Creation Involves Risk

I appreciated the comment in the New York Times op-ed, “Every Moment With My Son Is an Act of Creation”  by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“There is no creativity, or creation, including the making and raising of children, that comes without risk. I now understand what I never did as a child: that I was the product of my parents taking a risk. The risk that their gift of love would be rejected; the risk that they would be misunderstood; the risk that their creation would have a life of his own.”

That risk that parents take when deciding to have children appears to have been experienced by God in bringing humans into existence.

And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.   (Genesis 6:6)

... the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.   (Genesis 8:21)

It may seem wrong for us to imagine that God took a risk in creating humans – after all God is omniscient and omnipotent.  Yet, in bestowing free will on humans, God was taking a risk – and allowing choice, uncertainty, ambiguity to be part of rational creation.  God gave humans free will – with consequences.  God did not predetermine everything, but rather watched to see His creation unfold in unexpected ways.   We see the same thing in  physics, for in creating a universe with quantum mechanics, God builds into creation some indeterminacy, some probability, some unknowingness, some chance.  By allowing mutations to occur within the genetic process of producing DNA, God allowed change into all living beings.  And then there is humanity with its free will.   We see this being enacted in Genesis 2 when Adam is given the task of naming the animals.  God watches to see what the human will decide is the name of each animal.  God doesn’t predetermine this naming, but watches and seems to enjoy the creativity which the free-willed human exhibits in creating new and unexpected names for the animals.  Creative genius can unexpectedly change the world, but so can changes in the genetic process, and the natural working out of the laws of physics.  So many things happen naturally everyday for which we are not able to see or even anticipate their consequences.

So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.   (Genesis 2:19)


One Self, Many Selves (II)

This post is a continuation of a reflection on Nikolai Leskov ‘s short story, “Figura.”  The previous post is One Self, Many Selves (I).  Leskov presents in the story a man, named Figura, of 19th Century Russian nobility and an army officer who is assaulted by one of his soldiers.  Figura wrestles with what Christ tells him to do with someone who has struck him on the cheek because he knows what the military will demand of him as an officer and what his social rank requires of him.  He decides to follow the teaching of Christ and forgive the soldier who acted not in malice but because he stupidly had gotten drunk while on duty.

What Figura wrestles with internally is a significant part of being a Christian, and yet he is not a Christian alone.  Figura is part of a society which is segregated by status as well part of the military which has an established hierarchy.  He is part not only of the Church but also of a nation which considers itself to be Christian.  His individual decision is thus subject to evaluation by the society around him.  Russia and Russian Orthodoxy did not embrace the individualism created by the Western Europe’s Enlightenment of the 18th Century.  Figura does not reject society and the military’s right to judge his actions.  He accepts that they must, but he decides he also will live according to his conscience and accept the consequences of his own behavior.

Figura’s superiors learn of the event and call him to give account for what happened.  They react to Figura’s narrative as if he has become a religious fanatic (which also was common at that point in Russian history).  They remind Figura that as nobility and an officer he is obligated to enforce discipline.  And though even the Russian army was considered a Christian army, he is told, “You had no right to forgive him!”   His commandant forcefully reproaches Figura about forgiving a drunk and disorderly soldier who had assaulted him: “You only yourself to blame, and whoever put such ideas into your head.”

This Figura knows.  It is Christ who has put the idea of forgiveness in his head.  Christ is to ‘blame’ for forgiveness which his fellow officers see as a weakness.  Figura is not blaming Christ, however, but embracing Him.

His commandant reminds him: “A military man must get his Christian principles from his oath of allegiance, and if you weren’t able to make something agree with it you should have gone to get advice from the priest.”  We see the many worlds a Christian must live in and the many ‘selfs’ each of has or must have.  Figura certainly hasn’t learned his Christianity from the military any more than someone can learn science from the book of Genesis.  He does see there is a conflict in values, even if the army is said to serve Russian Orthodoxy.  [Which in the very modern world raises the serious theological issues as to how the Russian Orthodox Church can bless nuclear weapons, which it has done.  Is the Russian Church getting its Christian principles from the oath of allegiance to the military and to its nation?  How could anyone who claims to follow Christ bless weapons of mass destruction?  Does the Church really have any justification to do so?  Can it really believe that the Lord Jesus Christ blesses such a thing?  or has the Church lost its moral compass and simply become a department of state?  The questions we face today are the same as Leskov did in the 19th Century.]

