Our Human Vocation - complete, but not absolute, spiritual freedom

Readings:

Exodus 3:13-15 The Divine Name Revealed:

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’ (or I will be what I will be). He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am (I will be) has sent me to you.”’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.


Galatians 5:1, 13-15 

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . . For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 

From George Kimmich Beach’s essay "The Covenant of Spiritual Freedom" in Redeeming the Time (Skinner House Books, Boston 1998)

. . . as a potter you form a lump of clay, you make many decisions, exercising your freedom both consciously and instinctively, to one end, a finished ceramic. [. . .] The original decision in pottery making is not unlike the original decision in faith: once a direction is set, soon it will be too late to change your mind. Choosing a bowl excludes a pitcher. Now choices are being made within an ever narrowing range; necessity is closing in on the maker. But this is the miracle of creation: a reversal is also in progress, for the embrace of necessity gives birth to a greater freedom. With each new choice, new, more refined choices arise; creative freedom I growing exponentially. [. . .] The perfect end to the exercise of freedom is perfect necessity. We think: This bowl, or this life, can only be what it must be!

From Chiara Bottici’s essay "Black and Red: The Freedom of Equals" in The Anarchist Turn (eds. Jacob Blumenfeld, Chiara Bottici, Simon Critchley, Pluto Press, London 2013 p. 13–14)

 [F]reedom is at the beginning, because at the beginning there is the ’who?’ question, and thus every being endowed with the capacity to say ’I am’. 
     The ego is at the beginning as activity, as a capacity to move and speak, and here lies the root of its capacity to be free. And yet, if this interpretation is correct, and the being who says ’I am’ cannot but be endowed with language, then it follows that . . . A radical individualism, which depicts continual war between the individual and society, is potentially contradictory. To put it in a nutshell, the individual cannot be at ’total war’ with society . . . Because the individual is to a large extent it's own product. 
     Freedom is . . . the capacity to do what I want, to act in conformity with my convictions, but . . . in order to know what my own convictions are I need the mediation of the ’equally free consciousness of everybody.

-o0o-

Last week I indicated to you that what a liberal church such as this is about is not really the doctrines that, once upon a time, it propounded but rather something I, following the most important twentieth-century Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur, called “complete spiritual freedom”. You will recall from last week that in 1920 he thought the "doctrinal aspect" of our churches was in truth only "a temporary phase" and that our Unitarian doctrines were only "a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom". A spiritual freedom which, later in the essay he calls “complete.” It is important to notice that neither Wilbur nor I said “absolute” but only “complete” spiritual freedom.

I left this point uncommented upon at the time in order not to distract from last week's substantive point, namely, that I think we in this church do not have a straightforward religious brand to sell the world but, instead, a method of open-ended religious conversation akin to the kind promoted by Socrates. Another way of putting this is to say that ours is a tradition of enquiry, a critical and intelligent way of living out of, and thinking through, the liberal Christian *tradition*.

However, this week, I think I need to return to the phrase “complete spiritual freedom” because the word “complete”, especially when attached to the word “freedom”, is prone to a great deal of misunderstanding. It can quickly become confused with something imaginary called “absolute” freedom - a freedom that has absolutely no boundaries or limits.

But, in order to understand what I mean by the word “complete” we need, firstly, to look at what is meant by “freedom”, only then can we move on to see what might be a “complete” version of that.

The concept of freedom was important to us from our very beginnings in the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation and it has remained a central concern of our communities even as it has often become hidden under local, passing, doctrinal expressions of this same freedom. As Chiara Bottici notes “freedom is at the beginning, because at the beginning there is the ’who?’ question, and thus every being endowed with the capacity to say ’I am’.”

Now, Bottichi is not talking specifically about us, but I hope that most of you here will be aware that as a religious tradition we have consistently been concerned to find ways to affirm the freedom of the individual,  the ’I am’, to decide for themselves in matters of faith and belief. As it says in the preamble to our General Assembly’s Object we recognise “the worth and dignity of all people and their freedom to believe as their consciences dictate” and believe “that truth is best served where the mind and conscience are free.” However, this stand has inevitably caused, and almost certainly will always cause, a certain tension to arise between a person’s individual needs and experiences and the needs and experiences of the church tradition such that, at times the individual and society can even seem to be a “war” with one another. Chiara Bottici, continues:

“The ego is at the beginning as activity, as a capacity to move and speak, and here lies the root of its capacity to be free. And yet, if this interpretation is correct, and the being who says ’I am’ cannot but be endowed with language, then it follows that . . . A radical individualism, which depicts continual war between the individual and society, is potentially contradictory. To put it in a nutshell, the individual cannot be at ’total war’ with society . . . Because the individual is to a large extent it's own product” (AT p. 13).

This relates to the idea of “freedom” because the concept and the word is gifted to us through the language of our tradition and no one is free either to be themselves nor talk about freedom in isolation. We can only be free ’I ams’ through a complex “web of reciprocal interdependence”. Again Chiara Bottici helps us here:

“Freedom is . . . the capacity to do what I want, to act in conformity with my convictions, but . . . in order to know what my own convictions are I need the mediation of the ’equally free consciousness of everybody’” (AT p. 14).

The point is that, in order to be free (in any meaningful, grounded sense of the word), we need some communal language gifted to us and spoken by some kind of actual existent community in which we are living an actual life. In other words “freedom implies recognition, to be recognised and to recognise the other as free” (AT p.15).

