Outliers, 3 – Metanoia

The usual English translation of the Greek word which is this episode’s title is “repentance”. As is often the case in translating ancient words, and as with the art of translation at all times, the English (or other modern languages of your choice) does not do it full justice.

The first problem with automatically translating it as “repentance” whenever this word shows up in the original language is that the English (French, Spanish, German, etc.) term now carries such enormous cultural and religious baggage that most secular people simply tune it out as “Uh-oh! Here comes a self-righteous Christian to rant about sin and everyone needing to get saved by Jesus!”

The Greek word is much more descriptive and much less compartmentalized. It was perfectly acceptable 2000 years ago in the eastern regions of the Roman Empire where Greek was the universal language (it was Latin in the West) to use the term in a completely non-religious way. For example, you are going somewhere and get lost. You stop to ask directions. The local villager tells you, “Whoa, friend! You’re way off track! You’ve got to turn around (metanoeō)and head back to _______ and take a different route.”

The English word is from penitire, poenitere, via Old (and modern) French (se) repentir (cf. Concise Oxford Dictionary), which was the Latin translation from the Greek New Testament in the late 4th Century by St. Jerome. The emphasis in the Latin is more specifically moralistic and punitive. In the English and Romance-language translations, we are using a sort of derivative which has conceptually robbed us of the interpretive possibilities found in the original Greek New Testament. Latin is the major root language of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French – and through French has contributed heavily to the evolution of English. Thus the narrow moral sense of metanoia is heavily biased in a secondary transference of meaning.

One level of interpretation can be applied to morality and ethics – taking the wrong road in life, doing bad stuff to other people and deciding to stop and turn over a new leaf. However, the holistic concept is about radically changing the road your life is on, seeing it as a bad one, and making a new start. It is much richer than having a momentary revelation of remorse and regret, making a few apologies and some gestures of recompense and moving on feeling better about yourself.

Real metanoia is not primarily about a religious exercise or experience, although it is profoundly spiritual. It is about restoration, correcting and re-forming as in forming anew, not just revamping something obsolete to make it work better. Metanoia-change is a total life commitment, a radical (axe-to-the-root) turn-about and dedication to set wrongs right, bring justice as far as possible, restore broken things, remake relationships on a new foundation of love, respect, and real equality within the Creator’s intention.

Want to be different? To be a real world-changer? To become a true radical and Outlier? It starts with metanoia, not just religious-formula repentance. Metanoia takes us outside religion, turns us off that old highway of “do the right stuff and God will love you and reward you; do the wrong stuff and you’ll be rejected and sent to hell.”

Metanoia turns us away from the fixation and need to be esteemed and approved and judged as “righteous” by the people by whom we want to be accepted. Instead, we turn off the old road that leads to more servitude and condemnation and needing to be seen and even raised up by our superiors before our peers.

Metanoia turns us directly to Jesus/Yeshua the Messiah, the only one who can bring us to and take us down the true way; He said, “I am the way/road, the truth and the life. You can only come to the Father/learn to know the Creator/ by/through Me.” Every other road, however religiously appealing it may seem, is the wrong road, a road to metanoeō.

In the end, the only Outliership that will amount to anything really new, true and everlasting is one based on metanoia. Here is how Jesus described the paradox of being a big-time Outlier according to our general cultural worldview and being a metanoia Outlier (liberally paraphrased): “The road to destruction is a wide highway which multitudes take. The road to eternal life is a narrow track which few find.”

The most radical, greatest Outlier who ever lived is Jesus. He is the only human being who died but rose from death and is still alive today. Even if He had not done this, He would still rank at the top of the list in terms of his impact on history, culture, and society over the last two thousand years. To conform all He claimed we have His real resurrection. It is both a faith and historical fact.

It is easy to be cynical as we consider the West’s rejection of so much of what its history and cultural and social development have owed to this man. Before the West’s intellectual and socio-cultural engineers could dismantle so much of that heritage, they had to dismantle the main faith that underlies all of that. The originators of this centuries-long campaign knew full well what they were about. It was deliberate, although not orchestrated by any sort of central authority. This is not conspiracy theory. It is documented and documentable, wide-open to verification.

The great underlying mystery is how a relative few anti-Christian radicals, often disingenuously disclaiming their real intentions, could succeed against what appeared to be a deeply rooted, monolithic system called Christendom, a system dominated by various manifestations of its primary social and cultural institution, the Christian Church. It was a process that took centuries. The tale of that deconstruction is a long one which we will not embark on here. Much of it was self-inflicted by the very people holding authority and influence within Christianity.

The seeds of decay were sown early in the history of the West’s emergence as a distinct society. The first major step was a leadership choice to turn off the path of metanoia in order to access the levers of power and centralized social and political control. It was the sin of hubris.

The Ekklesia’s leaders began thinking and believing that the Servant-Messiah who commanded that leaders be servants and practice humility and self-sacrifice would accept the Ekklesia’s (His metanoia community on the road back to a healed relationship with the Father-Creator) stepping into a partnership with the Imperial broad-highway power to hasten the process of cajoling the mass of recalcitrant unbelievers and Christian heretics to join up and “accept the truth”. Having more than a few of the perks of power and prestige as rewards to the hard-working, ambitious, and long-persecuted leaders of the Church didn’t hurt the decision to take the “high” road either.

Thus, the hybrid society called “Christendom” was born. Outwardly, everyone at the top said, “Jesus is Lord” while the top-dogs’ actions declared, “But we’re really in charge and are taking control in His name.” Many symbolic trappings from the non-Christian culture and world were sprinkled with Holy Water and re-consecrated so that the old ways of doing things and preserving distinctions and power-structures could carry on. Even gods and goddesses could be incorporated by granting them a new identity. Many individuals could and still did find the metanoia-road, and even some local institutional expressions of ekklesia found it from time to time. But on the whole, Lord Acton’s dictum, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” proved as true as ever.

Caution to all: It is always easier and simpler to take the religious highway than to live and travel the metanoia road. Religion allows us to develop, deploy, and pick and choose what sorts of practices, techniques and observances to prefer, and to switch them in and out according to rewards received or recognition for good performance achieved. Religion can be plugged into our lives according to time, place, and context as desired. It allows us to shift our allegiances and preferences according to the standards and precepts of impressive personalities and groups which align with our personal tendencies and character. We are speaking of religion here in its particular influences in our daily life (rites, rituals, ceremonies, strictures and prescriptions, religious imperialism in all its guises, etc.), not in its etymological sense of our overall binding worldview.

Metanoia is primarily relational, based on walking a path with and towards Jesus. It includes essential elements of living and staying on the narrow track that leads to life, such as disciplines and practices, being a servant member of ekklesia, and taking one’s place in Creator’s family. It also keeps us alert to discern the siren-song and allure of seeking the trappings of worldly-style outliership, even in its churchly disguises.

Our next episode in this discussion will focus on how Ekklesia has wandered so far off the path of Metanoia, its true calling to Outliership. We will attempt some reflections on what to do about it.

Pax vobiscum! Kyrie eleison!

Outliers, 2 – Little People

I don’t think I realized that the cost of fame is that it’s open season on every moment of your life. – Julia Roberts

The internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had. – Eric Schmidt

… the little places, where I can more easily be close to God, should be my preference …. Quietness and peace before God are more important than any influence a position may seem to give … – Francis A. Schaeffer, No Little People, 1974, chapter 1.

(Photo image – Yelena Bonner – Quotefancy)

Our three opening citations cover enormous ground, but give insight on the phenomenon of outliers, the present subject of discussion in World.V.You.

