C.S. Lewis tells the story of his conversion in a little autobiographical piece entitled, Surprised by Joy. His journey has some things to teach us.
For years he was blocked from committing himself to faith precisely because of his keen, uncompromising intellect. Brilliant, searching, sceptical of easy answers, he was unable to picture to himself how the great events of Christ’s life and resurrection could have happened. Moreover, he saw commitment to faith as somehow selling short one’s freedom. In all of this, he was constantly challenged by J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings, a friend and a practising Roman Catholic. Lewis recalls how, on many an evening, Tolkien and he would have dinner together and then walk the streets of Oxford for hours, arguing faith and religion. On one such evening, shortly before his conversion, Tolkien challenged him to this effect: “Your inability to picture for yourself the mysteries of Jesus’ life is a failure of imagination on your part!” Lewis was stung by that remark, but realized too its truth.
Not long afterwards he converted to Christianity and, as Surprised by Joy puts it, on the night when he finally, first, knelt down to acknowledge his faith he did so not in a burst of joy and enthusiasm, but “as the most reluctant convert in the history of Christendom.” Parts of him were still in rebellion, but he knew he needed to kneel in a certain acquiescence because, as he put it, he had come to know that “the harshness of God is kinder than the softness of man and God’s compulsion is our liberation.” Happiness and freedom, he realized, are paradoxical in the extreme. You can only have them by giving them away. Giving away freedom is what makes us free, just as jealously hoarding it is the ultimate enslavement.
Scripture speaks of truths “hidden since the beginning of the world”. What Jesus reveals about the relationship of love and freedom is one of these truths. What does he reveal? That the essence of love is a certain obedience, a free acquiescence, a giving over of one’s freedom, a laying down of one’s life for love, morality, duty. Freedom doesn’t achieve its purpose by claiming itself for itself, but by giving itself away.
There is a great paradox in that and we see it stunningly portrayed in the scene where Jesus stands before Pilate during his trial. From every outward appearance, Jesus is unfree. He stands before Pilate and the crowd, shackled, helpless to walk away, seemingly a victim. Yet, in all of literature, one will never find an image of someone more free than Jesus at that moment. When Pilate says to him: “Don’t you know that I have the power to set you free or put you to death,” Jesus answers, “You have no power over me. Nobody takes my life. I lay it down of my own free will.” Pilate understood exactly what that meant, you can’t make a saint into a victim or a martyr into a scapegoat. You can’t take by force what someone has already freely given over.
Scholastic philosophy used to make a distinction around the notion of freedom that partly captures this. It spoke of freedom as “freedom- from” and “freedom-for”. The former designates a certain adolescent ideal, where freedom means lack of restraints, lack of duty, lack of moral inhibition, the capacity to do whatever you like. The latter designates the purpose of freedom itself, namely, the capacity for self-donation in love, for altruism, for morality, for duty, for service.
This is not something we understand or accept easily. We are all too easily seduced by the idea that freedom means “freedom-from” – from duty, from moral restraint, and from anything else that inhibits or ties us down. Duty, morality, and religion are then seen as unhealthy weights, shackles to be shed. But that’s a dangerous, unhappy, notion.
In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples of Jesus are cast in a particularly bad light. They don’t just abandon Jesus during his passion and death, they misunderstand, betray, and get things wrong all the way along. But that’s partly the point of Mark’s Gospel. For him, it’s difficult, indeed impossible, to come to faith in Jesus unless we share precisely in the cross by giving away our freedom as Jesus did, freely, without resentment. In Mark’s view of things, discipleship can only be grasped existentially, by participation in what lay at the heart of Jesus’ mission, his giving away his freedom to his Father.
Simone Weil, a fiercely independent mind who died fighting for freedom, was once asked: “What are you searching for?” Her answer, in essence: “I’m searching for someone to be obedient to because without obedience we inflate and grow silly, even to ourselves.”
It was precisely this realization that drove a reluctant C.S. Lewis to his knees in genuflection. God’s harshness is softer than our kindness and obedience in love is what sets us free.