In 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, with his family, gets on the ark, the author of Genesis says: “And God locked them in.” (Genesis 7, 16)
That expression, “and God locked them in”, 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 that we belong is not a free choice, and that to seek life outside of community 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, precisely, to community, family, marriage, and church. The general mindset within Western culture today, both inside and outside of religious circles, too readily suggests that these things are free options, things 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 of the ark of community, family, and church, we die. Community, family, and church 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 community, family, and church 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 them or feel a need for them. They aren’t free associations at all. Into them, we are born; to them, we are irrevocably bound; in them, we have duties and obligations; and outside of them, we die. God created us social, communitarian 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 that 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 to community, lack of the sense that we have to stay, and lack of the sense that we are unfree to leave even if we want, 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’s about people coming together beyond like-mindedness, despite differences and faults, and irrespective of the tensions, angers, selfishness and sins that divide them. To opt into community when we feel like it or when it is without pain and petty tensions and to opt out when it no longer suits us or when it gets too painful, is to be, at a deep level, not yet really converted. Part of any true Christian conversion is the understanding that community, family, and church, are not negotiable items. To be Christian in heart and soul is to know that we are locked in, no longer free to leave.
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 realize that we are no longer free to walk away from community and from the church. Just as Christ is non-negotiable within Christianity, so too is community and church. To be a Christian is to be involved in ecclesiology.
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 on here on earth.
And God locked them in! Within Christianity, that expression contains an entire ecclesiology.