Julia Roberts reminds us that stardom and fame make it extremely difficult to live anything approaching a “normal” life. Media and social-media scrutiny to find “stories” to gossip about are unending. Being a “Super-Outlier” puts you on continuous display before all the millions of voyeurs who care to look. We live in a peeping-Tom society because we can. It’s a sort of sneaky compulsion, a “harmless” venial sin we excuse ourselves for indulging in.

Schmidt points out that in the virtual world, anyone can assert and seek just about anything without much accountability, despite the best efforts of public and industry police and regulators to gain some sort of control over the worst elements who are exploiting it for all kinds of malignant purposes. Wannabe and actual negative outliers abound in this “Wild-Wild-West” virtual universe.

Francis Schaeffer, a Christian thinker who wrote well before the Internet took form and computer use was still embryonic in its application to personal uses, offers a perspective that any God/Creator seeker should heed, and all the more if they are hungering and thirsting for recognition and, as he puts it, a position of influence, no matter how modest it may be.

Outliers exist from the humblest to the grandest social settings. Every family has its weird uncle/aunt, its black sheep and wayward son/daughter, its over-achieving acquisitor, its relentless zealot, its hyper-intelligent know-it-all with a chip on her/his shoulder, etc. I’m sure you can put names on these roles right now in your own sphere.

Every level of community has them – the local celebrities whom everyone talks and gossips about, the town troublemakers, the glitzy, trendy set – whether in the local service and social clubs, businesses of any size, churches/religious institutions, political affairs, the cultural influencers who arbitrate what art and literature it’s cool to accept and boost in the area.

You, dear reader, may be one of them.

Then there are the quieter sorts of outliers – people more in tune with the spirit of Schaeffer’s observation. These stand out because they don’t go after the local, or any, version of fame and acclaim. Their priorities are different, and this makes them stand out, “weird”, out of tune with the normal ways of people seeking a voice. The curious, the sceptical, and the cynical mockers find them strangely attractive or repulsive because they are somehow a threat.

Among these idealists, the abilities that lead to outliership are used to walk “the road less traveled”. They do not seek the same sort of recognition most people who want it go after. Idealist outliers choose to keep remote from the mainstream frenzy because of conviction and principle, because their view of the world and its underlying reality is out of step with what the general culture declares is of first importance.

Mostly, power and acquiring it are far down their list of what is really important. It may come to them despite their unconcern for such things, but living in a fashion consistent with their convictions is foremost. To that end they may well choose to forego the pursuit of the wealth, position, and recognition most of our society admires so much. If any of it comes to them, they turn it towards furthering their idealistic goals. (Think Mother Teresa.)

Withdrawing from society altogether is one way to become an outlier. Hermits and recluses still exist, and a few may even become well-known local “characters”. However, short of living a hundred kilometers out in the wilderness with no neighbours except the birds and local fauna, total withdrawal has become a near impossibility.

The life-road based on firm principles and consistently seeking to live by them can be a costly one. Becoming an outlier in this way can lead to just as much outside scrutiny as the road to celebrity and fame which Julia Roberts represents and deliberately chose to withdraw from. The sceptics, critics, and cynics are just as prepared to exploit the failures and inconsistencies of the idealist as those of the deliberate ladder-climber, perhaps even moreso. To the media and other salacious voyeurs who lurk everywhere, it seems more delicious to revel in the fall of the “goody-two-shoes” than the tortured angst of the hoi-polloi. The fall of the pursuers of good and social betterment lets the rest of us off the hook. Then we can all smugly declare, “See! There’s no use in being overzealous about making yourself and the world a better place! Even the saints just fall into sin, and, when they fall, they leave behind a huge mess of disillusionment, broken hopes and shattered dreams!”

However, these humbler, meeker outliers of whom we are speaking now are very often the true world-changers. Most of what leads to peace and hope and joy comes from them. They are almost all “simple folk” who want to raise good kids and do more than fill their lives with glitz and bling and silly pursuits that add little of value to their own or other lives.

It is not the demigods of business, entertainment, politics, and sport who have raised the poor from the slums, ended slavery, fought for workers’ rights, brought in universal healthcare (at least in the nations which have it), fought to end discrimination of every sort, and poured out their blood to defeat the horrors of Nazism, Fascism and other tyrannies. And it will not be the Superstar Outliers who will continue to lead the defense of freedom, liberty, and what is left of morality.

Over the last century, we have been defrauded of much of our heritage. We have been taught that traditional beliefs and values are destructive of our personal freedoms and rights. We have been and are bombarded daily with propaganda about truth being strictly “scientific” and “rational”. We have been instructed that scientific methodology shows us “objectively” that spirituality is largely for chumps and losers when deciding how to create a better tomorrow. Our educational, social, financial, and political institutions have been cajoled and indoctrinated en masse into a worldview where moral values and categories are plastic and entirely transmutable according preference, context and current social needs/wants. Like drugged spectators, we have watched and continue to watch the systematic deconstruction of that heritage of 1500 years which laid the foundations of who and what the West became, and, to a large extent, still is.

We are told that our past and its creations are almost entirely reprehensible, despicable for our oppressions, repressions, persecutions, imperialistic colonialism, and acquisitive greed and exploitation. It is now the established and ensconced ideology in Big Academia to renounce and denounce all of it. Instead, it seems that all the other cultures and heritages of every other origin are superior and, apparently, even innocent of the kinds of terrible crimes against humanity we here in the West have perpetrated on all the other races and peoples of Earth. Lastly, it is we who have devastated this planet’s biome and should pay the price of making all that right.

There is truth in much of what we are accused of. But, there is an enormous paradox in it all, as well as not just a little blind and even deliberate hypocrisy. We are quick to excoriate our own ancestors and look upon their monumental handiwork with dripping disdain. Yet the virulent critics of our life continue to function within and exploit the very structures and institutions created by those same forebears they despise, glad to have the bully-pulpit of learned prestige their foremothers and forefathers earned for them.

And as they paint the West as a terrible blight upon the world, the rest of the world nods in agreement while lusting to adopt and adapt all the West’s major methods and models to surpass the West in its own game and move into the vacuum the West’s self-deconstruction is creating. Racial and ethnic superiority complexes will not disappear from the earth just because the West hates its own manifestations of them. Imperialism and colonialism and ethnic cleansing and genocide have never been the exclusive purview of the West. Honesty about history is as applicable to Asia and Africa as it is to the West.

Somehow, ironically (could it actually be because of the kind of built-in conscience our despised archaic values and morals still saddle us with?), the West has grown an acute case of moral shame and guilt for all its sins, but most of the rest of the world seems not to suffer the same kind of remorse about their equivalent forays into horrific inflictions on their neighbors. Thus, they nod and accuse and point their fingers to push the West’s self-flagellation along while preparing to step in and sweep up the shambles.

Even now, most of the charity and real aid for the world’s most desperate flows generously from the nations once known as Christendom.

Food for thought!

TO BE CONTINUED

Outliers, 1 – Big-Shots

(Image credit – Pinnacle)

Perhaps ten years ago, I read a very thought-provoking book entitled Outliers, the Story of Success (2008), by Malcolm Cladwell.  The author presented examples across many domains demonstrating how important “outliers” are in virtually every area of natural and human history and experience.

An outlier is an anomaly, an oddball, a misfit, or, as per the Oxford Dictionary “[an] outlying part or member”. In context, an outlier is something or someone situated far from the center, something or someone remote from the norm. The outlier is not excluded from the set or subset of whichever category or group they are identified with, but they “differ” from almost everyone else by a high degree of non-conformity.

