Michael Allen Gillespie in The Theological Origins of Modernity explored the contribution of Francesco Petrarch—a monumental 14th century figure—in The Solitary Life: “At the heart of this [Petrarch’s] claim [that a public life is incompatible with virtue] is his conviction that social life is dominated by the opinions and values of the multitude, who are invariably slaves to their passions. Man in society is thus not a free being who seeks his own good but a slave who desires the praise and fears the blame of others and who consequently wants only what others want” (59-60).
This insight is certainly out of step with the modern myth of personal freedom. Yet it is remarkably prescient if measured by the way that life today is defined by fads and fashions. One only needs to travel in a bus, train, or airplane to watch fellow travelers sample the latest lines of clothing. The advertisements of autos, prestigious watches, luxurious homes, and any number of consumer goods are supplemented by the star power of movie actors who show off the good life, all to indicate—whether overtly or covertly—what others “should want.”
Of course this is nothing new. Jesus was scathing as he attacked the scholarly work of the Bible teachers of his day (see John 5) for missing the point of Moses’ writings—which anticipated the coming Messiah—when he, the Messiah, was standing in their midst talking to them. The problem: “You do not have the love of God in you.” John later (in John 12) summarized the reluctance of many leaders in Christ’s day. They had come to believe that Jesus was, indeed, all that he claimed to be, yet they still refused to say so in public. Why not? Because they loved the glory they received from each other rather than the glory that comes from God.
Jesus made the same point elsewhere when he warned that no one can serve two masters, “for you will love the one and hate the other.” Luther also caught the point when he compared the human will as riding the donkey of desire: any given person is carried wherever his desires carry him. And, as Petrarch points out, we are slaves to fashion as our desires are formed by our cultural surroundings. A basic reality of life, then, is that we always do whatever our favorite crowd calls for us to do. A corollary to this is that our sense of personal freedom is a bit of naïve puffery!
This affective insight certainly aligns itself with Christ’s call in John 8 to “abide in my word” in order to be set free from the desires of his ultimate enemy. So here’s a question for us to ponder. How does Christ’s love set us free? Does it come from an intellectual alignment with biblical teachings? Is it a function of “determining” how to love others in light of Christ’s model of love? Or is it the fruit of having our self-defining referential community as the Triune community of God? If we read the Bible relationally this final option is where we’re invited to land. But, if that’s true, how do we get there?
Any thoughts are welcome!