The Dance of Freedom and Responsibility

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 19th 2012.)

If you’ve ever been a subscriber to an e-mail discussion group (or, going back a few years, a listserv or — even further back! — an on-line bulletin board), chances are you’ve either witnessed or even been a participant in a disagreement that became an argument that escalated into what’s known as a “flame war”.  We wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that this phenomenon characterized by ad hominem attacks and all-out sarcasm is a unique result of the development of electronic forms of communication such as e-mail and the Web, particularly since they allow for the rapid exchange of increasingly heated sentiments fueled — in large part — by the cloak of anonymity.  We’d be wrong, though.

For example, the available technology of sixteenth century Europe, including Gutenberg’s movable type for the printing press, was apparently sufficient to allow individuals with not-so-humble opinions to hurl strong words and insults at one another, albeit with a turnaround time of weeks rather than minutes.  And in Reformation Europe, two such individuals were Michael Servetus and John Calvin.

Calvin was running the city of Geneva on the basis of his ideas for reforming church and state.  Servetus was practicing medicine in public and writing books in secret, specifically books decrying how Christianity was corrupt.  Now Calvin, like Martin Luther before him, also believed that Christianity had been corrupted, the blame for which lay squarely with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.  Servetus agreed, but went further by insisting that the real source of the corruption was the doctrine of the Trinity.

Gutenberg’s movable type, you see, had put the Bible into the hands of anyone who wanted to read it for themselves, and Servetus, like countless others since that time, had done so and had found that the Trinity — the fourth-century doctrine that God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit exist as three persons but only one being — well, that claim is not actually in the Bible.  And denying the Trinity made Servetus a heretic.

As his books made the rounds, in part because he couldn’t help but send them to religious and civic leaders across Europe, Servetus was condemned not only by the Catholics but also by the newly minted Protestants, too.  Taking a pseudonym to avoid persecution, he continued to write books as well as letters to those who he thought might have some sympathy for him.  Servetus believed he knew the truth and he felt it his duty to share it with others, convinced that if they were but willing to listen to him then they would be free of the falsehoods to which they had chained themselves.  When others, from his perspective, would not listen to him, he fell back on verbal abuse, whether in his letters to Calvin or during his trial in Geneva.  Yes, he was caught and tried for heresy, something that was probably only a matter of time.

Servetus was first arrested, in fact, by the Roman Catholic authorities but he managed to escape.  In his absence the Inquisition convicted him of heresy and sentenced him to be burned with his books.  Fleeing across Europe he inexplicably stopped in Geneva, where was recognized and arrested following a Sunday service where none other than Calvin himself was the preacher!  Just as the Catholics had the first time, the Calvinists convicted Servetus, but this time they made sure he couldn’t escape again.  And so he was burned at the stake, in person rather than in effigy.  His books were burned with him, his most recent work chained to his thigh.

That was the end, and a thoroughly grisly end at that, for Michael Servetus.  It was not, in spite of the intentions of the Catholics and the Calvinists, the end of his ideas or even of his books, a very few copies of which survive even today.  Scholars view our modern ideas of the rights of freedom of religion and conscience, in fact, as his legacies.  We Unitarian Universalists celebrate him as a martyr, recognizing his influence on the Unitarian movements in Poland and Transylvania, and putting him on T-shirts such as this one that was sold at General Assembly in a few years ago.  “Michael Servetus, 1511–1553: Unitarian Universalists Celebrating 450 Years of Heresy”!

“A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is arguably the most Unitarian of our seven Unitarian Universalist principles, and it finds its place thanks, in part, to Servetus.  We call ourselves a liberal religion because we stand for that which liberates the heart, the mind and the soul.  Unitarian Universalist minister Tom Owen-Towle prefers the term ‘freethinking’ as “a fresher and less corrupted reference than ‘liberal’”, but it comes to much the same thing.  We may even refer to ourselves as heretics, recognizing that the word ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘choice’ and noting that we choose to employ tolerance, reason and freedom as tools to transform ourselves and our world.  As freethinkers, the liberally religious, we belong, Owen-Towle notes, “to the heritage of incorrigible choice-makers, an admirable lineage of heretics from Michael Servetus to Susan B. Anthony”.

So hooray for freedom!  Where, though, does responsibility come in?

First, remember that, as I mentioned last month, the word “freedom” comes from an ancient root word that actually means “love”.  That means that freedom isn’t so much about our status relative to the ideal of an autonomous individual, but rather about what we do and the choices we make in relationship to one another.  Freedom is not, in fact, a static, isolated state of being, but a dynamic, connected process of becoming.

