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Conscience, Freedom, and the Bible Through Eastern Eyes

[Caveat Lector: I offer these musings as very much a work in progress. I reserve the right to redact or revise any of what follows-- I say this a little tongue-in-cheek. I felt that in thinking out loud, it may provoke reflections of your own which could end up sharpening my view on the subject.]

As historian Tom Holland sees it, the Christian notion of “conscience”, as uniquely developed by St. Paul, and the importance of being able to follow it had a massive influence in shaping the culture of Europe in the centuries that followed the Christianization of the Roman empire. It became a truth taken for granted that one cannot force a person to violate their conscience. Martyrs, regardless their cause, were heroes for being true to their conscience. At some point, perhaps around the Enlightenment, freedom of conscience became linked to the freedom of the individual to choose their own fate. What began in theology was transplanted into political ideology.

Holland is likely right on these historical roots, yet there is an important difference between theological freedom and political freedom. Connected as they are in the history of Western civilization, St. Paul was talking about the way the Spirit works personally and individually with us not the way the individual is to relate to the community or the state. This conflation of ideas has led many today to see “freedom” as an absolute Christian value, when in fact, the New Testament seems ambivalent about the political notion of individual freedom. A person may or may not be politically and socially free to choose their own destiny or to follow their conscience, but before God they will give an account for their actions within their limitations and context. One can live as unto the Lord in whatever station of life one is bound to.

Nevertheless, it is possible that this long history of connecting the two notions of freedom has created the individualistic societies we think of when we think of the West. Today, however, we must be more specific. Because of immigration patterns and the increasingly ethnically diverse makeup of North America and Western Europe, it is no longer accurate to say that “Western societies” are individualistic. It is more precise to say that “white” societies-- societies shaped by historically European descendents-- are individualistic. This is in contrast to many African and Asian societies, which are, as they have been for centuries, collectivistic.

The clash we are experiencing today in many countries in Europe and North America is due to the co-existence of historically individualist cultures with historically collectivist cultures. Take, for example, why many American Christians-- particularly those of European descent-- have such a hard time with interpretations of the world that don’t employ the lens of individual freedom and personal responsibility. They  view the arguments and perspectives that flow from a collectivist worldview — such as structuralist explanations about racial disparity or the desire to have universal healthcare— as “un-Christian”. These are not seen merely as policies or paradigms of the political left; they are condemned as contrary to “Christian principles”. But they are not. They are contrary to the conflation of the two freedoms— the Christian notion of freedom of conscience and the Enlightenment vision of the autonomous individual— that has been associated with European societies which were Christianized. Christians in many other parts of the world may disagree with such appraisals on other grounds, but they would not be dismissed as un-Christian.

Until and unless we are willing to consider other readings of the New Testament and “freedom” from beyond Western paradigms, we are bound to see non-individualist assessments of problems or proposals of solutions as un-Christian. We are doomed to turn Paul into a post-Enlightenment individualist who loved personal freedom. This, of course, is not to say that Scripture does not have a fixed range of meaning. The text cannot be read in whatever way that suits one's fancy. It is only to say that we cannot gauge how much our own cultural lens is affecting our reading until we discover a different cultural lens. This is why we need to hear from those who read the Bible through Eastern eyes. In the end, Paul may have been much closer to the collectivist worldview of the Asian or African than to the autonomous American.

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Jack Ross
Jack Ross

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