And God locked them all in!
IN THE STORY of Noah and the ark there is a most curious line. God asks Noah to build an ark and then to put into it a pair, a male and a female, of every living thing on earth. After Noah does this and himself gets onto the ark with his family, the author of Genesis says: "And God locked them in" (Genesis 7:16). That expression is a rich metaphor which says a lot about community, family, marriage, and Church. When we understand these correctly, we understand too that we are locked into them, that virtually every kind of community to which we belong is not a free choice, and that to seek life outside is to die.
As unpopular as it is in most contemporary circles to use words such as obligation, duty-bound, and locked-in, we badly need to apply these words today to community, family, marriage, and Church. The general mindset within Western culture today, both inside and outside religious circles, too readily suggests that these things are free options that we can take or leave as we like; things we are not bound to by duty or locked into, whether we want them or not. The common attitude today is that community, family, and Church are not obligatory.
But such a view is both false and dangerous. False because it belies human nature and goes against the essence of Christianity, and dangerous because, left off the ark of community, family, and Church, we die. These are not things we may freely choose to enter into or to ignore, according to idiosyncratic preference. As Christians, and simply as human beings, we are not free to "hang loose"; to choose on our own terms. Religiously and morally we are locked in. Community, family, and Church are not free associations of like-minded individuals into which we can, if we feel a need or if we feel generous and altruistic, freely enter and then leave when we no longer want or feel a need for them. Into them we are born; to them, we are irrevocably bound; in them, we have duties and obligations; and outside them, we die. God created us social, cornmunitarian and ecclesial, in our very essence. God locked us in... since it is, as the second page of Scripture tells us, not good for the human being to be alone!
To the extent that we believe the choices for community, family, and Church are free options and not moral obligations, we still stand in need of conversion. Lack of permanent commitment is a sure sign that we are not yet truly committed within the Kingdom because then it is clear that we have not yet made God's cause really our own. The Kingdom of God is about community, it is about people coming together beyond like-mindedness, despite differences and faults, irrespective of the tension, anger, selfishness and sin that divides them.
All genuine Christian conversion brings with it the sense that we no longer belong just to ourselves but are now bound to others in a way that we are not free to take or leave. Just as we, when we are truly converted to Christ, know that we are no longer free to walk away from him, so too we realise that we are no longer free to walk away from community and from the Church.
Bernard Lonergan, in mapping out the dynamics of Christian conversion, highlights this by saying: "All genuine conversion to Christ is, at a point, conversion to the Church." Jesus says the same thing in different words when he says: "Unless you eat my flesh, you cannot have life within you!" (John 6) The flesh that Jesus speaks of here is not just the Eucharist, his more antiseptic body on earth, but the Church, his more flawed body here on earth. t