Light of Truth

Valson Thampu

Most people equate independence with freedom. Freedom, unlike independence, cannot be turned into a ceremony or an event. It cannot be put down to a date. It is either an ongoing condition of life, or it is nothing. The dawn of independence is an event, an outbreak of aspirations. Outbreaks have their dates. To have a date is to be fixed like a monument. It is there, solemnly marginalized from the general run of life.
Independence, as an event, belongs to the past. Its scope –no doubt, glorious- is realized and closed. Nothing further can be added to it. It can only repeatedly commemorated. The coloniser left on 15 August 1947. A long night ended. Did it mean the beginning of a new dawn as well? Well, that question has to be answered with reference not to independence but to freedom. Freedom is the womb of the new and the emerging. It pertains to the capacity for innovation and enterprise. Freedom is futuristic. It is akin to creativity, and is somewhat ornamental without it.
Broadly speaking, there are two contrasting attitudes to life: the backward-looking and the forward-looking. The general run of humanity is nurtured in the backward-looking. This is due, for the most part, to religious conditioning. All religions live off the past. None is hospitable to the radically new. One’s prophet, one’s guru, one’s saviour is either the last or the ultimate. His is the last word; and there can never be anything worthwhile beyond what he has pronounced. Add a syllable more, and you become a heretic; much like becoming anti-national for dissenting the views of political demi-gods. To be religious is to be perforce orthodox. Fidelity to the past is the essence of orthodoxy. The new is heretical, anarchic.
The forward-looking spirit animates science. Here, no one can thrive by peddling past hypotheses. Academic philosophers, Schopenhauer said, merely give new names to old philosophical insights. All of European philosophy, according to A.N. Whitehead, is a series of footnotes to Plato. This may be an exaggeration in relation to philosophy; but not so vis-a-vis religion. Transitory theological fads apart, nothing radically new has emerged from any religion for centuries. Science is valued for being a sphere of continual, and accelerated, change; religion, precisely for the opposite reason.
Where does progress stand in light of the above? What is the dynamic of development? Is it not the painstaking quest for the new and the not-yet? Is that possible, except in a culture of freedom? Humankind, wrote Walter Benjamin, is like a bird, perched on a mountain, with its face turned backwards to the past, and its wings out-spread. The winds of change are working up an irresistible momentum beneath. Religion is politics without that wind under its wings. It deflects attention from the need for the historical dynamism with fanciful flights to the next world or next birth. Seen in this light, it is a disservice to a modern democracy is to run its politics like religion.
It is not that the past heritage of a people does not matter. Of course, it does; and a great deal too. The past should not, however, be deemed a haven of regression, lest the past itself is belittled. It is self-demeaning for an individual to boast, ‘I have a great future behind me.’ It is as unfulfilling to anchor the pride of a nation in past achievements alone. It is in old age that a man waxes sentimental about his past. The past should be more like a seed: sown to sprout, grow, blossom and fruit today and provide the seed for tomorrow. The prospect of superior breeds being evolved, via hybridisation, depends on this. The past is the domain of what is already known. It holds nothing but the given. It is very reassuring, Hegel said sarcastically, that ‘nothing else will come out but what was already there’.
Jesus, in contrast, came to set the captives free. Jesus’ idea of freedom, suffused into his teachings on, and manifestations of, the Kingdom of God –the Incarnation, teaching, healing, liberation, transformation- is more relevant today than ever before. It is freedom to be: to express the hidden godliness in us through who we are, our witness and service to the world. That freedom is compromised when we succumb to fear, due to factors real or imaginary, and reduce our life-strategies to survival strategies and manoeuvring expediently for terrestrial advantageous. As Jesus said, he who saves his life shall lose it. And he who loses his life for God’s sake shall find it. The freedom that the world does not know, the freedom the Christian community needs to manifest, is the freedom to find life.
Compared to religions, politics has been –notwithstanding gross aberrations here and there- more mindful in the modern era of human freedom and welfare. Religion, to the extent that it becomes backward looking, proves hostile to the emergence of the new and becomes, thereby, the custodian of the status quo. No one can be a sentinel of the reigning oppressive scheme of things and an agent of liberation at the same time. Disembodied piety seeks to mitigate the misery of those who groan under the yoke of the status quo with the opium of afterlife rewards; like, as Engels said, treating a patient after he is dead. It is from religion that politics borrows the palliative of ‘short-term pain for long-term gain’. The net gain of this political piety, for those who trust it blindly, is predictable. Freedom, not faith, is germane to politics; unless lifelong pain is deemed a gain in itself.

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