We also see in the story a sense that the clergy can by some magical power relieve moral contradictions or prohibitions.  The commandant believes that an Orthodox priest can somehow make it OK for an Orthodox Christian to follow the military oath of allegiance over the Scriptures or can somehow soothe the conscience so that one can violate Christ’s teachings because one has made an oath of allegiance to the state.  Not only can the priest do this but apparently a Russian Orthodox priest is under obligation to eliminate by some trickery of logic any ethical problems Russian military orders might create for an Orthodox Christian.   The priest either is able to absolve anything or use sophistry to declare an evil good.  In this way, the Church is not there to uphold Christ’s teaching but rather, more to shore up Christian society and help enforce appearances.  The Russian Church as institution in this instance serves the demands of the state – at least it appears Leskov is making this criticism.  Well did the Prophet Isaiah proclaim:  Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!  (Isaiah 5:20)

Figura is told that his fellow officers now refuse to serve with him because they see him as a coward.  Others had heard that Figura had tried to keep the assault a secret.  They thought he did so only so he could stay in the military with honor since he had been dishonored by a peasant soldier.  Figura’s many ‘selfs’ struggle with the opinion of his peers and he finds that to be the worst of all – that they misunderstood his rationale and judged him harshly.  He realizes what was really important to himself is that others think well of him – so though he had done something for noble reasons, he felt a dismal failure since others had a low opinion of him.  Looking good was better than being good, except Figura knows he can no longer live by that lie.

Figura is called before his general, who is portrayed in the story as almost fanatically Orthodox.  The general assumes he understand Figura – that Figura wants to become a monk and that is why he didn’t care about his nobility or rank. But Figura tries to explain, “I had never run across anything in the Gospels about any kind of pride in nobility, but had read only about the pride of Satan which was an offense to God.”   Although there is nothing wrong with the General’s ears, he is hard of hearing because he believes he already understands Figura and ignores what Figura tells him.  The general is Russian Orthodox to the core and offers ‘friendly’ advice to Figura: “The Bible is dangerous – it’s a worldly book. A person with ascetic principles ought to stay away from it.

Here we encounter another issue about Christianity which is very pronounced in Orthodoxy.  On the one hand Orthodoxy has believed it can ‘baptize’ entire cultures, nations, empires.   On the other hand, there is the sense that if you really want to take Christ seriously, you have to withdraw from society (even Orthodox Christian society) and become a monastic.   The question is can someone live in society if he or she wants to follow Christ to the full?  Even if  in the world you personally could live a life of self-denial, taking up the cross and martyrdom,  you still have to deal with family, spouse, children, boss, neighbors, employees.  Is it possible to live the Gospel and please all of these people as well?  Is it possible to live the Gospel and want “the best” for your spouse and children?   Orthodoxy has tended to resolve this by upholding monasticism as the only true way to follow Christ.  Figura however makes it clear he has no inclination toward monasticism.  He believes he can live as a Christian with a personal conscience in the world.  For Leskov it appears that he has a Romanticized idea of the individual who can live in the world and yet not be part of it.  It is a similar idea that we see in America’s Thomas Jefferson and his romantic ideal of the yeoman farmer – everyone can live an idyllic life given enough land and resources to live independently from all others.  It is the ideal upon which limited government is based.   Yet even Adam and Eve alone in the vast expanse of Paradise could not live this idyllic life and fell into the self-love of individualism.

In Leskov’s story, the general assumes Figura’s Christian idealism with his rejection of monasticism means Figura has become some kind of non-Orthodox religious nut.  However, in the story he is not unsympathetic to Figura as he himself is a religious maximalist and he wants to help him find a position in society. Figura declines his offers.  The General tells Figura he has no choice but to dismiss him from the military for his failures.  This is exactly what Figura has decided for himself and tells the general as much.  There is humorous exchange as the General denies Figura can leave the military by choice and insists that he is ordering Figura to leave and Figura must realize he has no choice but to obey.

At the end of the story, we see Figura wishing to bring his many ‘selfs’ into his one Christian self. “…what I valued most of all was my freedom, the possibility of living by one code and not by several, without arguing, without betraying myself, and without trying to prove anything to anybody if he had not already appeared to him from above.”  The realization that his conscience might bring him into disagreement with the Church is a problem in societies in which cultural Christianity predominates.  The state tames the church and makes sure the church produces good citizens who obey the dictates of the state.  Figura can no longer accept the cognitive dissonance of his mind  which is created by being a cultural Christian.  He wants to follow Christ and not just follow rules and regulations for appearance sake nor to accept a sophistry which claims the power to declare the good evil and the evil good.

It is this oneness of self which Orthodox spirituality would say is the goal of following Christ.  Instead of there being a church self, a family self, a neighborhood self, a racial self, an ethnic self, a work self, or a self with any other loyalties, there would be one self who was consistent in every situation – the self which is united to God and devoted to doing God’s will.   Only then can a harmonious symphony emerge within one’s self.  Christ says:  “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”   (Luke 16:13)     Leskov’s character realizes he cannot serve God and state because that is serving two masters which Christ said cannot be done.  Leskov presents the notion of the individual self who must choose to follow Christ even in a ‘Christian” nation and to accept the cross which this will lay upon him or her.

