Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Ten propositions on freedom

by Kim Fabricius

1. An intellectual history Europe since the Enlightenment could be written with the title “The Decline and Fall of the Concept of Freedom”. The nadir has now been reached with the banality of freedom as “choice”. From life-style and shopping, to schools and hospitals, to our bodies and death itself, the mantra is “choice”. Such an understanding of freedom “presupposes a blank will looking out at a bundle of options like goods on a supermarket shelf” (Rowan Williams). A more vulgar anthropology is hard to imagine.

2. Nor a more dangerous one: for “freedom of choice” read “will-to-power” and social nihilism. And all the more dangerous for the rhetorical force of the word “freedom”, with its claim to ideological innocence and, indeed, quasi- religious righteousness. Here a hermeneutics of secular suspicion is de rigueur – but so too is a hermeneutics of theological retrieval and reconstruction.

3. Writing at the beginning of the Cold War, Isaiah Berlin famously plotted a pre- to post-Rousseau trajectory of freedom. Initially Berlin referred to these two types of liberty as the “liberal” and the “romantic”, the former understood as the absence of obstacles to thought and action, the latter understood as self-expression and -actualisation. Later, in a seminal inaugural lecture at Oxford in 1958, Berlin recast these concepts as “negative” and “positive” liberty. Berlin did not reject positive liberty as such, but he observed, historically, a “strange reversal”: what began (for example in the French Revolution) as reformation ended in terror and tyranny.

4. Berlin was attacked from both left and right. The right resented his challenge to liberal elites and disputed his claim that the values of freedom and truth may be incompatible, and his insistence that liberty should therefore be disconnected from projects of liberation. The left argued that his critique of self-realisation, while right about Rousseau, was a distortion of Kant; and that while on target about Stalinism, it left laissez-faire regimes to run amok.

5. Needless to say, theologians must look on these internecine secular polemics with astonished detachment. The scene really is Pythonesque. How, we wonder, can these philosophers be unaware of the elephant in the room? Because, they think, the beast has long been banished to the Reservation for Otiose Deities. But why the enforced exile? Because they think that divine and human freedom is a zero-sum game, an exercise in irreducible agonistics. Because, in short, they have a pagan notion of divine omnipotence and presume the Trinity to be a mathematical nonsense.

6. Herbert McCabe (following Aquinas): “God’s activity does not compete with mine. Whereas the activity of any other creature makes a difference to mine and would interfere with my freedom, the activity of God makes no difference. It has a more fundamental job to do than making a difference. It makes me have my own activity in the first place. I am free…. Not free of him (this would be to cease to exist), but free of other creatures. The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature – a part of the world.”

7. The inevitable and predictable upshot of this oppositional understanding of human and divine freedom is an antagonistic reading of human freedom over against nature, other individuals, and society as a whole. And thus the “convention” of freedom as human autonomy, pre- or post-Rousseau, personal or political, is unmasked as “destructive of the very reality of liberty which it seeks to uphold and defend…. What is required is a gospel-derived account of freedom as that which creatures discover in fellowship with the free, self-bestowing God made known in Christ and in the Spirit” (John Webster).

8. The starting point for such an account will be freedom as divine gift, the gift of me and the gift of others. I am free to be the unique person the Father has created me to be, freed by the Son from the false self I have become, enslaved to sin and death, freed for life in the Holy Spirit who perfects human freedom. The Trinity sets me free from self-concern, above all the self-concern of fear. But in the same dynamic movement, the Trinity sets me free for other people, given to me to love. Evangelical freedom is thus not the “freedom” to do what I want. “What kind of power would that be! Man becomes free and is free by choosing, deciding, and determining himself in accordance with the freedom of God. The source of man’s freedom is also its yardstick” (Karl Barth).

9. Luther: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.” The relationship between freedom and obedience is not antithetical but dialectical. Ben Quash suggests that Karl Barth “wants the creature to have the obedient embrace of freedom,” while Hans Urs von Balthasar “wants the free embrace of obedience.” Both, however, are agreed that the free creature is characterised, above all, by joy and thanksgiving – and by prayer and praise.

10. Finally, a theological account of freedom must have not only a relational and social but indeed a political dimension, a baptised version of Isaiah Berlin’s “positive liberty”. The Old Testament paradigms are the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the return from Babylonian captivity. In the New Testament Jesus reconfigures Isaiah (of Jerusalem, not Berlin!) with his Jubilee manifesto (Luke 4:18-19, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2). The freedom of the children of God is more than political freedom, but its telos cannot be less than political freedom. When Western missionaries translated the Bible into African languages, for “redemption” they often used words that meant, literally, “God takes the chains from our necks.” Libertas is a package deal – even if the package is finally unwrapped only in the civitas Dei.

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