And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. - John 8:32
In the current world of social action, “liberation,” “empowerment,” and “marginalization” are key words. Things have changed since the sixties, though, since the seventies, even since the eighties. While there are certainly still “glass ceilings” in the higher echelons, women have entered the work force in unprecedented numbers, and are conspicuous in such fields as law, medicine, and government.
This has been going on long enough that there is beginning to be some examination of the effects; and one of the discoveries—which should not be all that much of a surprise—is that “liberation” brings some hard choices with it. In a sense, it is an illusion that freedom is simply a matter of being empowered. People in power are often the most driven, some by their own ambitions, some by a sense of guilt, some by feelings of inescapable responsibility. The more power one has, the harder it is to blame things on other people.
In fact, power is a relative thing. The Psalmist was right. When we consider the heavens, the moon and the stars, what are we? In the context of the galactic universe, what do Bill Gates’s billions amount to? They are powerless against the inexorable march of years, the aging of the body, the destiny of death. Yet in the far smaller context of our national economy, those billions are impressive. Compared with you economic clout or mine, they are awesome. We are hedged in on every side by financial limitations. There are thousands of things we might like to do, but cannot afford to.
Again, though, this is a matter of context. I wonder sometimes what salary I would need to maintain the kind of life my parents led when I was a child. We had, as I recall, one radio in the house. We had one car, an incredibly simple one by today’s standards, a non-automatic washing machine, no dryer, no dishwasher, a wind-up victrola—when I stop to think about it, it is incredible how much my expectations have changed, how unimagined luxuries have become virtual necessities. Simple logic tells me that the more necessities I feel, the less free I am.
To return to the theme of societal liberation, it is undeniable that in the context of the home, mothers are powerful. Their formative impact on their children is immense. It is not just that they control such factors as diet and clothing and schedule and behavior in those critical early years. Especially if they are full-time mothers, and especially if the father is not around all that much, they are the little ones’ whole world. In a sense, they define what it is to be a person. Still, even within the context of the home, that power does not yield freedom. The power itself is a burden, plain and simple; and the rewards of motherhood, the intimay drowned. Far from being “empowered,” they were actually obliged to follow instructions to the letter.
A more affirmative image is offered by our text from the Gospel of John: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” There are hundreds of ways to illustrate this. It involves a principle that applies to us day after day, time after time. New appliances come with owners’ manuals. If we truly understand how they work, we are free to use them effectively. If we know how to get from point A to point B, this is a major factor in freeing us to get there.
It applies on far deeper and more significant levels as well. If we truly understand each other, we can work effectively together toward our goals. To look for a moment at the negative side, how many times as parents have we felt powerless because we did not understand how our children were feeling or thinking, did not understand why they were behaving they way they were? Then there have been those times when the light dawned, when communication happened; and those have been moments of liberation.
In our theology, one of the primary symbols of truth is light, and from time to time Swedenborg will use the image of groping in the darkness to convey the effects of a lack of truth. If we do not understand each other truly, we keep barking our shins, walking into walls, falling down stairs. If we turn on the lights, we can suddenly move with confidence and ease.
The trouble is, though, that in the spiritual realm we are not always ready to welcome the truth. It may tell us that we have to change in ways we do not want to. We would rather blame our problems on our circumstances, on the boss, on the state of the world, on our horoscope—on anything in sight—rather than accept any more responsibility.
A recent article on the abortion controversy argued that one prime casualty was truth. Each side feels that it cannot admit any merit whatever to the other. Pro-choice advocates do not want to admit that abortion is used as a means of birth control, or that it can leave psychological scars. Pro-life advocates do not want to admit how desperate decent people can become. Each wants to demonize the other. Neither wants to admit that the opposition may in fact include thoughtful and caring individuals.
Surely the best resolution of this tender and vital matter can come only out of an honest effort to understand, a refusal to slant things, a willingness to look at the unwelcome as well as the welcome facts. The unwelcome facts will not go away just because they are ignored or denied. In fact, the more they are suppressed, the more they will gain force, like a disease that cannot be cured until it is diagnosed. The unwelcome facts are the chinks in our armor, the weaknesses that the opposition can and will exploit.
It seems, though, that we long for simple answers, for a straightforward “yes” or “no.” Anyone who has special skills knows how hard these can be to come by. “Can’t you just tell me what it will take to fix it and how much it is going to cost?” “Can’t you just tell me how soon I can go back to work?” Well, sometimes you can; but the more you realize how many factors can be involved in a single situation, the harder it gets. You change one thing, and three others call for attention. People find themselves taking medications to offset the side effects of medications they are taking to offset the side effects of medications. This was something that did not happen when we knew less.
The human mind is far more complex than the human body, which would suggest that simple answers to truly human problems will be particularly hard to come by. Here we run into an immense complex of societal and cultural and economic factors, of childhood conditioning an memories, of aspirations and fears, of unexamined assumptions, conflicting loyalties, sore spots, smoldering resentments, tender sensitivities—the list could go on forever. We human beings are predictable en masse, in the aggregate, but not as individuals. It may be possible to predict fairly accurately when baby boomers will die, but to predict this for any single individual is virtually impossible.
As our theology points out, then, we find ourselves dealing with “appearances of truth,”—with the way things look to us. We never see things through the Lord’s eyes, which means we never see things as they actually are. However, this does not mean that we cannot see things in the Lord’s light. That is a different matter entirely. That is a matter of our will to see, our “affection for truth,” our honesty with ourselves and with each other.
The Gospel of John describes Jesus as “the true light”; and then immediately goes on to make the startling assertion that this “true light” enlightens everyone who comes into the world. This is hard to believe. People see things so differently. Can we all be seeing in that same divine light?
We do not, of course. We are quite capable of turning away from that light and seeing everything in our own shadow. That is, we are quite capable of looking only for the answers that we want, the answers that let us feel good about ourselves, that prove that we were right all along. What the true light calls us to do is to look at things in the spirit of our Lord. It calls us to look at his life and his words, to see in them what he valued, and to adopt those values as our own. In dealing with this problematic situation or this difficult individual, what would Jesus be looking for?
It is in the best interests of women and men, of mothers, fathers, and children, to try to understand our situations and ourselves honestly. What are the effects of empowerment? What are they overall, in that predictable realm of statistics, and what are they for us unpredictable individuals? Given the ways in which we depend on each other, how are others effected by my empowerment or liberation, or by my lack of empowerment and liberation?
If we do start asking such questions in the spirit of our Lord, with an honest admission of our ignorance and an honest desire to learn, some of our pet certainties will be eroded. What we will experience, though, is the emergence of grounds of faith and action that are more secure because they are deeper. They will be grounds of honesty, thoughtfulness, and humility which are not subject to the whims of culture or circumstance. We will be able to see these “grounds,” these solid life values, because we are looking in the light of the one who is the true light, our Lord and Savior.