In the first chapter of Romans, as Paul is laying out the general indictment of all humanity before bringing to bear the good news of the Gospel, he makes the observation that what can be known about God has always been obvious in the world such that people are without excuse for not living in light of who He is. The problem here, though, is that without help, we can only get so far in our knowledge of Him. As evidence of this we see echoes of a biblical worldview in all kinds of unexpected places. And yet, like echoes in a canyon, these all miss important details, they fail to have the necessary clarity and definition to do more than point people to the worldview that will draw them into a relationship with God.
I had this fact impressed upon me in a wonderfully artistic fashion recently when I went to see The Giver. The basic story is that at some point in the future a group of people has decided to make the ultimate exchange of liberty for security. What results is a perfect world. Essentially, anything about which you have ever had even a fleeting thought of, “Well, the world would certainly be better off without that,” isn’t there.
Of course, since perfection is hard to achieve, there have been some things that have been sacrificed. Like weather. And topography. And animals. And families. And emotion. And freedom. Yes, what the community founders realized is that if people are given freedom to think and act for themselves, pain will inevitably result. As a consequence, they got rid of it along with the memory that it ever existed. In place of all this exists the Rules. There are rules governing every facet of life and one of the most important parts of life is to memorize the Rules and keep them assiduously.
The only exception to this is a single member of the community who is entrusted with all the knowledge of the past, including all of its pain, so that he can advise the council of elders should a situation arise for which they are not already prepared. This individual is called the Receiver of Memory. The story centers around a young man named Jonas who has been chosen by the council of elders to serve as the next Receiver of Memory.
When he begins his training for this position he quickly discovers that while his community may be perfect, the perfection has come at the expense of much that is good. As the retiring Receiver of Memory, now the Giver, begins sharing memories of the past with Jonas he realizes that there is a whole range of good and worthy emotions and experiences which are being denied to the community in the name of security. Yes, there were intense pains associated with the memories of old, but as he comes to understand both the pleasure and the pain more fully, he realizes that the joys of things like love are worth the pain of loss.
Eventually he and the Giver decide that while the logic of the original community planners was understandable, they made a grievous error in eliminating freedom and the emotions–not mere feelings–it allows. As a result, they concoct a plan to give it back to the people. Jonas will journey to Elsewhere, a trek which will involve crossing the community boundary which somehow prevents the memories of the past from being shared. When he does, the memories will be released from Jonas back into the minds of the community at which point the Giver will be there to help them transition through the experience. This will allow them to experience the emotions they have so long been denied. By this full exposure to the range of human emotions–the bad with the good–they will become more complete as people.
As I said before, there are clear echoes of the truth in this story. The original community planners were right in their observation that when given the chance, the exercise of human freedom inevitably leads to pain and suffering. As Christians we attribute this to sin, but language aside, the observation is correct. And, absent the lens of the hope of redemption provided by the Gospel, their logic to sacrifice freedom in the name of utopia makes perfect sense. This ideal is what gave birth to progressivism as a political philosophy in the 19th century. This well-worn approach solves many pernicious social problems, but always comes at the expense of liberty (and the solutions are never all they are advertised to be when put to much scrutiny).
On the other hand, libertarian-type reactions to a state that has become a black hole for freedom are equally understandable. If the state has stripped away something viewed as essential to the human experience, even for ostensibly good reasons, we must reach and stretch and lay hold of it, refusing to allow an impersonal state to determine our identity. (I am oversimplifying things to be sure, but the point remains all the same.) Obviously, the solution to a loss of freedom stemming from efforts to mitigate the virtue’s more ignoble outcomes, is to simply recapture freedom. The question of how those same ignoble outcomes will be avoided in this go-round is usually left unanswered.
And yet both of these approaches which (absent a Christian worldview) make perfect sense in a given context and as reactions to the problems which have beset humanity since time immemorial miss out on something important, namely, the Gospel. But for a few exceptional times in history there have generally been two responses to the brokenness of humanity. The community in The Giver represents one of these: extreme asceticism. If we get rid of all our desires and diminish our freedom to a hollow shell then we aren’t nearly as likely to experience the pain of our brokenness. The problem here–solved by the Gospel–is that we were created to be free. The other response is pointed to by the actions of Jonas and the Giver: hedonism. The approach here is to give into our desires and let the chips fall where they may. The problem with this–also solved by the Gospel–is that our natural desires are not good and if indulged, will lead invariably to death.
What we find, then, is that both the Council of Elders and Jonas were right. Absent some controlling force our desires lead to death and yet we were not made to be controlled, but for freedom. Or to put that another way: freedom requires virtue and yet forced virtue is not freedom. We have always understood this path between Scylla and Charybdis yet we never seem to be able to walk it very long or with much success. Wherein lies the solution to this perennial problem? The answer? The Gospel.
When we embrace the offer of life made by Christ we are in that moment filled with the Spirit of God who goes right to work inside of us to enable us to will the virtue necessary to sustain freedom. We no longer need the controlling power of the rules because we are beholden to the law of God which is written in permanent ink on our hearts. We are also enabled to freely pursue our desires because they have been brought in line with God’s and fulfilling them leads now to life. Now, certainly Christians are not always consistent with the Gospel, but where we are our broken places are made whole and real life flourishes. In the end, Lois Lowery was right that we need a Giver to save us from ourselves. She simply got his name wrong. The Giver of life is Christ. His is a gift worth receiving.