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Freedom From, Freedom ForBy Jane Patterson
The enormous, irregular standing-stone that is Freethinkers’ Rock rises at the edge of Turkey Bottom Creek on ranch land in the Texas Hill Country currently being developed by the YMCA into a place for children and adults to be immersed in the natural world.
My friend Jill took a group of us to explore the land, leading us by the deer tracks that crisscross the property, along creek beds, through meadows, sometimes in the shadow of limestone cliffs. “There’s something special I want to show you, “ she said. “It’s called the Freethinkers’ Rock.”
The Freethinkers (Freidenker), who are still a source of argument and consternation, were a group of German intellectuals who immigrated to the area of Texas around Comfort, Sisterdale, and Boerne mainly between 1845 and 1860, fleeing what they considered both religious and political oppression in Germany. They sought to create a community grounded in their commitments to free inquiry, equal classical education for girls and boys, and labor with their hands. Suspicious of religious authority of any kind, they would be surprised to find themselves the subjects of this blog.
The Freethinkers’ Rock was a geographical landmark used as a gathering place when the Freethinkers realized that their opposition to the Civil War, and particularly their opposition to the Confederacy and slavery, meant that they must flee to Mexico. Thirty-six of them were massacred by Confederate soldiers in 1862, some as they crossed the Nueces, some as they attempted to cross the Rio Grande.
Their costly commitment to freedom shows the dynamic relationship between freedom from and freedom for.
While much of the literature on the Freethinkers emphasizes their commitment to freedom from (from established religion, from conventional ideas about education, private property, and manual labor), their willingness to die for their convictions about slavery shows that at the center of their philosophy was a set of deep commitments to intellectual rigor, human dignity, and solidarity. Freedom from was only the entranceway to freedom for. They gave their lives together as a witness to their respect for the dignity of not just their own, but every human life.
Freedom is at the center of almost every conversation or argument in American public thought: freedom to buy guns, freedom to watch whatever we want to on the internet, freedom to consume as much oil or food or goods as we can afford, and even beyond what we can afford. But there is little distinction between being free from governmental interference in our desires and being free for something larger than ourselves.
What we are discovering is something that Christian tradition has known all the way back to our origins in Judaism: that there is a tyranny of the self and its desires that can be as destructive as tyranny imposed from the outside. And the tyranny of the self is more insidious, because it masquerades as freedom. In my classes in New Testament, I have to teach people that the first-century conception of the human person was not as an individual, but as a person embedded in community, a person developed through a web of relationships with God and neighbor. The stark individuality that we experience as accepted fact was viewed as a fallacy by Jesus (Luke 12:13-21).
Similarly, the Ignatian tradition of spirituality emphasizes the importance of spiritual freedom from attachments (to opinions, fears, resentments, anxieties) in order to be free for engagement in God’s generous will for us and for all. The daily practice of the Ignatian Examen offers a chance to look back over each day, looking for the moments when we were spiritually free (for the purposes of God) or unfree (fettered to personal habits and desires).
How about you?
What do you seek to be free from, so that you can be free for something of surpassing value?
In what community of people do you feel most free to seek the things that are of enduring value?
Jane Patterson is Assistant Professor of New Testament and serves as Director of Community Care. She joined the full-time faculty in 2013 after teaching part-time and serving as Interim Director of Theological Field Education 2003-2005. She is the author of Keeping the Feast: Metaphors of Sacrifice in 1 Corinthians and Philippians (SBL Press, 2015). In biblical studies her academic interests include the intersection of literary, political, and theological study of the scriptures. She also teaches in the area of Christian formation, where her work focuses on vocation and Christian practice. She serves as Co-Director of St.Benedict’s Workshop, a ministry devoted to helping laity live their faith in daily life, and serves the Diocese of West Texas as Missioner for Adult Formation and as a member of the diocesan Examining Chaplains. She is active as a preacher, teacher, and parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio.
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