Free Spirits and Legalists

We began with a deceptively simple question: “Who do you say that I am?” Scripture offers lots of answers about what ‘they’ say, and more important, models of humans who affirmed their own answer in word and action. Thank God for ‘heretics like us’ who have ‘witnessed’ – now it’s your turn.

Chaos and order, freedom and legalism are themes of any century. How do you think they relate: as polar opposites, as a cycle, or in tension and balance one with the other? Chaos and freedom are spiritual values and affirmations. The Spirit blows where it will, wind or water or flame.

Those who claim a Spirit claim freedom from human order. Charismatic gifts of speaking in tongues, and following the leading of the spirit, permit women and socially powerless people to claim authority and legitimacy. Yet language is performative act of construing reality too – building new order.

Habits, patterns, and practices allow us to experience and express the faith together, and not only as inspired individuals or audience. Keeping kosher, or circumcision, or ‘no drinking, no dancing’ Protestantism, offer us norms. They help our belonging, believing and behaving. What are yours?

Heretics like us in the first century Common Era leave evidence that they felt freed from repressive order and tyranny, as they found freedom for something beyond themselves. When their fragile enfranchisement felt threatened, they defended boundaries vigorously against threats.

Authority and legitimacy invite ‘oh yeah?’ The same words and texts, in the mouths of people in different contexts with different power and privilege, have proven genocidal. Heretics like us offer critical perspective within our own movement, or around us in the world, to claims of ‘thus says the Lord’.

Authenticity and sincerity are terms in current ethical discourse that get at the underlying concepts. In 2008, I cited Amanda Anderson’s for that, though Charles Taylor’s Malaise of Modernity offer a more conservative framework, restated within his ‘Secular Age’ and ‘Language Animal’.

I tread carefully here, because heretics like us, glib liberal boomers, have used the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ in what Isaiah Berlin called its negative sense, ‘freedom from’ order. Did we not abdicate on the ‘freedom for’ question, except to ‘find ourselves’, rather than ‘lose ourselves’?

Licence or narrowness are extreme versions of order and freedom. Religion and tradition tend toward order. The root word of ligament is the same as that for religion: connection, link. That feels like coercion to the adolescent rebels who write the popular current narratives about repressive religions.

Arrested development aside, most of us also have found positive value in common norms or in shared behaviour. We owe each other some of that, as the failures of our neo-liberal experiments are revealed in economic disparity, and ‘our institutions do our sinning for us’. What do we owe?

Faith and inspiration tend to chaos, too. ‘Organized religion’ is like herding cats, when every one follows their own heart. That counters social inequality, giving courage to the dispossessed to assert their equal humanity. But when asserted by privileged folks like us, it is self-indulgent and selfish, a licentious abuse of power.

As an old white guy returning to these old notes, I fear we have slipped into more petty tyrannies. Perhaps that simply means my chosen heretics lost. Ivan Illich called for ‘Deschooling Society,’ Paulo Freiere invited ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. Axial Age Artists were smart, not schooled. Are we?

How do you balance authenticity and sincerity, freedom and order? We’re unable to coerce others as we once did, but it is done in our name by our institutions to keep us ‘free’ from distressing realities. Our situation may be closer to our co-religionists of the ‘naughts’ than we imagine.

On Sunday, I quoted Buber, and repeat it here to close the week:

we cannot avoid
using power,
cannot escape the compulsion
to afflict the world,
so let us, cautious in diction,
and mighty in contradiction,
love powerfully”.