Tuesday 28 February 2006

The meaning of freedom

(I wrote this post yesterday for Lyn Perry’s “Daily Brew” column, and I’m reproducing it here.)

In the history of the church, human “freedom” has often been understood simply as the ability to choose between alternative options. I can choose either A or B, and therefore I am “free.” But such an understanding of freedom is absurd: merely standing at a crossroads does not make me free. Freedom is not the abstract ability to choose between two paths—rather it is the concrete choice of one particular path.

Indeed, the mere ability to choose can lead to unfreedom. Just think of our consumer culture, our supermarket shelves lined with a thousand possibilities. I may experience such possibilities not as an enlargement of my personal life, but as a confinement—I may find myself paralysed by choice. In this case, the ability to choose between alternative options has become enslavement, paralysis, unfreedom.

But according to the New Testament, true freedom is not an abstract ability to choose. It is not the state of the consumer in a supermarket of possibilities; it is not the motionless state of a traveller at the crossroads. Rather, freedom is a specific movement of my personal life—it is an act in which my whole self goes out of itself towards the other. Or, to put it simply, freedom is love—not love as a static possibility, but love as an act and movement of my life in one very specific direction, in relationship to another person.

I am not free in relation to my wife if I am standing at the crossroads, able to say either “Yes” or “No” to her. I am free in relation to her only when I go out of myself towards her with a decisive and unqualified “Yes.” Similarly, freedom before God is not the ability either to choose God or to reject him. Freedom before God is the movement of life in which my whole being responds to God with an unqualified “Yes.” As long as this “Yes” is merely one possibility alongside others, I am not yet free. Only in the act of saying this “Yes” do I enter into the life of freedom.

This is the freedom of self-giving obedience, the freedom of joyful service, the freedom of love.


Chris Tilling said...

I've just been doing some light reading up on the freedom-determinism debate in light of recent neurological studies. And notably 'freedom' was not itself defined - so I like the way you approached this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ben.

& Chris, more on "in light of ..neuro studies"??


Tim Adeney said...


I can relate to your supermarket experience, which is why I find Aldi (with its 6-800 as oppossed to 25,000 items) liberating.

O'Donovan has some thoughts on freedom you may be interested in. He distinguishes between the freedom to begin, and the consequent "loss" of freedom required to complete.

"The loss of freedom I have incurred in accepting responsibility is an aspect of freedom itself. The condition for realizing freedom is that I shall accept limitations on it. All that can be done in absolute freedom is to begin; finishing implies responsibility. Somone who is free only to begin is not free to act. So freedom itslef implies the dialectical movement by which we limit in order to realize it"

(O'Donovan, Ways of Judgment, p52)

So the modern person realizes that while they may be able to pursue any career, they cannot pursue every career!

I wondered also if such an understnading of freedom helps hold together God's freedom, with his commitment to creation, and realities such as the fact that the Messiah "must" suffer.

Thanks for your blog, I'm a regular visitor


Ben Myers said...

Good to hear from you, Tim, and thanks for your thoughtful comment. O'Donovan's point here about freedom and limitation is very helpful.

Anonymous said...

The post on freedom was very interesting. It seems to accept that any notion of the word freedom in its traditional sense (i.e. we are not shackled by anything and have the possibility of unhampered choice)no longer exists. This I am happy with. I can also accept that freedom in relation to God may also be the movement of life with an unqualified yes towards God, but you also suggest that freedom would be thus in relation to others. You use the example of your wife. Surely this can only be the case though if your wife (to follow the example) is inline with that which is holy.

Therefore if I fall in love with Robert Mugabe and stand at a crossroads with him and move towards him with an unqualified yes then either I must hope that he is a beacon of the holy or that I am, and thus I will be free through my intention or the movement of myself.

Choosing one path in itself will not lead to freedom. Being able to discern that which is Holy and of God and then choosing that path may. This involves me choosing and discerning. The ability to choose and being offered the choice in itself then must surely be a part of any notion of freedom. Too much choice may be bad for us but it doesn't make us less free. The act of choice can be a part of what it means to be free without wholly defining what it means.

To end, I really enjoy your blog.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for raising these points, Sam. I'd agree with your first point: I didn't mean to suggest that freedom is just the choice of any path, but rather the choice of one particular path, which will be different in each new situation and relationship.

