Yesterday, we introduced the purpose of Paul’s letter to the Colossians: to encourage his first hearers to live their lives in light of their belief that Jesus is Lord (2:6), and not to be taken captive by an alternative way of life (“philosophy”, 2:8). Although there is much discussion about what that alternative philosophy was, the most plausible explanation was syncretism: where Christians were being tempted to add elements of the various religions and philosophies of the culture around, including Jewish practices, pagan mysticism, and the ascetism of some Greek philosophical schools. And we ended with the question: how are we tempted to incorporate the “philosophies” of our culture into our way of life as followers of Jesus?
So what did you come up with? Here are some of the things I thought of, which will pop up in application from time to time during our read through the text of Paul’s letter:
Religious traditions: In Colossian church, the dominant influence was Judaism, where non-Jewish converts were pressured into adopting Jewish customs in order to properly “fit in” as the people of God. In Australia today, cultural Judaism isn’t an issue, but there are other religious practices that we can be pressured to incorporate into how we follow Jesus. They might be the traditions of our denomination – which may not be wrong, until we start insisting upon them as a requirement for everyone who follows Jesus. Or they might be the religious practices of our culture of origin, such as the rituals of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, with associated family expectations. (There’s a fine, but still clear line between respecting family traditions, and embracing them ourselves as part of our own way of life in following Jesus.) Or they might be the practices of other religions, such as the mindful detachment of Buddhism. (Again, there’s a line between the technique of mindfulness, and the mindful goal of detachment from all desires.) If we uncritically incorporate “human commands and teachings” (Col 2:22) into our way of following Jesus, we’re not just in danger of limiting our own freedom in Christ, but of stopping others finding their own ways of following Jesus. We’ll discuss this more when we get to chapter 2; for now, realise that the issue in Colossae wasn’t what they ate (or didn’t eat), but why.
Materialism: In the first century, participation in the wider culture involved embracing the civic religion of pagan deities and the worship of the emperor. Today, idol temples have been replaced by shopping malls, and the empire is the global pursuit of endless consumption. If we incorporate this into our way of following Jesus, we can end up with a prosperity theology in which Jesus becomes a means to a life of affluence, rather than an end in himself.
Spiritual experiences: People from all times and cultures will seek experiences that connect them with something beyond this visible, material world. These range from explicit contact with the spirit world through occult practices; to entering altered, ecstatic states of mind; to simply the chasing of a particular emotion as our means of connecting with God. Emotion in worship is good and helpful; requiring such an experience on a regular basis to feel connected to God and his family is not.
Self-improvement: In the first century, Graeco-Roman philosophy spent a lot of energy devising ways of living that would make the self more virtuous: Cynics deliberately flouted moral conventions to be free from the approval of others; Stoics sought to suppress their desires and pursue self-mastery; Neo-Pythagoreans punished their bodies to purge their desires, sitting on the pointy bits of triangles (I may have got that last one a bit muddled). These days we tend to do it through self-help gurus like Tony Robbins and Oprah – imposing lifestyle disciplines or reciting affirmations as techniques to become a better version of ourselves. Or through the pursuit of bodily health through nutrition, fitness, and taking up triathlons during our mid-life crises. The danger here is when we overlay this onto our way of following Jesus: either by trying to pursue holiness through human-devised, self-help strategies (rather than the indwelling Spirit); or worse, by turning Jesus into just another self-help strategy to achieve self-fulfilment as defined by our culture. Which leads us to…
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD): This term was coined in 2005 by two social scientists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, who researched the religious beliefs of American youth. Essentially, the majority believed that living a moral life in how we treated others (Moralistic) was the key to being happy and fulfilled (Therapeutic), because that’s the way a largely remote and impersonal god – not necessarily the Christian God – had set up the world (Deism). God’s role is simply to be our troubleshooter when life isn’t going right, to fix problems and make us feel better about ourselves (or “divine butler and cosmic therapist”, as the authors put it).* It’s easy to spot MTD tendencies in some of North America’s televangelists. But what about us? Have we incorporated any of its assumptions into how we come to God – just to have our problems fixed and to feel better about ourselves? Is Christ an end in himself, or a means to a happy, fulfilled life as we want to define it?
It’s against this kind of incorporation of the philosophies of our age into the Christian way of life that Paul wants to guard the Colossian church – and us. We’ll start reading Paul’s persuasive appeal tomorrow.
* Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, p. 165. See a well-written overview on Wikipedia, of all places.