One Self, Many Selves (I)

Neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey writes on how the “self” emerges in the life of a baby.  Immediately after birth the baby’s brain is receiving stimulation from all of its senses even without an “I’ yet existing to process the information.   Somehow a self emerges which makes sense of the sensory perceptions which are constantly streaming in to the brain.  Humphrey asks, does the baby experience the different sensations at first as many distinct “selfs” each experiencing something but not yet as a whole or unified self?  Humphrey compared this experience to watching an orchestra before a concert as each musician tunes his or her instrument – there are only individual musicians tuning instruments and we watching them cannot make sense of them as a unit, nor do we hear yet the symphony.  The conductor must take the stage to form the unified symphony.

A unified “self” does emerge eventually taking in all information the various senses send to the brain and sorting it out realizing “I” exist.  “I” am distinct from all the sensory perceptions.  “I” not only make sense of them, but can act toward them and upon them for “I” am not a mere object being acted upon, but a subject capable of choice and actions myself.   Time passes, we mature and move into the world  where we come to experience our ‘self’ as many ‘selfs’ again.  I am young, a boy, white, I speak only one language.  I am different from others.   I experience the world through gender, race, nationality, language or member of a clan, family, nation, ethnic group.  Each of these ‘selfs’ make up my one self, and at times one of the ‘selfs’ emerges to the forefront as I relate to others or they relate to me.  This may be the self I consider myself to be or that others think is me.   However, no matter who I think I am, I realize others do not necessarily perceive me as I think of myself.  I may see myself as human, they as black or poor or dangerous or friendly or intelligent or fat.  I become part of other groups and there is my self as military, teammate, loyal fan, Southerner, educated, Democrat, Christian.  I can choose to fit in, blend in to community rather than stick out.  Or, I can become a leader, advocate for one of my many ‘selfs’.

Life becomes a balancing act of these various ‘selfs’ as we realize the selfs we identify with shape our worldview and shape the world’s view of us.  We have to make choices in contexts in which peer pressure is real.  I allow what others think of me to shape my ‘self’.  It is possible for my ‘self’ to be amorphous at times as I cope with uncertainty, ambiguity, ambivalence, opportunity or danger.

For Christians, there is the hope that one self emerges as we grow spiritually and grow in Christ – that believing self which is consistent with the teachings of Christ.  This we understand is part of the healing that comes in Christ.   The many ‘selfs’ are a result of the splintered, broken and fallen world.  A whole self is wholesome.   But, oh, how difficult it is to be consistent in every single circumstance one finds one’s self in.

These are some of the themes that Russian writer Nikolai Leskov  (d. 1895) explores in his short story, “Figura.”  It is a story that has stood out in my mind for decades since I first read it.   It isn’t the best short story I’ve ever read, nor does it resolve all of these issues.  For me, it just helped make clear as a Christian the cutting edge of one’s ‘self’ as well as how individual conscience relates to society, even a society in which conscience is essential such as the church.

The story takes place in 19th Century Russia, Figura is an army officer from nobility in Orthodox Russia.  The story introduces ideas of regionalism (Russian vs Ukrainian, the Cossacks), class and social status (human divisions especially in the context of 19th Century Russia), which play into the many ‘selves’ of Figura.  The story ends up focusing on his Christian identity, which is part of what Leskov wrestles with: individual conscience when one is a member of an institutional church and cultural Christianity.  Figura is an officer over 42 soldiers and 6 cavalry men (who are Cossack’s, another social distinction).  On Pascha night he is feeling his humanity and decides to try to do something nice for his men as he realizes how hard their lives are.  He is struck by what it is to be human and the struggles this brings for each of us.  He spends all the cash he has on hand to buy them tea and sweet treats so they can celebrate the Feast even though they are on guard duty.  He has decided as soon as the “Christ is risen!” is proclaimed after Pascha midnight, he will treat his men.  Unfortunately, the very thing that makes Figura feel compassion for his men – their humanity – will become the thing that confronts his compassion and his ‘self.’  His 6 Cossack soldiers get drunk and just about midnight, in the dark, one of the drunken Cossacks assaults Figura, striking him on the face and tearing the epaulette off his uniform.  The Cossack then passes out.

Figura who had started the night off feeling his shared humanity with his soldiers and wanting to do something special for them because he realized their lot in life was hard, is assaulted by one of them, someone of lower rank than himself and also not from nobility.  For the second time in the story he is struck by the soldiers’ humanity – this time though in a literal and painful way as he is assaulted by the rawness of fallen humanity.  His emotions roil and boil, but then his Christian self comes into the forefront and he has to decide what to do.  The soldiers have witnessed the event and his uniform is torn, so he can’t hide what has happened.  The soldiers know there is dire consequences for a peasant to assault an officer and nobleman.  They are prepared to deliver their fellow soldier over to justice which might include corporate punishment which could result in the offending soldier’s death.

