Tuesday, July 3, 2018

IS FREEDOM AN ILLUSION?

Happy Fourth of July! At the suggestion of a reader, today’s posting is a reprise of one originally published on May 31, 2013

I do not have in mind political freedom, which is always limited. Fortunately in a representative democracy, however, the citizen has a voice in setting the limits and deciding how free "freedom" should be. Political freedom is not absolute. Ideally laws are drafted to give all groups the greatest amount of freedom possible under the law in a way that does not unnecessarily abridge the freedom of others who share minority views. So in a representative democracy all give a little to get a little.

       In this essay, however, I have in mind the ability of individuals to make decisions that have not been influenced, whether overtly or subtly, by their environment. From the earliest moments in life no one can independently envision their course of life. You cannot pick your parents, their social and economic status, or their prospects. You take what fate decrees for you. You cannot pick where you were born. Your birthplace is chosen by your mother. You cannot pick your native language, your skin color, or nationality. All these things happen by chance. Your religion or non-religion in the early years is the choice of your parents whom you did not pick. You are indoctrinated by their religious views, or lack thereof. You do not choose in the lower grades your educational institutions. Schooling hinges on where you live and/or your parents' economic circumstances. So the attitudes, values, quality and kind of instruction, inductively learned prejudices in the region where you live, and the acquired knowledge (both formal and cultural), which subtly mold and shape you, are also not of your own choosing. Your socialization happens almost by osmosis. By the time you think you have gained control from the dominant powers in your life (parents, local educational and political systems, religious institutions, regional cultural mores, etc.) you have already become something that may not be able to be changed, even if the thought occurred to you to do so. Your future choices have already been influenced by the powers outside you in your past. Thus people are free only to the extent that they can escape their own pasts.

       In later life you find yourself immersed in a culture whose expectations, moral values, and ideals demand compliance if you are to live successfully in society. The compliant are rewarded with status in the community and those who resist are marginalized. In later years you marry and become focused on job and advancement—each economic institution has its own rules that must be mastered. There are children to be tended, a home to be kept up to community standards, taxes to be paid, medical bills to be met, the children's future to consider, and retirement to be planned for. The demands are such that you have little time to give to abstract things as thinking about becoming—and anyway you have already "become" by buying into or resisting the culture and its expectations. You simply meet the requirements, without thinking, or challenge the expectations. In any case you are simply too far in to life to make radical changes.

       Nearing the age of retirement, some do find time for reflecting on where life has brought them, or perhaps better: on what their past and present have made them. In retrospect, they look back over their lives searching for the turning points that shaped them.

       Religion is part of the problem rather than the solution. All religions claim to possess Truth, particularly the missionary religions in their traditional forms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these have attached themselves to certain cultures sympathetic to their religious systems.  They reciprocate symbiotically by helping to reinforce the cultural norms in their chosen societies.  This has always been the case with Christianity, for example. In the first century Paul urged his churches to be subject to the governing authorities, "for there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God" (Romans 13:1-7)—and he said this about the Roman Empire, no less! The author of Revelation, whose time and situation were different, disagreed—calling the Roman Empire "Babylon the Great, a dwelling place of demons" (Revelation 18) and "mother of harlots" (Revelation 17:5). Paul, a Roman citizen found in the Empire a symbiotic partner; the writer of Revelation did not.

       Christianity in America thinks of its gospel as "freeing." Jesus said to the Jews "who believed in him": "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). And Paul wrote: "For Freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). He of course was talking about freedom from the Jewish Torah. But Christianity has assimilated to American culture and its political system to such an extent that "Americanism" has become a synonym for "Christian." The American flag is displayed in churches, the pledge of Allegiance is taught to children in church schools, and patriotic songs are sung in worship. Not all churches are as blatant about the "Americanism" in their religious programs, however. Nevertheless, the religious instruction and preaching in mainstream churches aim to produce good Christian citizens who reflect American societal norms, so that their lives reflect well on the church, something the early churches were concerned about as well (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12; 1 Peter2:13-15; Titus 3:1-2). The early churches rejected the radical ethics of Jesus (if they happened to remember them) and turned to the ethical values (called "household codes") that governed private life in the early Roman Empire (for example, Colossians 3:18-4:1).