Still, I'm not sure I'd agree that freedom is also "the ability to choose". I guess I'd prefer to say that "the ability to choose" is a necessary condition for freedom (just as "being a person" is a necessary condition for freedom, but not freedom itself).

Anonymous said...

Eleutheria in the NT never means the "freedom to choose" (which Hans Küng describes as the mere "anthropological subsoil of Christian freedom"). Certainly the freedom to choose to do evil is characterised as slavery (John 8:34, II Peter 2:19).

True Christian freedom - libertas - is the freedom of the children of God - and that is not the freedom to sin but the freedom from sin, the ability not to sin at all (potestas non peccandi [Anselm]) - and the freedom to be there for others in love. And that is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Bonhoeffer spoke of Jesus as "the man for others": thus was Jesus the Free One.

Ben Myers said...

Yes, excellent point Kim.

Chris Tilling said...

"It is not the right to choose that defines the reality of human freedom. It is the doing of the good" - Moltmann

Daniel Nairn said...

I whole-heartedly assent to the conclusions that y'all are reaching: freedom being "doing good" and "choosing the particular path" of "love". However, it's not entirely easy to follow the semantic path from the traditional conception of choice to this understanding, and the cynic could understandably throw up his arms and claim we are smuggling an entire new concept into this word. "We have a perfectly good word for love already: love." I'd like to propose desire as a link that can help those with a libertarian bent make their way over to this more robust use of the word freedom. Given a biblically informed position on desire, I see nothing wrong with the simple definition, "freedom means the ability to perform anything one desires."

After all, there is no use for choices that one has no desire to make. As you've mentioned, the over-abundance of choices at a supermarket can even result in confusing our desires, which ultimately leads to lack of freedom. The Bible distinguishes the desire of the flesh (DOF) from the desire of the Spirit (DOS). DOF are, by nature, insatiable because they are only concerned with self-aggrandizement. This thirst for more personal glory will always result in lack of freedom as we hit the glass ceiling of human limitations. (Am I not free unless I can run a 2-minute mile? Have x and y possessions?). However, DOS are attainable, because they are focused on the glory of God and a self-giving movement toward the other. DOS bring us back in touch with the desires we were created to have, that are a perfect fit for the creaturely standing that we have in relation to our sovereign Creator. I say DOS are attainable, but I suppose it is better to say that a sinful person is able to attain DOS, and thus experience true freedom, to the extent that the Spirit is sanctifying this person. Ultimately, I think that this lands in the same place. Freedom is love.

I understand why O'Donovan, Barth, and others feel the need to speak of "limitation" within freedom, in order to make room for responsibility, but what mankind really yearns for is absolute freedom, not just freedom up to a certain degree. It is my opinions that these qualifications are only necessary once ability becomes unhinged from desire, a true desire of the Spirit.

I hope this is all within the Augustine-Calvin-Edwards tradition.

Anonymous said...

To tighten up Barth' teaching on freedom:

1. The "freedom of choice" is the servum arbitrium. Absolute freedom, like absolute power (potentia absoluta), is evil.

2. The divine freedom is not the freedom to do anything, it is precisely the freedom from such freedom: "God is not free; God is free." God is free to define and determine his own freedom. But God is love.

3. God in his freedom has, in fact, decided to be free by binding himself in covenant with Israel, the church and all humanity. This choice is his election of grace in Jesus Christ. It is the self-determination of the trinity of love to be in love with the created other. You could say that the divine nature is the grammar of the divine love, not the reverse.

4. Human freedom echoes (corresponds to) this divine freedom. It is not the result of "free choice", it is the reception of the free gift of God, the gift of fellowship with God and with others. Eberhard Busch observes: "Freedom is certainly a choice for Barth, but only in the sense that I can choose only what God has already chosen. Everything else that I might choose is already unfree."

5. Strictly speaking, it is not the will that is free/not free, it is the person who wills who is free/not free. Schopenhauer said: "Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills." Volition is a function of ontology, freedom ia an expression of character, virtuous character. A good tree bears good fruit.

Anonymous said...

Correction to the last sentence in 3. above - it should read: "You could say that the divine nature is the grammar of the divine will, not the reverse.


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