On being free to believe

What I want to suggest here is that clinging strongly to one's freedom to believe anything one wants about something is actually to hold tightly to a kind of slavery.

Let me illustrate what I mean. I read a blog recently criticizing some "churchy phrases" that the author suggested were reasons for millennials leaving the church. In the comments, one person added a phrase that wasn't on the list--something about being "led by God to this church" or something like that--implying that those who use this phrase are carelessly casting aspersion on others who don't necessarily feel or hear a clear sense of God's leading in something.

I pushed back. I have known many people who use language like this without any of that power-play or privileged baggage. I have known some people who use that language with an air of superiority, but I think that a readiness to believe that about all people is a sort of sloppy defensiveness. Some people do, some do not, and it's hard work to figure out who does and how often.

I know what it's like to feel manipulated by others' pretensive spirituality, so I'm not trying to discount someone's reasons for feeling defensive. If you've been hurt by something like this, chances are you'll interpret other things through the lens of that hurt. But you should recognize that that's what you're doing. You might be wrong a majority of the time.

The commenter's response to me was, basically, that they have the freedom to believe that this language is being used in a careless and manipulative way. The freedom to believe. That phrase stuck out to me.

At this point it might sound like I'm making a big deal about a random side-thought on one blog's comment thread, but I think it's worth pointing out. If you want to cling tightly to your freedom to believe something about other people, you're holding tightly to a form of enslavement, in captivity to the fiction that my own perspective is the best arbiter of truth about what are in reality complex and varied circumstances.

I am glad that I am beholden to traditions and realities outside of myself for the truth. I am hopeful that I can continue to cultivate this sort of openness in myself, even towards people I cannot agree with or relate to, and perhaps especially towards people that I'm predisposed to misinterpret due to my own baggage.

It is in those situations that I need most desperately to be reminded that I am not, in fact, "free to believe" what I want about them. I am free to be cynical and free to question, but I am not actually free to believe whatever I want about what they say, because that descends me into a particularly acute form of slavery from which it is increasingly difficult to escape.

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