When Total Obedience is Perfect Freedom

Realism means obedience to reality. Such obedience entails giving up building mind-castles of false realities to take the place of Reality with a capital “R.” This capitalization assumes that there IS a really real Reality that is not made up by human beings. However the capitalized word “Reality” is capable of misunderstandings. For some it can mean a second realm that stands over-against the ordinary realm of existence. If we are inclined to a more down-to-Earth view of Reality, it can mean those parts of our experience that are pleasant, excluding those parts that are unpleasant, horrific, challenging, grim, or perhaps boring.

But the “total obedience” I want to describe is a devotion to the mysterious all-powerful encounter that includes everything that happens to us in every event we face. Such realism means taking in what is actually happening to each of us and to us as societies. This includes possibilities as well as limitations. It includes the consequences of human choices as well as the processes of nature over which humans have no control. It includes the horrific as well as the glorious. In addition to our everyday content, the Reality we actually face includes the Abyss of No-thing-ness from which each thing, including our own lives, have come and to which each thing, including our own lives,will return. Reality also includes the Every-thing-ness of that Expansive Sea of Mystery within which each identifiable thing exists for now. Reality includes the Awesome Otherness that we encounter as well as the Awe that the Awesome occasions in our inner being.

The Word “God” is a devotional word that is attached to this inclusive view of Reality. The Word “God” adds no reality to Reality: this holy word is but a human expression of obedience to Reality—a devotion to realism. the word “God” adds only trust in the trustworthiness of Reality. The word “God” renders Reality, all of it, “holy.”

The rational content we have about Reality is created by human beings and is, therefor, a limited knowledge of Reality. Reality in its wholeness is an enduring mystery. As every realistic research scientist knows, science is a progressive movement of thought that approaches Reality with ever-greater correspondences with Reality, but science never reaches the final fullness of comprehending Reality. In truth, the perceptive scientist knows that the more we know about the nature of things the more we know we don’t know. Our vision of the Mystery of Reality grows greater the more we know about Reality.

The same dynamic of “never fully arriving” also applies to our contemplative approaches to Reality. Our years of meditation upon our inner beings never exhausts what can be learned about our own consciousness and what it means to be conscious of anything including consciousness itself. All the fine arts are contemplations about Reality. Great music is expressing our deepest inner awarenesses. Note that composing music never ends. We never get “there” with a “final” symphony.

Back to the troublesome word “God” As used by the monotheistic religions, “God” binds all the parts of the “One Whole” of Reality into a single devotion to the entirety of Reality. The God-devotion to Reality promotes our learning about Reality, even though our learning never reaches an end point of final truth. The-God devotion affirms both the search for Reality and the endless nature of that search. In other words, the God devotion affirms our always being ignorant in spite of however vast our wisdom becomes.

Humans are indeed avid in creating an overall “sense of reality” based on our physical senses and our inner experiences, but our “sense of reality” never corresponds entirely with Reality. Looking back over our lives we can notice that our “sense of reality” has changed many times. But the Reality I am pointing to with this capitalized word is not our changing sensibilities, but the continually Encountered Power of Mysteriousness that is occasioning in us these perpetual changes and is always revealing our ignorance. Wisdom is indeed an awareness of our perpetual ignorance. The word “God” makes our ignorance “holy.”

Further, Reality is like an active power that is always asserting itself. Reality operates like a blood hound that chases us down and bites our “sense of reality” with some “sense of truth” we have been escaping or have never considered before. Our obedience to this blood-hound Reality is a freedom from our illusions, and compulsions. Reality roots us out of our slavery to illusion. It is in that sense that Reality sets us free.

Here is a simple example with which anyone in their 80s, like me, can identify. As a teenager and into my 70s, I was pushing the edges of exhaustion in my running, my basketball, my study, my teaching, my organizing, and more. This long-practiced pattern of living now has life-threatening consequences in my eighties. Reality is requiring of me a different sort of obedience. This requirement is, however, freedom, for it requires me to give up slavery to my old push-push life style and make choices that fit the reality of my current being and the environments I now face.

