From The Dusty Ones
Return, O Wanderer, to thy home,
Thy Father calls for thee;
No longer now an exile roam
In guilt and misery;
Return, O wanderer, to thy home,
‘Tis Jesus calls for thee:
The Spirit and the bride say, Come;
Oh now for refuge flee;
Return, O wanderer, to thy home,
‘Tis madness to delay:
There are no pardons in the tomb
And brief is mercy’s day.
(Thomas Hastings, “Return, O Wanderer”)
“In the beginning God….” (Genesis 1:1).
As we’ve been discussing, that’s the beginning of creation – four words that capture the essence of everything from the sunset to raccoons to the very book in your hands. Before everything, was God. Sure, God eventually gets around to creating a garden where he will place Adam and Eve. And soon God will move in and give directions. God tells Adam and Eve to make kids and eat. Look at the first two commandments to Adam and Eve in the Bible, (Genesis 1:28-30): “multiply” and “eat.” I suspect most Americans will appreciate that. The Bible begins with food and sex. Who isn’t going to like that? And then, almost immediately (and I mean almost immediately), the rules established by God begin to break down. Adam and Eve step over the boundaries, transgressing the way of things. They not only forget the rules, but they ignore and break the rules.
It all began so wonderfully – Sound of Music wonderfully. Running-through-hills, spinning-in-daisies wonderfully. And then it all went downhill from there.
It is often called the fall. It changed everything.
What happened in Eden didn’t stay in Eden.
Eden, literally translated as “paradise,” was most certainly a paradise. But it was also a unique kind of paradise with boundaries established by God. We mustn’t imagine Eden as some free-for-all, all-inclusive resort where anything could be freely done, consequence-free. By venturing in to take a closer look at the garden scene in the early pages of Genesis, we discover that the garden of Eden was not, as one might say, a “cage-free” existence for its original inhabitants. Eden had very clear, established boundaries pertaining mostly to food. It is interesting that the boundary God establishes – “Eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge” – was about food. And it is all the more interesting to see that the first sin took place in regard to food as well. Most of my sins are like that, about food. The first thing I stole was a cookie.
Garden life, paradise, was not “free” in the way we think of free. Nor are our own existences free of the confines of boundaries and limitations and lines of demarcation. A cage-free, boundless, infinite, limitless, “do whatever you please” sort of life is a myth unsupported by both experience and the witness of scripture. Real life had, and still has, boundaries. Real life knows that it won’t last forever and can’t attain everything it wants.
In the creation story, there were two levels of boundaries – physical boundaries and moral boundaries. As it pertains to the physical boundaries of creation, there were many to be noted. For example, God established boundaries between the sea and the land, between the sky and the Earth, between the fishes of the water and the animals of the land. There were boundaries of time – days marked by darkness and dawn. Creation had boundaries of seasons. And, of course, there were boundaries between animal and plant species. Eden teemed with all kinds of living beings that reproduced within their given boundaries of its species community. The place had a purposeful and thoughtful infrastructure. In fact, the structure of the physical space in creation has reminded some of a very well-thought-through set of architectural plans. To that end, a number of Old Testament scholars have sought to examine the story of creation in architectural terms; like an architect, God separates light from dark, land from sea, all acts of delineation that an architect would be doing.
Alongside these various physical boundaries, there were boundaries pertaining to how humans were to exist in relationship to God and one another. These were also moral boundaries. What this means is that there were clear, concise, divine boundaries, directives, and rules for humanity that God opted to establish before inserting Adam and Eve into the world’s plot that basically existed to sustain them. For example, note that God extended Adam and Eve the freedom to eat from any tree in the Garden of Eden – every tree, that is, except the one in the middle of the garden known as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, (Genesis 2:26-17). All of this came before they would eventually eat the fruit from the off-limits tree in the center of the garden. Moral boundaries existed before Adam and Eve ate the fruit and sin entered the world. Boundaries, as it were, were not a result of the fall. Boundaries, as such, mustn’t be falsely understood as a result of humanity’s disobedience, sin, or the fall.
Boundaries predated the fall; a good creation had rules before the serpent came slithering about. Boundaries are good, not bad, and helped create a world that would flourish and be good.
