Freedom or Tyranny?

Kevin Sharpe

Science & Spirit 7 (Fall 1996): 9

Modern westerners think highly of freedom. We hold it paramount as a virtue for each individual, for each society, and increasingly for nature. What constitutes the freedom of the Divine, of the universe, and of human beings? How does the freedom of one impinge on that of another?

Many of the sermons I preached in my first years after ordination concerned freedom, freedom to do and be the potential each of us tucks away inside. My favorite biblical passage was this parable of Jesus:

About to embark on a journey, a man called his servants and assigned his property to them. To one he gave five talents (about $375,000), to another two talents, and to a third he entrusted one talent. Then he left. The servant with the five talents traded with them and earned another five. The one with the two realized another two. The third servant dug a hole in the ground and buried the money.

When he returned, the master asked the servants how they'd managed the money. The servant with the five, now ten talents delighted his master: "You're good and I trust you," he said. "I place you in charge of many things. Welcome to the joys of what I own." To the servant with the two, now four talents, he responded the same way. The master scared the third servant. "I know you're harsh," the servant said, "reaping where you don't sow and gathering where you don't scatter seed. So I hid your talent in the ground. Here it is." The master was angry. "You're wicked; you're lazy. You could at least have banked the money so it would earn interest. Give the talent to the servant with the ten." He added, "Those who have will receive a lot more; but those who have next to nothing will lose even that little. Throw this miserable servant into the outer regions of weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 25: 14-30)

All three servants fronted the same freedom, an open hand to manage their master's money. Servants two and one worked with the money entrusted to them, applying their freedom. Number three thought of his freedom differently. Jesus' story asks us to employ the opportunities offered us. The parable concerns our freedom and responsibility to approach life in new ways so we can use what we have.

To exercise our talents, not stash them away, and to grasp the freedom we possess or can create for ourselves to fulfill our talents: I believed this message. But my sermons extolling this appeared to preach only to myself; I witnessed no one changing. The members of my congregations seemed set in their ruts. I preached to myself in another sense, too: my talents implored me to work on them. I had to explore ideas and write. Like the initiatives of the trustworthy servants, this required a freedom, in my case I needed time and energy.

Modern westerners think highly of freedom. We hold it paramount as a virtue for each individual, for each society, and increasingly for nature. What constitutes the freedom of the Divine, of the universe, and of human beings? How does the freedom of one impinge on that of another? In their autonomy, the parish and the church demanded of me things that conflicted with my need to pursue my talents. I was free, however, to leave.

A potter produces pots which then start to do whatever pots do in their lives. They exist independent of the potter. Tradition portrays the autonomy of the Divine and the universe with this metaphor, and in this way speaks of freedom. Once fashioned by the Divine, the universe began a life of liberty. It gained an independence to follow its own course, fulfill its own potential, obey its own laws self-sufficiently. The Divine interferes with none of these.

This belief in the independence of the universe from the Divine led to the theories of early modern scientists, including those of Isaac Newton. The universe exists according to its own laws, free from the willful and fanciful interventions of the Divine. Therefore we can depend on its consistency. We can experiment with it and achieve the same results each time. We can derive laws which hold in all places and times, because the only other force that could affect it, the action of the Divine, won't disturb it. Science still relies on the result of believing in the universe's freedom.

Yet, in the system of spiritual thought I have developed in these columns, the Divine determines the universe. The universe unfolds from the "doer of all," the Divine. An age-old problem again rears its physiognomy: How can the universe develop and operate, freely following its own laws, when the Divine brings everything about? If the Divine forces the universe to follow sacred dictates, would the Divine arbitrarily interfere in the consistent makeup of the universe? Does the Divine act like, in A. N. Whitehead's term, a "cosmic tyrant" gone senile? Out would go the laws of nature.

The universe is free if it can follow its own laws unhindered. This defines the universe's freedom. Does our understanding of the Divine satisfy this condition?

A prong to the definition of the Divine says the Divine acts logically, consistently. The Divine doesn't act willy-nilly. Where I live, we say New England farmers are "men you could set your watch by." Dirt roads, over which they pulled their wagons and carts for a hundred plus years, follow the contours of their former fields and created beds that the last century of abandon left unscathed. The universe follows the natural paths of the consistent Divine to create the laws of nature. It follows its own laws unhindered.

Freedom roots the universe.

Copyright 1996 by Kevin Sharpe.