A common theme of the New Testament is the dueling contrasts of the Hebrew “law”: the dominant interpretation as embodied in Jewish culture and religion vs. the interpretation advocated for by early Christian writers and leaders.
What if we were to take this contrast as a metaphor and apply it one step further: to the phenomenon of institutionalized religion itself to guide our understanding of religion in contemporary human society?
Let’s read through Galatians 3:18-27 and substitute “law” with “religion” or more specifically “Christianity”:
What is the point, then, of [Christianity], the attached addendum? It was a thoughtful addition to the original covenant promises made to Abraham. The purpose of [Christianity] was to keep a [spiritually maturing] people in the way of salvation until [God/Enlightenment/unitive consciousness] came, inheriting the promises and distributing them to us. Obviously [Christianity] was not a firsthand encounter with God. It was arranged by angelic messengers through a middleman, [Jesus]. But if there is a middleman as there was at [Jerusalem], then the people are not dealing directly with God, are they? But the original promise is the direct blessing of God, received by faith.
Think about it this way: what if the law is to Christianity as Christianity is to Absolute Reality?
If such is the case, is [Christianity], then, an anti-promise, a negation of God’s will for us? Not at all. Its purpose was to make obvious to everyone that we are, in ourselves, out of right relationship with God, and therefore to show us the futility of devising some religious system for getting by our own efforts what we can only get by waiting in faith for God to complete his promise. For if any kind of rule-keeping had power to create life in us, we would certainly have gotten it by this time. Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by [Christian stories, sacraments, and traditions]. [Christianity] was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.
“For if any kind of rule-keeping had power to create life in us, we would certainly have gotten it by this time.”
Is it keeping the rules, as taught by our religious traditions, that fosters the process of spiritual maturation in us? Or is it rather the internalization of higher intangible and ineffable truths and realities that those religious traditions make tangible for us?
“Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by [Christian stories, sacraments, and traditions].”
Oftentimes when people undergo a “faith transition” and come to terms with the shortcomings of literalistic approaches to religion, they throw the baby out with the bathwater. “If X isn’t literally true, then nothing else related to X is true either!” That is an understandable reaction, which I have nothing but the utmost sympathy for.
Could we respond, however, by instead seeing how the literalism of those stories could perhaps be understood more as a stepping stone on our way toward a more comprehensive perception of those higher realities to which the literalistic stories pointed?
But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.
This is the destination: a direct relationship with God, unmediated by traditions, stories, sacraments, and rituals. Those things are important and, for many people, essential “training wheels” that are particularly effective for many of us to help us along our way. By learning to see the purpose of the religious traditions, we can use them effectively: to help us put on an “adult faith wardrobe,” appropriate for the journey to our destination.