During my quiet week, I leave you with this meditation on freedom by the great Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, one of my favourites. I scanned this text from the book I have owned for many years. I suspect that most Christians are not free, but addicted to a religious system that distorts their perception and enslaves their intelligence. It is the problem I encounter all the time, and the most cogent accusation made against Christianity by atheists. Is our faith an illness or an expression of our spiritual freedom at its most sublime?
I continue to get my translating orders done and my boating stuff ready for the weekend. I’ll leave the comment box open, but read and meditate the text rather than jump into a reaction. What you write will make the difference between an addict in the Matrix and a free soul soaring with the Angels and the Saints even before dying and passing on. The choice is yours.
* * *
Nicholas Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, translated from Russian by Oliver Fielding Clarke, London 1935.
Does Christianity recognize freedom of conscience and religious toleration ?
This is a question with a history written in blood and tragedy. The Christian world has gone astray. While fire and the sword, the most hideous of passions, and all the extremity of violence have found employment in the service of the religion of love and freedom, it has been left to men utterly indifferent to all religion to defend freedom of conscience and religious toleration.
For one who believes in nothing and is indifferent to truth it is easy to be tolerant towards every belief. But the real problem is how to reconcile an ardent faith and devotion to sovereign truth with a toleration for erroneous belief and a denial of that truth ? Is not religious toleration always a proof of indifference ? So at any rate those Christians think who deny liberty of conscience. The defence of the spirit of toleration has become the prerogative of liberalism and of a humanism which possesses no religious faith. Freedom of conscience is affirmed as a formal principle having no relation to any positive truth whatsoever. Religious men believing in a positive truth free from all error have only defended freedom of conscience when their own faith was persecuted and oppressed. The Roman Catholics, who are the least inclined to recognize the principle of freedom of conscience, appealed in Russia to that principle when the Roman Catholic faith was oppressed and its rights restricted. Christianity in the person of the apologists and doctors of the Church during the period of the persecutions before Constantine the Great maintained the cause of freedom of conscience in matters of religion. But when Christianity became the dominant religion we hear no more of these arguments in favour of religious freedom, and, on the contrary, we find appeals to force against heretics and dissenters and to the intervention of the sword of the State in questions of-faith. This, then, is how the question arises historically and it has been a fruitful source of lying hypocrisy and a gross utilitarianism.
But how are we to put this question of religious freedom from the Christian point of view ? How can it be stated in its inner essence and free from all human interests and from all the positivism and utilitarianism which are historically interwoven with Christianity ? Christianity is exclusive and cannot tolerate any approach to error. It cannot be indifferent as to whether men prefer a lie to the truth, because it cannot recognize them as being of equal value. A formal liberalism which is indifferent to truth is alien to Christianity, which cannot therefore defend freedom of conscience by recourse to its arguments. Christian liberty is not the formal and meaningless liberty of the natural man ; it is not a right as in humanistic liberalism ; it is an obligation and a duty to God, and if Christians have to maintain the cause of freedom of conscience it certainly cannot be by appealing to liberalism, and to the formal and juridical arguments which are employed by a world which is indifferent to faith and truth of every kind, and which clings to the freedom of untruth and evil. Those who deny the very existence of the religious consciousness cannot defend the liberty of religious thought except in a purely external fashion, for it is only useful from their point of view as a protection for their own right to atheism and untruth and to preserve their tranquil enjoyment of error. But is is only in Christianity that freedom of conscience has any inner meaning or religious justification. Christianity demands toleration for the inner experience and spiritual development of the human soul, because freedom is part of the Christian faith, and because Christianity is the religion of freedom. God Himself is infinitely tolerant towards the evil of the world. He bears with the greatest of wrong-doers for the sake of freedom. Christianity asserts freedom of conscience materially and in no formal sense, and it does this, not because it is indifferent to truth nor because it is tolerant of untruth, but rather because it believes in truth which is the revelation of the freedom of the human spirit. Christ opened up for us a freedom of the spirit which knows no limits and sealed it with His blood for all eternity. Faith in Calvary is faith in freedom.
