Human beings have always had a penchant for worshiping things other than God.
Throughout history, idols of gold and silver were paid homage, divine status was associated with specific natural phenomena — sun and moon, mountains and oceans — and even rulers of nations were attributed with deity status (which they often encouraged personally!).
In more recent times, the objects of worship have taken perhaps a less overtly-religious, yet nonetheless just as life-affecting shape, from inordinate wealth, to material goods exceeding any practical need, to positions of power held onto at great cost to others, to entertainment gaining life-defining prominence (sports, anyone? Or even the addictive television-series binge-watching — my present temptation!) ... the list is long of those things that move closer and closer toward an importance that defines the center of our being.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing idols of late, and one which is being shouted from the mountaintops just as it has been from the founding of this country, is the idol of freedom. “Let freedom ring” goes the anthem; “Live free or die” goes the state motto; “My body, my choice” goes the anti-vax movement (or is it the abortion rights movement? Same premise — completely different emphases!). It seems an obsession in this country and in many parts of the world, that the highest ideal, the greatest state of life, the most fulfilled existence, is only possible when we are completely and fully free. It is an idol worshiped by most, regardless of whether one is religious or not.
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But I have found that freedom is not only a lesser god — often it is a damaging one as well.
There is a toxic side to freedom that we are experiencing in very obvious ways in our present circumstance. Our freedoms to choose not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, or not to wear masks, are increasing the danger to others through the virus’ spread and likely mutation; the continued spike speaks for itself. Our freedom to easily acquire weapons designed specifically to kill as many people as possible quickly have led to too many demonstrating their willingness/decision to do so, as mass shootings and vengeance murders continue to show. Our freedom to treat this planet as a consumer good for the taking, rather than a precious part of ourselves to care for sensibly, has carried us deeper into climate crisis. So very often, the freedom which is so precious to us — an idol we worship — carries extremely great costs to others and our world.
Freedom is precious, is invaluable, is essential — but never should be worshiped as we are doing now. It is an unworthy god that forgets that self-initiative and self-interest are really only served within the framework of a working society meant to promote the same for all. And this is only possible as we bring freedom down from the altar of our self-interest and re-establish its fundamental relationship with responsibility. Simply put, caring for self only works as we also care for each other and this planet we all occupy.
In his book, "Living Philosophies," Albert Einstein notes, "Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of other people — above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving." (my thanks to Rev. Cameron Trimble for sharing this excerpt in her recent meditation “Piloting Faith” from Convergence Daily Devotional, Decatur, Georgia.)
Perhaps the greatest return we can have for our freedom is to use it for the benefit of others.
Rev. John Daniels is pastor at First United Methodist Church, Missoula. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.