Monday, November 26, 2018
During my doctoral studies I had a seminar with a visiting Old Testament professor from Sweden. The course in question was on the books of Proverbs. Each class, he told us, we would be assigned a passage from Proverbs to translate from Hebrew. He would ask one of us to translate and lead a discussion on the meaning of the passage in question. Evidently this was a bit too loose for one of my colleagues. “Will there be a final exam?”, he asked. “Most of our professors give final exams.” The professor looked a bit startled. “A final exam? Well, if you want a final exam, I can give a final exam.” The rest of us could have killed him. The professor was offering us a kind of freedom that evidently made my fellow student nervous. He needed something concrete to establish his worth as a student; something he could point to that would demonstrate his accomplishment. Translating and discussing the passage would, of course, be challenging. But an exam with a grade at the top would provide of means of assessment that was for him evidently easier to quantify and appreciate.
It is difficult to live in freedom. Like my colleague, many people insist on knowing the boundaries, following the rules, obeying the commands. They need to know where they stand, they need a grade—they need a final exam! And not only do they insist on the “final exam” for themselves, they want to impose it on the rest of the class! The professor wanted the mutual accountability of colleagues reading the text together. My fellow student wanted the exam, evidently, to help him evaluate whether he, and for that matter, the rest of us, was meeting the expectations of the teacher. The professor’s working assumption was trust and collegiality. The student’s working assumption was distrust and individuality. Without an external standard of judgment—the exam—we could not be trusted or fairly evaluated. Was he afraid the professor would not be fair? Was he worried someone in the class would get away with something? Did he simply need to be able to know the rules and follow them? Did freedom make him nervous? Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Paul said, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.” But it is hard to be free.
In Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov a character tells the story of the Grand inquisitor in 15th century Spain. He hears that Jesus has come to town and has him arrested and imprisoned. In the dungeon he asks Jesus why he has returned to trouble the church. It had taken the church hundreds of years to correct his mistake of offering people the gift of freedom. “They can’t handle such a gift,” the Inquisitors insists. “They are rebellious and ignorant, they need a firm hand and guidance. Why didn’t you listen to the devil?” he wonders. “He gave you good advice: offer them bread, mystery, and miracles and they will fall at your feet. Offer them freedom and they will cower in fear or act out like fools.” Jesus remains silent through all this. At the end he kisses the old man who trembles and tells his to go and not come back.
Throughout its history the church has far too often been like my friend (who later regretted his actions!) or the Grand Inquisitor. Trusting neither the mutual accountability of a local community or the integrity and discernment of the individual it has sought to impose rules and boundaries and creeds. It has produced canon law and set regulations for pastors and churches. These rules have been meekly accepted; freedom has been abdicated. The church has been like the man in Jesus’ parable: freed from demonic possession but fearing that freedom, it has welcomed an even worse band of demons so that its latter state is worse than its first. Years ago in a Sunday School class a wise teacher asked us to ponder who made the hardest rules to live by, God or the Devil. It was a good question and I have considered it the rest of my life. God wants us to live in freedom—and while it may be hard work, it is joyful, glorious work. The Devil wants us tangled in self-doubt, fear, and insecurity. In spite of the work required to be free, the prospects of a fear-based, rule-guided life are much harder, much bleaker. Such a life attenuates us and cripples us. It renders us forever childish, immature and incapable of stepping into the glorious freedom of the daughters and sons of God. The life bounded by “rules” and “final exams” appears to be wise and cautious. But such rules are not the work of God, the God who sets us free. Around them one rather catches a whiff of sulfur.
John E. Phelan, Jr.
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