October 28

The Hope of Freedom

By Marsh Chapel

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Job 42:1-6

Mark 10:46-52

Click here to listen to the sermon only

One: Bird

 Overhead an eagle soars, on quiet summer days when the lake is empty.  He does not come out on the weekend, or when there is noise, or when the boats are numerous.  But in the quiet he sails and soars, hunting the lake with an eagle eye, hunting for a next fish meal.  You turn over swimming, floating on your back, and over he goes, right overhead, a beautiful long wing span against the blue gray sky.   On the off occasion, twice say a summer, he has his partner with him, his mate, eagles mating as they do for life.  But not today.  He commands the sky, and all below with a grace, a soaring beauty, a regal flight. Beyond the gulls, the sparrows, the robins, the red winged blackbirds, the cardinals, the finches, the bluebirds, the blue-jays, even beyond the blue heron, just there soars the eagle.   Karl Barth recited and repeated, ‘The Gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight’.

Freedom.   In the summer our Marsh sermon series surveyed the expanse, the freeing breadth of hope.  This fall we have listened for the wind chimes of hope, setting us loose, setting us free, in presence, in pressure, in peace, in beauty, in healing, in welcome, and in faith.  What does the God of Hope (Rom. 15:13) bring us today, now that we set hope next to freedom? What is the hope of freedom, for you, a woman or man of faith?

‘For freedom Christ has set us free’, intones the Apostle: ‘stand fast therefore and do not be enslaved again’ (Gal. 5: 1).  Paul addresses the Galatians,53ad, with regard to the superiority of faith to religion, with regard to the superiority of gospel to tradition, and in affirmation of the gospel freedom to include the Gentiles by grace.  Paul’s words, remembered, recited and repeated, became the core of the Protestant Reformation501 years ago, a Reformation we recall and honor the last Sunday each October–today.   The same sense of freedom, the expansion of human freedom, nurtured the Renaissance,the renaissance of learning, art, music, philosophy, and science that over several hundreds more years has given us our current world, culture and life.  Market capitalism emerged steadily in the light and under the wingspan of religious and artistic freedoms.   Political democracy came along as well, in fits and starts, starts and fits which have yet to cease, as we are relearning in this decade.  The freedom of the person of faith, unshackled from the bonds of institutional religion, grown in the expansion of culture and art, given substance and support through the burgeoning accumulation of social and personal capital, and protected by democratic governments, ideals, and practices, surely is a great or the great blessed happy victory of the modern era.

Two: Fromm

 Or is it? 

Freedom, the freedom of the person of faith, surely is a great or the great blessed happy victory of the modern era.

Or is it?

In a time when suddenly and unhappily we witness a broad willingness to taste test authoritarianism, a dark willingness to give over personal freedom for the sake of a putative security, or a rage for order, or a minimization of the more complex forms of self-government, just how precious is freedom, and at what cost?

You know, a sermon seems like a monologue.  Yet it is not.  A sermon is a thicket, a tangled webbing of dialogues, including in the spoken word, the moment of the word.  The dialogues include memory, Scripture, experience, prayer, illumination, fear, dreams and the uncanny evocation of the divine.   For instance, today’s sermon comes in part out of a June dialogue.  We had been invited to speak a half dozen times, sermons and lectures, for the New England Annual Conference, in session for part of a week in Manchester, NH.  The forgiving and kind Methodists there received these pronouncements with a good grace, more than deserved.  You will not be surprised that the Gospel of John appeared, now and then, that week.  After one such presentation which probably, like the peace of God, ‘passed all understanding and endured forever’, one fellow paused in reflection on what he had heard.  He may have been a retired minister, though with sadness the name escaped collection and so memory.  Trailing after his response came this:  What you said reminded me very much of Erich Fromm.  I stuffed the reference in my so-called memory.  Erich Fromm.   I had not thought of him in decades.  With the eagle soaring in the summer, I dug him out.  You see about sermons and dialogues.  Here, five months later, the dialogue emerges, continues, continues its wayfaring course in discourse.  For Fromm acutely inspected both hope and freedom, the theme of our sermon today.

That is, in 1941 the philosopher Erich Fromm wrote a striking, seminal book on this question, ‘just how precious is freedom, and at what cost?’.  Its English title is Escape From Freedom.  Fromm explores the dark side of freedom, religious, cultural, economic and political.  As an expatriate German, watching the events in Europe at the time, Fromm was trying to understand, from the perspective of social psychology, the rise of authoritarianism in his native land, but also, and more broadly and in a general way, to understand how people and groups of people become enthralled with, enamored of, and committed to authoritarianism.  His argument is direct and simple:  real freedom is real difficult to handle, and, when pressed, people move to escape from the demands of freedom by investment in authority.  Freedom is scary.  Freedom is demanding.  Freedom is dangerous.  Freedom is difficult.  Better to hide underneath the sturdy voice of an authoritarian leader, preferably one who denies all responsibility for wrong or hurt, the rock solid social identity of a mass of people, the commitment, itself often quite costly, to a cause that sets aside personal freedom, so lonely and hard and uncertain, for group support under authoritarian wings. 

Freedom has a dark side. Our current national dilemma, in this unfolding decade of humiliation, presses us and makes us present to the question of freedom.  It is more than issues of political liberalism—gay rights, women’s rights—that besets us.  It is more than issues of economic socialism—ample education and abundant health care—that concerns us.  It is more than cultural conservatism—unflagging Sunday worship and vigorous voluntary associations– that beckons us.  As important as all these are.  It is more than a highjacked national narrative, more than a collapse of moral conscience and compass, more than the protections of civil society, the customs and ceremonies of courtesy meant to protect us from the pipe bombs of unbridled, unhinged rhetoric, that beset, concern and beckon us.  As important as all these are.  It goes deeper, this our current malaise.  It goes down deep into the caverns and caves of freedom.  How will we live, in hope, with freedom?