Second, remember that the foundation of our Unitarian Universalist faith is not creed, that is, what we believe, but covenant, that is, how we promise to behave.  As you’ve heard me say before, a creed can exist in the head of just one person, even if that person were all alone in the entire cosmos, but a covenant by definition exists around and within the relationships between two or more people.

So if freedom is about becoming and if our faith is about relationship, then our free faith challenges us to understand our becoming in the context of our relationships.  I’ll say that again: our free faith challenges us to understand our becoming in the context of our relationships.  In other words, we are challenged to make sense of freedom when we do not, in fact, actually have the autonomy to do whatever we want without regard to the consequences for others or ourselves; we should instead expect to be answerable for our — otherwise free — decisions and actions.  Let me try to make this a little more concrete…

You may have heard of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, a modern parable by ecologist Garret Hardin.  Consider, Hardin wrote about forty years ago, a medieval village in which each family has the use of some common land for letting their cows graze.  For each individual family, adding another cow to their own herd on the village commons gives that family all the benefit of the additional cow, while spreading any possible drawbacks amongst all of the families in the village.  If each family in the village is free to add more cow to their herds, then it’s quite rational for them to do that, and to keep doing it, until there are so many cows that the commons becomes so damaged that it’s of no use to anybody.  The Tragedy of the Commons takes place because the villagers fail to recognize their interdependence and refuse to accept responsibility for the collective consequences of their individual actions.

Some economists, of course, have argued that the Tragedy of the Commons simply isn’t realistic, that “market forces” — Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and so forth — would always come into play to magically prevent such runaway self-centeredness, but this is no idle thought experiment: it literally happened with overgrazing on Boston Common in the 1630s, and it’s not hard to see global climate change as an on-going tragedy with the Earth’s atmosphere as the commons and all of us as the villagers.

Unfortunately responsibility is a much less exciting idea than freedom.  Even the word, ‘freedom’, tends to conjure exciting images in our minds: the open plains, with pioneers and settlers traveling westward to make new lives for themselves; or the open road, driving a fast car toward the horizon, no cares in the world as the wind blows through your hair.  Romanticized and more inspired by Hollywood movies and television advertising than based in real-world experience, yes, but evocative and inspiring nonetheless.  Responsibility, on the other hand, is about duty, obligation, something that binds us to behaving in certain ways when, all things considered, we’d rather cut out when nobody’s looking and go for a drive on the open road in that zippy convertible.  We adults like to tell our children that responsibility is a necessary part of growing up, but sometimes I wonder who it is we’re really trying to convince…

Of course, the process of individuation is a necessary part of growing up.  Healthy human beings must learn to think of themselves as individuals, separate from their parents and other people and with a sense of their own identity and will.  There’s a lot of power in recognizing oneself as an individual with free will, able to make the decisions that determine one’s own destiny.  Individuality is a necessary and healthy part of being human, but what about individualism, the place where, more than any other, our ideas about freedom are enshrined?

Individualism, it could be argued, encapsulated the founding ideals of the United States.  The “fundamental American ideology of individualism”, as defined by linguist Ronald Scollon, is that “the individual is the basis of all reality and all society” and that individual freedom must, above all else, be protected from external interference.  Well, it’s easy to get into a sort of chicken-and-egg situation when arguing about the relationship between individuals and society — and theologians and philosophers and, more recently, politicians have spent a lot of time arguing about it — but it doesn’t take much thought to realize that even if we were to aspire to be completely free individuals, we were (and, in fact, continue to be) formed — as individuals — in the overlapping contexts of family, community, culture and the very society that supposedly depends on us rather than the other way around.

And don’t we find the most value and worth in ourselves as individuals precisely when we are connected to other individuals in those relational contexts?  How easily we forget or overlook or ignore that, though!  As Unitarian Universalist minister Kenneth Collier puts it, we “sometimes spend so much time and energy worrying about and praising the autonomy of the individual that we forget that individuals standing alone have about as much strength as a bunch of stones lying around on the ground.”  And in his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn offers this much stronger critique of American individualism: “It’s an irony that these rugged individuals so loved individualism that they ganged up together to enslave black people, steal land from Mexico, and carry out an ethnic cleansing of the continent.  At other times they ganged up to abuse and mistreat, among others within their borders, Chinese people and Japanese people and Jews and Catholics, before ganging up to abuse peoples of Central and South America and so on around the world.  A nation of individuals saying, ‘[Hey,] I’m an individual.  Don’t blame me for the collective crimes of [my] country.’”

