GALATIANS 5 encourages us to tackle a question that has energised Christian thinkers for centuries. We can frame it in Pauline terms, as a war between flesh and spirit, or draw from the embedded Pauline teaching a more abstract formulation of the problem of good and evil.
This was a lifelong preoccupation of Augustine. He was just as limited as we are by the circumstances of his intellectual formation. Did his dualistic belief in eternal powers of good and evil draw him into Manichaeism? Or was it Manichaeism which taught him to see good and evil as opposite and equal powers, locked in eternal conflict?
We still use the term “Manichee” or “Manichaean” to refer to someone with a dualistic world-view of a cosmic struggle between light and darkness. This is rather a simplistic take on that ancient religion: religious history is written by the winners; so we would not expect Manichaeism to get a fair press. Yet it cannot have been entirely without merit; for it captured the imagination of Augustine for nine years.
In the end, it was not the theology or ideas of Manichaeism which ceased to feed Augustine’s spiritual hunger. It was meeting one of that religion’s great teachers, and discovering that he was a bombastic poseur. In the same way, Christians today may have high ideals about following the teachings of their faith, but a dull or incompetent minister can be enough to drive them away from one church community and into another. In religious teaching, the medium is (to some extent) the message.
Paul’s list of evils to be avoided is markedly longer than his list of fruits of the Spirit (15 negative items against nine positives). If balance were the only thing that mattered, “the works of the flesh” would easily trump those of the Spirit. Good and evil, though, are not a matter of arithmetic or ratios.
There is a more excellent way, and it was accepted and taught by Augustine, principally because he realised the inadequacy of dualistic systems. That alternative is the theology that evil is an absence of good. It is a less unsatisfactory solution than dualism, but it is still not without difficulties. What do we make of God’s creating evil (Isaiah 45.5)? Or the scriptural evidence of the existence of Satan and demons? This question is in no danger of being fully answered any time soon. But it will not hurt us to admit that there is a difficulty here, and be ready to explore it with those searching for an intellectually credible faith.
The other readings also work against simplistic dualism. When following the related-readings track, it is often tempting to take the old-covenant reading as identifying a problem that is “solved” under the terms of the new covenant. Elijah allows Elisha to hold one final sacrificial meal before he leaves behind his plough and follows the man of God. Jesus, on the other hand, takes a more extreme line: he will not even permit a son to bury his dead father.
Many commentators have struggled to avoid the stern, plain sense of Luke’s Gospel. Surely Jesus cannot have meant what he said to be taken literally? It must be one of his “hard sayings”: a tough message in uncompromising language, that nothing is more urgent than the Kingdom. Even filial duty must make way for it.
For us, though, a decision to follow Jesus is not literal or immediate. We do not feel the pressure of impending judgement; for us, the act of “following” means study, imitation, commitment, prayer, fellowship — not a literal stepping where the Lord’s feet have passed only seconds before.
There is a crumb of comfort in this command to leave the dead to bury their dead (which, to be honest, had the person concerned been one of my parents, I would not have even tried to obey). It is hidden by the shift from Greek to English: the word NRSV translates as “looks back” could be rendered more precisely as “keeps looking back”.
If our hearts keep backsliding to past loves and former loyalties, we will be unable to give ourselves wholly to following Jesus. That leaves a tiny bit of wriggle room for those of us who would rather be called to follow the model of Elisha and Elijah, by not ignoring family obligations altogether.