Sunday, September 19, 2010

Freedom and Responsibility

How much time did you put into deciding what to wear today? Did you feel free to wear something summery even just as an act of defiance against the changing seasons? Did you feel free to dress up or dress down depending on your mood? Did you make a decision about how to wear your hair? These things are all in the realm of personal choice. Did you feel free to leave the house naked? Probably not. Your personal freedom probably ended at that point as most of us conform to society’s expectations about not leaving the house naked.

We all live with a balance between personal choice and social conformity. You can drive anywhere you want but you will have to drive within the speed limit or risk a fine. You can seek any job you want, but you will have to take some training. You can’t just turn up with your brief case at a random place of work, sit down at a desk and begin work. You can lobby local politicians, but you can’t turn up unannounced at the White House, and chat on the front porch with the President. You can practice whatever religious or spiritual path you choose, but you can’t contravene the separation of church and state.

20th century social philosopher Arnold Gehlen suggests that every society (even the most primitive society) offers its citizens some areas where they can operate out of personal choice and other areas where certain rules are taken for granted. He called the areas of personal choice the foreground, and the assumed social norms the background. We need both. Without some background it would be chaos. Without some foreground we would be robots. Fortunately human nature is such that a certain amount of foreground is inevitable.

Over time some things move from being background to foreground and some things move from foreground to background. You can imagine the freedom of choice available to a newly emancipated slave as old assumptions about racial inferiority become deinstitutionalized. Conversely, when it became illegal to smoke in a restaurant a personal freedom was removed in deference to the greater good.

In the constant dance between freedom and conformity, the last two hundred years have seen a huge increase in foreground choice. You can now choose who to marry (if at all), how many kids to have (if any), how to raise your kids, what education system you want for your kids, where to live and what work you want to do. Even if the choices aren’t great, you can even choose where to get your news and who to vote for. Most important for our topic today, you can choose what to believe and whether you want to have any religious affiliation. We now talk about religious preference as we are free to move from one religion to another, from one denomination to another or to move outside of religion altogether. For those who stay put in the faith of their upbringing, there is freedom to rethink most of the basic doctrines of the church.

We have the incredible situation where many things are now foreground that used to be background. Belief in God and a supernatural view of the world, the authority of the Bible and the afterlife are all now matters of personal choice. Many of you enjoy the freedom to say “no” to an angry sky God and to say “yes” to your own direct and inner divine revelation. You are free to name this revelation with God language or not. You are free to draw from many different traditions, say “no” to religious exclusiveness and “yes” to acceptance and inclusion. We are people of choice.


Do you consider yourself a heretic? You should. The ancient Greek word for choice is the word we know as “heresy”. Heretics are people of choice. Jesus was a heretic. He healed on the Sabbath, knowing full well that he was turning background into foreground. He deinstitutionalized religion and opted for compassion over social conformity. For the first 3 centuries of Christianity, everyone was a heretic, thinking and believing as made sense to the individual and the small groups that gathered. It was only in the third and fourth centuries that certain Christian beliefs were declared background and heresy gained a negative connotation.

You are a heretic because you are a person of choice, someone who thinks for yourself and checks all ideas and beliefs against your own common sense. The reformer Martin Luther said “Sin boldly”. So I say to you “Be a bold heretic.” And enjoy it. You are a product of modernism. Religion was asking for it, with all those fancy cathedrals and Bibles in multiple translations. Modernism is a two edged sword for religion and it seems that churches often try to reign in the freedom they have given people.

As heretics, please reconsider any old beliefs that are offensive to your humanity. Start with the ancient and awful doctrine of predestination. It’s such a disempowering belief, nullifying your free will. Did you know that predestination is never mentioned in the Bible? Predestination was an idea introduced by later theologians and read back into particular verses in the Bible. The Greek word they read the notion of predestination back into is “pro-orizein”. Pro means before. Orizein means literally to make a choice. Now if you understand God as an all knowing creator then you can imagine getting to the idea that God made a choice before you were born as to whether you would be saved from eternal damnation or not. But it’s not the only one to understand God or choice.