With a little reflection, it does not take long to understand that outliers can take many forms, both positive and negative. High achievers of whatever sort are almost always outliers, as are serious criminals on the negative side. Billionaires are, by definition, outliers on the scale of income and net worth, and very probably in business and management acumen. Most entrepreneurs may be talented and inventive, but their endeavours fold within the first few years. Thus they do not achieve the sort of outlier status we are speaking of.

Not so long ago, millionaires would have been placed in the financial outlier category, but given the ballooning worth of property values, stock portfolios, and inflationary pressures, most of our newly minted millionaires would better fit a “high-normal” status, at least here in the capitalist West.

Great villains and great heroes are doubtless outliers. Their courage or audacity exceeds almost everyone else’s and they do what seems impossible to the rest of us. Stars and superstars in the sports and entertainment world are usually outliers in native talent and certainly in achieving recognition of that talent. That being said, many of equal talent may not rise to the top because of factors out of their control, or by preference for a more quiet, stable, less public existence. I have known some incredibly gifted musicians who prefer anonymity.

We could expand almost endlessly on who would qualify as an outlier in any domain we can think of, but today we are considering the rich, famous, notorious, and glamorous.

To be considered a “success” does not necessarily require “outliership”. Many people are successful at what they do, and their success stems from their ability to meet expectations in most of the areas relevant to their chosen path. Outliers far exceed the normal sets of criteria for “success”.

One of the common factors for entering the celebrity outlier category is ambition. Another is determination, and yet another is persistence in the face of frustration and even failure. Edison’s lightbulb only succeeded after 1000 failures. Most great musicians only play flawlessly in their pinnacle performances after tens of thousands of hours of hard work and previous appearances in which they learned to overcome the jitters and faux-pas.

Besides a high degree of innate ability, and perhaps even genius, outliers usually have an aptitude to combine their primary gift with subsidiary abilities. At least a few of these seem to be necessary in rising to “great outlier” status. Wayne Gretzky is an outstanding example of the innate necessary talents plus the persistence required to become “the Great One” in Ice Hockey History. The same could be said of Maradona for football (soccer).  

Opportunity also plays a role in becoming élite in one’s chosen field. Many people of genius and outstanding talent never become well known. Their talents and abilities may well be in the outlier (exceptional) category, but the “breaks” and recognition never come their way, at least during their lifetime. Perhaps they lack some of the subsidiary abilities, or the ambition, that would raise them to the pinnacle. Vincent van Gogh is an example. His artistic genius was crippled by his personal problems during his lifetime. His work is now valued as almost priceless by great art aficionados.

While opportunity can be sought and created (as in a carefully orchestrated campaign), it may also fall across one’s path. “Great ones” are also opportunists who seize the moment to make a breakthrough into the next level. Some outliers arrive in the Himalayan air of extreme outliership seemingly by accident. They had not sought it, had not planned it, and did nothing to chase the recognition and acclaim, but were “discovered” and set upon high by their “fans”, their followers, their disciples, and finally by a broad recognition.

This sort of “fortuitously-born” outlier is much rarer than your “regular” (an oxymoron?) outlier who runs after a big name by exploiting their talent and ability and orchestrating a path to the top.

If someone deliberately sets their aim at achieving high-level outliership, they often recruit or attract helpers to open the way, set up opportunities, plan campaigns, and even create their own legend. Thus, publicity and propaganda can be important tools in becoming one the great outliers of history. Alexander the Great is one such from the ancient world.

There are hundreds of examples of this in today’s celebrity-worshipping culture where professional agents and promoters loom large. There are now many means and variations for getting yourself “out there” for people to know and admire you. This can even be done by adopting the “bad-boy/bad-girl” ploy to gain extra attention. The anti-hero image has become a major “thing” for entertainers, although not-so-much if you just want to live a regular life. A normal-life practitioner of anti-heroism is probably heading for prison.

Who are true Superstars of Outliership in history? Does the momentary éclat of a Rock Band or pulp-fiction author, or a movie starlet, etc., qualify? Who still knows who Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were, outside Hollywood old-time movie buffs? Who still recalls Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, or Janice Joplin outside devotees of old-time Rock’nRoll? Should we put John Grisham [apologies to Grisham fans; I read his books too] alongside Jane Austen in literary annals? And who can ever stand beside Homer, William Shakespeare, Rumi, or Dante Alighieri in the annals of world-class literature? Who can match Michelangelo in art?

While we can recognize the undoubted outliership of some historical rulers such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte, should they even be mentioned in the same breath as Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa, let alone Siddhartha Gautama or Jesus of Nazareth? (Napoleon didn’t think so!) Where do we fit the “great monsters” of history – Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, and, maybe now Putin? They are certainly outliers, but more like human Satan figures than anything else.

It really comes down to whom we choose to admit to the pantheon according to which criteria. Our personal choices of whom to admire and emulate go a very long way to betray our real values and worldviews rather than the ones we profess with our mouths.

Whom do we choose to a rank above we lesser mortals? Why have we elevated them on high? As Bob Dylan (a potential all-timer in folk-music history) once wrote and sang, “You Gotta Serve Somebody”. We are hard-wired to look beyond ourselves, to find a higher realm and greater reality than the mundane grind of daily existence. Even the Exalted Outliers discover this about themselves once they “arrive”. The old inner emptiness is unfulfilled. There must be more.

The ancients were more forthright about this business than we are now. They thought about the stories and legends of their great ancestors and heroes, then granted demi-godhood, or maybe even full godhood status if the “great one” was deemed worthy of it.

In contrast, we are downright disingenuous and double-minded about the whole business. Now social media catapults all sorts of aspirants to outliership into a comet-moment that grants them their Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame/infamy and acclaim/disdain. As with most meteors, their turn in the limelight burns out almost as soon as it appears. Even so, many are still desperate to grasp even this tiny sliver of immortality, only to discover how ephemeral and vain it all is. You got there, were noticed, wowed or appalled a bunch of people for a bit – then what? Your soul is still lost and you still don’t know who you really are.

If they survived into a more contemplative old age or phase of life after their rocket-ride to the top, almost all the Outlier Superstar cohort down through the ages have testified to coming to the end knowing the truth of what Saint Augustine once wrote, “Our hearts, O God, can find no rest till we find our rest in You.”

It is not wrong to be or become an Outlier. After all, “Someone has to do it.” We seem to need saints and great sinners to understand ourselves. Some people end up on the heights despite themselves because others insist on putting them there. The ancients used to call this “Destiny”. We seem to need outliers or, as Cladwell very ably illustrates, we’d still be living in caves and building monuments using thousands of slaves for decades.

Even as we go about the business of life choosing whether to pursue the kind of goals that may take us into celebrity outliership, we must never lose sight of the greater truth that that too is pointing us to what is much greater than ourselves.

Ultimately, what all of us are seeking is immortality, and that comes only from the Ultimate, Almighty Outlier.

Freedom, 7 – The Ongoing Quest

An important point of freedom is not having to make sacrifices for people who don’t make sacrifices for you.

Sebastien Junger, Freedom. (HarperCollins, 2021), p. 116

While I understand the sentiment expressed by Sebastien Junger above, it has an equally valid flipside: One of the qualities of freedom is freely choosing to make sacrifices for people who don’t, or can’t, make sacrifices for you. As Jesus once said (paraphrasing), “What credit is it to you if you love only those who love you back?”

If we have paid any attention to what we have seen manifested across the world over the last several years of Pandemic restrictions, demonstrations invoking freedom from government control of our personal lives, attempted insurrections in several flagship nations of democracy (e.g., the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, France), and now a terrible war of naked aggression in Europe against an aspiring democratic Ukraine, we may have awakened to the precarious fulcrum on which the whole treasure of freedom is centered.

