Thursday, April 15, 2010

Theology of Fallibility Part II

Freedom of Conscience

A central Christian teaching, going back to Jesus himself, is without doubt of utmost importance to all Christians and especially to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Christians. That teaching is freedom of conscience. This teaching is based on Jesus' promise to his followers to send them the Holy Spirit who will dwell in their hearts and lead them into all truth. At the last supper Jesus promised: "I shall ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete (The Greek word means advocate) to be with you for ever, the Spirit of Truth whom the world can never accept since it never sees nor knows him, but you know him" (John 14: 16-17). Jesus declared further: "I have said these things to you while still with you, but the (Advocate) the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you" (John 14:26-26). The title Advocate which Jesus gives the Spirit means a lawyer, one who speaks with us and for us, one who will plead our cause.

Paul, in his Epistle to the Hebrews, sees Jesus' gift of the Spirit as the fulfillment of this prophecy of the prophet Jeremiah:

Look, the days are coming, Yahwey declared, when I shall make a new covenant with the House of Israel when those days have come.... Then I shall plant my Law, writing it in their heart. Then I shall be their God and they will be my people. There will be no further need for everyone to teach neighbor or brother, saying, "Learn to know Yahwey"! No, they will all know me, from the least to the greatest...since I shall forgive their guilt, and never more call their sin to mind (Jer. 31: 31-34).

Notice that Jeremiah forsees the new covenant where every human from the least to the greatest will have direct access to a God who dwells in their hearts. This access to God will not be a privilege of the few who are gifted with extraordinary intelligence, or ritual rank, or even holiness. The Holy Spirit is portrayed in scripture as a thoroughgoing respector of democratic process.. There is no hint here that one must go to authorities in order to inform one's conscience and learn what God wants of me. God directly and immediately informs our conscience.

In the Acts of the Apostles on Pentecost Sunday, Peter recalls these words of the prophet Joel: "I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity. Your sons and daughters will prohesy, your young people shall see visions, your old people dream dreams. Even on slaves, men and women, shall I pour out my Spirit" (Acts 2: 17-18; Joel 3: 1-2).

At the last supper, Jesus informed his disciples that it was necessary that he should go away in order for the Spirit to come: "Yet you are sad at heart because I have told you this. Still, I am telling you the truth; it is for your own good that I am going , because unless I go, the (Advocate) will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you....However, when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth' (John 16:6-13).

What was the necessary link between Jesus' death and the coming of the Holy Spirit? Why could the Spirit only come after Jesus' death? Because as long as Jesus remained alive and present, his disciples had their center of authority outside themselves and were not, therefore, totally responsible for their actions. They were striving to meet the expectations of someone else. They had not yet become fully creative and responsible adults.

But after Jesus' death his Spirit became what Paul saw as the source of the...glorious freedom of the Children of God: "The proof that you are sons and daughters is that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts: the Spirit that cries,"Abba, Father"; and it is this that makes you a son or daughter, you are not a slave anymore" (Gal.4;6-7). Paul clearly understood the good news of the evangelium, the gospel message, is exactly the message of our freedom: "Christ set us free, so we should remain free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be fastened again to the yoke of slavery" (Gal.5:1-2).

Paul had the same understanding of freedom as found in the Sanscrit root of the word; The word freedom in Sancrit had two independent meanings. First, it meant to be a free as against a slave member of the household. Second it means to be loved by the master. Anyone in the household that the master loved by that very fact became a free member of the household. Anyone who was not loved was a slave member of the household.

I find the insight that comes from this double meaning of the word freedom very profound. It is love; it is knowing that we are loved; it is by living in an atmospere of love that we humans are genuinely freed. The child that knows it is loved is free to play and to develop in a healthy way. We adults, if we are fully conscious of God's love for us, are psychically free to mature and to play life to its fullness in the presence of a loving God. As Iranaeus put it: "The glory of God are humans fully alive"! Love creates the space in which freedom flourishes.

Paul saw the pagans as not free but slaves in relation to their gods because they related to those gods in a spirit of fear. But Christians should be free because their God is a God of love, who has adopted us into his family:

            All who are guided by the Spirit of God are sons or daughters of God; for what you received is not a spirit of slavery to bring you back into fear; you received the spirit of adoption, enabling us to to cry out "Abba, Father". The Spirit himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God. And as we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God..."(Rom. 8:14-17)!

Paul continually repeats the theme that God''s Spirit dwells within us and, if we ask, will empower us. "..the Spirit too comes within us in our weakness; for, when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put in words..."(Rom. 8:26).

There is a yearning and longing deep in our psyche which is not just that of our ego, but that of the Spirit of God dwelling in the depths of our Spirit. Maurice Blondel gave a philosophical expression to this same theme in his philosophy of action: "Our God dwells within us, and the only way to become one with that God is to become one with our authentic self!".

In Part III of Theology of Fallibility I will explore how a future Council should reform the Church so it can become an institution that honors the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in every member.


  1. "Because as long as Jesus remained alive and present, his disciples had their center of authority outside themselves and were not, therefore, totally responsible for their action."

    This is a powerful psychological truth. But a problem can arise when someone narcissistic believes they are indeed "an authority" - in a misguided view that they are acting on the basis of inspiration from the Holy Spirit. Unless someone has ongoing reality-testing, anyone can go off the rails, believing they are acting in accord with their "authentic self".

    As for freedom, freedom is not a virtue like justice or peace, something that you could work at and grow in. It's like space some want - just for themselves. But the more "space" one "takes" the less for others. Freedom is something to share. Sharing it is the virtue here. Sharing - out of love, as you say.

  2. John, thank you for two beautiful meditations on fallibility. They're far more inspiring than most homilies I think I'd have heard if I had been in church today.

    I'm especially taken by the insight that a recognition of fallibility is a precondition for personal growth. The illusion of infallibility has to be an almost impossible burden to bear, since it does not permit us to learn from our mistakes, and forces us to pretend to be right even when it is obvious we are utterly wrong.