Dusting Off a Table called Soul Freedom

Evangelical Christians, prophetic Christians, and progressive Christians have one thing in common: passion. Passion for what is right and good and just and peace-bringing. Passion often enough leads to a lack of sympathy for those who disagree with those passions. In fact, passion leads to intolerance rather than tolerance.

Now ramp this up to the American public. Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, mixed as they are at times with cynicism toward others and ends up “othering” opposing views — Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher are good enough symbols for what we’re talking about — and we’ve got a conflagration.

Now one more level: the global context. Muslims of all sorts, Hindus of all sorts, secularists of all sorts, Christians of all sorts, socialists of all sorts, free marketers of all sorts … poverty “explained” by exploitation, exploitation “explained” by capitalism, capitalism “explained” by socialists … countries collapsing, markets falling, trade leaving one country for another… then there’s China and who knows what’s really going on, and Israel and Palestine and Syria and Iran and Iraq and Russia and India … and here we are again with the same problem. Who trusts whom? Who is hardest for you to grant space?

What can we do to get along better? This is the sort of question Os Guinness addresses in his newest book, The Global Public Square, a topic always at the periphery of Os’ books over the last decade. His appeal is rooted in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948):

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This has recently been expanded in the Global Charter of Conscience.

Surprisingly enough, Guinness pulls out of his big hat of ideas the notion of “soul freedom,” an idea developed in the USA by none other than Roger Williams and James Madison’s free exercise which improved upon Hume’s “toleration.” Roger Williams’ idea about freedom of conscience from public coercion ran head-on into the Puritan experiment in colonies. Soul freedom then is the belief that “I” should have freedom to believe and think what I want to believe and think; but it also means giving that same freedom to others without calling into question the integrity and viability of someone who disagrees. It works both ways, and Guinness proposes eight steps to make this happen, that is, to form a society and world that is safe and respectable for all of us:

1. Soul freedom is for the good of all, and that educated elites must surrender their prejudices about religion. Responsible religious believers and responsible secularists need soul freedom.

2. The challenges to living together with our deepest differences are unprecedented. Putting off the challenges puts our future at risk.

3. We need to restore the primacy and high priority of establishing freedom of thought, conscience and religion and belief for all people of all faiths and non-faiths. This is needed for the common good.

4. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is being eroded or degraded daily in the West. The multiple incidents add up to a rising constriction of freedom.

5. There are two visions and extremes in the visions: the naked public square and the sacred public square. The former excludes religion the second gives preference to one religion.

6. We need to examine the weaknesses of the present responses to the problems of religion in public life and to see why they often disregard the soul freedom. Many are tone deaf to religion; it is inexcusable. He pokes here against the conservatism of the conservatives and the illiberalism of liberals:

7. Explore a public square that provides the greatest realization for the greatest number of people with respect to soul freedom for all.

8. Forge a partnership between religious believers and secularists to ponder how to make this all happen. The time is running short.

Do you care about this topic? Why or why not?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Scott C

    Fascinating. I suspect that GARB folks in the 50s and 60s thought the UDHR statement was from the devil. When Christian conservatives become theological protectionists, they end up eroding (not conserving) their beliefs.


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