Rule-Based Religion: Relational Rules & Spirit vs. Non-Relational Rules & Fear
Second, what is at issue here is not the abandonment of moral standards since, obviously, Paul would still have us restrain ourselves from sensual indulgence.
Rather, our point is two-fold.
(a) Where there are ‘rules’ that should be followed, they are relationally orientated, and not a system of do’s and don’ts that allow the avoidance of relationship and the avoidance of facing up to relational problems. The whole point of the Law is that we relate well to God and neighbour, and also to creation.
Any other set of rules disguises the evasion of relational responsibilities, and is false religion, a way of ‘hiding from loving’ (as opposed to John Townsend’s phrase, ‘hiding from love’, which still sounds too consumerist and self-orientated).
(b) The issue also has to do with how to achieve the self-control required to take on the responsibility to love. Harsh treatment of the body doesn’t work, says Paul, but becomes another pre-occupying narcissistic evasion of relational responsibility that resembles the very addictive patterns it is trying to overcome. Rather, the only way to achieve the self-control required to love is to commune with the Holy Spirit in a relationship that is already given.
We have to learn how to drink from the Spirit, how to quench our thirst with living water. But this demands faith. Faith says, “because of Christ’s sacrifice on my behalf, I am already in a relationship with God”. God is already here, closer to us than we are to ourselves in Augustine’s words, and we don’t have to beg and plead for God to come to us, cutting ourselves as though we were Baal worshippers.
The danger is that we misinterpret inner fears and anxieties as God’s absence, and then start pleading for him to come to us, which presupposes that the relationship with God is a fiction, and that the cross is not enough to secure communion with God.
Of course we must still seek communion with Christ over and above union with Christ, but this never amounts to a doubting assumption that God is not there, but only to the realisation that we must learn to relate to the God who already is there. God’s presence cannot be equated with the absence of fear, since often his presence was a source of fear in the New Testament (Jesus was always terrifying the disciples and then telling them, ‘do not fear’!).
Rule-based religion, however, gets caught up with the problem of fear, and invents non-relational do’s and don’ts as a way of getting God to come back to us, do’s and don’ts that actually evade relational responsibility. From there, it is easy to get into a fear-adrenaline-fear cycle and assume that the morbius loop of anxiety is a sign that God has vanished. This then leads to more pre-occupying rule-based efforts to ‘bring God back’, when all the time he’d never left because he promised he wouldn’t. I’ve experienced this in myself, but I’ve seen it in others too.