A few things should have come into focus by this point:

  1. This side of Paradise, there is no such thing as “pure”, “absolute” freedom. Even in Paradise/Heaven, God defines what can and cannot be included and permitted. And if you’re not fond of having God tell you what you’re allowed to do, try the Dragon with the red tights on as a democrat!
  2. Freedom is always relative and counterpoised by the obligations and responsibilities of its possessors towards all others who have equal rights to enjoy its benefits. Asian people seem to have less problem with this point than we “free-wheeling” Western types.
  3. Legal and political freedoms do not equate to economic and social equality or treatment in the warp and woof of life.
  4. No matter how “free” they may be in other respects, everyone is a slave to something: an addiction – even if just “trivial”, like caffeine – their own failings and limitations, and inescapable spiritual brokenness,
  5. Even in the freest society imaginable, human and physical nature circumscribe all freedoms of whatever sort in this world;
  6. Death ends all freedoms and holds everyone in its thrall;
  7. God alone is truly free and independent of all limitations, except those He/She imposes on Him/Herself.

Being the sort of essentially self-absorbed creatures we are, most of us experience heightened awareness of what restricts and constrains us only when someone (government, some group, some oppressive individual) impinges on our personal sphere and puts the screws to what we have learned or decided are our “rights” and comfort zones. Where the boundaries are for this is largely dependent on our worldview and our social environment – what our significant others (family, friends, communities of association), tell us is a violation, what our community informs us are our rights and obligations, despite personal wishes and preferences. Few of us have the desire, will, and strength to set ourselves apart from this context in deciding when to take action to resist impingements.

Simply put, our society and community inform us about what freedom is and when we are gaining or losing it. This alone should dispel the nonsense we hear so often about “you can do anything you want”, or “you can choose to be/become anyone/anything you want”. No one has ever been able to enjoy that kind of liberty. Let us accept this and give up fantasized “freedoms” to create “a new me” independent of psychology, heredity, and biology. Too many have created and attempted to inflict their fantasies on everyone else by guilt and shame about their resistance. In our fragile hold on reality, we confuse the issues and pollute our legal and educational institutions with spurious, destructive, counter-productive, clumsy, absurd, and highly expensive attempts at social-engineering. 

No amount of this, no matter if it is advocated by the most “enlightened” and vociferous elements of Ultra-Progressive ideology, and then legislated in fear or misguided magnanimity, will change the fundamentals of who and what human beings are and are meant to be according the Creator’s design. At some point, regular folks just get worn out by it and will react and reject the denial of Nature itself. If the offence has been strong and long enough, the “deniers” may be so offended and worn out that violence may erupt.

Certainly, people are “free” to live as they choose, describe themselves as they choose, as long as they respect others’ freedom to do likewise and treat them with the same circumspection as they so vehemently and loudly declare they expect to be treated. Certainly, they should not be treated as minorities have so often and wrongly been treated, suffering legal, social, and political ostracism and persecution. But on the other side, it is wrong to reverse the standards of the whole to please a very small part and begin to exclude and offend and persecute those who openly object and hold contrary views. “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword” – the literal sword, the legal sword, the economic sword, the social-engineering sword. “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” – sooner or later. This is true in the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual realms. Newton’s Law is not just about Physics.

How then are we to move forward in this crisis of Freedom we as a global society face at this now critical point in the tumultuous 21st Century? Will Freedom convoys and occupations by angry proletarians who have come to the conclusion they are being oppressed and driven out of the few points advantage they feel they have enjoyed restore lost freedoms, or force new ones to be accepted? Is the path forward via massive government programs promising improvements to social benefits and whole new sets of government expenditures to appease the restless masses? Will these change the sense of disentitlement and disenfranchisement of those who see their living standards being swallowed by masses of debt, both old and new – all the while watching the rich grow ever richer and the powerful becoming ever more arrogant as they decreed to the lesser classes, “Trust us! We know just what you need”?

Neither path will resolve the restlessness and sense of encroaching oppression seething within. Not that real exterior injustice and oppression shouldn’t be called out and opposed. But that story is never done – there is always another infraction of rights, always more injustice. The illusion is that some sort of constant social tinkering or economic philandering will fix it. As Jesus once said, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have Me.” This is not because He has abandoned us, but because we have abandoned Him, or choose not to listen.

As we pointed out previously in this series, the fundamental problem is the brokenness each one of us carries. This leads everyone, at some point, to act unjustly and abusively. If it becomes habitual, then you have real oppression. It is when the outrage is allowed to explode on a mass scale and take control of the agenda that societies are rocked and nations are thrown into turmoil.

The illusion we live with is that we can engineer a system according to some final set of enlightened principles, such as neo-Marxism or neo-liberal Capitalism, or the popular hybrid form of social democracy married to capitalist ideology in Western societies. None of these will end the incipient us—vs—them way of relating and keep the perpetual underclasses soporifically stable so the “better, right sort” of people who are ordained to lead or just enjoy the just fruits of their labor can get on with having their cake and eating it too.

The illusion is that by human-engendered wisdom we can create Utopia. It is an illusion because there is no final peace unless we are reconciled to the Creator, who made us with a hole in our soul that only He/She can fill. Peace within is reconciliation with the Supreme Person who alone can erase our brokenness which drives us to wage continual war upon one another and upon the creation itself. That primal reconciliation dispels the Big Lie that only I, or at most I and my special group, deserve to be really free. That primal reconciliation leads us to be reconciled to the Creation itself so that we can respect the rights and freedoms of all created things in their own nature and place within the Cosmos.

As we close this set of reflections on this unending topic, here are two thoughts to ponder:

“Our hearts, O God, can find no rest till we find our rest in You.” – Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo, ca. 410 CE.

“Man is made with a God-shaped vacuum in his soul.” – Blaise Pascal, ca. 1650 CE

May you be ever vigilant in discerning the blind alleys that do not grant freedom, but only a reversal or replacement of oppressions.

May you learn how to protect the righteous, limited freedoms we are given to enjoy in our sojourn on planet earth.

May you find your way to the true freedom which only Yeshua Messiah brings.

And may we all remember that we must love our neighbors (even our ruler neighbors) as ourselves if we claim to be followers of Jesus and children of God,

Freedom, 6 – The Truth Shall Set You Free

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:

  1. All the freedom(s) we can know in our lives is/are partial and temporary;
  2. 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;
  3. 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

Freedom, 5 – Free Indeed

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:

  1. All the freedom(s) we can know in our lives are partial and temporary;
  2. 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;
  3. 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.

Freedom, 4

Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the Origins of Inequality, 1754

(Photo credit – Flickr)

We usually hear that the West’s democratic tradition is rooted in ancient Greece, and particularly in Athens in its Golden and Silver Ages (the 5th – 4th Centuries BCE). It is intriguing to trace the genesis of this myth among the Enlightenment philosophes and their ingenious rewriting of the historical record to suit their purpose. They (e.g., Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) propagandized that Christianity was incapable of generating any respect for human rights and freedoms. Rather, Christianity was “superstition and myth” fit only for the feeble-minded, unworthy of the Age of Reason and Science. It was the agent of oppression of ordinary people – especially the “better sort” of ordinary people who were educated enough to challenge Church orthodoxy and social control – keeping them in their allotted place as per God’s ordained order of “the Three Estates” or “Orders” among humanity – the Clergy, the Nobles, the Commoners.

It was to be forgotten that, for well over 1500 years, Christianity had been gradually transforming the West’s culture and soul towards placing all citizens on an equal footing before the law and in society. The Gospel proclaimed every Sunday in Church showed how Jesus treated all with respect and dignity – but especially the least esteemed in ancient (and, mostly, modern) society – women, children, the infirm and disabled, the outcasts, the rejected, and even the prisoners and slaves. The Book of Acts and the Epistles told the same story and even said “For in Christ there is no longer male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free.”

