The Power of No: Freedom and Self-Will

When we assume that freedom means doing whatever we want, whenever we want, we become slaves. By allowing ourselves to go with the flow of internal and external promptings, we find ourselves driven by the capriciousness of self-will, the blind dictates of emotion, the tyranny of compulsions, and the despotism of mere routine. A life unrestrained by critical reflection and the ability to tell ourselves “No” quickly becomes a life of hardship and anguish.

As unchecked selfishness and pride lead to misery and darkness, some eventually reach a point of surrender. A desire to renounce willfulness is born out of pain as we long for a transcendent power to liberate us from ourselves. This is the first and most important step in spiritual transformation, which is accompanied by a life-giving insight: there is a difference between self-will and genuine freedom. True liberty is the power to say “Yes” to the good, the true, and the beautiful, but it is also the power to say “No” to the seductions of the selfish, the counterfeit, and the destructive. If you cannot say “No” to yourself, you are not free. Unrestrained freedom is simply another form of slavery.

Challenge: Meditate on Romans 6:15-23.

[This reflection emerged from lectio divina on Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation,  Chapter 26: “Freedom Under Obedience.”]

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Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or hating gay people. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

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