“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” (Col. 2.8)
I have no idea what was going through Paul’s mind when he wrote this (and, yes, I know about the disputed authorship), but every time I stumble across it, it triggers my own train of thought. Philosophy I take to mean a combination of one’s world view and the themes of thought and action by which one lives into that world. We all have them regardless of how large or small our world is, or whether we can articulate what we think and why we act. Many of us, I suppose, have a philosophy of life like Lucy of Peanuts fame, one that changes from day to day depending on our mood.
To follow Jesus is to live with the daily critique of my philosophy of life by how well, or not, it harmonizes with loving God, loving myself, and loving others as Christ has loved me. If all the law and the prophets are to be measured against them, then so too am I to be measured against them. There are a multitude of other ways to measure my life, but no better way, and no other way that has been commanded by Christ. Any of us who try to do that has learned quickly how easily and in how many ways following Jesus collides with human tradition.
Not the first, but always the biggest, collision is with the traditions of the church. Well meaning Christians are often certain that misleading human traditions are whatever threatens the way they have been taught is proper for Christian believers. Sadly, that way is more often the product of cultural history and practice than anything to do with Jesus. I don’t know how or where you grew up. I grew up as a thoroughly mid-American Christian who was led to believe that the middle class (white) way of life was not only the Christian way of life, any other way fell far short of God’s hearty approval. It should not have to be said, but it does have to be said, that it included all the usual cultural assumptions of the time and place of my upbringing. Jesus, taken seriously, has a way of unceremoniously dismantling human traditions masquerading as the right way to be a Christian, just as he did with the Pharisees and Sadducees. The hard part is figuring out the balance between cleaning out the rubbish, restoring faith and church without demolishing them altogether. It takes time, trial, and error with an awful lot of each.
The empty deceit of which Paul warns had often confused me because a well crafted deceit appears to be full of promise, not empty at all. But a promise that cannot be kept, or was never intended to be kept, is the emptiness of an empty deceit. I don’t mind the minor cons that one faces every day. A good panhandler has a few dozen with which to work the crowd. Friends who offer a glib “Let’s have lunch sometime soon,” or some such, engage in a socially acceptable form of empty deceits. Politicians routinely make promises that everyone knows cannot be kept. For the most part we brush them off with little damage done. There are other more damaging empty deceits because they are so seductive as they lure us into buying things we don’t need in hopes of realizing a reward that is merely a figment of advertising imagination. We are surrounded by them and willingly participate in them. The danger for us, as it was for the people of Colossae, is that they can displace Jesus’ teachings from first place on our list of things that are important to us. They become idols we worship, although we say they aren’t and we don’t.
As for elemental spirits, even as a child I had my doubts about the devil and his angels as spiritual personages who snuck around tempting good people to do what they otherwise would not have done. They seemed more like excuses for not taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and taking responsibility was something drilled into the children in my family. The various schemes I came up with for ducking responsibility were entirely of my own making. Never could I say the devil made me do it. I’m with Walter Wink in understanding Paul to have been warning his people to be careful about those wielding the power of secular and religious authority. Being careful is not the same thing as rejecting. It’s a balancing act. We grew up under the authority of parents and teachers. We work at jobs under the authority of bosses. We live in a nation of laws under the authority of those empowered to enforce them. The problem comes when we allow that authority to take the place of Jesus when for Christians they must all be subordinated to him. It is not an easy balancing act. When your job is on the line, when the rent is due, when the coach demands priority, the demands of those in authority can easily displace Jesus, and they do.
Paul saw the first century version of all this threatening the integrity of the new community of Christians in Colossae, and it seems to be much the same in our own day. What saddens me most is that there are so many communities of Christians who have been taken captive by culturally driven philosophies they attribute to scripture, who lust after promises of empty deceit as if that’s what God wants, who are bound by traditions God never endorsed, and who bow to authorities of their choice. Some tend to be complacent with all of it, happily assuming that whatever being Christian means, they are doing just fine. Others are quickly outraged over any attempt to move in a more Godly direction, viewing it as a threat to all that Christianity stands for. All that loving God and neighbor stuff is good, as far as it goes, but this is the real world. Love in the real world works only if it can be made to work for me.
I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.