Here is an alternative interpretation. Everything that has led up to this moment is “pro”. This includes your genes, your upbringing, your environment, your past choices etc. What you do right now, how you respond in each moment is a matter of choice. How do you know if you are making a good choice in the moment? The other word that relates to the Greek word “orizein” is our English word horizon. It’s a word that conveys a sense of perspective and vision. If you are making choices that take into account the broadest possible perspective and your choices resonate with your highest intentions, then they are good choices. You know the beautiful thing about the analogy is that what goes around comes around like a rising sun. So even if you make what seem like poor choices that lead to challenge and suffering, they too will bring you back to your power to choose differently next time. All things serve you in their own way.

Freedom and Responsibility

Freedom doesn’t exist just for its own pleasure. Freedom is the basis for responsibility. Freedom without responsibility is often lazy, and responsibility without freedom is often mindless obligation. Did you know that there is a project underway to build a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast? In order to balance the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast, a group is attempting to build a three hundred foot high monument to freedom’s close cousin, responsibility. The vision came from famous psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. Frankl said, “Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. How can our lives mean anything if we don’t take responsibility for our actions?”

Responsibility is your ability to respond. Your life to this point is what it is. But you choose what happens next. You craft your own worldview, and choose your responses in each moment. The other side of that freedom coin is that the future is in your hands. It’s up to YOU if the world is in good shape or not. Maybe this is why we often resist freedom. The burden of responsibility is too great.

Osho tells the parable about the parrot trapped in a mountain hut in a beautiful golden cage. A man was travelling through this region and stayed the night in the hut. He was awakened by the parrot squawking “Freedom! Freedom!” The parrot’s cry echoed through the mountains and it didn’t stop all night. This happened on and off all through the next day. The next night, the visitor couldn’t stand it any longer. He waited for his host to be asleep, then opened the cage door and said to the parrot, “Go. Get out. Fly free.” The parrot clung to the cage wall. The visitor tried again, this time putting his hands in the cage to help the bird fly free. But the parrot scratched him and refused to fly out, all the time crying “Freedom. Freedom!” So the man picked up the parrot and threw it into the night sky. He went to sleep satisfied with his efforts. He woke the next morning to see the parrot in his cage with the door opened crying “Freedom. Freedom.”

There are many different interpretations of the parable. Maybe the parrot was stating that it was already free, even in the cage. Or maybe he was so conditioned to being enslaved that he was unable to be free. We can all be like the parrot at times, can’t we? Freedom greets us like an open door, but we refuse to move or else maybe we are afraid to move. We don’t vote in elections that our prized democracy provides. We stay in relationships that are no longer healthy. We remain locked in religious beliefs that our minds have outgrown. We get lazy in our freedom, unwilling to take responsibility for the change we wish to see in the world.

Take responsibility for your own freedom. Follow where your free will is leading you. Know what is background and what is foreground. Accept the background for now, choose the foreground and know the difference. When you remember that you don’t have to be perfect and that limited success is large success, freedom is not a burden but a joy and an adventure. When you resist the lure of disillusionment, responsibility is not a burden but a step by step plan of action.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. In fact it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The height of freedom is to recognize that your freedom is tied up with the freedom of others. Freedom may be a personal matter, but it’s not a private matter. To whom do you belong? There is an inspirational story that comes out of Nazi occupied Denmark in WW2. In a well organized effort the entire Jewish population of Denmark was led to safety in Sweden. After the war a delegation of American Jews visited the Danish Prime Minister. They said to the Prime Minister, “Thank you for what you did for our people.” The Prime Minister replied, “We didn’t do anything for your people. We did this for our people.” He meant no disrespect. He was indicating that the freedom of Jewish people in Denmark was the concern of all people in Denmark. Freedom for one group was part of freedom for all people.

Enjoy your freedom. It is a gift and a privilege. Freedom is the path to a fuller life. If there are areas of your life where you aren’t fully claiming your freedom, seek to understand why not and move to claim freedom. If you feel overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility that comes with freedom, then remember that you are collaborating with other co-heretics in service of a spirit that has more creative power than you any one of us could ever imagine. You have freedom and you have responsibility. But you don’t have to take responsibility for all of it alone. We’re in this together. Together, we are part of the evolution of life. Namaste.

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