What is God's gift of freedom?
December 21, 2003
As I listened to a speech by President Bush recently, I noticed he repeated his belief that freedom is God's gift to every individual. On the surface, he was talking about political freedom, such as the freedom he hopes the Iraqi people will be able to sustain through a democratic government. He was also talking about religious freedom, again in the present context of Iraq's diverse population. More broadly, however, he was talking about America's role in the future of the world. I believe President Bush knows that America's role is to spread political, religious and economic freedom throughout the world. As America takes on this Herculean task, it is important that we have a fundamental understanding of freedom as a gift from God.
Some people will discount President Bush's belief in freedom as being a result of his particular brand of Christianity. Others will see it as political window-dressing. I see it as evidence of a fundamental understanding of God, not a function of a particular religion. President Bush is a man of good character and a powerful leader because of his spirituality. On the other hand, religions are social and cultural inventions of man. As such, like any other societal institution, religions are vulnerable to the failings of human character. They often divide and manipulate people. They often place artificial barriers between people and God.
Although invented by men, the basis of a religion is some form of divine inspiration. Jesus of Nazareth and Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, are two examples of spiritual individuals whose teachings became the foundations of religions. In fact, a review of the basic beliefs of the major religions shows their founding prophet's teachings share the same moral and ethical codes. Through their powerful spirituality, they acquired knowledge of God's will. This knowledge is different from the specific beliefs of any one religion. The beliefs and practices of the various religions tend to evolve along the social and cultural lines that divide people. Conversely, spiritual knowledge unites people and must preempt any religion.
The freedom that is a gift from God is part of the Creator's design of our Universe. The boundaries of the Design, the laws of nature, determine human freedom. We are not free to violate the laws of nature. Our role in the Design is to use our freedom within it to gain understanding of the laws of nature and harness them in the pursuit of progress. We do not know the goal of God's design. We do know we have the gift of freedom to seek that goal according to the will of God.
The distinction between God's laws and human laws is critical. God's laws are immutable. Human laws are temporary, lasting only as long as the institutions making and enforcing them. The challenge for humanity is to overcome our failings of character. God challenges us to use the gift of freedom to learn, change and progress towards perfection. Human institutions, our religions, governments and economies, and the laws they create, should serve to support our progress. Human history is the record of those institutions' success and failure. Successful institutions respect and sustain God's gift of freedom. Those that suppress human freedom fail.
The struggle in our world is between people and institutions that support God's gift of freedom and those that acquire temporary power and privilege by denying God's gift to the people they rule. After gaining power, kings, dictators, clerics, priests and elites maintain their power by blocking healthy change. They slow or stop human progress to protect their positions and privileges. Some of these people, Saddam Hussein for example, destroy their societies without any pretense of higher purpose. Islamist regimes use their religion as a weapon of hatred and oppression while claiming higher moral purpose. Communist regimes like the old Soviet Union and present day Red China, attempt to eliminate their peoples' knowledge of and connection to God so that the state holds all power in the society. Socialist countries, like France, in the name of religious freedom, separate church and state in such an extreme manner that morality and ethics do not limit the power of the state. American society is trending towards the French situation.
Scientific progress since the year 1600 produced increasingly rapid and comprehensive change in our world. In other words, our knowledge of God's physical design of the Universe is far ahead of our spiritual understanding of God's purpose. During a period of transformational scientific and economic progress, the world's religions have not kept pace. The major religions are not proactive in examining the cores of their belief systems in order to create a similar degree of spiritual progress. Western societies resolve the conflict by leaving spirituality behind, resulting in governments and economies that are subject to a constant stream of moral and ethical problems. In the midst of freedom and prosperity, there is an emptiness of spirit. In contrast, most of the Muslim world resolves the conflict by blocking progress in all aspects of life. There is no freedom or prosperity in the Muslim world. Resentment and hatred replace the Western emptiness of spirit.
Many rituals and power structures of religious institutions block spiritual progress. Religious leaders focus on maintaining their positions of power and privilege rather than explore greater understanding of God's design for our world. They separate people into competing and often hostile groups. They place themselves between individuals and God. They deny God's gift of individual freedom.
The history of Western religion illustrates the point. Christianity grew from the work of an innovative Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. He faced resistance and persecution because he threatened existing religious and governmental power structures. Later, the Christian church split into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches because of internal struggles for power and the decline of the Roman Empire. The Protestant movement of the middle ages in Europe was a result of some people's desire for spiritual progress, and freedom from the heavy hand of the Catholic Church. Religious persecution in Europe caused much of the migration to North America.
People possess great power because of the scientific and material progress of the past five centuries. Without corresponding spiritual progress in those centuries, however, much of that power is a threat to humanity and our role in God's design. To create spiritual progress, we must separate God and spirituality from religion and power. We must go beyond the idea of religious freedom to recognize the necessity of spiritual freedom. Religions, being inventions of man, have a purpose in God's design only to the extent that they serve to unite people in the pursuit of our purpose in the Design. When religions divide people and claim special access to God, they lose all legitimacy.
The challenge we face is to claim our spiritual freedom as part of our gift from God and use that freedom to accelerate spiritual progress. In that progress, we will find our unity of purpose in God's design of our world.
Curtis Harris--a Howard County, Maryland, resident--is an ex-business executive, private investor, and author of Ending Entrenched Power, published by iUniverse.
© Copyright 2003 by Curtis Harris
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