To many modern ears this must sound like an absurdity, redolent of a dictatorship. Paradoxically, I want to suggest that that absolute obedience to a higher power outside of ourselves can be the path to freedom.
What kind of ‘freedom’ are we are talking about? To kill whoever we object to? To have sex with whoever (and whenever) we want? To become a monk, a member of a cult, or a suicide bomber? Who, or what, do we want to be free from? What do we want to be free to be?
Freedom is relative to our consciousness of the culture pressing in on us. Teenagers want to be free, but feel compelled to wear particular clothes, to smoke, and indeed to adopt a whole cultural package lest they appear uncool.
Is this freedom? I believe that it is not. Strictly speaking, such young people could decide to reject such coercion, but the pressure to conform is huge. While claiming to be free, they are enslaved.
One way in which to find freedom from the ‘hell of other people’ is to have an authority that is above these people. I stress ‘authority’, not ‘authoritarian’. True authority is criticisable; authoritarian structures are not.
At the same time, this outside authority should be obeyed 100%, otherwise the obedience is not a proper test of the authority that is claimed.
A doctor’s advice can only be tested by being followed fully, not in part. A partial test is not a valid test of the authority of the advice. Does this mean a complete lack of discernment in the face of an authority, leading to authoritarianism?
A great teacher of two thousand years ago claimed that ‘my yoke is easy, and my burden is light; come to me, and you will find rest’. How so?
Through obedience to two great commands, and it is important to note that these commands cannot be taken separately. The first was the command to love God totally. The second was to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.
If the first is detached from the second command, we have the suicide bomber.
The suicide bomber may have an elated sense of freedom (or be coerced), but descends people’s lives into hatred, chaos and destruction.
Who then is the ‘neighbour’? The suicide bomber would say that the neighbour was his or her ethnic, cultural and/or religious group.
But the teacher we cited disagreed: he said that the ‘neighbour’ was the most despised person you can think of, the person who is seen as morally, religiously and ethnically corrupt and impure. For what do all tyrannies try to achieve, but ‘purity’?
So discernment is required, not ‘blind faith’. This means careful listening. It means consideration of other people’s viewpoints, of all factors, weighing the plusses and minuses, and reflecting deeply on these things.
This is what I mean by ‘obedient freedom’, a term taken from a Benedictine writer.
This ‘obedient freedom’, leads, I believe, to a new self, not one intent on creating chaos and destruction, but one based on love and justice.
This requires uncomfortable listening, listening that increases accountability as people face themselves.
It is nonetheless a healing process, not just for the individual, but for society. The person thus made free, shall be free indeed.