Freedom

What is freedom? That is one of the questions that plague me today. The most obvious characteristic of freedom is being able to do what one wants to do without hindrance from the government or from others. But shouldn’t that “without hindrance” come with caveats? For example, one should not be free to murder someone else. But if freedom comes with caveats, what is the nature of these caveats? A philosophy professor of mine once said, “Freedom implies responsibility and that’s a hard lesson to learn.” Wise words from a wise man. What is the nature of responsibility? It, like freedom, is something you have to figure out. I still grapple with these issues myself … mostly because I am a philosophical kook who spends far too much time ruminating. One of my issues concerns religion, and more specifically Jesus of Nazareth.

I don’t know about anybody else, but there have been several times in my life when I was reading a verse from the Bible and I just “got” the verse. I knew what it meant, and I felt it in my bones. I remember once, shortly after I had come to terms with my own eventual death, when I was glancing through the New Testament, and I came upon a place where Jesus said, “… when I tell you, you are free.” I don’t remember the complete phrase, as the ellipsis will attest to, but it had a dramatic effect on me. There was another spot where Jesus said, “They are wrong about sin.” At the time, I understood that to be an erasure of the concept of sin. For a while, I came to believe Jesus was saying that there was no such thing as “sin.” In other words, I was “free” from the concept of sin. Upon reflection, I have difficulty accepting this concept of sin, or the lack thereof. I’ve wrestled with it. And I’ve come to believe that I must be missing something. The fact that this particular “existential moment” is buried in my past, so I can’t really examine it as well as I would like, also makes it more difficult. Let’s go back to my philosophy professor: “Freedom implies responsibility.” You are responsible for your own life and you have to own up to your own mistakes. You can still do wrong, but I think what Jesus meant was that there is no “magical” nature to “sin” like what was commonly understood at His time. For example, part of Catholic doctrine is abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent. Failure to do so is (or may be) a sin. Here, sin has a kind of mystical nature to its meaning. I mean, really, why would eating meat on a particular day be wrong? And Jesus is saying here, that it’s not “wrong.” You are free to do so or not. You may gain a benefit (in terms of willpower, etc…) from doing so, but it shouldn’t be understood in terms of sin.

There is a Buddhist koan (a paradoxical statement designed to impart profound knowledge) that states, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Generally, Buddhists do not regard this as an exhortation to slaughter moral teachers. Instead, it means something similar to what we have been discussing: “Be your own master.” At least, that’s what I get out of it. No one else can run your life. It is yours to do with as you wish. You are completely responsible for it, both the good and the bad. It is similar in meaning to what Jesus said when he said, “… when I tell you, you are free.” I think I would prefer Jesus’ statement (partly because I have a Christian bias) because there is no chance you would confuse it with a statement advising the slaughter of moral teachers.

Finally, it is worth noting that after making a few searches for those statements by Jesus, I haven’t been able to find them again. It may be a difficulty in using particular translations. Or maybe there is some other issue like distorted thinking or poor memory. Anyway, those are my thoughts regarding freedom and religion.

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