This notion of moral boundaries unquestionably rubs up against almost all of our cultural sensibilities, doesn’t it? For example, an American will feel entitled (almost from birth) to a set of “inalienable rights” to freedom and happiness and do whatever the heck we want to do. Then, along comes the Bible, telling us we can’t do everything we want to do. No wonder the Bible has grown wildly unpopular in our time as an ancient, unnecessary document – it refuses to offer us a vision of unimpeded freedom. Take sexuality as an example. Time and again, the Bible offers a kind of sexual ethic that says sexual intimacy is ideally only to be enjoyed by two people in a mutual covenant relationship with one another. Anything else leads to destruction. Now, because of this, the Bible gets hammered for being closed-minded and archaic. But imagine for a moment a world in which this kind of sexual ethic is actually embodied. Imagine a world in which human sexuality only takes place in the context of a mutual loving covenant – completely removed from our world would be all rape, sexual abuse, child pornography, all pornography, and sex trafficking. Far more kids would have two parents as divorce rates would plummet. Now, one might critique the Bible’s sexual ethic as being outdated. But it’s difficult to deny that such a world is a lot more like Heaven than whatever it is we’re doing now. In general, boundaries are only hated by those who refuse to respect them. Boundaries are loved and respected when their Creator is loved and respected.
No wonder we see the Bible as archaic: an upright God will never be praised by the crooked.
Telling, isn’t it, that with all these physical and moral boundaries, the garden environment had no barbed wires or walls or watchtowers? Eden wasn’t a gated community. It wasn’t a prison. There was a remarkable sense of freedom to disobey what God had established. Adam and Eve could have left if they pleased. Likewise, as we’ve observed, they were entirely free to eat from the one tree they weren’t permitted to – in short, God is the Creator of choice. And so there is an essential lesson to be learned from the epic Eden story: with great freedom comes the great possibility that disobedience may ensue. The cost of freedom is potential disobedience. Likewise, true freedom is only true if there are boundaries. Imagine a free world with no stop signs, speed limits, or lines on the road. That isn’t freedom; it is chaos. While there were, as there are, boundaries and rules, there was such creative freedom in the garden that was pregnant with great possibility. Adam was invited to name the animals. Eve was free to walk around in the garden. Adam and Eve were free to enjoy a sexual relationship.
Eden had freedom and boundary. I like to call this bounded creativity – an existence marked by brilliant creativity that simultaneously respects the divine boundaries. Within the context of creation’s bounded creativity, humans are invited to color, so to speak, within the lines drawn before the foundations of the Earth. God desires us to be creative and bounded at the same time. The splendidly intentional way God creates the world with bounded creativity suggests a nuanced brilliance behind the whole thing.
The problem is, we think in terms of either creativity or boundaries – it can only be one or the other. Generally, we’re good at one but not the other. A problem surfaces when we ignore one side of that tension, when we are merely “bounded” or merely “creative.” In so doing, we greatly neglect our God-given vocation of being creative with the lines of creation.
Many forms of Christian religion misread the creation narrative and forget a whole side of the garden’s creative dimension that invites us to co-create, name, make, and keep the garden. Religion does rules really well. It says do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that. Religion emphasizes the boundaries. A neat and tidy religion based on such rules naïvely comprehends life as nothing more than an environment of black-and-white boundaries that exist primarily to keep us from having any fun whatsoever.
While religions are good at the rules, progressive culture like Portland, where I live, is good at the creative side of life, often ignoring life’s boundaries and choosing only to see the side of human life that respects one’s ability to do as they please. Life becomes, in this light, whatever we want to make of it. We become who we want to become. Any boundaries are bad, progressives would say, so just be free to be yourself. Eat what you want to eat, drink what you want to drink, sleep with whom you want to sleep with; do whatever you want whenever you want to do it. But we are deceived when we ignore both tensions of creation. To be only creative or only bounded severely undermines the way God created us to live, and it will lead to an impoverished existence.
The gospel of Jesus reinvites us into this kind of bounded creativity, an invitation that demands great creativity and boldness and also great obedience and faithfulness. The Christian life is to be both right-brained and left-brained. On one side, in creative freedom, we are called to push ourselves to make and create and work the way God created us to. On the other, we do so while faithfully living within the limitations of our lives. More on this later, but suffice it to say that we will wander from that creative tension the minute we ignore the other side. We will stall if we are only creative or only bounded.
I think this awkward tension is why so few Christians willingly choose to enter the creative world of the arts – we’re afraid. For many Christians, there’s almost a fear of creativity, of making, of doing. It’s like we see creativity as the opposite of faith when faith should be what awakens creativity. Similarly, I think that this is why many people wouldn’t be caught dead going to church: church and the religious life are caricatured as a kind of death to all true creativity and ingenuity. But, ironically, Christian doctrine has long argued that any sense of creativity is a part of God’s image, the imago Dei, in each and every person. The artist – Christian or not – is evidence of a Creator. For true creativity is what happens when the imago Dei in any person comes out and takes a walk. All artistry is a sign of this divine brilliance. But this false dichotomy between Christianity and creativity is stunning. Christ followers are called to be the most valiant of creatives. Yes, their creativity has boundaries, but creativity without boundary could bring down the whole world.
