Colossians 2:1-5: Paul (or the author in Paul’s name) has written that he continues to struggle on their behalf, even though he has never met them. His purpose in sharing this is to encourage them. He would like their hearts to be encouraged and united in love – what a delightful phrase. This is something we could pray for our own church communities. In addition, the author desires not only that their hearts be encouraged but that their minds be enlightened. I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God (The Message). Also, not bad words to pray for the church. The deep things of God, God’s mysteries, are to be found in Christ. The author is arguing that in Christ one can find all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He does this to prevent them from falling prey to teachers who argue that Christ is incomplete in some way. Such teachers can offer “plausible arguments,” but they are misguided.
This is an important passage to ponder in our time of religious pluralism. The author’s clear intent is to help the Jesus faith communities he is writing to. He wants them to deepen their Christian faith. He is concerned about some teachers who claim that the faith as they have been taught it is not enough, that there are other powers to worship, other forms of wisdom which are needed to complete one’s faith quest. So the author argues that one need look no further than Christ to find the wisdom and way of God. Do his words also suggest that it is only in Christ that we find wisdom and knowledge, only in Christ that the mysteries of God are revealed? While some may interpret these words in this way, I think it pushes the purpose of the author too far to say this. He is trying to make Christians stronger, not denigrate others. He is not saying there is no wisdom to be found in other traditions, only that you aren’t required to look elsewhere for the kind of wisdom that will bring you into a transforming relationship with God. This perspective frees us for some important conversations with others. We can learn from other traditions without giving up our own. The Dali Lama was once asked by a Christian seeker whether or not she should become a Buddhist. The Dali Lama replied (paraphrasing): “No, become more deeply Christian; live more deeply into your own tradition.” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 223). I have heard that the Dali Lama’s response went on to say that if persons could not find what they needed for their spiritual life within their Christian tradition, don’t be surprised if they indeed become Buddhist (I haven’t been able to recall that reference – no doubt, some day, when I least expect it, it will come back). He was encouraging Christians to be better at exploring the deep heart wisdom of our own tradition. The author of Colossians wants the Christians there to do that, too.
The Catholic nun, Joan Chittister’s most recent book is Welcome to the Wisdom of the World. In it she writes: Every major spiritual tradition – Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam – brings a special gift to the art of living the spiritual life. Her book seeks to look at these traditions for the wisdom they offer. But she looks at these traditions as a deeply committed Christian. When our own faith is deep enough, we can deepen it even further in conversation with other wisdom and faith traditions. There are those whose spiritual lives consist of jumping from one tradition to another (I am not speaking here of persons who have deep experiences of converting from one faith to another), or of pulling off the shelf this bit of wisdom and that bit of wisdom. We do better to be who we are, to deeply immerse ourselves in our own Christian tradition. We have what we need within it, as Christians. When we know that, we can often find some hidden riches in our own faith as we converse with other faiths. Some of my own recent conversations with Buddhism confirm this.
A word should, then, be said here about outreach. What do we make of the encouragement to share our faith with others and of the conversion of persons from one faith to another? The possibility that one finally finds ones original faith tradition lacking is always a live, existential possibility. There may be any number of reasons why one is unable to be spiritually fed from the well one grew up with. Sometimes the institutions that carry the faith message forward don’t do an adequate job of helping persons plumb the depths of the faith. Sometimes one has a deeply negative experience with a faith, an experience so negative that its symbols can no longer convey the grace of God. In order to connect with God, another path may need to be found. As Christians we witness to what we have found in our faith, inviting others to join us as they choose, encouraging those of other traditions to become more profoundly a part of their tradition. Who knows what might happen as persons of deep faith from differing traditions open themselves to one another in love and care and profound listening.
Colossians 2:6-23: Here the author deals directly with the threats of these other teachers. He encourages the Colossian Christians to live their lives in Jesus Christ as Lord, rooted, established and built up in Christ. He warns them not to be led away from this fundamental task by persons who offer what the writer sees as empty words. That we don’t know very much about the troublesome teachers makes these verses difficult to interpret. Some read in them a justification for a Biblicist theology, that is, don’t take anything you can’t find in the Bible very seriously. Again, I think that pushes the author’s words in directions he does not intend. Throughout history, Christian theologians have made good use of works of science and philosophy to help plumb the depths of Christian faith. Augustine used Plato. Aquinas used Aristotle. Harnack made use of Kant. Process theologians use the thinking of Whitehead and Hartshorne. Liberation theologians have been aided by the thinking of Marxist social analysts. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of certain uses of philosophy, but Christians can find helpful dialogue partners in many fields. The author’s concern is whether or not people are being deepened in their lives as Christians or distracted in other directions. Sometimes we can become so enamored with our wonderful thoughts that we fail to grow in faith, hope and love.
The author reiterates the fullness of Christ. The fullness of God is found in Christ, you need not look anywhere else. You need not think your faith incomplete. Apparently some form of this bothersome teaching involved encouraging circumcision, and so Paul/the author argues that the Colossian Christians have experienced a spiritual circumcision already. In a unique move, Paul compares circumcision to baptism, and links baptism to the death of Jesus. What once held us captive has been buried. The flesh, the disordered life, has been cut off in baptism. We have been made alive as Christ was in the resurrection. Any powers that could hold us back from being the people God would have us be have been disarmed.
This wonderful poetic riff is followed by more concrete advice. Don’t let people bother you about food and drink and solar festivals. Whatever teaching the Colossian Christians were troubled by, it seems to have combined elements of Judaism with astrological beliefs – human traditions about elemental spirits. These teachers argued that Christ was not enough, that the Jesus way they had been taught was deficient, so they needed to be circumcised, keep kosher (probably an anachronistic term here!) and celebrate the solstice. It was not as odd as I have made it sound. It had “an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, a severe treatment of the body.” Notice what the author says, however. “They are no value in checking self-indulgence.” In other words, even good spiritual values can be corrupted. That is something we all need to be aware, and beware, of!