The demand for freedom of religious thought in Christianity is far more profound than it is in liberal, humanist, and non-religious circles. Every form of coercion of the human soul in matters of faith is a betrayal of Christ, a denial of the very meaning of the Christian religion and of the nature of faith itself. Man has to be tested through freedom in order that he may know how to win the victory freely over the things which try him. Man must seek diligently for the truth. The denial of religious freedom, fanatical intolerance, and coercion in things spiritual all spring from the idea of salvation by compulsion, an idea opposed to the whole meaning of Christianity. God Himself could have saved the whole human race by force had He wanted to, and in a far more radical fashion than the hierarchy or the State could ever do. But God does not wish to impose salvation upon anyone, for it is quite contrary to His plan for man and for the world. God awaits man’s free response to His call, He wants the unforced love of His other self. God might say as man does, ” You cannot love to order.” Force cannot open the way to Paradise.
The idea of salvation by compulsion, which has had such fatal consequences in history, is due to a false identification of the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of Caesar, by which the spiritual world is degraded to the level of the natural. In the kingdom of Caesar coercion and slavery are everywhere in evidence, whereas the spiritual world, the Kingdom of God, is an order of liberty. Nobody can be saved by coercion because salvation presupposes an act of freedom and because it is the inner illumination of freedom.
The history of Christianity is full of acts of violence, but these form no part of the spiritual order of things, nor have they any connection with the inner history of Christianity; they belong rather to the social activity of mankind and are determined by the prevailing condition of the natural man. Though mediaeval Christianity witnessed only too many acts of violence and bloodshed, Christianity itself is not responsible for these things but rather human nature, which was only being Christianized with some difficulty. The things for which the Catholic Church has been commonly blamed should rather be laid at the door of the cruelty of human nature. But the question of religious freedom is not a historical problem, it is the question of the very essence of the Christian faith. From this point of view religious toleration is not the tolerance of the erroneous opinions of man, but a feeling of love and solicitude for every human soul.
Man comes to God by many arduous ways and through much suffering, through the experience of life’s tragedy, and through spiritual struggle. Trials beset his path in those personal experiences which belong to each individual alone. None of us can claim to possess truth in its fulness while regarding our neighbours as completely in error. Fulness and completeness are to be found in God alone, and all we can grasp is but a fragment of the truth, for only a few stray beams of its light become visible to us. The restriction and denial of freedom of conscience means the mechanization and the materialization of the religious life and the denial of the spirit and spiritual life which are essentially free. The present-day revolt of man against coercion in matters of faith and religion is completely justifiable. This revolt can and does bring in its train certain fatal consequences and may mean a loss of faith, yet it contains an inner moment of truth, namely the truth of freedom.
It is impossible to build the Kingdom of God by force ; it can only be created in freedom. It was the use of force which brought to an end the various historic theocracies and their fall was providential. Without man and without human freedom God cannot and will not establish His Kingdom, which is of necessity human as well as divine in character ; and here we have a truth which man must pursue to the very end. Nothing in this world can arrest its progress because God Himself wills that man should completely fulfil his freedom and come through liberty into the divine fulness. Man must pass through the tragedy of freedom in order to reach its final issue in the freedom of Christ, that is, in the third kind of freedom. Freedom is man’s fate and destiny, however paradoxical that may appear. The fanaticism which inspires to violence is only a form of madness which proceeds from the incapacity of the natural man for receiving into himself the truth of the spirit and of Christianity in all its divine fulness. Fanaticism means the imprisoning of the spirit within the passions of the soul and the body, the stifling of the spiritual man by the natural, and it is in continual conflict with even the most elementary laws of spiritual hygiene. For when man nourishes hatred in the name of. love, when he has recourse to violence on behalf of freedom, he is quite clearly mad, and has lost his ” psychical” equilibrium as a result of his powerlessness to receive within himself the truth of Christianity. Nothing is more difficult for man than to accept the freedom of truth within himself and to remain faithful to it. His ideas become confused and his heart burns within him. The evil which he compasses appears to him to possess a good motive. Now it is true that the Greek world was certainly more balanced and less prone to violence than is the Christian world, but that was because it did not have to accept for itself the supreme truth of freedom. It is this truth which has proved to be too heavy a burden for humanity, and having remained for long unapprehended it has been the origin of hitherto unprecedented violence.
