Lately the Owl has written about the authentic humanity that thrives in eschatological consciousness; invulnerable to the political obsessions and commercial manipulations that are constantly thrown up to us by secular culture. This is the true freedom of which the Apostle Paul could speak only after he had been knocked down and blinded. It meant such a radical change to him that he likened to the death of the old man. He had discovered that his true life was hidden in God with Christ (Colossians 3:3). Nor was this some kind of mystical flash; rather it was the beginning of his worldly work, full of realities as concrete as prison chains. True freedom endures such rigors.
Coming out from under a dehumanizing secular culture, ordinary men and women who are not apostles or heroes can exercise a powerful order of freedom: making meaning out of history, replete as it is with terrors and frustrations. This is the unique human prerogative, the thing no other creature can do. We are likely to overlook this aspect of human freedom because we are so used to thinking individualistically, but this freedom we realize collectively, by living through and interpreting our past, present, and future. Every day we make innumerable decisions, many in conflict, by which we create those great works of imagination, cities and civilizations, overlapping and succeeding each other in time and space.
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This freedom is open to any civilized people. Add faith, however, and we arrive at a freedom of a yet higher quality, one that transcends both oppression and conflict. It is foreshadowed in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, if someone asks you to go with him a mile, go two instead (Matthew 5:41). Here we find no discussion of the one doing the asking, his interests, his character, his destination, or his purpose. He might be kind or cruel, needy or privileged, courteous or arrogant, Jewish or Roman. Jesus’ point has nothing to do with those things.
Even under overwhelming oppression, people have shown that neither physical destruction nor the appearance of servility separates us from the love of God. The reader can think of examples for himself if he knows anything of the holocaust or of slavery. The freedom of a Christian does not evade even these, but frankly confronts the world’s terrors, which go far beyond routine irritations and impediments in political and personal life.
This freedom takes an eschatological perspective. That is, one in which we hold our own judgments and the world’s judgments of ourselves in suspense. As believers, we confront our God, our ethical problems, and ourselves as mysteries, the meanings of which are “structurally to come” (John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, xxiii), not enclosed by history. We do not define ourselves, or allow others to define us. We remain outside demographic categories; we know neither success nor failure in our professions; we refuse to bear the labels and symbols which weigh down our neighbors.
Back at work
Now most people construct our identities around our jobs. How does this play out on Monday morning? As we go about, teaching, counseling, developing commercial products, or whatever we may do, we find that the context itself often works against us. Whatever the intentions of the teacher, a classroom full of adolescents speaks louder than he can, and what it says is rebellion. The students (mostly working-class) confronted by teachers (middle-class) cannot help knowing they are being addressed de haut en bas. Take Rehabilitation counseling as another. The social-psychological forces in play enforce definitions of disability from massive bureaucies down to individuals’ families. They cannot be overcome where the sufferer remains ensconced in them.
In this situation we grasp at consolations. We may imagine our students or clients admiring us in the future, unbeknownst to us. If they do, we will not find out. Anyhow, admired or not, the truth is, we almost never know the meanings of our actions. We can imagine a mythical future, in which all is revealed and God forgives. But in the meantime, if we look at them squarely, many careers show themselves in a strange light. Much of what we thought worthy of our life’s work has turned into shame. If work really is our identity, we are lost.
And yet: We know there is still something to us which is more than our role at work, something which defies description, which is not summed up as a person’s choices and loyalties, a nub which cannot be discounted with impunity.
There is no non-circular argument for the existence of that nub, whatever it is. But when we hear the phrase, “no non-circular argument,” we have stumbled onto a clue. For there need not be any argument if the source of the knowledge is outside ourselves, revealed. That is how a person of faith takes it. Others are thrown back on irony.
Whether we are people of faith or ironists—are they synonymous?—we have arrived at a new level of freedom. We are not defined solely by actions, neither others’ upon us, nor our own. We are invulnerable to dissolution by ordinary means. People have discovered eschatological freedom even in prisons, as far removed as can be imagined from ones-and-zeros, yes-no, binary decision making. It is the true freedom of a protean being confronting an indeterminate universe.