In another nutshell: WE CANNOT BE FREE ALONE.

“Complete” freedom is then something that must be a communal and, in some way, a consensually developed human activity - an activity that is necessarily bounded and finite. This means there can be no such thing as “absolute” freedom because there are always limits. It is important to see that despite the existence of these limits complete freedom includes both the societal permission to explore and critique these limits in the first place and also the possibility of changing, moving and/or nuancing them through a process of dialogue. Yet for all this limits will remain it is just that they will always be shifting in some way. Notice that complete freedom does not lead inexorably to absolute freedom but only to a different kind of complete freedom, with different kinds of limits.

This, it turns out, has profound implications for the ’I am’ - that is to say for us as individuals. Living in a state of complete freedom we come to recognise we are not really an ’I am’ but rather an ’I will be’. In the thinking of Ernst Bloch, humans are Not-Yet, they are unfinished and the completion of their being always lies in the future. I read from Genesis 3 to suggest to you, importantly though in passing today, that there exists a similar Biblical conception of God. God, too, may be best thought of as Not-Yet, God is an always-already future ‘I am’ continually calling all of us hopefully and freely into an ever new life of service to the other in community.

This point brings me to the second, brief part of this address which is to revisit George Kimmich Beach’s parable which appears in the same essay from which our opening words last week were taken and which I have reproduced on today’s order of service. This essay begins with Beach saying:

“The twentieth century is the age of the crisis of liberal democracy. The prospect of our liberal faith is intimately bound up with that crisis. We face one question in many guises: Is freedom the right of individuals to think and do as they please, or is it the human capacity to respond creatively to the possibilities and limits of existence?”

Later on Beach states:

“We are not free to believe whatever we want, any more than we are free to do whatever we want - unless, of course, we choose instant gratification and utter transience. We are free to believe what we must and to do what we must, in order to fulfil our human vocation, our calling to a larger humanity. The phrase, “in order that,” signals an often-forgotten truth: freedom is only meaningful within a framework of purposeful action. The word covenant signifies a framework within which intentionality takes effect. Spiritual freedom seeks authentic self-transcendence [in community]. Within this framework we enjoy much latitude for individual expression. Our religious communities should enjoy a diversity as various as humanity itself. But the covenantal framework itself is not optional: it is necessary, fated and inescapable” (p. 102-103).

Beach grounds this somewhat abstract insight with his parable of choosing to make a bowl not a pitcher. The point being that the perfect exercise of your complete freedom to make any kind of ceramic you wish does not lead you to absolute freedom and to the eventual creation of some kind of Platonic, god-like ideal ceramic but to the perfect necessity of this or that very singular real bowl in front of you. Some bowls, some pitchers will turn out wonderfully, others will crack and break or dissatisfy us in other ways because complete freedom will always bring us to new and different limits. But, because complete freedom is always exercised within a limiting framework we are allowed and enabled to try again and again to push creatively against different limits in different ways. Because of this complete freedom is, as Beach wisely observes, “both humbling and exalting.” It is always humbling because it we never achieve anything approaching absolute ends and we are always miss the mark in some way or even failing. But, and this is a life saving but, it is exalting because we can always try again and there is always “the miracle of having had a hand in making a new thing.” As Samuel Beckett memorably said in ‘Worstward Ho’: “Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

In a liberal church such as this our human vocation is found in the attempt to achieve this complete spiritual freedom in ever larger communities and in its exercise we find that there is always-already to be found genuine hope and good reason to continue to work together for the creation of a new and completely free humanity covenantally bound by a complex web of reciprocal interdependence.

-o0o-

I conclude this published version of today's address as I did last week's with a call to consider adopting George Kimmich Beach's covenant which graces our own noticeboard:

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We freely commit ourselves to high and holy aims, aims that transcend us, aims of the Spirit. Not in freedom from obligations to others, but in freedom to enter into common endeavours for the common good. Not in freedom from the nourishing roots of our faith in ancient ages, but in freedom to give fresh interpretation to ancient symbols and stories. Not in freedom from being called to aims that surpass us, but in the freedom that springs from knowing that “we've caught a moving train” (Johnny Ray Youngblood), and, together, we're on our way. 

We covenant in spiritual freedom. We find at the centre of our faith an energizing mainspring, a drive for meaning and dignity implanted in every soul in every land—the wonder of being alive and awakened to life, the grace of beginning anew. Not in the self-enclosing isolation of the self, but in the quest for a more inclusive covenant. Not in narrow-mindedness or in mean-spirited debunking of things cherished by others, but in listening for the spirit of life and truth wherever it arises. Not in fearfulness that life runs out and nothing can be done, but in the courage to turn every crisis of life into an opportunity for growth and spiritual depth. 

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We seek a better world where all peoples can flourish, sharing in the resources of planet Earth and sustaining her natural ecology, a new humanity within the covenant of being. Not closing our eyes to the awesome tasks that stand before us, but committing ourselves to labour tirelessly for the physical, moral, and spiritual well-being of all. Not despairing of the human prospect, but affirming hope, and the sacredness of the image in which we are made. Not stonyhearted when we are called to make a new beginning, nor giving up when our need is to persevere, but affirming our quest for wholeness and holiness 

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