Heresy and Freedom

Reading the words of Albert Schweitzer and bits of the life of Roger Williams is both inspiring and motivating: inspiring because they were both independent thinkers and motivating because their writing and lives ask for reflection and response.

I especially like the Epilogue in Out of My Life and Thoughts, Schweitzer’s autobiography; It seems more important today that it could have seemed in 1931 —

I am in complete disagreement with the spirit of our age, because it is filled with contempt for thought … The organized political, social and religious associations of our time are at work convincing the individual not to develop his convictions through his own thinking but to assimilate the ideas they present to him. Any man who thinks for himself is to them inconvenient and even ominous. He does not offer sufficient guarantee that he will merge into the organization. Corporate bodies do not look for their strength in ideas and in the values of the people for whom they are responsible. They try to achieve the greatest possible uniformity. They believe that in this way they hold the greatest power, offensive as well as defensive.

Yet I disagree with Schweitzer’s theology on significant points: I believe in Jesus the Messiah, that he was in fact God and Man, the His death did provide a way through annihilation for all of creation and a path to eternal life, that he was raised on the third day, that he is coming again. Further, I believe in the literal creation of the earth by the actual word of God and I believe in a struggle between God and Satan/evil centered on the existence of free will and God’s claim that free will is harmonious with good and life. And I believe that only in that context — of a cosmic struggle, that history begins to make sense. But I do not retreat into magic for explanation (the first part of this paragraph not-withstanding), neither do I believe that Jesus came to establish a religion, nor do I condemn in any way those that fail to believe as I do.

All this clearly begs for a much longer discussion, though more immediately it most likely triggers strong responses in many readers.

The facts that I have so many differences with what has become traditional Christianity — to the point that I find most of the dogma of Christianity to be unhelpful,  and that I am clearly at deep odds with the religion of science (and that is precisely what science has become — a religion) , often lead to me feeling isolated and politely ignored.

Which brings me to Roger Williams (1603-1683), one of the early proponents of true freedom in the new world. His life was one of innovation with concrete results that continue to this day. In addition to insisting on true freedom of conscience, and as a result being exiled to Rhode Island that he later obtained a charter for from the King of England, he was a friend to all those that did not fit in with the dogma and narrow way of life prescribed by the Puritans. Yet his defense of freedom to choose what we believe was not founded upon an idea that truth was somehow elusive. Neither was that freedom relegated to only those areas in which he had no strong opinion. Rather, it was his position that liberty of conscience was fundamental and God given. As a result, it was something that men could not withhold without grave consequence. And it is this that made his ideas so powerful.

Moving forward to the present, I find it disconcerting that the liberals and progressives with whom I agree on many fundamental principles, have such trouble applying what they believe when it comes to acceptance and tolerance as a practice rather than a theory. It reminds me of the same sort of dissonance between the theory and practice of Christianity.  There are of course many kind and respectful (and therefore tolerant) Christians and many similar liberals (some of whom are Christian) — in fact they might even be the majorities. But the minorities in these cases are loud and, sadly, often unchecked by their more reasonable brethren. And in both cases, underneath, separate from the individuals, there is that institutional desire to bend the wayward ones towards the “truth”. To me, this is the hallmark of a formal religion — the desire to bend the will of others to my way of thinking, the fear that somehow if others do not believe as I do, very bad things will happen to my tribe, my organization, or even me personally.

Ridicule that those who feel superior heap upon the “unenlightened” follows quickly. The stupid creationists and the unsaved, deceived evolutionists, the godless atheists and the ignorant bible-thumpers. And so on and so forth. Resorting to labels instead of real conversations based on a deep respect for life, freedom and a shared humanity, we retreat into our own smaller tribes. We view others through a montage of the worst of the loud proponents of the “others”. And because of the fear we gather and cultivate, we do not seek to find grounds for conversation.

Of course, there are terrible ideas and histories that beckon us to the side of fear: the atheist Stalin generating extreme suffering, the (unbiblical) doctrine of hell and the horrendous implications of what that would mean about God, the deep loss of freedom that results for various people on the fringes when socialists get the upper hand, the equally deep loss of freedom for the poor and the economic heretics when unfettered capitalism holds sway, the demonic inhumanity of the inquisition and the horrors of the Nazi experiment. These are indeed strong inducements to side with fear.

Yet there are also examples of real freedom and the alternative power of discourse based upon deep respect, not the least of which includes the life of Roger Williams. The path to  connections which illuminate and defeat fear all involve listening and talking and writing and reading and thinking and more listening and talking and listening … conversations of the right type are at the center of this model of positive change.

While I do believe that some conversations only work in very small settings due to the complexity of the subject matter and the fact that these conversations trigger deep fears that can shut down thinking and spiritual insight, there is still room for writing things down, for conversations that are slow and deliberate and open. Even though it is unwise to “cast your pearls before swine” — meaning that communication without the preparation of a history of respect and real connection can be worse than pointless — one can and should opt for the hope that there are those out there that do in fact seek real conversations, that are seeking to explore and will appreciate co-travelers, co-explorers. As long as we do not try to speak to each other from on high, from the perspective of one who is enlightened, but rather from a position alongside others, ready to listen and see, especially when in disagreement — so long as this is true, we will find ample opportunity for connection and progress.

To disagree is the extent to which my freedom, when combined with respect and love, permits me to fall out with others. And in this version of falling out, there is no reason that the conversation has to stop. While some ideas and ideologies must be restrained from crossing the line and actually hurting others, that line is not something that we are usually dealing with when focused on the present, local circumstances, whatever they are.

But to disagree and ridicule and belittle, to disagree and use force of any kind — spiritual, intellectual, physical — to try to bend others to my will, is a serious abuse of freedom. In fact, I believe that this abuse is the root of many problems in the present and the past, but that is another discussion.

So while I disagree with the theological conclusions of Albert Schweitzer, I also find deep inspiration in his writings. I find that in this falling out, nothing is lost and much is gained.

I think that Roger Williams would approve.