Monday, April 9, 2007

"God-blessed freedom"

Now that I've recovered from the embarrassment of having been called "a fine upstanding Christian" by one of my readers, I'm ready to say a bit more about "God-blessed freedom" (as I termed it yesterday).

I assume [what I think we simply must assume for discussion of faith to proceed]: that humans are free—at least to some degree, which might even be extensible through self-knowledge and discipline.

It follows, if we are in some sense created by God, that God created our freedom. That's part of what I meant by the phrase "God-blessed freedom." The other part of my understanding of this God-granted freedom is that with it comes the implicit invitation to use it. In fact, it may be a logical necessity. For does it make sense to say, "You are free, but don't act freely"?

Religions of course provide various instructions or directions about how to use it. A good friend of mine thinks that the message of most religions (that is, God's message as promoted by these religions) is to "do good one to another." Nevertheless many religious people study their holy book to get explicit, specific instructions about how to be good, as though they didn't particularly want to exercise their intelligence to figure it out. (Indeed, freedom can be a burden, for it entails responsibility.)

What delighted me yesterday was to realize that to exercise my freedom on my own, honestly and from love, is sufficient to "be okay with God." It is not necessary to do anything else—like pray, attend church, read the holy book, even worship as ordinarily understood. It appeared to me that using my freedom could itself be an act of worship, an act of obedience and praise.

But in practice I don't dwell on that, for I don't get warm, fuzzy feelings from the concept of being obedient to God. "Obedience to God" seems on its face to require that a person follow explicit instructions. How can that be free?

The feeling I felt upon gaining this insight I compared yesterday to the feeling I had upon "being saved" fifty-six years ago: The significance of God's blessing of freedom came to me as a stroke of forgiveness and liberation.


  1. My good friend Keith S, upon reading today's post, wrote me:

    "Sounds almost like you're on the brink of a Thoreau Moment. ;-) I was reading a review of a book in the Sunday N&O about pre-Victorian London. As I have read in other sources, it lays the blame for prudish Victorianism on the Age of Enlightenment and the libertines it supposedly produced. Well, prudish people are always reacting to something, and occasionally they are in the ascendent position in society (as the newsreaders would have us now think). Be careful that your Thoreau Moment doesn't lead you into libertinism. ;-)"

    And I, overexcited to share his whimsical response, have gone ahead and posted it, at the same time I've written to Keith to say that I love his comment, even if I almost choked laughing. I asked him to tell me, though, "what part of the observation (or to what extent the observation) is serious. That is, do you really fear (or at least imagine) that I might, in my newfound permission to 'go and be free,' take advantage of my God-blessed freedom?

    "By the way, I'm posting your comment. Is that all right?"

  2. Keith replied:

    "Your blog comments read as though you are approaching Thoreau's (and Wordsworth's) communion with Oneness through Nature, or Blake's direct communion with God. Whichever isn't important.

    "No, I don't think you are heading toward the 'self-freeing' debauchery of a libertine. Were this 40+ years ago, I might be a bit concerned about it, though. But only in the sense that you might leave me behind!"

    And, alas, he added:

    "I don't really see any need to post my comments. The Universe will, of its own volition, continue racing toward entropy quite well without spreading such banalities on the net."

    By gum, I think I might really choke this time!

  3. 56 years ago. That's about how old I was when I saw the light. These days I wonder however if it was the same light others speak of, or maybe it was an on coming train. Southern Writer gave me your blog address. Well said piece. Ed

  4. Well, bless our dear Southern Writer for passing the word!

    "See the light"—that was a popular way, then at least, for describing the come-to-Jesus moment. I remember the phrase's occurring in letters I exchanged with one or another of my older sisters, who, for years and years, have worried about my soul for me (when I wasn't worried about it myself).

    Is your reference to the oncoming train a metaphor for hellfear? (In that regard, I'm much enjoying David Lodge's novel about the moral and social travails of practicing Catholics in the period 1952-1980 in England, Souls and Bodies. The Church's stick was, of course, the fear of eternal hellfire. The preacher who got me up to the altar, though, used the soothing blandishments of a loving Jesus every bit as much threats of damnation. That is, I think I was persuaded by the carrot rather than by the stick.)

    I become less and less sure, though, whether my Jesus moment occurred when I was eight...or twelve. If I can just remember what church it was, I can settle the matter. Either a Pentecostal Holiness church (eight) or an Assembly of God church (twelve).

  5. I've never doubted there was a power greater than myself. I guess you can call him Jesus or what ever you choose. The problem is not with the non-believers but with the believers. Never joined a charch until I was 56. Hated the way christens would f*** you on Sat. and be forgiven on Sun. But at 56 I had my moment. After that, I decided it would be the right thing for me to go to church. Went to three of them in fact; baptized in two. After five years,I discovered my first evaluation of these people and their churches was the correct one. If there is something after this life,there are going to be some very surprised so-called christens. Sorry, I hate to get on a roll like that. Thank God you didn't say anything nice about Bush. Ha!

  6. Ed, though I have fairly successfully given up my loathing for Bush (as an unproductive, wasteful emotion), I nevertheless have yet to say anything nice about him <smile>.