Figura however is overwhelmed by his Christian sense of what to do if someone strikes you on the cheek. He hears Christ saying to turn the other cheek. He knows as nobility he must defend his honor.  He knows as an officer he has to maintain discipline and order in the troops.  He knows he is part of a military hierarchy and so has no choice about what to do.  He is a man, a male, who must defend his personal honor in a society which would admire his willingness to use violence to defend himself.   He feels the pressure that he has to set an example for all the other soldiers standing around him as well as for his fellow officers.  He feels the weight of the expectation that he must defend the prestige of all those of his rank and class.  The issue is not only a personal assault and insult, for he must defend the order of society itself.  All the soldiers around him recognize what Figura ‘must’ do.

Yet, he forgives the soldier recognizing it was his drunkenness not malice that led him to this point.  He is moved by the soldiers tearful begging for mercy and tells all the soldiers to just forget what happened.  He has no heart to see his soldier punished to death for a stupid act.  As Figura says, “I couldn’t remember Jesus and at the same time go against him in the way I treated people.”   Figura’s ‘selfs’ have come in conflict and he has to deal with the cognitive dissonance.

Figura remembers an Orthodox prayer from the First Hour which he begins to recite, “O Christ, You are the True Light, instruct and enlighten every man that comes into the world…”  As the translator notes the Russian word for world and peace is the same and Figura’s mind hears both meanings – “I interpreted this to mean that He would enlighten every one who came from enmity to peace.  And I called out in a still louder voice: ‘May the light of Your countenance shine upon us sinners.’”  Liturgical prayers that he recited all his life suddenly took on meaning in a non-church context, and Figura suddenly desires to live and embody the things he prays.  All his soldiers are moved by his faith and prayers.  They all understand the demands on Figura of social and peer pressure but are moved by his desire to practice his faith.

One self has emerged in Figura as his true self.  This however is not the end of the story.  While Figura comes to peace with God and his neighbor, with the world and himself, he will now be put to the test as his fellow officers and commanders proceed to judge his case.  What he has come to peace with, society still has a say in.  He will again have to weigh his decision.

Next: One Self, Many Selves (II)


Whose Freedom of Conscience?

madisonwHaving recently finished reading James Madison’s WRITINGS with the high value he puts on the conscience of the individual as versus the demands of the majority, I found Stanley Fish’s opinion piece Conscience vs. Conscience   from the 12 April 2009 NEW YORK TIMES to be both an interesting topic and important discussion.

Fish wrote about the so-called “conscience clause,” the Provider Refusal Rule, which “allows health care providers to refuse to participate in procedures they find objectionable for moral or religious reasons.”  I had previously written about this in my blog Freedom of Conscience and Health Care Workers and voiced support for allowing health care workers the opportunity to exercise their own consciences and refuse to do some procedures for moral or religious reasons.

Fish raises another level of concern which is worth considering: the freedom of the individual’s conscience as versus the right of a democratic society to decide that some procedures are health rights for all.

Citing the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Fish writes:

Hobbes’s larger point — the point he is always making — is that if one gets to prefer one’s own internal judgments to the judgments of authorized external bodies (legislatures, courts, professional associations), the result will be the undermining of public order and the substitution of personal whim for general decorums: “. . . because the Law is the public Conscience . . . in such diversity as there is of private Consciences, which are but private opinions, the Commonwealth must needs be distracted, and no man dare to obey the Sovereign Power farther than it shall seem good in his own eyes.”

billrightsFish argues that the values of the Enlightenment which have served religious diverse cultures well is that individuals may believe what they want but when operating in the public domain the rule of law trumps personal beliefs.  He says this is a cornerstone of multicultural democracies.  It is also the complete compartmentalization of religion which is a hallmark of secularism. 

Referring to a U.S. court case from 1878 which has been upheld more recently by the courts, Fish writes that the courts have not viewed favorably actions taken by individuals which follow one’s religion but which are opposed to “generally applicable laws” because “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

In other words the court has defended the right of society to promulgate laws the promote the social order at the expense of individual beliefs.   The court thus defends “society” as a legitimate legal entity which also has “rights.”  Thus the courts do not accept the rights of the individual to be unlimited and inviolably sacrosanct.   There are legal and social limits to what any one individual can do even in the name of their conscience or religion.