This gradual evolution towards effectual equality was based on the idea of every one being made in God’s image. In the Christian faith, all are equally objects of His love and mercy, as well as equally subject to His judgment, regardless of “Estate” (social and economic standing) in this world, or sex (gender, if you prefer) for that matter. But the Enlightenment declared that Reason and Science were ordained to supplant and replace the suppressive theological ideology which subjected human nature to God. Ergo, the centuries from 500-1500 were rebaptized as “the Dark Ages”, when superstition, ignorance, dogmatism, and the Inquisition supposedly ruled. Undeniably, there had been regrettable episodes of zealous fanaticism leading to witch-hunts and massacres of dissidents accused of heresy, but the slow movement continued just the same.

Ample new, meticulous research has shown that the Middle Ages were often, and on the whole, vastly different from the hoary standard story-line. Yet we still find it widely propagated as fact in textbooks and many a narrative uninformed by or deliberately ignoring the true historical facts. There were no “Dark Ages”, as so commonly described. There was a time when learning and knowledge retreated because of barbarians laying waste much of the old Greco-Roman world. But it did not disappear and did not even retreat underground. The new rulers quickly found they needed literate helpers to rule, make law, collect revenue, and keep order. Most of the literate class came from the one agency and institution that emerged still strong and independent from the wreck of the Western Roman Empire – the Catholic Church. Note that “Catholic” meant universal, and did not designate a denomination.

It was Catholicism which gradually softened the harshest edges of the new semi-barbarian kingdoms which emerged. It was Christianity which taught these choleric, volatile rulers to temper their tempers and begin to learn that they owed allegiance to a Greater King who would judge them and their rule.

We do not have time, and this is not the place, to set out the resounding refutation of the “Dark Ages” Enlightenment “old wives’ tale” in any detail. The point is that, even with its sometime blind dogmatism and unfortunate gaps in understanding, Medieval Christendom was already moving towards the open society that the West has become.

The biggest injury to that “Great Leap Forward” towards an open, egalitarian, universalist society (to borrow Mao’s phrase and put it to much better use) was actually the shattering of Christendom. This came via the triple hammer blows of (1) the Black Death and the tremendous socio-economic upheaval it produced [now there was the pandemic of pandemics!], (2) the Reformation followed by the Wars of Religion, and (3) the Enlightenment, which, despite all its protestations to be the Age of the coming of the great light of emancipation from superstition, opened the doors wide to the tsunami called the French Revolution.

That Revolution and its directly emergent military Messiah-figure, Napoleon Bonaparte, the prototype of all secular modern tyrants, were a firestorm which swept all the way across Europe from Madrid to Moscow between 1789 and 1815, leaving at least ten million dead in its wake. The Revolution and its whirlwind Messiah unleashed the full fury of the ideological nuclear force of nationalism into the world.

The cyclone of rampant nationalism would directly and inexorably lead to all the horrors we have known over the last 100 or so years, and of which we are now seeing a pernicious resurgence. As illustrated in our previous post, the dismal record is, conservatively estimated, 200 million dead sacrificed to the gods of virulent nationalism, socio-economic-political totalitarian ideologies (militant Communism and Fascism, in particular), hyper-imperialism, and cutthroat capitalism. So much for the noble Age of Freedom ensuing from the “Death of God”, as Nietzsche so aptly put it. “God is dead and we have killed Him,” is the ultimate presumptive and arrogant cry of triumph of the Philosophe. (God might justly quip in reply, “Contrary to rumor, I am still here. However, Nietzsche is dead, and he killed himself.”)

One is reminded of how, during the Roman Peace of over 200 years (Emperors Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, 27 BCE – 181 CE), the ancient Mediterranean and West European world thought it had outgrown the age of wars, save for those of self-defense against jealous foreign barbarians – the same guys who later took over the shop, as noted above.

Today, we seem no closer to our claim to merit the elusive prize called “Freedom” than our benighted forebears. As we used to say in the Sixties, “One man’s rebel is another’s Freedom Fighter.”

Consider the seminal conflict of US history, the Civil War of 1861-65. Both sides claimed to be fighting for Freedom and Rights. Both claimed that “right” and God were on their side. Abraham Lincoln famously observed in his inimitable fashion, “Both cannot be right, but both may be wrong.” His own much more sober assessment was that God had decreed that that terrible conflict would not end until “the last full measure” had been paid; that “every drop of blood shed by the overseer’s lash” would be paid for by the blood of the men mangled and dead on the battlefields. The total population of the USA in 1861 was 31 million. Over 650 000 American soldiers perished in that war, more than those who died in World Wars One and Two, the Korean War, and Vietnam combined. Another million and a half went home mangled and maimed in body and soul.

Is freedom a by-product of war? In his powerful little book Freedom, Sebastien Junger proposes that, in fact, it is! I do not know that the still struggling African-American minority in the USA would agree that they got true freedom coming out of the Civil War, or even since then.

Or is Freedom something much more subtle, surreal, even spiritual? Is it perhaps an innate, inherent quality one inherits at birth, like a gift from God? Or is it something earned or won by struggle and effort, rooted in much more primal origins, as Junger suggests?

If it is the first – innate and inherent at birth – then it is a universal right, an “inalienable right” bestowed by the Creator, as the authors and signers of the American Declaration of Independence proclaimed in 1776. If it is the second, then not everyone has it or deserves to acquire it or be given it. It becomes a privilege which may be earned, seized by brute force, revoked, and lost. Is the reality somewhere between these two extremes? Is it an innate potential that all must seek, but few will find, and, even then, only through struggle and sacrifice – akin to Jesus’ saying, “Seek and you will find; knock and it shall be opened to you?” If people are unwilling to struggle for it, to truly seek it, can they find it, even if someone attempts to hand it to them? Do they really merit such a priceless gift which, not having struggled to find it within themselves first, they will never really understand and value, let along know how to keep if it is threatened? As Joni Mitchell sang in Big Yellow Taxi, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Perhaps we can say that everyone merits at least the offer of the gift, the opportunity to seek it and, perchance, to find it. Perhaps it is fair to say that a great many people really don’t want to put in the effort and sacrifices that are required to find it and hold onto it once they have it. The historical record can easily be interpreted to point to this conclusion. Maybe they are only willing to fight for it when it is taken away, or about to be.

Generally, most people seem to want a limited amount of personal freedom to be able to go about their personal lives mostly unhindered. But they prefer to avoid too much personal responsibility lest it become overwhelming. When forced to choose between comfort and security and freedom, most people seem to tend to default to comfort and security, most of the time. That is what we saw with Italy’s Fascism and Germany’s Nazism in the 1930s. Like the frog in the pot, we wake up too late to jump out!

On the whole, for all their vaunted regard for liberating people from the yoke of ignorance and superstition, the classical (late 17th, 18th, and early 19th Century) Enlightenment philosophes did not believe in democracy, except perhaps in a very limited fashion. In Athens, their highly esteemed model, less than one quarter of the population were politically entitled. Athens’ population was about 250 000 in 430 BCE. Half of them were slaves. Half of the non-slaves were unentitled females. That leaves 62 500 male citizens with potential rights. Remove another two thirds who were under-age. We are at 20 000 entitled males. Remove 8000 with insufficient property to qualify to vote and hold office. Athens’ vaunted democracy was in fact a small coterie of 12 000 male citizens – all men!

