If you hold to my teaching …. you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.Jesus of Nazareth, John’s Gospel, Chapter 8, verses 31b, 32
Last time, we concluded that:
- All the freedom(s) we can know in our lives is/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, religious zealotry, or any similar practices;
- To enter the freedom we are created to know and abide in, we must go to the Son-of-God-Son-of-Man.
As quoted above, Jesus says “the truth will set you free”. A little later in this discourse (verse 36), he says “…the Son sets you free…indeed.” Is he contradicting himself?
Not at all! As we can see above, he tells his followers that they will know the truth by “holding to my teaching” and this will set them (and us) free. But what is finally holding us in bondage? What do we really need to be set free from and to in order to abide (live continually in) true freedom, and not just some temporary feel-good substitute for it?
All liberation implies some form of slavery, bondage, captivity. Is humanity still fundamentally in bondage, even after some great liberation movement, such as Emancipation or a liberating revolution which overthrows some terrible tyrant? Entering into and abiding in the kind of freedom Jesus is referring to is not a just problem of “misunderstanding”, “misinformation”, false teaching, or fake news which can be corrected and eliminated by the right kind of education and social reform. Misunderstanding and misinformation are indeed major problems, but more and “better” education have yet to change the most basic problem behind all forms of bondage. The most basic issue is denial of the truth, that is, of the only truth whose knowing can open the mere possibility of being set free, made free. This fundamental denial is both self-denial and general, society-wide denial.
As long as we are unwilling to see ourselves as we truly are, we cannot see the truth about our basic condition. Attribute this to evolution or to another origin, but history hands down the same verdict according to what our actions throughout all our history and current events tell us.
We are broken. Our souls and nature are divided; we are at war within ourselves. Call it good versus evil, light versus dark, right versus wrong, the desire to love and protect and nurture versus the lust to dominate, control, hate and destroy what impedes us from taking what we want, having what we see someone else has, and taking pleasure in what we want when we want however we want.
Most everyone is ready to admit that they are not perfect. Everyone readily says, “Sure I mess up; I get it wrong; I don’t always do what I know is right.” We resolve to do better, to turn over a new leaf, make some new resolutions and try harder (New Year’s or birthdays anyone?). And a while later, we, like the proverbial dog, “return to our vomit”.
Sometimes there are exceptions – like the alcoholic or drug addict who “goes straight” and “stays clean”, or the porn addict who, with therapy, stops. Even when we “beat” one of our big problems, we all know that (a) we’re still deeply flawed and broken, or we would never have been enslaved to whatever it was, and (b) we still have a bunch of messy stuff that’s screwing up our lives, our sense of wholeness, and our self-image. One drink can send us back into the pit; one fix can return us to hell.
Our Western, scientific answer to everything is more and better science and education, often applied through engineering a device, a method, a technique to fix the current critical problem. This has been tried repeatedly over the last three and more centuries since the “Scientific Revolution” was really kicked off by Isaac Newton, who provided the “mechanical universe” model by formulating the Laws of Motion and Gravity and, along with Leibnitz, providing the mathematical language – Calculus – to explain and formulate it. Reducing things to mechanics and mechanisms – even in biological systems – has even been tried in the domain of human psychology through behaviorism. The “stimulus-response” “mechanism” does nothing to address the underlying question of autonomous human choice to act destructively or altruistically, even against instinct and logic.
No matter how reductionist we want to be about chemistry and physics and quantum atomics manifesting as evolution in biology, we are still baffled by the stubborn human propensity and inborn need to function as moral and idealistic agents. We have always manifested an innate understanding of what could and should be in the moral side of who and what we are. We are plagued with a compulsion to see ourselves and our fellows, and even the rest of the living ecosystem, in the light of good and bad, right and wrong. In our gut we know that, like King Belshazzar in Babylon, the Invisible Hand writes on our heart’s wall, “Weighed in the balance and found wanting.” (The full story behind this allusion is found in the Biblical Book of Daniel, chapter 5.) Not one of us consistently lives up to the moral and ethical laws written in our own hearts, let alone to those proposed by both the great religious and great philosophical sages over the millennia.
We know that we are somehow broken, marred, off-balance. We “miss the mark” – even the ones we impose on ourselves – and too often that means we constantly hurt others, and perhaps do far worse things than “merely” hurting them.
It is just a step from this internal revelation of our own brokenness to understand that we cannot fix ourselves, and, by corollary, no one else can fix us either – at least no one else who is just like the rest of us.
Yet Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” How can he make such an outrageous claim? It’s not about knowing by rote all the possible commandments some Divine Law codifies and then striving with all our might not to break any of them. Or about getting the deepest philosophical insight on morals and ethics the human mind can devise – like Aristotle, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill hypothesized. It’s not even about systematically removing all attachment to persons, places, things, experiences, or feelings so that you can enter “moksha” and achieve “nirvana”, having freed yourself from all karma. It’s about encountering a Person and coming into relationship and communion with “Him”.
And only one person in all of history has ever credibly made the singular and incredible claim to actually be that Person – the one who could and will set you free from the final and most fundamental form of bondage every human who has ever lived (and died) suffers from.
TO BE CONTINUED