Monday, July 02, 2012

The Authority Of Freedom

I embrace my desire to...
I embrace my desire to...
feel the rhythm, 
to feel connected enough to step aside and weep like a widow,
to feel inspired,
to fathom the power, 
to witness the beauty, 
to bathe in the fountain, 
to swing on the spiral,
to swing on the spiral
                           Tool, "Lateralus"
                                     Lyrics by James Maynard Keenan

My undergraduate academic advisor, Robert Heineman, was only slightly to the left of Attila the Hun in his politics.  A removed disciple of the American Burkean Russel Kirk, Heineman spent much of his academic career looking in the ways American resistance to external authority, combined with their social and historical amnesia, created all sorts of worries.  His one major work, a short survey in political philosophy, was called Authority and the Liberal Tradition.  His central thesis, which could be demonstrated by many episodes in our history, was that the roots of American political and social life in the liberalism of Locke and Rosseau has left a residue of distrust of authority that makes our social life more difficult, perhaps, than it has to be.  Unlike Burke, and Heineman's distant mentor Kirk, these thinkers were empiricists, preferring experience as a guide to understanding and making one's way in the world.  Burke famously believed, on the contrary, that while it may well be true that there was nothing divine about any particular state, there was nonetheless a duty we owe to the state precisely because, rather than a rational compact among human beings toward specific, limited goals and defined social goods, the state was in fact an organic, historic process in which the living, the dead, and the yet-unborn are joined together, beholden to the state for our mutual security, demonstrated most clearly in the historical process.

As in the rest of our social life, so, too in our religious life.  There is a long history in both Protestant denominations and American Catholicism of resistance to any assertion of authority understood as arbitrary.  Thus, the many congregational divisions, the on-going debates and battles between various fundamentalists, pentecostals, dispensationalists, evangelicals, liberals, and religious radicals.

We people called United Methodist have our own heritage with which to contend.  Rooted in the Anglican via media and its reliance upon Scripture, tradition, and reason, John Wesley added experience to the authoritative mix.  In recent decades, our church has sought to reaffirm the primacy of Scripture even while affirming our historic commitment to the other sources of our theological reflection.  Yet, at least some contemporary theories of how we human beings actually go about understanding the world around us would, I think, make us a bit more hesitant about such assertions. It is one thing to assert the uniqueness of the Scriptural testimony, without insisting that it is primer inter pares.  Our traditions, both denominationally and ecumenically, are deep and wide, oceans from which we can draw both deep inspiration as well as the occasional horror and monster.  Human reason, of course, is as much a part being a creature before God as Creator as our feet and our stomachs; it is hardly to be dismissed as authoritative.  With the introduction of experience, we need always remember that it is not just any experience.  Rather, it is an experience understood as lived out under the Providential guidance and grace-filled loving presence of God.

Scripture enters the mix as much a part of our traditions as it does on its own.  As one theologian once noted, there was a Church and Christians before there was a Bible.  Put another way, as Phyllis Bird's title puts it, the Bible is the Church's book; the Church is not the Bible's institution.  This is neither to denigrate the Christian Scriptures nor to insist they have no authoritative place in our understanding of ourselves.  Rather, it is to concede the point that Scriptural authority does not arise from anything within the text of the Bible.  The authority of Scripture is a doctrine of the church for historical and, I would argue, good interpretive as well as practical reason.

St. Paul is the great theologian of Christian freedom.  In Galatians 5:1, he writes: "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."  The word translated "freedom" is eleutheria, which means liberty.  That can mean either a general license, or as St. Paul uses it in context, freedom from the burden placed upon the believer from the demands that Christians adhere to the Mosaic laws, especially circumcision.  His vision of freedom, however, is not license, much less licentiousness.  As he writes throughout Romans and, even more, 1 Corinthians, his vision of Christian freedom is one in which we are now offered the possibility of living not for ourselves, but for Christ who has saved us.

This experience of freedom, as lived out in the subsequent history of the Church, has become codified, debated, discussed, redefined, contextualized, anathematized, ignored, and misconstrued.  Yet, it remains.  It is the real basis for any understanding of authority as real, Christian authority.  It is rooted in our experience of salvation as freedom both from sin and from any attempted assertion of arbitrary authority.  It is not, however, license.  It is, instead, the lived experience of human beings who move among the sources of their understanding, allowing Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to read one another in a playful exchange, always with the affirmation of the primacy not of any of them, but God in Christ reconciling the world, including us, to God and to one another.

The Bible is authoritative not in and of and for itself.  The Bible, along with our traditions and and ability to reason and our lived experience open all creation as a source from which we can come to understand what it means to be a Christian.  As we come together, reflect together, argue together, pray together, laugh together, we do so as those freed from any imposition from outside.  We do so as those able now to live out lives for others, witnessing through our lives what it means to be truly free.  That understanding can only arise in a setting in which we all celebrate all the ways we come to see God speaking and teaching and leading us.

Virtual Tin Cup

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