Friday, February 5, 2021

"Obedience" is a Scary Word

In my previous reflection about the Mystery who creates me, calls out to me, and brings me to fulfillment, I said: "What should I do? Obey Him."

Yes, obey ... That's a scary word, and it makes us feel like backing away or hiding. We want to do our own will. We want to be self-sufficient. We think that "freedom" means the unrestricted ability to do whatever we want, no matter what it is. We want to be the independent source of our own value. We also fear being "constrained" by the will of others; we fear that they will force their will upon us and use us to satisfy their own agenda. How can we "trust" anyone?

This, of course, has been a problem "from the beginning," as we well know.

But it's hard just to be alone with our "unrestrained freedom," and eventually we realize that we don't really know what we want to "do" with it. We want to "act," to choose in a way that makes us flourish and grow (somehow). Realistically, we need to "be involved" with other people and the reality of life if we want to use our freedom. We want to find a way that at least appears to get us closer to whatever-it-is that we want, and that seems to give us some security that we will be able to act (or be "part of the action") to obtain - and to keep - the "thing," the state-of-being, and/or the societal organization that will help establish and convince us of our own value. The world abounds with proposals for these kinds of "ways" and this kind of action, all of which require us to commit our freedom to some plan, some system, some method, some person who claims to know what is right (but who is really, ultimately, no different from us). Usually these proposals end up disappointing us, and we may become discouraged or even trapped in bad or dangerous living situations. 

Too often, these proposals for how live freely are very attractive on the surface, but they are not what they appear to be. They promise to enlarge our freedom, but they end up diminishing it and obfuscating our identity. We are tricked into a false enthusiasm that puffs us up for awhile, but ultimately collapses and buries us. Then, we find ourselves suffocating under this weight, but we are told to conform to the party line, to obey orders, and give over our humanity and our very lives to those who wield power...or else!

In today's world, we fear this word, "obedience," not only because we are stubborn and self-willed, but also because it is often misused to serve the claims of power. I refer here specifically to the pride and ideological and imagination-manipulative schemes of humans who impose their power on others, who are without a proper mandate to exercise authority (or who are exceeding that mandate). These "powers" are self-appointed and (often cleverly) self-assertive; they invade the space of our humanity by lies and violence because they lack genuine authority. They are not dedicated to serving the good of others, to using external material forces as resources to benefit the human community and the created world entrusted to our care. They value their ideas, systems, or "tribal" instincts rather than love for the human person or reverence for the freedom of the person. 

Our anxiety about "enforced conformity" is understandable. And we are especially vulnerable in these uniquely complicated times. We are living in this vast, enormous, frighteningly interconnected world of unprecedented material forces, naked ambition and stripped-open defenselessness, speed and excess in every direction, distracted interactions of multitudes and terrible loneliness, pressure for external success, alienation in a boundless sea where we fear drowning without ever knowing which way to swim for safety.

That same world has so many wonderful and enriching possibilities. Humans are aware of themselves in an unprecedented way as being dependent on one another. There can be a beautiful sharing of resources and marvelous new solutions to basic problems, as well as the opportunity to appreciate one another in new ways: to give and receive all over the world from our diverse cultural riches, personal talents, and expressions of beauty. There is so much good everywhere, so much good in people, in the beauty and ineradicable dignity of each person, in so many facets of their lives, their accomplishments, their institutions and communities, their cultures and social life. But there is also darkness and strangeness, weakness, duplicity, and a kind of radical insufficiency in everyone too... including ourselves! And there are incomprehensible people who conceal dangerous flaws, perverseness, even wickedness beneath an "exterior" that appears good.

And it seems that never before this global epoch has all of this goodness, badness, and ugliness been so shaken together, tossed about through immense changes, and spilled out all through this brave new world in combinations and circumstances and proximity and sheer quantity - in a way that is new to human history. How are we going to live as intelligent, free, loving, compassionate human beings in the midst of all this? 

We would be foolish to ignore the wisdom of the past, of accumulated human experience. We still can learn much from it. But we also need to find new ways forward. We need to find a deeper way of "possessing ourselves" and loving ourselves so that we can freely give ourselves within the context of challenges our ancestors never knew. We need a deeper awareness of our own human freedom and more profound and vital modes of human cooperation and solidarity. We need to learn to trust one another and to "trust reality" (and not become cynical in front of the goodness we see, but open and hopeful in front of it).  But how?

Perhaps that frightening, seemingly ambivalent word "obedience" is relevant here.

The fundamental point here is that we are talking about obedience to God. This is the real meaning of the word: to adhere to and follow the One who is the source of my freedom, of the uniqueness of my personhood; He is the one who generates the freedom that is really "mine," that awakens, searches, and longs to find its real fulfillment, the freedom to really "become myself" - in the inexhaustible love of being-in-relationship to the One who is Love.

Obedience to God's will. Let's be clear: this word does not signify the subjugation of my humanity and the abdication of my dignity to someone who exercises definitive power over me from a place that is extrinsic to my true self, and who would thus perpetrate violence against me. (It may be "God's will" to permit me to suffer violence at the hands of others, but my adherence to Him secures my inner freedom and promises meaning and goodness for me as its fruition.)

We need not fear obedience to God. He is not another threat. He does not crush us. He is not another "Boss." He Himself transcends, goes beyond, this whole world of powers and forces that rise up and pass away in the universe. He is the freedom of Infinite Love, who cannot debase us because He creates us, who cannot violate our freedom because He generates and opens up that very freedom that each of us possesses in the depths of ourselves.

His "will" is the design of His wisdom and love. His will is good because He is Good (all the time!). His will is the love that makes me to be myself and makes me a lover of Him and all my brothers and sisters and everything He has created, because He is Love.

He seeks us, He draws close to us, He "reaches down" to us. And the most astonishing thing is the unimaginable gratuitous gift that by being so humanly particular has touched every moment of human history and invested everything with new meaning: God has come, to share our humanity. He is here. He has come to dwell with us.

Only Infinite Love can overflow in such mysterious superabundance that He can enter the world, take our flesh, become human like us, save us, give Himself to us, call us in a total way without doing violence to us because He is Love, emptying Himself to become our brother, our companion in the flesh.

Jesus Christ, crucified, died, risen to imperishable life - the life that cannot be destroyed, the life He desires to share with us from the depths of His heart. He wins our freedom by "emptying Himself," by pouring Himself out in love, for us. He does not overpower us. He does not lie to seduce us. He looks at each one of us with love, and says, "follow me."

I want to obey Him. His will is the only thing that can correspond to my destiny; He knows the happiness that will correspond to me, and fulfill my freedom.