The Owl on Freedom

Now we come to the fourth of the Owl’s principal terms: Freedom. The sequence of these terms, Faith then Covenant then Love then Freedom, is intentional: Faith, God’s gift to us; the Covenant under which it is lived in God’s steadfastness; Love, the power that keeps us turning toward God and each other; then Freedom, the sine qua non of Love.

Love is what turns a man’s wheels homeward at the end of the work day, simply because he belongs with the people there rather than wherever else. He is actually free to turn or not, or it is no love that drives him. Love has to be freely given, or it is not love but something else; fear, coercion, deception, but not love.

Of course freedom is necessary in all kinds of relationships, not just domestic ones. We need political and religious freedom to be responsible citizens, autonomous selves. On the largest scale of all, we need the freedom God grants to love him or not. For God is free too; his powers are not diminished if one of us is so foolish as to withhold love from him. Precisely because God is utterly free, so are we. There is no one way to be worthy of God’s love; no one way to be a person of faith. By definition, freedom has no prescribed content.

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Human freedom has two sides: freedom for thought and action, and freedom from the delusions and obsessions that seem to drive so much thought and action in our world. From the outset the Owl promised to avoid the obsessions that fill the pubic atmosphere, and he is not going to go back on his promise now. He only wants it remembered that faith, with which all this began, enables a global rebellion against them, against all falsehood. Political and cultural obsessions inevitably grow into ultimate concerns for leaders and followers. In other words, they are not only false, they are idolatrous, and the sign of this is the loss of freedom.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the oldest, most implacable antagonist of idolatry. Before announcing to Israel that he is their God and they his people, he led them to freedom, beyond the bounds of idolatrous Egypt. When Jesus comes to proclaim the kingdom of God, his message is another call to freedom, defying the Roman imperial powers. They understood him correctly as such, and the world knows what ensued.

Because his death was not the end of the story, we now know our dual citizenship; we have a true life in God, which we cannot lose, as well as this worldly life, which we certainly will lose. If we understand our freedom correctly, we know this life is meant to be spent living for others; we need no other sustenance for ourselves than that calling.

Here is where the subject of ethical behavior has its proper place; not where we usually think of it. Being a good person, as so many say they try to be, does not precede God’s gift of faith, but once received, faith burns toward an outlet, looking for something to do, to effectively celebrate and demonstrate itself in the world. There is no one way to do this; no such thing as a through-defined “Christian morality.”

As we just said, God is free. By giving each person a vocation he sets us free, sometimes seeming absurd and contradictory. So be it. Nevertheless, we’re all in this together. Sometimes we’ll get it right, sometimes we’ll create new disasters for our successors to clean up, as we do those of our predecessors.

Again, so be it. We aren’t making the world better—God already pronounced it good—but freely helping each other along, sometimes in good humor, sometimes in despair. Freedom isn’t all jolly fun—it was a desert wilderness, not a resort, into which Jhwh led Israel. As the poet Jack Gilbert says, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”

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