       Growing up in a lower middle class family in the Mississippi Delta in the 40s and 50s leaves me to wonder just how free I really was.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

18 comments:

  1. Thank you, Charlie. Timely, appropriate, and just plain terrific.

    Marcia

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  2. What they said!
    You covered all the bases in 2013 in a timeless way which is relevant today and will remain usefull in the future!

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  3. Walter B. ShurdenJuly 4, 2018 at 10:42 AM

    You are Exhibit A of spiritual and intellectual freedom. You have been a great steward of freedom that has carried you a long way from the Delta of MS and your Baptist roots. As I read your article, I kept thinking,“Doesn’t he know that he himself is the antithesis of what he is writing?” Your rearing gave you an identity. Your freedom, courageously used, gave you the opportunity to remold that rearing. Freedom is real, though rarely used. You have used it fearlessly, responsibly, and well.

    Happy 4th!

    Buddy

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  4. Thank you for the encouragement, Buddy. I would say that we have both come a long way from our Mississippi Delta roots. I am well aware of your focus on and passionate interest in religious liberty. Your comments set me to pondering the nature of freedom. I think of it as a spectrum with "responsible" freedom at one end and at the other is irresponsible unbridled license. What makes the difference between these two opposite poles is how we exercise our freedom in the human community.
    I hope that you and Kay, and your broader family are all doing well. Thanks for posting.
    Cordially,
    Charlie

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  5. Hi Charlie,

    Do you think that Mark, for example, can be fairly interpreted as presenting Jesus as a liberator? In the following verse I am suggesting that "ransom" is most helpfully understood in terms of "liberation/freedom."

    “You see, the Human One [Son of Man/Humanity] didn’t come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom [liberation/freedom] for many.” (GRAY: Mark 10:45) Here's a list of some liberations that are found in Mark:

    Freedom to see an urgency about life (1:15)
    Freedom from mental and psychosomatic illness (e.g. 1:23ff., 5:24ff.))
    Freedom from the need to pass judgment on others (4:24)
    Freedom to get to first by going through last (9:35)
    Freedom to trust that life is about being like a child (9:37, 10:14-15)
    Freedom to see that there is more to God's world than law (10:17-21)
    Freedom to resist being controlled by money and possessions (10:23-25)
    Freedom to forgive and be forgiven (11:25)
    Freedom from the control of organized religion (11:27-33, 13:2)
    Freedom to allow God to own everything (12:17)

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Good Morning Gene,
      Your "freedoms" are broken down in terms of "freedoms to" (6) and "freedoms from" (3). For reasons of space I can comment only on your first two.
      "Freedom to see an urgency about life" (Mark 1:15): The verse does not clearly fit the idea that you take from it. Your take away is too modern and hence I see more of you in your take away than I see of it in the verse.
      "Freedom from mental and psychosomatic illness" (1:23ff., 5:24ff.). Your takeaway is again too modern and I see more of you in it than I see of Mark. If we had the opportunity of asking Mark about it (without bringing him/her up to speed on what we were talking about and how we got there) Mark would not understand you. For all the credit we give him/her s/he, after all is said and done, is a superstitious first-century writer.
      Luke eliminates the "life as a ransom for many" in Mark 10:45, while Matthew, true to form repeats it. The judgment of the Seminar that 10:45 warranted grey status is justified in my view.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  6. Hi Charlie,

    Superstitious first century writer or not, do I understand correctly that you have concluded that there is no way that Mark presents Jesus as a source of liberation for many who met him?

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Good Morning Gene,
      Yes, of course, I agree with you that Mark has cast Jesus as freeing agent (liberator) in the Gospel. But Mark does it in terms of the ancient categories s/he understands. For example, Mark would not understand your first "freedom from" (1:23ff. and 5:24ff.), for Mark understood Jesus as a liberator from unclean and evil spirits and disease (which frequently in Mark has demonic associations (9:14ff.; this ailment was described by Matthew as Epilepsy). Your explanation of these tragic situations is too modern: mental and psychosomatic illness. In my view Mark (could we query him/her) would say: evil spirits lie at the base of these kinds of things and Jesus freed the people in question from the forces of demonic evil. Our modern ways of understanding these things scrubs out the ancient underlying cause: the demonic force in the world. I am just arguing that we keep historical description and modern interpretation carefully separated.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie,

      My apologies for not writing with greater clarity. My intent was to illustrate how Mark's presentation of Jesus as liberator could be relevant for those who committed to J's way in our own time.

      Gene Stecher
      Chaambersburg, Pa.