In fact, the Roman Republic was far more democratic in theory and practice than Athens ever was. It even had a rather effective system of checks and balances built into it at its best. Athens’ excuse for a check on tyranny was ostracism, and this was fairly easy to pervert if a good demagogue manipulated the 12 000 qualified voters. True, in Rome no slaves or women could vote, but among the male citizens, only the very poorest could not vote or, theoretically, at least, be nominated to hold the powerful office of Tribune of the Plebs.

However, the Philosophes vastly preferred enlightened absolute emperors such as Augustus, and most especially Marcus Aurelius, the archetypical Stoic Philosopher-King. Certainly, the Philosophes’ version of democracy, whenever they spoke of it, bore little to no resemblance to that which exists today. In fact, they would have been appalled by the modern social-democratic states of today. Their preferred form of government was “Benevolent Despotism”, and their term for the best of the quasi-absolutist rulers of the time was “Enlightened Despots”. Among them could be found Catherine the Great of Russia, Joseph II of Austria, and Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia (the largest of the German states outside of Austria’s domains). All of the above defaulted to despotism at need, dropping the “enlightened” adjective when necessary to “deal with intransigent elements”. The last King of France before the Revolution, Louis XVI, aspired to join this elite group, but was not accorded the dignity by French Philosophes (Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, d’Alembert, et al.). In January 1793, Poor Louis was simply guillotined by the new set of revolutionary despots who took his place (e.g. Robespierre) with much greater ruthlessness than any monarch had dared before that time. Thirty thousand more aristocrats and suspected close collaborators of the “aristos” rapidly lost their heads in similar fashion, as did even the Queen, Marie-Antoinette of “let them eat cake” fame.

Perhaps the great 18th-C Philosophes (mercifully [for them] dead by 1793) would have pointed out smugly that the revolutionaries had tried out a radical sort of democracy and found it wanting, just as they had predicted it would be. They may well have heartily endorsed the Corsican-turned-French-Emperor, Napoleon, perhaps the greatest proponent of Enlightened Despotism ever, with himself as its ultimate incarnation.

“Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!” has ever since been the battle cry of modern warriors of freedom, equality, and universal brotherhood. Over the last 225 years, the musket, rifle, pistol, cannon, mortar, howitzer, bayonet, sword, bomb, shell, rocket, and hand grenade (yes, they had all those modern weapons in Napoleon’s time) seem to have been much used in emulation of the little Corsican’s evangelistic strategy.

TO BE CONTINUED

Freedom, 3

“… a demand for unlimited revenge …. is what Nietzsche says is the very basis for the violence of nihilism.”

George Grant, Time as History. University of Toronto Press, 1995. p. 49.

“What the Messiah has freed us for is freedom! Therefore, stand firm, and don’t let yourselves be tied up again to a yoke of slavery.”

Galatians 5, verse 1, Complete Jewish Bible, trans. David Stern, 1998

For Vladimir Putin in March 2022, unlimited revenge on the West and the nasty world that has laid Mother Russia low since 1991 would be ultimate freedom. In that world, no blame or guilt lies on him or the band of ultra-rich oligarchs who have helped engineer Russia’s economic plight and political isolation. All is the fault of the Western Devil and its corrupt democratic tradition which dares raise the common masses to the level of full and equal citizenship (at least according to constitutional law) with the elites. If he can only get revenge by nihilistic total destruction including even of his own Motherland, he says he is prepared to venture it.

The West does bear some blame in this whole dreadful business on several counts. First, it sells a bogus dream of Utopia to itself and to outsiders wishing they could get in on the great prosperity train. Second, it engineers the game so that it is very hard to actually get in on anything like near-equal terms with the players already at the table. New players are expected to arrive with huge sums ready to ante to even sit in the game.

Beneath the West’s self-indulgent neon exterior, its cornerstone was once upon a time reputed to be Jesus and his first followers, notably Saul of Tarsus, better known as the Apostle Paul. Although the West has largely turned a deaf ear to its deep roots in Christianity, the ideal of freedom we are struggling to recover and renew stems directly from that source. Most Westerners no longer understand much of anything that that original call to freedom was really about-and it certainly wasn’t money or sitting on top of the power heap.

If Enlightenment disciples are miffed by my failure to extoll John Locke, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and all the other noted philosophes, sorry to give offence, but Jesus and Paul trump them all when we go to the main taproot of the West’s soul. Once upon a time the West was boldly called “Christendom” in open recognition of this historic fact. Even the esteemed original philosophes of the 17th and 18th Centuries did not ignore their debt to the Nazarene, although their modern disciples tend to conveniently ignore (either deliberately or in actual ignorance of) that fact.

In his letter to the Galatians, before the resounding declaration on freedom quoted above, Saul-Paul had said, “… with the Messiah [Jesus] … there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female; for in union with the Messiah Yeshua [Jesus], you are all one.” (Chapter 4, verse 27-28) Two thousand years ago, Paul, basing his understanding on the life and teaching of Yeshua/Jesus himself, declared that when you enter the community of Jesus’ family of followers, the major factors that create injustice, inequality, oppression, and all their concomitant evils are eliminated in God’s eyes, and are also meant to be erased lin actual practice here in this world among the ekklesia.

No one will deny that, over the last almost 2000 years, the Christian ekklesia (a word badly translated from Greek into English as “Church” but which really connotes the assembly of all citizens who belong to the united community) has too often failed to live by these most basic principles.  If the Christian ekklesia had substantially succeeded, I venture to say that the world we now live in would not be on the brink of World War Three, and would never have known Numbers One or Two either. But here we are.

The detractors of Christianity are zealous in their denigration of the long, difficult history of the uneasy symbiosis of Church and State in the West, perhaps rightly laying most of the blame at the door of the Church for the eventual divorce. However, secularist decrying of the “hypocrisy” of Church, Christian theology, and weak-willed Christians has grown old, tired, and as hypocritical as we are told the Churchified leadership of bygone ages always were denounced as being.

For the last two hundred years, the secular order, i.e., the “non-religious” social, economic, and political leaders claiming to operate and direct society and culture according the best Enlightenment principles, has held the reins across the West. They may still nod “Goodday, eh” at the Church occasionally in order not to scare too many regular folks off with their impiety. But the kingdom, the power and the glory have been theirs now for long enough to test the fruit of the new King-tree.

So let’s be completely honest about the historical record since 1789 and the French Revolution, the date when this new age of science and reason and ineluctable progress that was proclaimed to be ushered in by getting the Christians out of the way.

The record of war and revolution and mayhem and slaughter has not diminished in the least. In fact, it has been multiplied exponentially. Observe:

  • French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815 – estimated 5-10 million dead;
  • 19th Century Revolts and Revolutions (1824-30, 1830-1, 1848, 1861-65 [US Civil War], 1871) and wars of national unification (Italy and Germany) – 3-4 million dead
  • Colonial expansionist conquests, massacres, and rivalry wars of the 19th C – 3-5 million dead
  • Pre-World War 1 conflicts in the 20th C – 3 million dead
  • World War 1, 1914-1918 – estimates vary wildly from 20-40 million dead, including famine and starvation directly related to this hecatomb
  • Russian Revolution and later Sovietization – 10 million dead
  • Stalinist purges – Gulag – 20-30 million dead
  • World War 2 – 60-80 million dead (no real way to know given the immensity of scale and unaccounted massacres and slaughters)
  • Korean War – 2-3 million dead
  • Vietnam War – 3-4 million dead
  • Chinese Civil War and Communist purges, Maoist “Cultural Revolution” – 40-60 million dead
  • Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – 1.5 million dead
  • etc., etc.

