Faith and Freedom II: Beyond Force

Big Idea: Force and anarchy aren’t the only two cookies our communities can bake. Given all the theories of freedom that religious institutions have produced over the centuries, they should be skilled at cultivating and honoring free choice, not the least skilled of all and not merely average.

At the end of my last post on this topic, I wrote:

I was once taught that the end-game of this human experiment was that right-being and right-doing would be intuitive and internally driven. If that’s more than a pipe dream, shouldn’t religious institutions be the most skilled at honoring and nurturing free conscience and persuasion and teaching all of us to do the same? Shouldn’t they be leading freedom, not limiting it?

The balance of faith and free conscience in religious communities and educational institutions is a recurring debate. Perhaps the biggest mental block isn’t that our definitions of academic freedom vary or that various groups hold mutually exclusive visions of how much denominations should influence schools. Maybe the biggest mental block is that we have unchallenged assumptions about human nature and capacity, and we rarely expose these assumptions to daylight.

Hugo van der Goes's Fall of Man and the Lamentation (1470-1475)

Hugo van der Goes, “The Fall of Man and the Lamentation” (1470-1475) | Google Art Project

Seventh-day Adventist policy about the church’s influence on its colleges and universities through accreditors and conference-level constituents seems to be based on these premises:

We don’t seem to allow for presenting good with sound reasons and without emotional or authority manipulation, though even this allowance assumes that the good we propose has a solid basis to start with.

A system based on the three assumptions listed above has no reason to wait for amazing grace to draw untrustworthy people into a higher moral order, or to leave compliance to the chance and vagary of the Spirit that blows as it will.

So, from universities to international organizations, the religious institutions I’ve observed rarely rely on cooperative rhetoric or community design principles to inspire people to good. [1] Both are used, but neither is indispensable to these institutions’ work or use of authority. Students, staff, or members cannot look in every direction and see trust-based relationships that enliven them. Specific rules emerging from that low-trust context help to keep the system functional, but not flourishing. And alternative modes break through on a small scale from time to time.

I don’t see alternatives to force-and-sanction at work consistently in mainstream society. I see more on the edges, and organizations like the Fetzer Institute, Ode, and Bread for the Journey support and signal-boost examples in their areas. By contrast, the mainstream offers increasing monitoring and multi-system limitation and control, and whether by active lobbying or tepid objections, religion is complicit. We teach that we are “the light of the world” and promote a gospel of grace and mutual submission rather than empire and power-over, yet operate our institutions using “the master’s tools.” So if grace and mutual submission do resonate for students and members now, it has to be in spite of us and not because of us.

A minister recently argued that there are so many things “the world” can do better than “the Church,” so many things from institutional management to community outreach, but modeling the value of grace is the only thing the Church can do better. I don’t know whether that’s true. But if it is true that “the Church” (i.e. us) is supposed to be the planet’s functioning illustration of Christ at work, then my consternation is only heightened. If we are that illustration, then all of our movable parts need restructuring to support our Christ-ing. We can’t get results we don’t build for. And if youth don’t learn alternatives to force and authority-sanctioning from their time in our religious educations, where should we send them to learn? If organized religion drops a ball it claims was made for its hands, who will pick it up?

Three columns and a round tin of M&M and chocolate chip cookies.

Credit: Jennifer Jacobson

I believe in and fully support a healthy, diverse civil society, and I contend that religious organizations are part of civil society but not its master. We have much to contribute to civil society’s common-wealth and will first have to release the urge to dominate it and its people. I think much anti-religious rhetoric is rooted in our peers looking for proof that we-the-religious have released the urge to dominate. Perhaps they’re not yet seeing much.

The burden’s on us to prove our intentions in word, act, and relationship: we all have a lot of cookies to make and eat together.


[1] My current congregation is an exception to this pattern, and that is why I became a member.

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