For my Japanese family, culturally formed by the Eastern philosophy of Confucius, the answer is simple: family, nation and community come before self, and Harry’s attempts to ditch his responsibility are just childish escapism.
Western opinion, however, seems to be divided in two. The first is much like the Eastern view I have just outlined. The second is its radical opposite: that seeking your own personal freedom, escaping from the ties of tradition and social expectation, is a fundamental right, and that we should be sympathetic to Harry, who like anyone else had no choice in the family he was born to. The self trumps society.
Both of these Western views derive from different parts of our Christian philosophical inheritance, and are neatly encapsulated in the story of the adolescent Jesus getting lost and found in the Temple, the Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Epiphany in the traditional lectionary.
First, we need to think back to Christmas, and the extraordinary notion that the Word was made flesh: that is, that the Creator of all time and space, beyond all things visible and invisible, enters creation in the Christ child. When the twelve year-old Jesus is found in the Temple by Mary and Joseph and is “obedient” to them, this is to say that the King of the Universe becomes a subject to ordinary, human parents. To be fully human, Christ has to be a specific person, with the usual constraints of nation, race, family and gender. He does not come as some ‘generic’ human, because that would not be truly human at all. In Christ, God takes the form of a servant, and shows us the paradoxical truth that the fullness of divine freedom which leads to wisdom and eternal life is not, as for the Greek or Roman gods, the exercise of arbitrary power, but acceptance of limitation and constraint, even to the greatest constraint of death. On this reading, following Jesus’s example, Harry should know his place and obey.
But that is only one side of the matter. Because on the other, there is the fact that Jesus went off on his own without his parents. He vanished for three days, symbolic of the time between his death and Resurrection, breaking free from his supposed father to do his real Father’s business in the Temple. To find his true vocation, to teach wisdom to the wise, he had to break away from society. As he would say elsewhere, with echoes of Buddhist thought, to find yourself, you have to lose yourself. So, Harry is right to seek his own personal calling.
It’s slightly simplistic, but you might characterise the first, more “social” reading as broadly Catholic, and the second, “individualistic” reading as more Protestant. So which is right? What should Harry do?
The truth, surely, lies somewhere between the two. Jesus has to have some distance from his family to flourish and to grow, but in the end, he returns to that family. For Harry and for us, too, while we must indeed seek our own personal vocation, our own path, we will not find that in isolation. Our history, traditions, social connections and upbringing belong to us and we to them.
I can only find myself in my relation to other people, past and present; and I will find my own salvation only in the salvation of others.
This week’s Collect might be a fitting one for Prince Harry and for any of us whenever we seek guidance in making difficult decisions:
O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people who call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Gospel Reading for the First Sunday after Epiphany: Luke 2:41-52
Now every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.