  7. Here's a parable of Jesus that I'm fond of: (Matt 21:28-31)

     “What do you think? A man had two children. Going up to the first, he said, ‘Child, go work today in the vineyard.’ In answer this one said, ‘I will, sir,’ but did not go out. Approaching the second, he said the same. In reply this one said, ‘I will not.’ Afterwards he felt regret and went out. Which of the two did the will of [his] father?” They said: “The latter.”

    This seems a useful stratagem when interacting with people who you fear may try to impose on your freedom. A religious group, for example, who you suspect may take some concept like "inherited sin" and beat you ever the head with it. Lay a major guilt trip on you. Do what the 2nd son did. Just say no. Then, if you later decide that your fears were overblown, you can always "feel regret and go out." If, like Ed Rogers on the other hand, you later confirm that your initial fears were dead-on, no harm done. You didn't allow yourself to be drawn way out on a limb. You kept saying "I will not."

    It's probably useful advise in a lot of settings, not just religious. Academic committees, for instance, where they'll foist all the work upon you, if you're not careful.

  8. Tom, I think we need to distinguish situations in which someone is asking us to help them from situations where people may (or may not) be "trying to impose something" on us.

    In about 1984 or 1985 I began using a very effective way of dealing with the former. I began routinely responding that I would need 24 hours to think about a given request. This delay gave me an opportunity to overcome my gung-ho tendency to more or less automatically say yes, for in the interim I could think of many things that saying yes might involve and really decide whether I wanted to commit to get involved or not.

    I also noticed that the requestor had often found an alternative by the time I got back to him. And, if not, I was anyway now well-prepared to say no (or happy to say yes).

    The situation of the parable is quite a bit like that, actually. The father is asking (literally telling) the child to do something, which is perhaps not much unlike an employer's asking (or telling) an employee to do something. The child (if "of a certain age") and the employee have some responsibility for gauging what they are capable of doing, etc. For an employee to agree to do something for which he is not suited or qualified (or for which he just doesn't have time) is to do his employer a disservice.

    As for the "imposing situations," I'm afraid I can't see how the parable applies (or at least is intended to apply).

    In any case, are you saying that I seem to need advice in how to deal well with people trying to impose on me? Please clarify just what about me or my way of interacting you are addressing.


  9. No, I am not saying that. Please don't read anything into my comment beyond what is right there on the surface. Your 1984 strategy is very clever.

  10. Morristotle:

    You seem suspicious that I am sending you some hidden message with my last comment. I am not. I am thinking, frankly, of me, not you.

    Within our own organization we have some individuals who are a bit pushy, and a few who are extremely so. I don't think the proportions are much different than the general population, but since the field is that of religion, a pushy person is more potent. The very real (IMO) concept of "inherited sin" makes it very possible to lay guilt trips on people, sometimes achieving short term goals but at the expense at long term harm.

    It's a question, within the religious realm, of how to lead. Just plain leading.....going ahead, confident that you will be followed....requires some faith. (There! Finally! A Leap Of Faith!) Faith that if your leadership is proper, God's spirit will motivate those dedicated to him to follow as best they can. But you and I and the rest of us have all had the experience, probably way back in high school, of leading in such a way, only to look back over our shoulder, and discover to our embarrassment, that nobody has budged an inch. In fact, aren't one or two of them smirking at us?

    So it requires less faith to lead by pushing! Make people feel guilty. Coerce them.

    There was an internal school I attended once for our own people in which the instructor took a length of string. Pressing it with one finger, he pulled it around the table. Notice, he pointed out, how the rest of the string readily follows the lead. Reversing himself, he started, not to pull, but to push the string. Notice how it all bunches up this way, he pointed out. It doesn't work too well. Really, he added, I'm not too smart to do it this way.

    So I have found the parable I posted to be useful to me for dealing with this type of person. If it is useful to me, maybe it will be to someone else, I surmised.

  11. My dear Tom, I hope I was not being suspicious but only trying to understand and clarify.

    Certainly you may use space on my blog to post comments that might be useful to others as they are to you! Welcome, my friend!

    I've thought a little about two ways of "trying to lead." The first that I became aware of, probably (as a teenager), was to demonstrate by logic. I started out having great faith in that method (in fact, was thrilled to have discovered it, probably from Plato's dialogues) for I was (or was trying to be) rational myself and so expected that others, upon recognizing the truth in my argument, would of course follow. I'm not sure when in my life I realized that such rationality would fail many more times than it would succeed. (I guess I had conveniently overlooked that Socrates ended up drinking hemlock.)

    The other method is the one whereof you speak: leading by example, or "modeling" a certain behavior. I even wrote a paper on this, in the context of serving as a mentor in one's profession to someone junior to oneself: "The Mentor's Apprentice," which was published (about 1990) in Technical Communication, the journal of the Society for Technical Communication. Such modeling does indeed work, and very effectively, but perhaps mainly (if not only) on behalf of those who desire already to "be like you" (or maybe only to achieve what they perceive you have achieved; such modeling is a staple of the advice given by peak-performance guru Anthony Robbins).