The issue in regard to health care workers being allowed to exercise their own consciences and to refuse to participate in medical procedures which are legal could open a Pandora’s Box as these workers declare their conscientious objection to blood transfusions, organ donations, vasectomies, vaccinations, reproductive technologies, biracial or “illegitimate” babies, STD patients, AIDs patients or any other number of medical issues which have moral implications to some.

Will patients walk into health care facilities not knowing whether they will be given legal and available treatments because one or more workers have moral or conscientious objections to doing the medical procedures?  How will health facilities or the police for that matter monitor or enforce such rules? 

Though the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm is not always given nor always required, do health care professionals have any obligation to perform legal medical procedures which a patient requests or needs?  Whose conscience rules when there is a clash of consciences and cultures?  These are indeed the difficult questions an individualistic and diverse society has to wrestle with.

soldier_kevinAmerica has a conscientious objector right when it comes to military service which allows citizens to refuse to engage in actions that are morally reprehensible to them (see also my blog Soldiers of Conscience).  This has also been part of Christian tradition, but I do not think the Quran allows for conscientious objection to war.   So we do have precedence for allowing some to opt out of certain professions or “procedures” based on their own consciences.  How this can work in the complicated world of health care is perhaps not as clear.

The Private Support of Public Religion

madisonw2Having finally finished the 900+ pages of James Madison‘s WRITINGS  I can say that no matter what the debate today says about “the separation of church and state,” Madison believed it to be a separation ordained by God.  His bottom line regarding church and state is “that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

His reasoning certainly is based in certain 18th Century Enlightenment ideals, especially that of the freedom of conscience which he believes all mergers between state and religion will eventually be tempted to violate in forced service to the state-church.   He also advocated “the equality of all religious sects in the eye of the Constitution” (emphasis in the original).   He does not believe the state can treat all religions equally if it has any dalliance with some.   He considered the idea the there must be “some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. & Religion” an unfortunate error in thinking that is hard to shake but which cannot be supported by experience.  Speaking of his own state of Virginia, Madison extols the end result of a constitution which separates church and state:

madison“…Religion prevails with more zeal, and a more exemplary priesthood than it ever did when established and patronised by Public authority.  We are teaching the world the great truth that Govts. Do better without Kings and Nobles than with them.  The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Govt.”

What would Madison have said about our current church and state debates?  Of course it is hard to know as many things are different today than in his day almost 200 years ago.   He opposed the appointment of any kind of chaplains paid from the national treasury.   Madison argues that for those in government who feel the need for prayer and spiritual guidance, it would be far “better proof to their Constituents of their pious feeling if the members contributed for the purpose, a pittance from their own pockets” rather than by taking money from the public purse.   Paying for religion from your own pocket is a far better witness to the public about how serious you are about your faith than is how much money you take from the general coffers to support your religious causes.  That seems to be Madison’s most basic sense of religion in the public sphere  – when believers pay to support their religions and their religions’ causes from their own pockets, that is the best witness to all how seriously they take their faith and how genuinely they believe in what they do.   He believed the greatest respect politicians can show God and religion is to not mix government and religion.  He felt leaders simply could not resist the temptation to use God and religion to support their own causes, rather than to use religion to improve their own personal morality.  He felt political leaders invoked God not to bring honor to the deity but to bolster their own personal agendas.

It is pretty hard imagining Madison to be in favor of prayer in the public schools (he would say training in prayer is something churches and parents should do).  He clearly did not think it proper for the executive branch to declare days of prayer, fasting or thanksgiving to God.    He did consider himself to be a Christian.  He maintained pretty clear lines of demarcation between the secular and the religious, between church and state, between the freedom of conscience and the rule of kings or the majority.   He would have been uncomfortable with how often American presidents invoke God, that God would be mentioned on U.S. currency or at every and any government related activity.   He was not an anarchist or a nihilist and probably would have been amazed at just how far ideas of the separation of church and state are taken in the modern world.  But he did believe that the two great accomplishments of the American Revolution were 1) government by the people and without kings, and 2) the separation of church and state which he felt ultimately benefitted both.   He was not opposed to leaders publicly expressing their faith, but when it came to government activities, he did believe these individuals alone should bear all the costs associated with religion.  He thought that to be the great witness to God and faith each public servant could make.

Madison: In Favor of the Separtion of Church & State

madisonwIt has been some little while since I wrote about my readings in the WRITINGS of American Founding Father and President, James Madison.    I began reading him because some historians think him to be the most influential founding father in defining the relationship between government and religion in America.  There are many who engage in an argument as to whether the founding fathers thought of the United States as a Christian nation or whether they advocated a total separation of church and state.  Madison embraced both ideas.  He did consider himself a Christian and considered Christianity to be the superior form of religion.  He also thought it best for Christians to live in a country where the state has declared itself neutral regarding any religion as then the membership is completely there by free choice and not be coercion.

