Did you receive the Spirit from works of the law, or from faith in what you heard? Are you so stupid? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain?—if indeed it was in vain. Does the one who supplies the Spirit to you and works mighty deeds among you do so from works of the law or from faith in what you heard?
Galatians 3: 2-5
In today’s passage from the letter to the Galatians, we hear a very angry Paul berate the Galatians for moving toward a faith that is inauthentic, that is but a form of pride in themselves. True faith is not easy for us human beings. And so, we are always subtly and not so subtly replacing it with a contract whereby God’s love for us is dependent on our own “uprightness.”
Paul, of all people, understands the problem with this, No one worked harder to be an observant follower of the Law then himself. And yet, such willfulness led him only to violence against those (principally the new followers of “the Way”) that were other than he. He becomes a chief persecutor of those “heretics” who assert the resurrection of Jesus. The primacy that he gives to following the Law begins to dehumanize him. By losing the sense of his true place in relationship to God, he loses the truth of his own humanity.
The problem of the Galatians is, in truth, a perennial and enduring human conflict. Adrian van Kaam speaks of the conflict and tension between the Christ form and the pride form in us. The Christ form is our living from the truth of who we are, in relation to others and to God. It is to live from moment to moment in obedience to what God is asking of us, trusting even when, as Psalm 116 reminds us, we are “sorely afflicted.” The pride form is that aspect of our egoic way of being that seeks a security that we cannot and do not have, a security born of the exercise of our own efforts. We would like to know, to be sure, that we are justified, for it is never easy for us to recognize our essential dependence, that is that we on our own cannot do the most important thing: justify or save ourselves.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to connection and relationship for us is our inability to receive what another would give us. According to van Kaam human persons are a capacity for both form reception and form donation. While these are both necessary, primacy belongs to our capacity for form reception. As the mystical tradition reminds us, we can bear much more than we can do; the ego works while the soul suffers. This is a very difficult aspect of our experience. We would like not to have to bear what we cannot do something about. This is true at every level for us. At the global level, we can be aware and even suffer the affliction of so much of our world. This makes life difficult for us, for we must appraise, given the relative little we can do about it, what we are called to do within our limits. It is pride that would lead us both to try to do more than we can, but also that would paralyze us so that we do nothing. In either case we would be refusing our spiritual awareness. This is the problem of Job’s friends who want to reduce his suffering to the result of Job’s own sinfulness. The mysterious truth is just too much to bear.
We also experience this tension in every relationship. Our avoidance of connection and intimacy is greatly related to our problem of faith. To truly love another will always mean that we shall, at some point, experience the limits of our own capacities to love and care for. The other always needs more than we are able to offer. Likewise, we, in turn, will always experience the deep loneliness that comes from the limits of the other to satisfy us. This is why it is impossible to separate the human experiences of love and forgiveness. It is not only deliberate hurt we must forgive, but also the lack in the other and in ourselves. In our interpersonal relations and in our relationship to the world as a whole, if we open ourselves to the others we shall always come to a place of lack and of need.
Many years ago a friend said to me that the foreign policy that the United States should pursue can be summed up by saying, “We should withdraw from every other country and arm ourselves to the teeth.” Little did he realize that he would be prescient about our stance in the present. This perspective is one which we often adopt at the personal level. We keep and maintain our distance from others and arm ourselves against anyone or anything that would attack our own defensiveness. Such a stance requires the repression of our spiritual awareness, which is what Adrian van Kaam calls “the primordial act of violence from which all other violence springs.” It is the denial of our inherent dependence on others and on God. This denial was the cause of the violence in Saul of Tarsus. Imagine, when you are working as hard as he did at self-perfection and so at making himself worthy of God’s love, seeing others who “lay claim” to that love as pure gift. One could not help but hate them for their refusal to deny their need to be loved purely as a free gift. We hate those who show us those repressed aspects of ourselves.
So, how do we, who find form reception so difficult, learn to practice it? One way is to begin to face those realities of life that we usually ignore. It is to begin to suffer the tension that comes with awareness of evil in the world and our limited ability to respond to it. It is to allow our hearts to be touched by the world’s suffering, but also by its beauty. To attend to those around us in such a way that we perceive not only their surface but what they are going through. It is to pay attention to ourselves, to whatever in our own experience we have tended to ignore or repress. Among the feelings it is most difficult for me to identity is loneliness. The reason for this, I suspect, is how painful my loneliness was at times as an only child in a family with two working parents. Slowly, however, I am learning that loneliness is for me the key to much of my unconscious behavior over the years. My avoidance of the deep neediness to which my loneliness points is what has driven me over the years to behave most manipulatively and sinfully. To recognize the depth of that neediness is the very way I am slowly learning to discover a love that is beyond all the cravings of my own vital impulses and functional ambitions. It is not gratification from others or ambitious overexertion that will satisfy me. It is only knowing that even in the place of fear and trembling God loves and upholds me.
What so infuriates Paul about the tendency of the Galatians? It is their lack of faith. When we attempt to reduce our relationship with God to a contract, we create a god for “our own ends.” Rather than entering the mystery of Divine Love in faith, we seek a security based on our capacities. It is not in our manufactured goodness or righteousness that we come to know God but in the experience of “being put in our place,” “of being brought low.” It seems that Brother Ryken awakened to the love of God for him only at the moment he was “brought low” in his own estimation. At that moment he “turned toward God and fell in love,” that is, he recognized he was loved, not as the one he thought he should be, let alone that others did, but rather as he was, in what seemed to him such a lowly and sinful state. Soren Kierkegaard said that the sinner “repents himself back into himself.” We are forever creating alternative selves in our attempt to save ourselves, to become worthy of life and of being loved. The word of the Gospel tells us that it is we ourselves who are loved. So, we must continually repent of the falseness we are creating so that we may come back into ourselves. Faith, then, is the trust in Reality, in God to be who we are and, all feelings to the contrary, to trust that God loves us. It is to see in the truth of ourselves what Julian of Norwich saw in the hazelnut: “The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
To Lutheran ways of thinking, the self-satisfaction and general contentment to which our works are liable to incline us hides from us our need for God. Even our conception of God will, in our quest for independence, be used to serve our own ends. Reason is but another form of pride; it blinds us to the God revealed in Christ. It is alone the recognition of our neediness that opens us up to hearing the gospel. The gospel speaks to whom? To the self-assured? No: to the one who is heavy-laden. The attempt to be good of our own account must always fail. In Kierkegaardian language, it is only as the ‘ethical’ person falls down before his or her own eyes that he or she is able to hear the gospel message that God accepts sinners. As he will put it, the sinner ‘repents himself back into himself’ until he finds himself in God. Consequently the knowledge as to what is truly ‘sin’ comes about as a response to revelation. ‘Sin’ is, in our pride, to take up a mistaken position in relation to God. Contrariwise faith is a letting go (a trusting in another); if an act, then a negative act as Kierkegaard will have it. Again the contrast with Catholicism should be noted. Whereas in Catholicism faith is Latin fides (belief), in the Lutheran case it is rather fiducia (trust).
Daphne Hampson, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique, pp. 23-4