It is through the tragedy of freedom that Christian renaissance on a world scale will take place. The Christianity of the future will be a Christianity of the freedom of the spirit which has successfully passed through the trials of freedom by overcoming the temptation to refuse them. Christianity can be renewed not through opposition to that which is eternal, but through the birth of a new soul able to apprehend its immutable truth. This new soul can only accept a Christianity of the freedom of the spirit, for the bondage of the spirit and the tyranny and coercion from which it suffers is part of the kingdom of Antichrist. The freedom of the spirit has been the fundamental theme of Russian religious thought. Slavophiles maintained the freedom of Christianity, and the greatest apostle of it was Dostoievsky himself.
The problem of the freedom of the spirit lies at the very centre of the Christian consciousness, and the problems of evil and of redemption, and that of man and his creative powers, are closely connected with it. Creation is impossible under the dominant influence of an authoritarian mentality. Creative life cannot simply consist in obedience and submission to authority. It always presupposes the freedom of the spirit and is indeed the manifestation of this freedom. In creation something else besides humility always has its part to play, for, though humility is an indispensable moment of the spiritual life, it does not mean that there is no place at all for the daring of freedom. The denial of freedom means a curtailing of human individuality and the extinction of the spiritual life of man. Individuality revolts against transformation into an automaton. The idea of Christian freedom, considered fundamentally with all its consequences, presupposes the affirmation of freedom in all spheres of human creativity, in science, philosophy, and art, in social relationships, and in love. Coercion in these matters has no value whatever from the Christian point of view. In all spheres of creation the truth of Christ must be revealed in the very depths of liberty. Science, art, society, like the free love between man and woman, must serve the truth of Christ and must turn their creative forces towards God as the manifestation of a free love towards God. No outward limitations can be imposed on freedom of thought and feeling. The life of Christ must be born within them ; the void and non-being of evil and the nothingness of all forms of atheism must be clearly revealed. This is the line of development, through immanence, the only one which humanity can follow, which has brought it to the very climax of the trials and contradictions of culture. The final separation of the two kingdoms will take place along this line of freedom which will lead definitively either to God or to the devil.
And the time is coming, indeed it has already come, when freedom will be found only in Christianity, when the Church of Christ will defend the freedom of man against the violence of the kingdom of this world, that kingdom of Caesar which has now become definitely irreligious in character. This has already happened in Communism, which has destroyed the freedom of the spirit and denies personality. The denial of the freedom of the spirit is precisely the spirit of Antichrist whose coming will be marked by extreme tyranny and by the absolute autocracy of the powers of this world. Only in Christ’s Church will deliverance from this destructive tyranny, this very incarnation of the spirit of the Grand Inquisitor, be found. In the kingdom of Christ all power and all autocracy, whether individual or collective, are limited, for there only the power of truth and justice are recognized. The Christian spirit of freedom is directed against all tyranny, whether proceeding from “the left,” “the right,” or “the centre,” whether it be monarchist, aristocratic, democratic, socialist, or anarchist in character. It is not the same thing as the spirit of liberalism, which is always indifferent to truth, but it is that of sanctified freedom and the freedom of love. The search for the Kingdom of God is the manifestation of the freedom of the spirit. The Kingdom of God, which is above all the object of our search, is the kingdom of the spirit. In the spiritual world external tyranny and compulsion of every kind, besides that which results from division, are no more. To attain to the Kingdom of God is to pass into a spiritual world where everything differs from that which we find in this natural world. God will be all in all and freedom will triumph over force. To enter into the spiritual world man must make an act of freedom and heroism, and this must not be something which he accepts from without but rather that which he must discover in himself.