All the most terrible internecine wars of 1300 years of Christendom from circa 384 CE (when the Roman Empire became officially “Christian”) to the end of the Thirty Years War in Europe in 1648, the last European “War of Religion”, cannot even hold a candle to the appalling record of the last two hundred years since the effectual demise of Christendom and its replacement with government according to illuminati principles (as in lighted up by the great light of scientific, rational truth, not as some sort of secret elite society controlling everything) issuing from Enlightenment standards of elevating human society. Christendom at least faintly attempted to use Christian principles to direct national and international concerns. Today we have Machiavellian Realpolitik in its place, with no residue of honour and mutual recognition of a higher duty before the Maker to blunt the worst instincts in the souls of power-mad power-brokers.

To compare apples with apples, let us take the two darkest chapters in Christendom’s war-waging – the Crusades between 1096 CE and about 1300 CE – and the Wars of Religion between 1530 and 1648.  There is no way to know with any real accuracy how many died in the multiple crusades launched by Medieval Europeans under Christ’s banner with the professed aim of reclaiming the Holy Land (Israel-Palestine) from Islam. It is fashionable to condemn these attacks on the Islamic world as unprovoked.  It is forgotten that Islam seized those lands after conquering them by naked aggression against Christian States. Untold millions died in those Muslim wars of conquest between 634 CE and 1080 CE. The best guestimate is that the Christian drive to retake those lands probably cost another 3-4 million lives over the course of two hundred years.

In the Thirty Years War and other European Wars of Religion following the Protestant Reformation, another 10 million or so died in what amounted to a Western Christian Civil War. If we generously round all this up to 20 million or so Christians massacring one another or Muslims and Jews as heretics over the course of about 1400 years, it does not take a mathematical genius to calculate whether Christendom or Enlightenment Secularism with its toll of around 200 million (10 times as many) in one seventh the time has the greatest bloodlust and blood-guilt.

I am not advocating a return to an old Christendom. I am not excusing crimes against humanity perpetrated by leaders misusing Christ’s name. We do not need more religious judgmentalism and sectarianism. This discussion is not even about Christianity being superior to Enlightenment principles for building a just and compassionate society. I suspect we need both.  It seems that when the two shun and despise each other, we end up in a terrible place. What we are both aiming for, so we say, is rediscovering the real sources of our ideals of freedom, and finding a sure foundation upon which to renew them.

Let us not falsely claim that we can be scientific about this. Let us have the courage to face our history and our real-life experience and find reconciliation and renewal together. Christians at their best have gifted the world with enormous benefits in compassion for the poor, the sick, the infirm, the oppressed, law reforms to care for the helpless and defenseless, education and health-care. The achievements of Christians and the ekklesia in these primary areas of building a real caring, compassionate culture and society far outstrip anything done by secular sources, setting aside direct government intervention. Even that has been largely done at the insistence and inspiration of the Ekklesia and voters inspired by the infinite compassion of Jesus.

But we also need the Enlightenment at its best to temper misbegotten religious zeal and spiritualized fanaticism and hold the Ekklesia and leaders, whether secular or Christian, at all levels and in all walks accountable. The Enlightenment points us to intelligent discovery of truth through God’s gifts of reason and science, based on the Creator’s order in Nature. However, these are crippled when separated from the Creator’s wisdom as to their true nature and purpose.

Stay tuned.

Freedom, 2

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…

Me and Bobby McGee – Janis Joplin

(Photo credit – Outward Bound Canada)

Wilderness canoe-tripping has long been one of my absolute favourite summer-autumn things to do. I have done it almost every summer for 35 years. For me and those who come with me it is and has been one of the most freeing things we know.

Some sorts of head-knowledge are in the skill-set one needs to “succeed” in wilderness tripping – whether that be canoeing, serious back-packing (which I have also done), or some other kind of ‘in-the-deep-end’ wilderness journeying. But in this sort of adventure, the physical and practical skills decidedly outweigh most head-knowledge. And, unless you are a solo-tripper, such a journey is a social and relational adventure as much as it is physically challenging.

Before setting out, some sort of plan is required, even if only a rudimentary one. First thing to determine is “Where”? In other words, a route must be selected and agreed upon. The agreement may be a simple acceptance by the other group members, or an actual discussion of at least some of the details. For example, how much flexibility in changing it once begun will/should there be? How long will the trip be, both in distance and time? Where will the stops be? Is the distance estimated appropriate to the time allotted? How much food will be required? What gear does each member need to bring? Etc.

Once the basic plan is set, assignments need to be allotted to each tripper – who will bring what, how it will all be packed and divided into portageable loads. How will the canoeing partners be decided – who should be with whom, and can this be varied? It’s nice to change partners from day to day to get to know one another better. Sometimes, it might be better for certain pairs to spend more or less time together. In case of need to make important decisions, is someone the designated leader, or will consensus decide?

This potentially wonderfully freeing kind of activity is an allegory of how human beings function in even the smallest and simplest sort of extended social contact. What could happen if you don’t plan and just get a few like-minded people with similar interests together to just set out on a common adventure with each one preparing however he/she thinks appropriate? Even then they will need to agree on a common time and place to meet in order to go together.

An ad-libbed, ad-hoc trip might end up like this. On the chosen day at around the chosen time, Charlie, Pete, Samantha, and Noreen (our intrepid trippers) all show up with whatever they thought they needed for this wonderful idea of a wilderness canoe trip. At the canoe put-in on Lake Letztango, they begin to discover that not everyone even has the basics. Noreen has no paddle. Pete has no PFD (life-vest). Charlie brought two canoes, but only one of them is an actual tripping canoe with significant cargo capacity. No one bothered to acquire an actual map of the route they thought about following – not even an electronic one downloaded to their phone or tablet! As to food, what a hodgepodge, and who even considered that improperly stored food is an open invitation to bears, racoons, and pesky, ubiquitous squirrels to the feast within hours of setting up camp? Oops! Everyone thought the other people were bringing tents! On and on the sad tale goes.

We will leave this group of sad-sack travelers to their consequences. Does freedom have anything to do with all this? When is freedom not freedom? When are rules and limitations actually liberating? And when are they oppressive rather than liberating?

It becomes very quickly clear that for even the most elementary social arrangement to work, there is a careful balancing act that must be worked out. Not enough organization with responsibilities and duties defined, and the slide into chaos and blame-gaming is rapid and will quickly get nasty. Too much organization with overzealous application of controls and rules reduces people to ciphers, stifling their motivation to reach out and help one another. Over time it builds up anger and resentment for being disrespected and made to feel of no account.

The best wilderness experiences happen when people know their roles, are respected as people who can and will fulfill them, and learn how if they need to. Left with enough independence to initiate and even improve things for themselves and others, things become positively fun! There is a spirit of goodwill, happy cooperation, and genuine concern in case of a problem. Problems are met with steady practical solutions created when the need arises.  Sometimes, “stuff happens” even to the most experienced people, but when mutual freedoms within proper boundaries and mutual respect and esteem have been created and sustained within the group, the problems get solved far more smoothly and with far less strain, stress, blaming, and acrimony. Overcoming such things together strengthens the group’s cohesion and mutual respect.

A wilderness canoe-tripping expedition, whether as small as two or as large as ten, has no written rule-book. You can read up about skills and routes to prepare, you can practice canoeing techniques on calm water beforehand, try out your knot-tying and campfire building, and even practice pooping in the bush with no privy, but there is no comprehensive manual or “How-To” book.

Let’s apply our little parable about wilderness tripping to the macro level of running a club, a church, a town, a mega-city, a province or state and even a country. Is there some sort of “manual” for these bigger venues of social management?