Madison wrote in 1819 that in his opinion the evidence he could see based upon the American effort to create “the total separation of the Church from the State” was that more people were attending church than ever, the morality of the clergy had improved and devotion to God had increased.  Not only did Christianity not perish by not being supported by the government, but in Madison’s opinion it was much stronger for it.  The clergy were doing just fine, and the state had suffered no loss but benefitted as well from this separation. 

Madison turns a phrase now and again to emphasize his belief in the separation between religion and government and warns states against “giving to Caesar what belongs to God, or joining together what God has put asunder.”    Thus he took what Jesus said in Matthew 19:6 regarding the indissolubility of marriage and reversing the saying made the separation of Church and state to have been declared by God.   In another instance of turning a phrase and rejecting any sense of the divine right of Kings, Madison proclaims the “divine right of conscience.” 

Madison opposed putting the name of Jesus Christ into any constitutional document as that would profane His holy name by making it a legislative discussion.  Besides he points out, Jesus himself declared His kingdom is not of this world; therefore Madison wanted no one to confuse the two.

Madison was likewise against the appointment of Chaplains for the congress and senate as well as in the military.   His stated fear is always that the religious majority will impose their practices on the minority.  Madison notes that Roman Catholics, which in his time represented a tiny minority in America, should not be forced against the stated practices of the Roman Church to participate in the religious prayers and practices of the predominant religious groups in America.    Church members should be free to practice their conscience and creed and not have to do, say or pray what the majority religions are demanding of their members.   Religious truth is not established by the numbers of its adherents.  The individual’s right to follow his own conscience is more important than the will of the majority.  In the end he believed military chaplains always serve the temporal interests of the powers that be and of the chaplains themselves rather than the spiritual interest of the flock.  He felt that requiring soldiers to participate in religion was the best way to kill their interest in religion.

He also opposed religious proclamations (declaring thanksgiving or fasts) from the office of the president.  He notes George Washington did declare thanksgiving and fasts and generically referred to God.  John Adams actually embraced Christian prayer in his role as president, while both Thomas Jefferson and himself had refused to make religious declarations as president.  While today Americans are accustomed to hearing “one nation under God,”  Madison was opposed to “The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one Govt in acts of devotion to the God of all…” 

Madison remained convinced that one result of the Fall of humankind was that the merging of religion and government always led to abuses of power and the trampling on the conscience of individuals.  He felt that religion’s temptation was to rely on government for its support rather than on the membership to actively support and live the religion.  He felt the temptation for Government was to claim divine support for its temporal plans and thus again to crush the conscience of individuals.

The Freedom to Write Badly

insidestalinI don’t remember what I had read that brought my attention to Jonathan Brent’s  INSIDE THE STALIN ARCHIVES.  However once I began reading the book I was drawn into the story and the world it reveals – the world of Stalinist Russia and as its subtitle suggests the new Russia of today.  It is a world that I know little about and have not spent any time studying.   The book is an excellent read but I want to comment only on one idea I have extracted from the story.  It comes from the chapters dealing with the execution of Russian writer Isaac Babel.  Though he was a literary giant in early 20th Century Russia, to be honest I never heard of him.  That in itself becomes almost a poster for the point I want to make. 

Babel became a tiny cog in the Stalinist machine. That is what everyone was supposed to become because only the machine existed.  It existed for its own purposes and all were supposed to be tiny cogs in the machine with no awareness of anything beyond the machine.  The machine was what it could control and it did its best to stop all of its cogs from having any contact with that which it could not control.   And it controlled by not allowing any contact with or reference point to anything outside of the machine.

Babel said in a 1934 speech to the International Writers Congress in Moscow:

“… everything is given to us by the party and the government and only one thing is taken away: [the freedom] to write badly.               Comrades, we must not conceal that is a very important right and it is not a small thing to take it away [laughter].  It is a privilege of which we make considerable use.”

Everything is given to us by the party and the government.  This is the all encompassing machine which limits and defines everything.  The only freedom taken away is the freedom to write badly – to say what the machine will not allow to be said. 

“So, comrades, at this writers’ congress let us pledge to give up this privilege, and then God help us.  However, since there is no God, we must help ourselves [applause].”

There is no God.  The worst possible scenario for the Stalinist machine is some reference point outside of itself.  Some point by which things can be measured without reference to itself.    Good, bad, right wrong, all take on a particular meaning when all meaning is given and controlled by the state.  It is a world without gravity though it was plenty grave. 

Babel was tried for crimes against the state and executed.  He made his confession, but the confession was never offered to the public because as Brent writes,

“The public acknowledgement of guilt was clearly not at issue.  Internal acknowledgement was. … the government could legitimate itself in its own eyes….  The fact that the general public did not read the fake confessions or even know the charges brought against so many of Stalin’s victims was evidence that the machine was working perfectly.  Like a work of art, it served no purpose but itself.”

