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Christian Union
May 20, 2016

Robert Louis Wilken Speaks at CU New York Forum

by Catherine Elvy, Staff Writer

Wilken2Spiritual freedom allows Christians to flourish, just as they were designed to do.

Robert Louis Wilken offered that insight when the University of Virginia professor emeritus appeared at a Christian Union New York Forum in January. The prolific author spoke on Spiritual Freedom: Freedom Nourished from Within on January 19 at Scandinavia House in Manhattan.

Wilken told attendees the challenge to pursue freedom should involve a quest for a divine-centered life. Despite the cultural tendency simply to seek external freedom for the sake of happiness, believers should instead focus on the type of internal freedom found in the Scriptures.

"There is another kind of freedom, another dimension to freedom. That is what I'm calling spiritual freedom," Wilken said. "It's the freedom to live as we were created to be, to have our minds and hearts set on what is good, true, and beautiful."

The longtime scholar is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a former president of the American Academy of Religion, and chairman of The Institute on Religion and Public Life. As well, Wilken has authored more than a dozen books, including The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God; The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity; and The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.

When most people consider the concept of freedom, they envision relief from unjust laws, domineering individuals, slavery, cruelty, and such. Instead, Wilken suggested his audience consider a broader concept of freedom, one that incorporates elevated spiritual parameters. What stands in the way of human flourishing is "not what subjugates us from without, but rules within."

The Apostle Paul's writings in Romans 7:21-24 illustrate the struggle:
"So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?"

Nonetheless, Paul offers hope in verse 25. "Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

Likewise, Wilken told the crowd to seek a life of freedom "for," rather than one involving freedom "from." During the Exodus, the Israelites cherished the goal of reaching the Promised Land. "They were not simply seeking to be free from slavery," Wilken told participants in Christian Union New York, a ministry that aims to develop a network of leaders to impact influential cities, starting with New York City.

As well, Wilken pointed to key Scriptures to illustrate a series of related points. Among them, in John 8:31 and 32, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

For Wilken, the aim to possess life and enjoy it abundantly involves the pursuit of a "life oriented toward a transcendent good that orders our desires and gives purpose and direction to one's life. That means to live without fear, to discipline our passions and unruly desires... This kind of freedom begins within and is nourished within."

People are able to draw near to God when the inner self is free of distractions and unruly desires. "Spiritual freedom is a matter and affair of seeing and knowing where to look, away from distractions," said Wilken.

After all, the spiritual heart serves as a guide and facilitator. "Love is unitive. Love is what drives our heart and mind for all of us," Wilken said. "With the heart, we come face to face with God."