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    3. Good Morning Gene,
      I thought you were clear. I understood you to be posing helpful modern ways to understand an ancient text. And you are correct that many of us understand Jesus' career as a healer in terms of psychosomatic illnesses. I was just pushing you to show more closely in each case how the modern interpretation was related to the ancient situation.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  7. Hi Charlie,

    Just realized that I never addressed outright the question of your essay, "Is Freedom an Illusion?" I would say 'yes' if one is talking about, 'Is there free will or not?' The matter is at least unanswerable in the same way that 'Did God create good and evil?' is unanswerable.

    But free will in context is another matter. For example, am I more free now than at some time in the past 'to see the log in my own eye rather than the speck in my neighbor's eye?' The answer to that might be yes, and being confronted by Jesus as liberator might have aided that process.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Good Morning Gene,
      Thank you for directly engaging the problem I was trying to put on the table with this essay. I was arguing that after all is said and done, there is no free will as such, because we are fated to choose an alternative for which our pasts have programmed us. Hence (and the answer hinges on this idea), the only way we actually make free choices is by escaping our pasts. In theory many options may lay before us but as a general rule our past pushes us in a predictable direction. I could not help but notice the conditional "mights" in your last sentence, which suggest that you may likely agree with me.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Gene,

      This question relates to something you posted from Charlie's previous blog. I very much appreciated what you shared from Walter Wink's response to Feurbach. This is the part that stood out to me the most: "Only the theologians are highly fastidious about the One to whom they pray, most people are a bit confused...Peoples of all religions pray to their representations of deity...It appears that people all over the globe pray and find it helpful to do so."

      I readily admit to being one of those who find themselves "a bit confused" when it comes to the subject of whom I pray to... In fact, I'm more than a bit confused, to be honest. When you were a pastor, what did you tell your parishioners who confessed similar confusion about who they were praying to? Did you fall into the category of theologian and did you have perfect clarity about who you prayed to at that time? How do you see it now? Do you still find it helpful to pray? Many thanks, Elizabeth

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    3. Hi Elizabeth,

      You may recall that Marcia in that last discussion mentioned that she thought that humans were "hard wired" for religion; perhaps that could also mean hard-wired for reaching out (i.e., Praying) to a benevolent beyond. Religion it seems to me, including prayer, is acting like there is a benevolent beyond, a hope beyond all hope. Being born that way (hard-wired), confused or not, we can act no other way. My pastor days were five decades ago, but I think that my general attitude toward life was about the same back then. Perhaps that's why I put so much emphasis on the function of mediators; in my case the mediator is Jesus. Do I pray, yes, but it's not so much in words, I think, as in moans, tears, regrets, curses, and hopes that maybe some place and some time the sun and rain, so to speak, show partiality to the impoverished and the outcast (Matt 5:45, Mark 10:14, 25), and that these folks have equal opportunity to ascend to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2).

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    4. Thank you Gene! Well said... and yes, I very much agree with Marcia's comments about being hard-wired towards religion (and towards reaching out)... It almost seems that it is built into the structure of our DNA. Elizabeth

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  8. Good Evening Charlie,

    You mentioned past conditioning as it relates to present programming and present choices being each day. You also asked how "free" you really could have been growing up in a middle class family in the 40s and 50s in Mississippi. Where does critical thinking come into this equation? If you have the ability to see/recognize your conditioning, then how can it control you? How can you be a puppet of your past and a puppet of your conditioning if you clearly see it for what it is? It's only conditioning if you don't recognize it as such- when you don't recognize the conditioning then you are completely identified with it... So it's an automatic reaction, not a choice. When you take a step back and think critically (as you encourage us to do), then you can evaluate your choices more deliberately and intentionally... Does that make sense?

    In other words, there is a difference between having a free will and acting/behaving free of influences. You say that it is impossible to make deliberate choices free of any influence or past conditioning... Doesn't your ability to recognize that imply some level of freedom from said conditioning? If you couldn't even recognize the conditioning and environmental influences, then yes, I would say you were indeed a puppet of them. Now that you recognize your past influences/conditioning, you can no longer use them as an excuse for your current choices.

    Any thoughts? Elizabeth

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    1. Good Morning Elizabeth,
      I agree with you. In my view the only way we can make a break with our past is by thinking critically. So your analysis makes perfect sense to me. But making the actual choice that takes one away from one's past is never easy.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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