Here is a sociological example of Reality opening freedom: Many oil executives and politicians who thrive on oil-industry wealth are making up an alternative reality to the “inconvenient truth” of an already present climate crisis. The truth of the climate crisis is supported by 97% of the climate scientists. We cannot honestly deny that fossil-fuel burning has changed and is changing the atmosphere with devastating consequences. The Reality we confront in the climate-crises requires humanity to leave about six trillion dollars worth of already discovered fossil fuel wealth in the ground. Such is the obedience required for plain realism.

That such obedience would be freedom is an insight not squarely faced by wealth-addicted fossil-fuel executives. Giving up a fossil-fuel powered society opens in us the freedom to build a society powered by the sun, the wind, and falling water. Such a response of freedom builds a society that has no pollution, abundant power falling on ever part of the Earth, human societies that is more decentralized and stable, a prosperity that can extend to the last village on this planet, and much needed aid for ending tyranny and oppression thus providing more democratic power to the currently poor. We have all these advantages simply by giving up an energy source that makes the rich richer, the poor poorer, and the Earth devastated. This fossil-fuel hierarchy is also destroying democracy, wrecking honest education, and enslaving the working classes. Obeying Reality in this instance is as Exodus from an Egypt of slavery. Such obedience means an expansion of freedom for humanity as a whole.

This very real freedom I am identifying here is not an indulgence in our druthers, ambitions, desires, emotional feelings, wealth, and status. The profound freedom that results from obedience to Reality is an intentional spontaneity of our profound being, an actual dance of living from our profound awareness. Such obedience is a holy facing of the following truth: We humans with our own creativity invent all our values and principles with which we make our decisions. Our choices are ambiguous with regard to all of these value inventions. It takes courage to embrace our freedom over good- and-evil values, but this courage is also an experience of our primal strength and joy.

Our profound freedom is also the opposite of fatalism. The oil, gas, and coal establishments tend to argue that we cannot get along without fossil fuels, that the sun does not always shine, that the wind does not always blow, and that falling water is never enough to power a viable and just society. But such talk is a failure of imagination. Freedom is our capacity for embracing the imagination that can create a way through the problems we face. Freedom cuts through the logic of the past and creates whatever new logic is needed to do the job that is called for.

For example, a problem that comes up when we actually face doing away with fossil fuels is storing the sun and wind energy. Fossil fuel is already easily stored and transported. Fossil fuel is already stored sunshine. It takes imagination to invent ways to store sunshine on the scale that fossil fuels already store. Freedom means finding the way to do that. A very promising way already found is to use our almost unlimited amount of sunshine to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. Then we turn the oxygen loose to make up for what the disappearing forests are failing to provide and put the hydrogen gas in liquified hydrogen tanks that can fly airplanes cheaper and safer that jet fuel. (These claims are made by the hydrogen expert David Scott). Following such creative imagination is what profound freedom looks like in its relations with the climate crisis.

Here is another example of how obedience to Reality can lead to freedom. A fight has gone on in Christian circles in relation to the topic of evolution. Christian thinking for many people has been locked up in a bondage to a literalistic understandings of the Bible. This view not only prompts a rejection of evolution in favor of an authoritarian creationism, it also blocks a true understanding of most biblical texts. For example, Genesis One is poetry, a story-time literary gem about the goodness of the natural world. This crucial meaning is lost when that opening chapter of the Bible is viewed as scientific statements about a literal creation of the cosmos in 7 days.

Also, the poetic nature of all speech using the word “God” is lost by this literalism. In Genesis One, God is a character in a story. This fictitious character “God” is speaking to his fictitious angles, “Let there be Light” etc. This is a poetic story about Reality and the demand for human realism. Such realism is lost when we insist that “God” is a literal being in a heavenly realm. In Genesis, “God” is Reality—Reality colored with a God-devotion to be realistic—that is, to be obedient to a good and trustworthy Reality. Genesis One is telling us that everything that Reality does is good for humans, and that includes our death and our suffering as well as our birth and our pleasure. It includes the consequences of our deluded living as well as our realistic living. This goodness also includes our evolution from the yet unexplained appearance of those enclosed cells of livingness on this well-positioned planet.

The famous Sufi poet, Rumi, expresses the core issue of our literalism with this short poem: “Life and death are two wings on the same bird.” Only living beings die. And death is part of the life story of anything living. When we humans insist on a devotion to birth, but not death, we are in rebellion from the God-devotion to Reality in the first chapter of the Bible. We reject thereby the holiness of death and suffering. The God of Genesis One is the source of all things, including our evolution from simpler forms of conscious being, and including our return to the dust from which we come as the 90th Psalm spells out.