Not really. Not even Robert’s Rules of Order or the well-designed Canadian Constitution Act can cover every situation, as helpful as they may be in giving general parameters.  They need to be supplemented by the infinitely fluid river called “History” backed up by a lot of written reflections, traditional ideas and principles, and “Here’s How I/We Did It Here at This Time” type writings (Memoirs, if you prefer). History has a ton of stuff for us to look over and consider, but it cannot tell us once and for all “Here’s what you need to do right now where you are with that bunch of people you’re traveling with.” It can tell us a lot about how our forebears solved many of the same problems we have to deal with – although the River of Time and place create variations that must be taken into account.

One thing we should have learned over the last two or three hundred years is that it is an awfully good idea to lay out a set of basic rules for solving big problems in big communities – both national and international. When you scratch beneath the surface, most of those problems revolve directly around the very issue we find ourselves struggling so mightily with worldwide at this very moment: FREEDOM! This humble set of articles is an attempt to make a small contribution to that very big discussion.

What, if anything, has our parable told us, besides how to avoid having our canoe go disastrously crashing into the first set of rapids it meets?

  • Freedom is not really freedom if there are no rules and responsibilities.
  • Freedom is an illusion if we have no plan, goal, and vision to set out for as a common destination and inspiration.
  • If each one of us just acts “freely”, i.e. autonomously, as “seems good in his/her own eyes” (an expression borrowed from the Biblical Book of Judges) our actual destination is chaos and destructive anarchy. Incidentally Judges is a good read for this period we find ourselves in. Even nature teaches us that laws exist and that they will insist on being respected and obeyed. We defy them at our own peril, and ultimately we defy them upon pain of death. You can whimsically decree that you can now fly or walk on water (without extra mechanical appendages) – until you try it for the first time and discover that you too are subject to the rule of law.
  • All of us, and all things, are subject to the rule of law. Such is the created order, or “Natural Law” in the old parlance. Even despots with a nuclear arsenal are finally subject to the rule of law. The greatest lawgiver of all once said, “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” That’s a primary law in the way of human behaviour and natural consequences.  In the Old West, there was always a faster gunslinger somewhere who would eventually put you into Boot Hill.
  • By willingly cooperating together we can overcome many obstacles, and in fact we enhance one another’s real freedom when we excel in what we are really good at. Doing this and encouraging tripmates to do likewise gains their esteem and respect and empowers them to thrive as well.
  • The more we act arbitrarily and bully others into doing as we insist, the less they are likely to respect us, and the more resentful and angry they will become. Things will get done less and less willingly, and less and less thoroughly, increasing the risk of accident and harm for everyone. Eventually, order will disintegrate and the society will fail.

The slaves will overcome you too, King Louis, Tsar Nicholas, and Mr. Putin. Maybe not today, but count on it!

To Be Continued

Freedom, 1

Freedom: Personal liberty, non-slavery; civil liberty, independence; liberty of action, right to do; power of self-determination, independence of fate or necessity; participation in privileges of citizenship; unrestricted use…

Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964

(Map credit: 19FortyFive)

The above dictionary definition about covers what people generally mean, at one time or another, when they speak of the concept of freedom. These days in much of the West the term has become mostly focused on a very personalized notion of “personal liberty …, right to do [as I please, when I please, how I please], independence of fate or necessity … unrestricted use [and too bad if that runs you over]”.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the fundamental meaning of fighting for freedom is being graphically illustrated for the whole world to see.  This graphic live-streamed horror has put our petty quarrels here in Canada and elsewhere over COVID restrictions and governmental “overreach” into a humiliating display of moral infantility. How far we have fallen in our understanding of the most fundamental notions of living in a “free” society!

Winston Churchill once said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Anyone who has come out of an anarchic free-for-all situation where law and order come down to the whim of the people with the biggest clubs (name your favorite failed state or inner-city “no-go” zone) can appreciate the brutal simplicity of it.

The vulgar fallacy and dreadful lie we in the West have progressively saddled ourselves with are that I am free to choose any outlandish form of acted-out self-discovery, self-expression, self-actualization (choose the moniker that you like to say it!) that suits me and you have no right to be offended or even express your disapproval. If you dare, I’ll sue the tights off you, or drag you before some tribunal that will. At the very least, they`ll humiliate you and make you a social pariah and maybe even put you in prison for “hate-speech”.

Besides actually going to Ukraine to see how real live defenders of freedom behave under real live-fire with thousands dying, how do we spoiled children of democracy regain a real sense of what life in human society and its future is really and truly about, or should be about? Is it really just about glutting my personal appetites to numb the pain of my instinctual sense of living a meaningless life – like the inhabitants of the Capital District in The Hunger Games? We in the West have become “the Capital”, and if we don’t truly wake up soon (and I don’t mean in the illusory sense of the WOKE-Folk, who are one of the prime symptoms of our chimeric mirage of “freedom”), the “Districts” will rise up in revolution.

To try to recover a rudimentary sense of the what democratic “freedom” is, many sources are available. First, I will suggest one very succinct and brilliant article recently published in The Globe and Mail, a prestigious Canadian newspaper. Its author is Justice Beverley McLachlin, now retired, 17th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada (2000-2017). https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-the-ottawa-truck-convoy-has-revealed-the-ugly-side-of-freedom/

Another I recommend is an eminently readable and brief personal account from a very different, non-academic approach: Freedom by Sebastian Junger, published by HarperCollins, 2021. This little book is only 147 pages and a far cry from didactic in the sense of “here are a bunch of theories and notions about freedom you need to learn and understand to pass the test”. Instead, Junger takes you on a walk, literally, across remote parts of the eastern USA, in the company of three like-minded companions who just want to escape the ubiquitous grip of The System and The Man. If you can’t learn something true and real about freedom from this journey (one with feet on the ground and your head cleared of all the BS, getting down to basics again), well – ‘nuff said! If you can’t make some sort of similar pilgrimage, this is a next-best-thing!

Freedom is never an isolated thing. And it is never an absolute thing. Even hermits are not totally free – as the ancient and medieval (and even modern) Christian hermits have said over and over again. Their bodily needs constrain them. Their minds imprison them. No matter where they take refuge, other people keep coming along to bug them and make demands on them. Buddhist monks, Hindu gurus, and Muslim dervishes all say the same thing. How have we in the West somehow bought into a completely delusional notion that freedom is all about me and what I “need” (when the real word is want) and to hell with you? As the Beatles once aptly phrased it “All through the years, I-me-my, I-me-my, I-me-my!” What a lie!

Deep down, you know that all your screaming about your rights and needs, however legitimate, cannot justify your taking what someone else equally needs or wants to appease your ego or sate your undisciplined will and appetites. Let’s be honest, much of this psychodrama is contrived by our own appetites and the delusion that we have some sort of “right” to have them satisfied regardless of the cost to other people.

That is what billionaires will rarely admit. Getting generates more wanting, more lusting. Being spoiled from toddlerhood up generates infantile adults who know only how to scream about freedom and demand it for their most outlandish interpretations of what “happiness” must be for them. As the old African story puts it, the Dog you feed will finally be the Dog who eats you when you run out of food to give it.

Which brings us around to our present World Crisis – notably, as in the bad old age of Colonialism, being generated from the old Imperialist homelands of Europe. The West emerged from there. Now, grown fat and rich and accustomed to be fed by the lesser Districts (returning to the The Hunger Games allegory)to satisfy all its most salacious and vicious appetites, it is facing a rebel mad-man’s will for vengeance and payback for having robbed his Motherland of her rightful place in the sunlit uplands of the elite nations.

God have mercy, and may there arise some farsighted prophets of peace even now in the West and other lands who can steer us out of this Valley of the Shadow of Death (Psalm 23, if you are not familiar with the expression). And may the sobering of a near-death experience wake up the West to its moral slavery and a will to recover the spiritual heritage of the knowledge of real Freedom.