When the boundaries aren’t respected, we can almost assuredly expect that destruction will come as a result. I was reading the story of a megachurch pastor who started a church that exploded into massive proportions. He wrote tons of books that influenced the masses. He became famous. He traveled the world and taught. Then, after a personal crisis, he stopped pastoring. After he left the church, he started changing his views and theology and began to reject the story of Jesus. He did an interview in which he said that once he’d left the boundaries of the church, he finally felt free to “be himself.” Some might applaud that. I don’t. Christians are not to “be themselves.” They are “hidden with Christ,” (Colossians 3:3). Some of us want to leave the church because once we leave those boundaries, we can be and do whatever we please. But that can be very harmful to our souls. The church is the rope that tethers us to the good news.
So we are invited to be creative within the boundaries of faith, church, and scripture – not outside of it. True creativity is possible only in the context of boundaries. Some of the most incredible literary works are done by people who have found their freedom in prison cells. Is this a mistake? Nope. It is without question, for me, why the best writings come from prison. When you’re in prison, you’re stuck to be free. You are stuck by space but free to be you. It was in prison that Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” some of the crispest and clearest testimonies to freedom ever considered. It was in prison that Dietrich Bonhoeffer could write with majestic clarity his Letters and Papers from Prison. It was from prison that Saint Paul could write letters that would become scripture. Creativity is often best exercised in a prison. It is best exercised when there are some boundaries. I resonate so deeply with these words of Bonhoeffer, written from prison: “I think that even in this place we ought to live as if we had no wishes and no future, and just be our true selves.” Perhaps that is why Paul could write as much about freedom as he did from prison.
Jesus said the truth would set us free, (John 8:23). He never said that “being free” always led to truth.
We don’t arrive at our true selves by throwing off boundaries of truth; rather, we arrive at reality and truth by accepting these boundaries that God has graciously given to us. A river without banks is called a flood. A flood destroys. A river brings life; a flood annihilates. But we also don’t find life by merely living the rules. We live a life of creativity within the boundaries. We find freedom in coming to respect the boundaries of God. It’s true: accepting that we will die sets us free. In the end, I’m eternally perplexed by God’s brutal willingness to allow his own creation to wander into sin. The cost of bounded creativity is that one can always go too far. While deploring sin for all it is, God seems wildly comfortable to put his people in places where they have great possibility for sin. The God of the Bible, one finds, is no helicopter parent. Despite what any other parent may or may not let their child do, God allows his people to freely wander into the trap of sin and disobedience.
But in its prickly arrogance, human pride has done everything in its power to erase (or at least erode) divine boundaries in order to refashion human existence as boundless and “free.” And any sense of freedom without boundaries is not freedom. Freedom can only be freedom if there are boundaries. Sin might best be described as ignoring boundaries and seeking a cage-free existence without boundaries. By saying “cage-free,” I am not suggesting that we live behind barbed wire. Rather, I am using an image of bounded living. And cage-free, as far as I can tell, is not just something we want for our chickens. We want to be cage-free.
Modern life is increasingly identified as a world of individuals who are doing everything in their power and control to do away with all boundaries and limitations – boundaries around sexuality, our bodies, our relationships, and what is right and wrong. In short, we are becoming a world without boundaries. The contemporary obsession with “cage-free” is perhaps the best metaphor for the way not only Portlanders but also most Americans seek to embody an existence of supposed freedom, health, and well-being free of any moral or ethical restrictions or boundaries that hold us down. We want to be cage-free people in a bounded creation. And anything that gets in the way is seen as a real threat to our “freedom.”
This very well may account for why the church is resisted so vehemently in our time. God doesn’t play well in the twenty-first century to many people. People opt for relationships where one doesn’t have to hear about the boundaries and limitations that have been established, which is most likely why people are more interested in having a dog than they are in God. This is why, I suspect, Portlanders love their pets, particularly their dogs, as much as they do. Everyone is Portland owns a dog. They walk their dogs – big, small, loud, slow, blind, old – through my neighborhood. Why do we love our pets as much as we do? It seems we spend more money and time on pets than at any other time in history. Why? I would suggest that in our efforts at creating a cage-free life, we would go through whatever is necessary to be free of the cages of responsibility and judgment. A neighbor once told me he loves his dogs as much as he does – perhaps even more than his children – because a dog won’t look at you and say, “Hey, you’re wrong.” A dog just gives affection. A dog never judges. Around a dog, one can be whatever one wants to be. Children, on the other hand, will judge. Greatly. Maybe this is why our dogs often get more attention than our children.
