Think Freely

As a young boy I lived in the great plains of Eastern Colorado. It’s a place of counterintuitive beauty because in the expanses of the American West the land has almost no features. It’s the the sky that commands your attention. If you’ve never experienced this kind of sky then only the words of a true master can capture the sensation. Willa Cather in her great novel Death Comes to the Archbishop describes it this way:

...and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one's feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it.  Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

Something about that expanse, and the boundlessness of the land set me free. I rode my bike alone for mile after mile after mile. I treasured those times alone in that world. Those plains, that sky, those long straight roads, taught me to question without fear. The world gave itself to me. It welcomed my touch and let me investigate every detail. No question was too personal, no thought to taboo. The sky never held back, and neither did I.

That is how I learned courage in the face of doubt. No matter what I feared in the night, no matter what doubts my heart harbored, the brilliant sky would welcome me in the morning. Nothing could stop it. It was as if the sky smiled at me and said, “Go ahead, doubt anything you like. I am quite certain of myself.” It was this permanence of a reality that I could never destroy, that gave me the courage to think freely.

Later, in college, I studied Philosophy and thinking freely became my full-time job. The courage I learned as a boy served me well. I made it a point of pride to “really believe” every philosophy I encountered. I was a Platonist while studying Plato, a skeptic while studying Descartes, an nihilist while studying Nietzsche. For me this was as natural as riding a bike. No matter how dark the storms of thought became, I was never really afraid. I always knew that, eventually, truth would appear like the inescapable sky. And it always did. So with every “dark night of the soul” my confidence grew in promise of the morning.

Today, those long solitary rides through the prairies are gone. They’ve been replaced by the rush of responsibility and the complexities of fatherhood. But for all that, my thoughts are more free than ever before; because my confidence in truth is stronger than ever before. Today instead of being anchored in the wide expanse of the sky, I’m rooted in the deep mystery of Christian Orthodoxy. Like the sky of my youth, the ancient creeds greet me daily with firm but gentle reassurances. “Go ahead,” they laugh playfully, “assail God with your questions, we are quite certain of Him.”

I think this is why Jesus said that the “poor in spirit” are blessed with “the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). Take note! Jesus did not say that the poor in spirit will be blessed. No! He says they are blessed. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven--right now.

Why? Because the poor in spirit are those who know that they are destitute. They make no pretense of being smart or good. They are humble. Which is the essential virtue for confidence; for freedom. In other words, they are blessed because they do not strive to secure themselves. They let God surround them and engulf them within the immense expanse of his kingdom. They receive the kingdom like children who receive their father’s love without conscious thought. Like I received the reality of the sky.

Do not misunderstand. This is not blind faith. Unless you think that I was blind to believe in that enormous and commanding sky. Far from it! It didn’t take any effort to see that sky, but it would have taken enormous effort to ignore it. This is why humility is not a virtue one strives for, but a virtue that one is given–only do not refuse! The truth of Christian Orthodoxy is just the same. Its reality is every bit as huge and inescapable, more so!

So do not fear to test it. Do not fear doubt. Jesus welcomes all this! He knows that your fear and doubt–if humbly pursued–will only prove him true. Truth will rise in the morning, like the son who rose on the third day, never to set again.

- Brandon Booth