Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing
Left to Lose by Father Shane Tharp
Concerns about freedom are not a modern issue. Granted, it seems that the last two hundred years of philosophical, and therefore, theological, reflection has touched upon freedom. Are we free? To what extent are we free? What does that freedom mean given God’s omniscience and omnipotence? These questions however have deep taproots into the Western mindset. Take, for instance, the ancient Roman. When it came to the relationship between the gods and the people who worshipped them, well, this was hardly a warm and cuddly relationship. Taking the evidence found in the myths of the period, the gods were capricious, malicious, and very likely to punish you or your loved ones for the slightest slight. Further, your eternal destiny, whether you were able to cross to the land of peace and rest or remain a lost soul on the banks of the River Styx, hinged on the living remembering to place a coin in your mouth so that you could pay the ferryman. That doesn’t sound like a very “free” existence.”
How about his Jewish counterpart? Was freedom something that he experienced daily? When you read the Gospels of the Christian Bible, regularly in the words of Jesus, you find that a burden arose because the Law was used in its narrowest sense: namely, the Law was treated as a measure of what was prohibited and how far one could push on the prescription of the Law before breaking it—which would be like walking on egg shells. This isn’t particularly free either.
In the Christian mindset, therefore, freedom was a hallmark of the new way of life they possessed in Christ. In in St. John’s Gospel, for example, Christ contrasts Himself, and by extension, those who follow Him, with those who would not follow as a relationship of those who are free (because they know the Truth) and those who reject the Truth (John 8:31-36). St. Paul proclaims this same line of reasoning when he writes, “For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21, New American Bible). This freedom that the Christian possesses is nothing other than sharing in the divine freedom of God through Christ. Redemption of the created order will take place, according to St. Paul, in collaboration with Christ who has given freedom as a gift to his followers. Here we begin to see why freedom, properly understood matters. For the Christian, his freedom is not merely for himself; it is part of the larger work of the recapitulation of all things.
The word “freedom” has two connoted meanings: one negative, the other positive. In the negative sense, freedom refers to a freedom from something, e.g. freedom from coercion. In the positive sense, freedom refers to a capacity to do something, such as the freedom to assemble peaceably. This distinction brings to the fore a critical issue surrounding the nature of freedom. Regardless of the sense in which you use the word “freedom,” freedom exists under the banner of a moral perspective. Why should I be free from coercion, for example, unless we all agree that coercion is wrong?
With all due apologies to Janis Joplin, freedom is just another word for nothing left to give. Freedom exists not only to promote authentic good for others, but to pursue the authentic good which realizes our true human dignity. Freedom then is the basic requirement to be a moral person, but that means that freedom is not repressed by morality. Freedom can only find expression once one assents to a moral and philosophical worldview. Without such a worldview, you don’t know in what direction you should turn that feisty will of yours. And even when someone claims that there is either no universal worldview to assume or that they don’t need a worldview, those statements are professions of, guess what, a particular worldview.
Now, the conflict between the modern notion of freedom and the Christian notion of freedom plays starkly in front of us. In the modern mind, freedom equips the individual to realize every wandering, nascent desire that comes to mind. Dress it up as one might, but you keep returning to the basic sense that, for the modern person, freedom is a license to gratify, regardless of the consequences. It is the pandering glorification of teenage mind speak, “You’re not the boss of me, baby!” However, where does this modern notion of freedom lead? It leads either to rehab or to the morgue. The modern man freed from moral strictures so that he can be free finds himself at the end of a very convincing leash, the leash of compulsion. It begins as something I want. Swiftly, however, the thing I wanted becomes the thing I need just to function. Ironically, at this moment, the subject is at his most paralyzed and dependant which stands in marked contrast to the mantra that do what feels good is inherently good for you. Follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion and you find self-annihilation because the decision is no longer about the acting person: it has become centered on the thing desired. This is the root, I suspect, of the general malaise hanging over Western society: we are literally gratifying ourselves to death, a death which infects our minds with ennui and our souls with sloth long before the corpse hits the grave.
For the Christian, freedom comes as a gift given. As such, that gift must respect and reflect the giver, and I don’t give freedom to myself. I can only respect freedom and use it such a way as it will not be compromised by compulsion and needless gratification of the senses. In short, my freedom exists so that I can fulfill the destiny hidden in my design, to live and to love in the same ways, appropriate to my nature, as the One who made me.
|Back to Archive|