Like in George Orwell’s novel 1984, the state controlled knowledge and even controlled history by its constantly retelling it.  History, like God, cannot be allowed to exist beyond the machine as there must not be any external point by which to measure the Stalinist state.   History would not judge those who carried out the Stalinist terror, purges, arrests and executions, if the machine could control the lives and deaths of those making history and of those who write and rewrite it.

Most amazing of all is how many people in the machine were willing to cooperate and collude with it – many who themselves were then exterminated by the very machine which they were building and maintaining.   And as long as there was no reference point outside of the machine, as long as they could neither think about nor see anything beyond the limits of the machine, they did believe in the machine, or as they imagined it the revolution it supposedly represented.

Which begs the question, what is it that we in 21st Century America cannot see or control?   Do we understand the importance of the freedom of speech and of the press, even the freedom to speak and write badly?

The Temptation of the Law in the Spiritual Life

The fallen man asks God the same perennial questions:  Who art thou?  Who am I?  Why hast thou created me? …  Why hast thou endowed me with the gift of freedom, the burden of which I cannot bear and without which I cannot find happiness?”   (Nicholas Zernov)

Humankind when it thinks about God, its Creator, as also its Judge, struggles with the notion of free will.  If indeed we are free to make choices, real choices whose outcomes are not predestined, then we are responsible for what we do and will have to answer to God for what we have done.   The thought of such freedom, such consequences and such judgment has often tempted believers to be willing to surrender their freedom in exchange for the assurance and certainty of salvation.   This is one of the themes of Dostoyevsky‘s “The Grand Inquisitor.” Religion’s leaders have been willing to offer to the masses religious Law in place of spiritual freedom and many are willing to slavishly obey Law rather than risk making the wrong free choice.   They are willing to substitute law for love as long as certainty is promised.  They prefer to live as automatons instead of autonomous human beings.  They come to so totally fear God, instead of ever loving Him, that they do not want their consciences enlivened as they make free choices; rather,  they prefer to live without consciously making choices and by obedience that frees them from responsibility.  Mother Maria Skobtsova commenting on Luke 18:10-14, the parable of the  Publican and Pharisee, wrote:

 Why were the prophets stoned? Because mankind had learned to be afraid of freedom. Because mankind knew where this freedom had led it. It knew that with freedom of choice it might follow the prophets or it might sink into the final abyss. No, better not to risk, not to try, not to be tempted, not to be seduced. What is due is measured precisely. A tithe of mint goes to the temple. You don’t accomplish much on this path, but on the other hand you don’t risk anything. Immobility is a guarantee against new shocks, catastrophes, tragic shifts. It is also a guarantee against liberation, against melting down – all right, but it’s still better, solider, calmer this way. And so the prophets were stoned…Man betrays, but the law will not betray. Man’s soul is perverse, but the letter is fixed. And therefore the letter is higher than the soul, the Sabbath is higher than man…because you are righteous, because you have observed the law, every letter of it, because you are not like this publican. No doubt everyone feels this stiff-necked pharisaic truth, and can make no objection to it before the time comes…Yes, in the desert of the spirit, in a time of terrible spiritual drought, the Pharisee is justified; he alone is reasonable and thrifty, watchful and sober.

Freedom of Conscience and Health Care Workers

In a society such as our which highly values personal freedoms, individual choice, and following the dictates of one’s conscience, there are going to be many conflicts between the rights of individuals or the right of society over individuals.  Such a conflict is on-going in the health care industry where health care professionals may at times be expected or required to offer services which they find morally reprehensible or even evil.   A 31 July 2008 Washington Post article, Worker’s Religious Freedom Vs. Patient Rights, address this issue and the efforts of the Bush administration to grant some protection to the individual rights of care givers especially as related to reproductive issues.  According to the article:

“The Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing a draft regulation that would deny federal funding to any hospital, clinic, health plan or other entity that does not accommodate employees who want to opt out of participating in care that runs counter to their personal convictions, including providing birth-control pills, IUDs and the Plan B emergency contraceptive.”

We already in our society recognize conscientious objection when it comes to serving in military combat roles.  The thinking of this proposal actually seems to be simply allowing such thinking for health care workers.  Health care agencies would only be required to assure that individual workers have an ability to opt out of being involved in processes or procedures which violate their own conscience.

“Richard S. Myers, a law professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., said: ‘Religious freedom is an important part of the history of this country. People who have a religious or moral belief should not be forced to participate in an act they find abhorrent.'”