I think we need to find a new way to talk about our individuality that, on the one hand, avoids the excesses of individualism and, on the other hand, helps us to see responsibility as not only important but even inspiring.  (Getting responsibility to be exciting may be too much to ask, but I live in hope!)  There’s a word that I learned about a decade ago now that describes some of what I’m trying to get at here, and you heard it in my reading this morning: “autokoenony”.  It was coined by Sarah Hoagland, who in her book Lesbian Ethics writes: “I mean to invoke a self who is both separate and related, a self which is neither autonomous nor dissolved: a self in community who is one among many, what I call autokoenony.”

Now think of this in terms of our Fourth Principle, that “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.

Well, there’s the “free” piece of our religious journey.  If we articulate it at all, we tend to place religious authority — the right to determine what we believe and how we should behave — in individual experience.  That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t end there.  What sort of experience do we mean, for instance?  Are all experiences to be equally valued?  Are all “truths” from every source to be respected on the basis that they belong to someone else’s and that we have no right to judge them?  What is it that prevents us from sliding into utter relativism?  Yes, we affirm, in the words of our First Principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of all people”, but look more closely and there’s something implicit there.  Who is it who is recognizing and respecting the inherent worth and dignity of a given individual?  That particular person her- or himself?  No, it’s someone else, which means we’re talking about relationship.  We’re talking about the relational individual, the individual who belongs to something larger, the self in community, or autokoenony.

And this gets us to the “responsible” piece of our quest for truth and meaning.  When it comes to figuring out what to believe and how to behave, another common source of authority is community tradition.  Our individualistic tendencies make us more aware of the problems of placing authority in tradition, of course, to the extent that Unitarian Universalists have a practically instinctive distrust of hierarchy, which is why our Fifth Principle speaks of “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”.  The individual, after all, needs some distance from the community in order to reflect on it, but the community also serves as the touchstone that prevents us from sliding into utter relativism.  We need both, individual and community, experience and tradition, distance and belonging, freedom and responsibility.

Our own religious authority, then, emerges through autokoenony, the individual being in community, the individual becoming in community.  This is, in fact, our process of becoming human.  We may not always get it right, but we’re not aiming to succeed by being infallible; rather, we’re aiming to succeed by being faithful, and the word we use to describe this process is “covenant”.  We covenant with one another inside our faith community to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and we covenant with those outside our faith community to be “a church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand”.  Unitarian Universalist theology arises from individuals relating to one another within our congregations themselves and the ways in which we as individuals and congregations work for justice in the wider community.  In contrast to Howard Zinn’s rather negative outlook of individualism, then, consider anthropologist Margaret Mead’s words concerning individual effectiveness when combined with the power of community: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Responsibility calls to us, because without responsibility we’re not really free.  Universalist minister and social activist Clarence Skinner made this point when he wrote that “the fight for freedom is never won.  Inherited liberty is not liberty but tradition.  Each generation must win for itself the right to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented and peculiar.  Therefore those who have been reared in freedom, bear a tremendous responsibility to the world to win an ever larger and more important liberty.

In the dance of the good life to which we all aspire, freedom and responsibility are inseparable partners.  Sometimes, it’s true, one leads and the other follows.  Sometimes it’s good to hit the open road in a fast car, but it’s usually even better to do it with a good friend or a loved one in the passenger seat.

So I encourage you, in the days ahead, to look at your own lives and see how freedom and responsibility are dancing through them.  Look for the ways in which you are free to assert your individuality and the ways in which you help others to find their own freedom.  You might be surprised at how often they overlap.  And then look at how your relationships help you find your own value and worth.  Consider how you can answer the call “to win an ever larger and more important liberty” for yourself, for your communities and for our world.  And take a look at what you have to offer our liberal religion, our free faith, that, in turn, supports your own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as well as that of our fellow pilgrims on this journey of becoming human.

So may it be.

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2 Comments »

  1. […] flame illuminates the chalice, shining its light, sharing its wisdom and warming with its love.  Last Sunday I introduced the word “autokoenony” from the Greek meaning “the self engaged in a group whose […]

  2. […] to use Cindy’s new word for this syndrome, was a result of Unitarian Universalism forgetting that we are a faith based on covenant, or the promises we make one another about how we’ll behave when ….  We always knew — and were proud of the fact — that we weren’t a faith based on creed, or […]

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