We want to live the way we want our chickens – cage-free and happy. Again, perhaps that’s precisely why religion (particularly Christianity) often gets a bad rap in places like Portland. Religion gets caricatured as a kind of barbed-wire cage that holds us back from being and doing just as we please. Certainly, there is little doubt that humans will, by instinct, gravitate toward the relationships where we get affirmation from the other. And God doesn’t always affirm us. Sometimes God judges. If we merely desire affirmation and affection, a dog is a better option than God.
Despite our secret desires that it didn’t, creation had and still has boundaries. Humans were not made to live limitless lives. Likewise, the life of faith that Jesus invites us into today is one that beckons us to once again respect those boundaries and limitations. We are invited to eat, but we are invited to eat with limitations. We are invited to enjoy sexuality, but in the way established by the Creator. Like Adam, we are told which tree we can’t eat from and what animals we can name. Still, within this bounded creativity, God’s human creatures are created as free beings in a bounded world who can (if they so choose) eat from whatever tree they darn well please. Adam could have named the animals the last names God would have ever chosen. It was a world where humans were free to rebel. And because God didn’t create one machine or automaton in the creation, we are designed to be free, to do as we want. He created real, free people who could, if they so wanted, eat from the forbidden tree.
The boundaries can be ignored.
But doing so will always lead to death.
Wandering – the theme we’re working our way through – is like the moon: it has a light and a dark side to it. There is good wandering and bad wandering. The Bible doesn’t portray it in just one light. Sometimes it is praised, sometimes it is not. While one essential aspect of the Christian life deals with learning how to wander with God faithfully through the desert of this life, another part that we are dealing with here is the wandering that we do as we wander away from God. Again, wandering can be a necessary part of the journey of holiness that one will eventually tread one’s way through in order to arrive at new places of promise and refreshment. But on the other hand, sometimes – sometimes – wandering is not good wandering. In short, wandering can be the result of sin and disobedience, like the wandering of Adam and Eve.
Sin is a prickly topic indeed. We are wrong to think that sin has always been around. Of course it hasn’t. Sin was not originally created but came along after the creation of the world. Sin is, in a way, a kind of undoing of God’s good creation. Sin is taking the vat in which sloshes the wine that Jesus made and doing everything one can to turn it back into water. Sin is the wanton deconstruction of God’s good. Similarly, evil wasn’t created. Satan was an angel named Lucifer originally created by God as a good agent in his creation. It was only later that Satan turned against God. In that way, there is no such thing as “original” sin, for originally God only created good. Originally, there was no evil or sin.
Sin, I’ve heard it said, is the only part of Christian doctrine that is, beyond question, empirically verifiable by everyone. Every person recognizes there is darkness in the world. And Christians aren’t the only ones to recognize a blip in the human personhood. Like many of his contemporaries, Sigmund Freud had a long-standing tradition of writing letters of response to his readers who took interest in his work. One such letter has been published in recent years. In a series of brutally transparent correspondences with a Lutheran minister by the name of Otto Pfister, Freud sought to respond to one of his Christian readers’ criticism. Feud writes, “Well, praise can always be brief, but criticism has to be more long-winded. One thing I dislike is your objection to my ‘sexual theory and my ethics.’ The latter I grant you; ethics are remote from me, and you are a minister of religion. I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash.”
Trash. That is language used by one of the founders of modern psychology. Freud, of course, stands out as one of the most brilliant and creative psychoanalysts known to his field. Freud’s work would shape a whole generation of thought about the human person in the modern world. Of course, Freud wasn’t a Christian. It’s shocking, isn’t it, to see Freud, the leasing psychologist of his time, make such a bold proclamation?
The great missionary and theologian John Wesley defined people as “human sharks.” I suppose what’s odd is that Sigmund Freud, a renowned psychologist, and John Wesley, one of the church’s greatest theologians, seem to largely agree on this point. The religious – and nonreligious, for that matter – recognize something off about the human person. To be certain, humanity isn’t so much trash as loved trash. Christianity – probably because it can overemphasize the fact – gets quite a bit of grief of its point that all humans are “sinners.” Many psychologists today assert that this claim creates within a person a great deal of unnecessary grief and can even cause someone to be depressed. But at the risk of being brash, you can’t know anybody and not recognize that Freud and the Bible are right. The Bible, however, takes it one step further. While humanity is “trash,” it is the kind of trash that God takes a liking to.