Abortion rights people have objected for years to being forced to advocate sexual abstinence or to have to counsel women against abortions.  The issue is the same – they don’t want anyone to tread on their consciences and they don’t want to have to advocate things they disagree with.  The proposal by Health and Human Services is trying to ensure that the conscience of the individual is respected by private agencies and by the government.

Freedom Comes from God

“The God Who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.”  (Thomas Jefferson)

Steven Waldman in his excellent history about America’s founding fathers and the the rise of religious freedom, FOUNDING FAITH: PROVIDENCE, POLITICS, AND THE BIRTH OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN AMERICA, correctly identifies the American revolution as a different kind of religious war.   For as he shows the colonies were at war with England over religious ideas, and to some extent it was the fervor of the dissenting, disenfranchised and disestablished evangelical religions in America which fueled the colonists’ willingness to fight.  They were embracing the emerging idea of freedom of religion and conscience. 

“This idea – that freedom comes from God– was the foundation for a new American conception of rights.  If rights resulted from a social compact- a practical way of allowing for mutual survival- then they certainly could be altered by the majority when it seemed practical or convenient.  If they came from God, however, they were immutable and inviolate, whether you were in the majority or not. This had particularly important implications for those wrestling with how to define and protect religious liberty.  Toleration assumed that the state was generously choosing to do the tolerating.  As Thomas Paine put it later, ‘Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance but the counterfeit of it.  Both are despotisms: the one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, the other of granting it.’  A God-given right is something quite different.”  (pp 92-93)

This certainly was part of the revolutionary thinking of the founding fathers of the United States.   They were no longer asking any government to grant legal permission for one religion or another to exist with the blessings of the state.  They were carrying out a revolution in thinking, a total paradigm shift – in which religions are free to exist and the practice of individual conscience is a guaranteed  human right granted to each human not by any government, state, or will of the people, but by God Himself.   Not only were such rights not properly in the competency of a state to grant, all states could do or ever did was to oppose the rights of individuals to live according to the dictates of their consciences.   The American revolutionary thinkers were demanding strict limits be put on national government, and that the state has to learn its limits not exercise some pseudo-power to limit the rights and consciences of individuals.

The notion of human rights, as something having a divine origin which supersedes any government authority is part of the American Revolution which we celebrate on Independence Day.   It also in terms of freedom of religion empowers the individual to choose and practice religion according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.   For established religion, this means having to work harder in an American freedom of religion setting.  For now people don’t have to belong to any religion, but are free to choose or reject any or all religious traditions.  And it is the individual, in accordance with the values of the Enlightenment, who ultimately gets to decide what religion (if any) they will practice, and in effect it is the individual alone who can determine which religion is true.   The founding fathers expressed some confidence that the right of individual to choose his religion in fact would make religion stronger in America than in those countries where the state prevented freedom of conscience.    On the basis of their idea, all members of a religion would consciously choose to be a participating member and the energy for the religion would come from the heart and soul of each believer – truly religions based on faith, not membership based on coercion.   It is not hard to imagine why some fundamentalist Islamists would really hate these ideas enshrined in the American Constitution as the Islamists demand submission to Islam, not freedom of conscience for all.

Some religions, including my own Orthodox Church have at times struggled with all of this freedom and with the empowered individualism which it generates.  Positively it has allowed countless individuals to embrace Orthodoxy and to convert to the Orthodox Faith as they exercise their own freedom of conscience and religion.  But Orthodoxy has not been so comfortable with the sense that people are equally free to leave the Faith as they exercise their right of conscience.  There is still a tendency to see members as possessions to be kept – our children, our teens, our college students.  And Orthodoxy has not yet fully embraced the notion that in America we are in a marketplace of ideas and religions, and we have to compete for the attention and faithfulness of our members.    Certainly many Protestant groups have had a couple of hundred years of experience in refining arguments in clashes with other denominations and in living in places where there was no government support for their church.   The Orthodox are just recently on this scene of religious freedom, state indifference to religion, and the separation of church and state.  The Orthodox do not like to see what they have to offer as a “product” which people might choose among many religious products.  Yet when one reads about St. Paul in Athens, we realize that what we have here today is much more like what existed in the early days of Christianity.  We are but one religious tradition among many, no matter how much we believe we represent true Christianity.  And we encounter in America the same attitude St. Paul found in Berea:

“Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 1711).

Orthodox priests and bishops need to learn the lesson of St. Paul – people are going to search the scriptures to see if what we say is true.  They will do this because they are already familiar with the Scriptures as were the Bereans of Paul’s day.  Not only will they search the scriptures, they are going to examine our lives to see if we live according to our teachings, and they are going to demand a total transparency in the leadership of our church and in our financial records in order for them to trust our witness.

See also my blogs James Madison and the Free Exercise of Religion and Freedom of Religion or a Religionless Campaign