Freedom of Thought

Huck Finn
In 1968, my sophomore year of high school, Huckleberry Finn set me free.

I grew up as a Catholic with lots of questions. I believed deeply in a loving God, but so much doctrine seemed fraught with injustice. “Why can’t unbaptised babies go to heaven? They can’t help it if their parents don’t go to church.” “If a person lives where they never even heard of Jesus, how can they get to heaven?” “If someone grows up poor and in a bad neighborhood, is it right they are judged the same as someone with good parents and a comfortable home?”

My mother found my questions annoying, maybe even disturbing. Huge sigh. “I don’t know, Mary Beth,” she would say. “That’s something you can ask God after you die.” I was dismissed.

Between my shyness and the distress my mother displayed, I didn’t even broach the subject with the nuns. They might have deemed me a smart-ass or some other variety of troublemaker. There were no answers to be found from my catechism classes, weekly sermons, or family. I learned to keep my thoughts to myself, but the internal struggle continued.

Did God love all his creation or just some of us? Could some have been set up to fail? What about the ones my church taught were definitely going to hell? My heart ached for those people. Did that mean I loved them more than God?

That question disturbed even me. I was horrified by these thoughts and stashed them into all-too-shallow graves. Before long, they would dig themselves out, causing me to cringe in the humiliation of my heresy.

Then came tenth grade English and the thirty-first chapter of Huckleberry Finn, the story of a boy escaping civilization with a runaway slave, Jim. Ken Burns calls Chapter Thirty-One the “moral climax” of the story. Huck learns that Jim has been captured and will be returned to slavery. The boy becomes ashamed that he has done something as vile as helping a runaway slave, that he was “stealing a poor old woman’s n— that hadn’t ever done [him] no harm.”

He felt certain he would burn in hell. Once he wrote a letter to Miss Watson detailing Jim’s whereabouts, he felt free from sin. Yet warm memories of their trip down the river and the many kindnesses Jim had bestowed on Huck tortured the boy.

“It was a close place. I took [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.”

The potency of these words—only powerful because Huck truly believed he would go to hell—slammed me in the heart. What more can you sacrifice for the love of another than your immortal soul? It is the ultimate act of love.

Yet, I saw this through the eyes of one who grew up watching the Civil Rights Movement battle injustices on the daily news. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been gunned down only months before.

The original audience in 1885 had no such perspective; many likely still subscribed to the beliefs about slavery and the nature of black people with which Huck was surrounded. How many early readers still believed Huck’s attitude was sinful?

That led to my moment of enlightenment—Truth is not determined by popular consent. Belief by everyone you know does not constitute Reality. I believed God rejoiced at Huck’s decision and He would rejoice as heartily if I, too, would think beyond what we call “conventional wisdom.” Even Biblical interpretation is subject to human fallacy.

Perhaps God smiled warmly on my questions. I was no longer a heretic. I became free and I remain free. I ponder the nature of God and humans. My worldview does not conform fully to any one religion or denomination, but is always based in love.

Twain’s masterpiece has been controversial since its publication in 1885. Then it was banned as “immoral”, “suitable only for the slums.” They made no mention of the racial stereotypes and epithets that concern censors of today. Yet all these protectors of youth have neglected to examine the permission the book gives its readers to think their very own radical thoughts.

Like Huck. Like me.

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