sometimes it is referred to as being a sinner, as in the phrase "we sin because we are sinners". Sometimes it is called "the flesh" as contrasted to "the spirit", but those terms can cause a lot of confusion with people not versed in Christianese.

Since this original sin controls/influences greatly us (although often at multiple removes), Christianity describes people as enslaved to sin. And thus, when God attempts to change this, it is referred to as redemption.

OK. I didn't even get to the point I was hoping to make. However, my grandmother is staying with us, and her bed is in the room with this computer, and she wants to go to sleep, so I am going to stop here. Probably to be continued. Also, I have to help with VBS tomorrow morning, so I don't want to stay up too late.

Note: I never wrote the second half of this. It got put off until I realized that I had forgotten the point I wanted to make.

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