RELIGION: We are looking for freedom in all the wrong places


I have a bit of a fascination with the etymology of words. It’s not just about where they come from, it’s also about the original meaning of words and how that meaning can develop, even change with time. Part of the interest is about the way words are used and the changes in how they are used; it can give an insight into the struggles we have to understand and relate to our experiences.
There is, I think, a good example of that in the Gospel today: it speaks of ‘nations in agony’. The word used for ‘agony’ means to hold together in the sense of restricted, constrained, imprisoned, but it is also used in ancient Greek myths to describe the gods holding together elements of chaos to bring some sort of order into reality and so it is used to speak of creation. That suggests underlying the word there is a fundamental experience of life as contradictory: on the one hand there is a sense of being constrained, but that this is necessary if we want to avoid a return to chaos. There is something in us that rebels against rules and regulations, but we know without them there would be disorder. There is within us a constant battle between the desire for an absolute freedom and the awareness of the need of a restriction of our freedoms. In our own time, that contradiction within our nature seems to be most keenly felt. There are multiple moves to break free from the restrictions of our nature, and there are multiple voices raised warning of the chaos that will ensue if we keep denying and ignoring the restrictions of nature.
This conflict seems hardwired into the nature of the world and into us. It’s as if we sense we are made of something more, made for something more, as if we want to break free from ourselves. That impulse has had disastrous effects throughout history: there is the whole gnostic movement which ended up disparaging the body, people maltreating their own bodies and others’ There were those who thought the body irrelevant and ignored the physical plight and suffering of others concentrating their energies and cultivating only the spiritual.
The Gospel on Sunday, I think, was bringing that contradiction within us to our attention. We search for a freedom but cannot find a way to reach it and then we end up with hearts that are coarsened because we are looking for freedom in all the wrong places and we end up confused by a world we do not understand and can seem to be at war with faith. We misunderstand what freedom is. That is why the Gospel tells us that our liberation comes from God. It is when we listen to God that we find the way that leads to freedom, when we listen to his Christ that this contradiction between the struggle for freedom and the need to hold
things together is finally resolved for us.
And we who are trying to listen to God, are called by our faith to be part of that struggle to save the soul of the world. We can make the world better or worse by our choices and actions. The challenge we face as Christians is finding a way to live our faith joyfully, with confidence, while working to heal and evangelise a world that is lost in confusion. And we need to do that without being poisoned by hatred or discouraged by the fear that comes when others do not understand the contradiction that is at the heart of our world. We need to live our hope joyfully and with the freedom that only divine love gives.

Canon Conroy is parish priest of St Patrick’s, Dumbarton

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