This morning, I listened to an interesting Connection Point podcast on the subject of choice. In the podcast, Reuben Munn refers to the following modern parable by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and suggests that it might be an accurate expression of how many of us live out our lives.
A certain flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with high walls around it. Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese would never take a risk. One day a philosopher goose came among them. He was a very good philosopher and every week they listened quietly and attentively to his learned discourses. ‘My fellow travellers on the way of life,’ he would say, ‘can you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence?
‘I tell you, there is another and a greater world outside, a world of which we are only dimly aware. Our forefathers knew of this outside world. For did they not stretch their wings and fly across the trackless wastes of desert and ocean, of green valley and wooded hill? But alas, here we remain in this barnyard, our wings folded and tucked into our sides, as we are content to puddle in the mud, never lifting our eyes to the heavens which should be our home.
The geese thought this was very fine lecturing. ‘How poetical,’ they thought. ‘How profoundly existential. What a flawless summary of the mystery of existence.’ Often the philosopher spoke of the advantages of flight, calling on the geese to be what they were. After all, they had wings, he pointed out. What were wings for, but to fly with? Often he reflected on the beauty and the wonder of life outside the barnyard, and the freedom of the skies.
And every week the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher’s message. They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure!
An English translation as quoted by Athol Gill, The Fringes Of Freedom: Following Jesus, Living Together, Working For Justice.(Lancer, Homebush West, NSW) pp. 30f.
While Reuben speaks to a predominantly Christian audience in his sermon, I think there is plenty of food for thought in the parable for everyone. Reuben encourages and challenges us on whether we desire to escape the barnyard and experience the freedom of the skies or instead are simply content to live the life of ‘practical atheists’ or ‘Sunday morning Christians’. Regardless of our philosophical or faith position, this parable invites us to question whether we have settled for the known, the predictable and the safe in our lives or are we daring to scale the wall to explore the mysterious.
For Christians, the parable perhaps prompts us to examine whether we are just passively speaking to our faith (quite literally paying lip service), rather than actively living the life and modeling the behaviour witnessed in scripture. Just yesterday, I made observations and criticised behaviours in others that I later came to see as hypocritical, in light of my own similar behaviour a few days earlier.
It would seem I have some way to go before I clear that barnyard wall.
Reuben Munn is the pastor of Shore Community Christian Church, a ‘come as you are’ church in Albany, on Auckland’s North Shore in New Zealand.