So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.Jesus of Nazareth, Gospel of John, chapter 8, verse 36
The “Son” Jesus refers to in this amazing statement is Jesus himself. He is claiming the authority of God, the One Creator, to set us free. He is saying that the freedom so coveted by multitudes from time immemorial can finally be found only in and through him, the Son of God, the Son of Man. Neither philosophy, theology, the deepest meditation, the most frenzied religious contortions, nor the most zealous self-immolation can bring us true freedom.
In the 21st Century, multitudes in the West seek freedom through personal self-betterment and self-advancement, only to find at last that it still eludes them. All across the world, multitudes seek it by conforming to a thicket of rules and regulations in their cultures and traditions, only to find that, no matter how closely they come to perfecting their practice of those things, they still come short of oneness with God, or knowing unity with and full acceptance by those whose love and solace they seek. And none of these strenuous pursuits result in final reconciliation within ourselves.
Of course, there are some pretty satisfying approximations of freedom here in this world. Deeply loving someone and giving of yourself can bring some measure. But all who have loved deeply know that there is still something unresolved, a hole still empty at the core of the soul. The beloved cannot free you from your internal chains of doubt, shame, and guilt still lurking in the basement of your psyche.
Another much vaunted form of “freedom” in this age is money. Enough of it will release us from fear about day-to-day provision and the wherewithal to get healthcare. And it’s pretty nice to have access to some of those “extras” like a decent holiday or two, a comfortable home, a good vehicle, etc.
All this is still far from the true freedom our souls seek. Money and material security do not free us from the inevitability of undergoing trials and troubles, pain and suffering. As Buddha said, “All life is suffering. All suffering is caused by desire.” “Desire” in this sense does not mean the crass lusting after things or for erotic contact with someone. It is the lifelong striving to be released from being bound by anything to the point that losing it or not attaining can cause deep pain.
In the end, none of any of this can free us from death, the final enemy.
If any of these ways of pursuing freedom were really successful, the rich, the physically and mentally healthy, the powerful and influential, etc., would never be jealous, never continue to covet more and more, never worry about missing out and not measuring up to Mr. or Ms. “X” who has more of whatever they think they are missing enough of. But of course, what is “enough”? There is always more money, another deal, a newer car, a fancier phone, and – when a relationship goes south – a “better” partner waiting out there.
For the more mystical and spiritually minded, there is always a deeper dive into the infinite to be pursued, another session of more severe self-deprivation, another conference to help you feel better, “more connected”, another guru to follow.
Study the biographies of the richest, greatest, most powerful, and most influential in any field of endeavour and you will see that, after a lifetime of seeking, all still had secret (or public) fears, unresolved issues that plagued them, failed relationships and miserable episodes that filled them with regret and remorse, a sense of not being good enough, unsatisfied lusts and even rage if they were sociopathic or psychopathic specimens of broken humanity.
Even the greatest saints demonstrate the universality of human brokenness and incompleteness within themselves. After all, what drove them into the desert for thirty or forty years, or into the hermitage, abandoning all the “normal” sources of comfort and little happinesses and tastes of freedom we can have in this life?
When we take the time to reflect honestly, we too know that we are all still slaves to the inner brokenness in our souls. What sins plague you? What holds you captive? What failures and betrayals haunt you in the night and your most lonely moments?
Great saints may overcome their sinful proclivities to a great degree, but many of them still have and demonstrate unresolved depths of brokenness. This is what drives them to extremes of self-abnegation in quest of supreme spiritual cleansing. They believed this will finally free them from the assaults of the demons which they testify as plaguing them. After more than thirty years of zealous service to Jesus, bringing thousands into the Kingdom of God, even Saint Paul said in his First Letter to his protégé Timothy (1,15), one of his last recorded statements, that he knew one thing to be “worthy of full acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into to world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.”
How could the greatest Evangelist of ancient, and perhaps all times still say such a thing?!
The lesson about this highly elliptical concept of freedom is that, as worthwhile as it is to live and die for, we are incapable of knowing its full meaning, let alone experiencing it, by any philosophical or theological meditation or cogitation. Neither can all the most fanatical self-denial and most desperate “worm theology” (as in “Oh God, I am but an unworthy worm. I am the worst … [you can fill in your own space]”) take us to it.
We must return to what Jesus said about all this to be released from this terrible burden to somehow “make ourselves worthy” of God’s mercy and pity. Somewhere, somehow along the road within just a few generations of His life, redeeming death, and regenerating resurrection, even the best-intentioned disciples started once more trying to make themselves pure and holy and worthy. When Jesus said the Son is the only way to “be free indeed”, he was trying to tell us that we are simply so broken in ourselves that, without him as our source and our center, humans can and will never know or experience freedom – not in any truly complete and healing sense that will last forever, or even in this, or any (if you hold with reincarnation [the Bible is clear that reincarnation is not a thing) lifetime on earth.
So here is the great paradox: by striving for freedom as the great goal with all our might and main, we are really striving to break all bonds of restraint. The quest for freedom without turning to its true Giver reduces us to abject slaves to our basest appetites and instincts. Then we create restraining social rules and customs to check the most pernicious aspects of this brokenness which will always turn us toward chaos. Thus, we must give up some portion of our theoretical right to total freedom in order to be able to enjoy some limited aspects lest we incur the wrath of our fellows and destroy ourselves in the process. For if we act as we might well wish at our worst, society will come against us to terminate all of our freedom, whether by killing us, excluding us, or severely restricting us (as in prison, for example). Even the Mafia has its Code of Omerta. NATO, the EU, and the UN are using sanctions against Russia in this sense at this very moment.
As the ancient Greeks long ago philosophized (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all agreed on this), total, perfect freedom cannot exist in any society. The debate then becomes: 1. How much may be safely permitted for the greater good of all? (2) Is this to be decided by the general body of citizens, or by an elite group of superior understanding and wisdom?
Down through the millennia of recorded history, we see both approaches attempted, although it would appear that the elitist solution holds the overall balance of power if we judge by the crude measure of domination over the last 5000 or so years. Democracy, the “rule of the general body of citizens”, however effected, is, in fact, very new, at least with regard to its extensive spread over the last century or so. Before that it showed up in isolated blips. For millennia, it was regarded with great suspicion even by many of the best philosophical and ideological minds of the societies in contact with it.
Let us conclude this episode by recapping:
- All the freedom(s) we can know in our lives are partial and temporary;
- As good as these may be, real freedom cannot be achieved by self-improvement, self-immolation, group therapy, meditation, self-discipline, or religious zealotry, or any similar practices;
- To know and enter the Freedom we are created to know and abide in, we must go to the Son-of-God-Son-of-Man.
Our next post will consider what abiding and true freedom means.