Permission to Abandon the Need for Permission

I have never been a fan of permission slips.

I remember them from high school. The powers-that-be issued them in various forms, some benign, some less so. You needed a permission slip from your parents to go on the trip to Washington, or to go on tour with the band. You also needed a permission slip to be out in the hallways during class time. Without permission from your parents to go on that trip, you were out of luck, as the school would not take responsibility if something happened to you. But getting caught in the hallway without a pass had more dire consequences, like an interview with the school disciplinarian (I am old enough to remember school disciplinarians). Too many violations could land you detention, or suspension, or even expulsion.

So when I heard about the permission slips offered by the Great Awakening, I felt a twinge of rebellion. What is it about religion that makes us think we need permission to say what we think and feel, permission to question, permission even to fail? One of the many legitimate raps about churchgoing—and about the prelates and politicians who claim to speak in the name of the church—is that religion is all about permission slips. It is about enforcing the rules, especially the rules that consolidate the power of those in authority. This struck home just a few weeks ago to many faithful Catholics when the ham-handed powers-that-be withdrew permission for American nuns to do what they do best—serving the poor, working for social justice. The only permission they have—the only thing permitted—is that they now conform to a narrow ideological line. Speaking myself as a former Roman Catholic and a great respecter of nuns, this latest edict from Rome only deepened my mistrust of religious permission slips, and of the authorities who wield them.

But the permission slips issued by the Great Awakening organizers were permission slips of a different order. Reading your moving, passionate and painfully honest responses, I realized that to shake up the rules of the game, you need first to know how the game is played. Jesus knew this, good Jew that he was, when he gave his friends “permission” to cure on the Sabbath. Paul knew this, good Pharisee that he was, when he invited his non-Jewish friends to share food at his table, kosher-laws be damned. The permission slip that we call the Gospel gives us permission to abandon the need for permission, or, as one of the Great Awakening participants put it, to live in hope and not in fear. Permission to abandon the need for permission: it’s a dangerous and risky business. For Paul it led to prison and probably execution. For Jesus it led to the cross. What will it mean for us?

In the seminary where I have been teaching for several years (a place where religion is about as organized as it can get), a nineteenth-century professor urged his students to seek the truth, “come whence it may, cost what it will.” That’s a deeply religious principle, precisely because it upends religion as we think we know it—religion that provides all the answers, religion that answers all the questions, religion that insists that it has the right to give you permission to think the way you think, pray the way you pray, believe the way you believe. Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Can our beleaguered and threadbare religious institutions—congregations, seminaries, chaplaincies—once again take this principle to heart? Can we join once again with Jesus and with Paul, and give ourselves permission not to answer the questions, but instead to question the answers?

Roger Ferlo
President-elect, Bexley Hall Seabury Western Theological Seminary

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