Why do some find it humiliating that we humans have emerged from a common ancestor who grand-mothered two other chimpanzee species: the pigmy chimpanzees, and the larger chimpanzees. The human species (every race of it) is remarkably close in DNA with these other two primate companions. We can be viewed as a third species of chimpanzee. To reject this very well documented “theory of evolution” because it is inconsistent with a very poor means of Biblical interpretation is a fight with Reality that cannot be won. Obedience to Reality requires the freedom of abandoning any view of the Biblical heritage that in any way contradicts the still evolving theory of evolution.

If trusting God means obeying Reality then a God-devotion means submission to the absolute power of Reality that cannot be defeated or avoided. We are driven to despair by each attempt to fight or flee Reality. A God-devotion to Reality means nothing more nor less than openness to being realistic. And being realistic turns out to be a manifestation of the very deepest experience of human freedom.

Our openness to be being realistic also includes our openness to the contemplative discoveries of Reality as well as to the scientific discoveries of Reality. In terms of the consciousness capacities of our species, we are gifted with a capacity for language, art, intimacy, social forms, and thoughtful reflections that the other two species of chimpanzee cannot match, however much we attempt to train one of them in our form of awareness. The process of evolution took a turn in creating us that we need to notice.

Let us return to how obeying Reality is perfect freedom. It might seem that obeying Reality would restrain our freedom. Perhaps we ask, “Why can’t I believe whatever I want to believe or what my peers believe, or what my ego finds more pleasant to believe?” “Why is obedience to Reality perfect freedom?

The second story in the book of Genesis is about this obedient freedom and the tragedy of its loss. Eric Fromm, a renowned psychologist and writer, interpreted the Garden of Eden story as an example of authoritarian religion. God in this story does seem like a authoritarian Pope. God in this story forbids humanity “the knowledge of good and evil.” Fromm sees all religion as either authoritarian or humanistic, the later of which he favors. So he sees the Eden story as authoritarian. But let us examine how the Adam and Eve story is not authoritarian or humanistic. Let us note how this story is a witness to what is real for all of us in every generation. Reality does indeed forbids to humans a knowledge of good and evil. Every decision we make requires some reflection on values, but our decisions are still ambiguous. Our values conflict; our principles do not always apply; our thinking only brings us to the raw cliff of making a choice—to leap into the dark of the impending future and the unknown consequences of our decisions. We do this every day without the benefit of an absolute knowledge of good and evil. We eat from the forbidden tree when we assume this ignorance is not so.

Fromm, like many others, misunderstand this story-time tree to be about knowledge or the quest for knowledge. But “knowledge” is not the name of this tree. The ongoing quest for knowledge is a way of loving Reality. Knowledge of Reality is not what Reality is forbidding in this story. This tree has to do with value—the knowledge of good and evil, not the knowledge of Reality.

Reality requires realism. An obedience to realism includes human freedom, for this profound human freedom is part of realism. Our freedom is a limited freedom in terms of controlling outcomes, but our freedom is also real in the sense that our free acts do participate in bending the course of history—doing so in tension with many other forces. In the interior sense, perfect freedom is creating our responses out of nothing but freedom. Freedom is our real lives, even though we flee from freedom. Perfect freedom is our human essence, our authenticity, our realism, our holiness if “holy” means obedience to Reality.

Therefore, eating from the deadly tree means some sort of bondage or slavery to a set of values, rules, or principles made up by human beings. Any obedience to our own creations, our own desires, our own status, our own public brand, our favorite peer group, etc. is eating from the deadly tree. Obedience to Reality includes living beyond all those “good and evil” human creations. This total freedom is freedom from every self-created good-and-evil set of values, acquired from whatever source we learned those values. Total freedom is the essence of the radical monotheistic God-devotion. Any time we suppose that we have a final ultimate knowledge of good and evil, we are in a fight with Reality—we are employing an illusion, created by us or by some other human being, who has eaten from the forbidden tree. Freedom is our real life. Any other program of living is an enslavement.

“Plant your feet firmly, therefore, within the freedom that Christ has won for us, and do not let yourselves be caught again in the shackles of slavery.” Paul (Galatians 5.1 J. B. Phillips translation)