Friday, August 19, 2005

The Fearless Principle of Freedom

Yesterday, while preparing for the commemoration of William Porcher Dubose, I stumbled across the following quote, which keeps whispering to me, as if offering something I need to pay attention to. So, I'm paying attention. It's from his volume Turning Points in My Life, chapter VII, subtitled "Liberty and Authority in Christian Truth";

By all means let the Church guard and preserve her faith, order, and discipline, her creeds, her ministry, and her worship. But let her neither indulge the weak fear that these are really endangered or compromised by the fullest freedom conceded to and exercised by her members, nor imagine that danger or harm can be averted by the suppression or by the expulsion of that freedom. If our desire is to propagate error, there is no surer way than to prosecute, suppress, and exclude liberty. Let the Church not be afraid to keep herself in perpetual question by her own children. If their questionings be true, let her have all the benefit of them. If they be false, let her meet them, and be able to meet and answer them, with the truth.

Is there to be no limit to this toleration? Of course there must be, but the limit will very largely, and just in proportion as it is allowed to do so, fix itself. In the Church, at least as we have it, there is no uncertainty in the voice or in the expression of catholic Christianity. And that voice has to express itself with no uncertain sound through the lips of every accredited representative of the Church. If he utters it falsely or deceitfully, the harm or the danger is to him, not to the Church. All the world knows what the Church's truth is, which he has accepted the commission and made a solemn promise to teach. He has perfect freedom to resign that commission and to withdraw that promise at any time, and it is a libel to assume or assert that there is any body of men who will continue to exercise the Church's ministry with conscious falsity or deceit. If they do, their conviction and penalty will not need to be imposed by the Church. But if the truth of the Church is living and free truth, then there will of necessity arise men from time to time who, with all possible sincerity of loyalty and devotion to the Church, will find themselves unable to make their own some one or other part of even catholic truth. This may stop short at the point of only personal inability to comprehend and appropriate the truth in question, or it may go further in all sincerity and love and devotion to the Church to wish and even to attempt its correction in the particular in question. To rule this impossible in the Church, to exact of every one of her members or thinkers or teachers her own complete standard and attainment of catholicity, is to impose a law of mechanical necessity fatal to either freedom or life. If the life of freedom is impossible without the liability of error, then I say that the liability to error is not only to be tolerated, but to be desiderated and expected within the Church.


The present practicability of acting upon so fearless a principle of freedom depends upon the present life of truth in the Church, or the present life of the Church to the truth. If we have the truth wrapped up in a napkin as a sacred deposit handed down from the past, if we hold it now as the decision of a council or the letter of a creed and not by the continuous self-demonstration of its truth in itself and its meaning and necessity to us, then indeed may our dead or dormant catholicity be afraid of the much alive and wide-awake heresies that confront it as in the earliest ages. Then may we indeed not know what to do with them, but rule them out of existence in the Church by the letter of a law or a statute. But that will not do nowadays. Nothing but the life and the living thought that shaped the decisions and wrought the creeds can maintain the decisions or defend the creeds now. And for one, I think I begin to see that the impossibility of extinguishing error by legislation or banishing it by exclusion or of getting rid of it in any other way than by meeting and overcoming it with the truth, the necessity therefore of holding the truth always for its truth and not for its enactment--in a word, the principle of the freedom of truth, with a fair field and no favor--as it is the condition of the Church's own ever-present life, so is it the only hope of its ultimate unity and peace.
" exact of every one of her members or thinkers or teachers her own complete standard and attainment of catholicity, is to impose a law of mechanical necessity fatal to either freedom or life." DuBose was raised on a plantation, and served as a chaplain in the Confederate army. He did not publish any of his work until he was in his late 50s. It seems to me that he did some serious reflection on the term "freedom"; reflection rising out of his own life experience. I think he would agree with such a statement, in light of his work regarding the role of experience in our movement towards salvation. We each work out our salvation with fear and trembling.


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