Erich Fromm warned us.

He warned us about the dread of freedom:  Freedom has made (us) isolated…anxious and powerless…(which) is unbearable(x)…(One’s) brain lives in the 20th century, but she art of most (people) still live in the stone age(xvi)…To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death (17)…enhancing the individual’s feeling of aloneness and insignificance (38)…(We) becomes more independent, self-reliant, and critical, (but we) become more isolated, alone and afraid…

 He showed us the historical origins and outcomes of freedom: Protestantism made the individual face God alone (108)…The prinicipal social avenues of escape in our time are the submission to a leader, as has happened in Fascist countries, and compulsive conforming as is prevalent in our own democracy…

 He traced the effects of the lack of hope in freedom:  (for) the individual to escape his unbearable feeling of aloneness and powerlessness…(he has) no more pressing need than the one to find somebody to whom he can surrender, as quickly as possible, that gift of freedom which he, the unfortunate creature, was born with…

 He unveiled, out of his own experience, and touching too our own, the consequent appeal of authoritarianism:  the authoritarian character admires authority and tends to submit to it, but at the same time he wants to be an authority himself…

 He described the impact on persons:  The authoritarian character loves those conditions that limit human freedom…The individual ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns (say in rallies?) and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be…love for the powerful and hatred of the powerless… (is) fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere (240)

 He pointed to a couple of daily consequences—see if they sound familiar: …to lose the sense of discrimination between a decent person and a scoundrel…the fear of death lives an illegitimate existence among us (245)…

 Beloved.  Be alert, on the qui vive, watchful, be sober, be watchful for nascent authoritarianism.   In the daily denigration and disfigurement of facts, of truth.  In the weekly demonization of ‘others’, of those other, in religion, in race, in nation, in orientation.  In the dishonoring of other seats of power, like the judiciary, like the press, like the churches and other religious communities.  In the steady denial of fact and responsibility.

Yet Fromm offered a word of hope in freedom, what he called positive freedom:  positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality (257)…THERE IS ONLY ONE MEANING OF LIFE: THE ACT OF LIVING ITSELF… (In positive freedom (one)) can relate (one)self spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of (one’s) emotional, sensuous and intellectual capacities (139)..        

Spontaneity.  Comraderie.  Emotion. Intellect.  Where you come alongside these, according to Fromm’s work, there we might say is a hope in freedom. 


Three: Community

We can appreciate, perhaps, a bit of what Fromm said, even in our immediate setting.  The academic world intensifies and crystallizes these tendencies, especially under the aegis and aspect of technology. Spontaneity?  Emotion? Comraderie? Creativity?  These can be hard to find, and to nurture,  in academia.  Consider the rigorous path for the professor, for example.  7 punishing years of graduate school (following on 16 earlier years) lead to the Ph.D.  Another 7 punishing years of junior appointment lead to tenure.  After 30 years, perhaps, one gains tenure.  Think of the commitment to excellence, the attention to detail, in that life work, forged in freedom.  You can stray from the path, but you cannot then complete the journey.  Consider the rigorous path for the undergraduate student at an institution like ours, for example. Begin with earning a 1420 on the SAT, then continue in classrooms and courses where not some but almost all are as able as you. Think of the commitment to excellence, the attention to detail, in that life work, forged in freedom.  You can stray from the path, but you cannot then complete the journey. Further, as Sherry Turkle and others are showing us, we have only the slightest inkling thus far of what the massive newer technologies are doing with our students, ourselves, our world.  We have done a great deal to teach teenagers how to pick up devices, but have done virtually nothing to teach them about how to put them down. 

Thanks to each one of you, for all the challenges of academic life, here at Marsh Chapel, week by week, you sing the song, tell the tale, and ring the bell of freedom!  It is a remarkable, uncanny gift you offer!   The spontaneity of conversation.  The comraderie of communion.  The emotion of song.  The Intellect of faith.  You sing! In four part harmony!  Right here in the heart of a great University!

Real freedom, that for which we affirm Christ has set us free, positive freedom, resounds with spontaneous, physical, emotional, mindful, personal work and love.  The move away from positive reedom comes from alienation, isolation, anxiety, and fear. The move toward positive freedom comes from independence, responsibility, thinking, feeling and willing–forged in the soul. Every one of our lives inhabits two dimensions, one psychological and one sociological, personal and social holiness both.

As the community of faith, then, we want to be and become that place and space where one can listen another’s soul into life, where the urges and longings toward positive freedom are protected and nurtured, where the demonic drives in culture and economy are called out and known by name, where we have each other’s back, where we live and give the benefit of the doubt as a means of grace, where we hold up and hold out and hold onto the freedom of the human being.  A place where, like last night, in the historic nave of this Chapel, the music of joy, the music of majesty, the music of brilliance, the music of gladness—the music of Mozart—plays the accompaniment to our ongoing daily struggle, in freedom, the daily struggle of faith, to withstand what we cannot understand, the ongoing struggle of faith to eradicate violence and religious animus from the earth.

There is hope in freedom, when positive freedom baptizes us in sensuality, emotion, spontaneity and intellect.  Thanks to each one of you, for all the challenges of academic life, here at Marsh Chapel, week by week, you sing the song, tell the tale, and ring the bell of freedom!  May we contine to live by such hope!

Yes, there is hope in freedom, but it comes at cost, and it comes with work.  Jurgen Moltmann appends our benedictus: in Theology of Hope: “Hope finds in Christ not only a consolation in suffering but also the protest of the divine against suffering.  That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience” (p. 21).

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean. 

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