Knowledge, Freedom & Jazz
As a child, I heard a church member tell my father: “Pastor, I do not wish to learn any more than I already know about the Bible.” Looking with a straight face at that gentle-giant of a man, Rev. Wadislau Gomes asked the reason for that statement and received a candid explanation: “Well, you taught me that the more I know, the greater my responsibility, and it is already hard as heck to carry the ones I have today—imagine if I learn even more…”
Mr. Alphonso’s naive reasoning did carry an element of truth. Indeed, knowledge brings added responsibilities. This can make us fearful of the added burdens, as knowing brings about moral obligations and, consequently, limits to our freedom. We, on the other hand, long for freedom and tend to think of freedom as the absence of constraints (autonomy).
A Brazilian songwriter once expressed it this way:
Of that which I know
Not everything has brought me clarity
Not everything has been allowed
Not everything has given me certainty…
Mr. Lins gets more specific as he connects “that which he knows” with his freedom:
Of that which I know
Not everything has been forbidden
Not everything has been possible
Not everything has been conceived…
He then concludes asserting his refusal, in light of what he has known, to close his eyes, his ears, and choose ignorance:
Yet I did not simply wash my hands [of the truth]
And that’s why I feel
Day by day more clean.
Again, knowledge does bring with it obligations and responsibilities. In philosophy, when we speak about knowledge (the field of epistemology), we consider these obligations as the deontological aspect of knowing. So, did our friend Alphonso have at least a little bit of a point in wanting to limit his obligations by limiting his knowledge? Could it be that our quest for knowing may lead us to increased burdens, obligations, constrictions and bondage? Is ignorance bliss?
That is definitely not the direction suggested by our Lord: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8: 31-32). The Son of God does not simply connect knowing to obligations, but in a deeper kind of association, He conjoins knowledge of the truth with freedom!
How do we relate knowledge, responsibility and freedom? We probably must begin by adjusting what we understand as freedom. Our culture seems to share an assumption that freedom is the mere absence of constraints or limitations external to ourselves, some kind of freedom—from. This is part of the Kantian (from Immanuel Kant, 1724–1804) legacy for modernity and ultra-modernity. Anything, therefore, that imposes limits or structure to the realization of my will, desires and actions is tagged as a restriction of my liberty.
We must consider, however, another idea of freedom and liberty, a deeper conception, as illustrated by the stand Martin Luther (1483-1546) took when they demanded his obedience to Rome through the abandoning of his theses and beliefs regarding salvation:
Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason (I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. [Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.]
Here is a clear expression of a different take on freedom. Instead of a mere freedom—from, it represents a freedom—for. An approach to freedom where an obligation to truth and conscience lifts the constraints imposed by mere human authority, in order to make possible the choosing of that which is true, good and right. For Luther, it was the freedom to follow his conscience, which was beholden to Scripture.
If knowledge of the truth and freedom are thus conjoined, then we see lack of knowledge for what it really is: a quagmire, a swamp that holds our legs in place, with the appearance of freedom only because there is no demand for movement or direction. True knowledge and knowledge of the truth, however, are like the solid ground upon which we may stand and choose paths and directions that lead to the sweet fruits of liberty and responsibility.
What about the Jazz part of my title? From the many music styles that I enjoy—and I am an avid enthusiast of many styles of music—Jazz has always fascinated me exactly because it shows something of what I am suggesting here.
Jazz music illustrates the beautiful harmony between form and freedom that should be present in our lives as Christians. Someone who simply takes an instrument and improvises without rules and direction may even achieve intuitively something somewhat pleasing. Yet, when a gifted musician, who understands the rules of harmony, melody, rhythm, chord progressions, etc., proceeds from this structure and, respecting good form, discovers the right space for freely exercising his creativity in passionate improvisation and in harmony with his fellow musicians, then it is really Jazz!
Dr. Davi Charles Gomes is the International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship, a graduate of the Reformed Episcopal Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary; he is a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil and the former Chancellor of Mackenzie Presbyterian University, in São Paulo, Brazil. Click here for a brief bio.
 Ivan Lins. “Daquilo Que Eu Sei,” track A1 in Daquilo Que Eu Sei, Vinyl LP Album. Brazil, 1981. For those of you who enjoy music, this song may be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpatFI3FKPg.
 Pierre Berthoud and Pieter J. Lalleman, edt. The Reformation: Its Roots and Its Legacy (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publkications, 2017), p. 192.