Tuesday 3 October 2006

Theology for beginners (18): Freedom

Summary: Through the power of the Spirit and under the lordship of the risen and ascended Jesus, the Christian community is set free in relation to God, to one another, and to the world.

By participating in the life of Jesus through the Spirit, the Christian community exists as a community of freedom: it is characterised by freedom in every dimension of its life.

In the life of each individual member of the community, this freedom is expressed right from the start in the washing of baptism. Through baptism, a person becomes a member of the community. Baptism is a bath that washes away the past and sets the individual free for the new life of God’s coming kingdom. In the bath of baptism, we are immersed into the life of the community – we do not make ourselves members of the community, but we are plunged into the life of the community by the liberating power of the Spirit.

The Christian life thus begins with this joyful and liberating event. And so the community consists of diverse individual members who have been decisively liberated for true fellowship and true communion through the washing of baptism. The whole life of the community, then, is an expression of this freedom, the freedom of the Spirit.

In the first place, the community is free in relation to God. And the special expression of this freedom is prayer. Since we are united to Jesus through the Spirit, we are set free to address God as “Father” – as the Father of Jesus, and therefore also as the Father of the whole community. It is true that we have no inherent right to call God “Father.” The ability to say “Father” is not something that we can ever blithely presume upon, nor something that we can ever strive for or achieve. On the contrary, we can call God “Father” only because of grace, only because God himself has freely gathered us into his family, only because the Spirit is at work in us, uniting us to the risen Jesus and thus allowing us to participate in Jesus’ own unique relationship to God. In other words, we are set free to call God our Father in thanksgiving and petition – we are liberated both to say “Father” and to understand ourselves as God’s own dear children.

Moreover, as members of the Christian community we are free in relation to one another. Just as we have all been washed in the same bath of baptism, and share in the same eucharistic meal, so too each of us is set free to participate in each other’s lives, and to share our own lives with one another. We are liberated from the economy of scarcity, negotiation and exchange, and are ushered instead into an economy of grace, of joyful giving and receiving. In this way, within the community, our lives of mutual interdependence anticipate the coming life of God’s kingdom.

As members of the Christian community, we are also set free to relate to the world in a new way. United to the risen and ascended Lord through the power of the Spirit, we are now liberated from the power of all other “lords.” Vis-à-vis every social, political and economic ideology, the community stands in the freedom of the Spirit under the lordship of Jesus.

In social life, for instance, we are empowered to give freely and unconditionally to the poor and the undeserving. We are set free to give to those who can never repay us, just as we too have freely received grace from God. Similarly, in economic life we are set free from the lordship of possessions, from the vicious cycle of need and consumption. Our participation in the life of Jesus is expressed here as contentment, as freedom in relation to possessions.

So too, those of us in positions of corporate and economic power are set free from the lordship of economic progress, set free from the vicious cycle of ever-increasing production and consumption. Through the Spirit, those with power are set free to renounce their power, to use power not merely for commercial gain but also for the benefit and enrichment of human lives.

Again, in political life the lordship of the risen and ascended Jesus sets us free from the lordship of all political systems and ideologies. Through the power of the Spirit we are set free for political critique and, where necessary, political resistance. This will mean a critique of all tendencies to reify or totalise abstract systems (e.g. “the fatherland,” or “the economy”) at the expense of individual human dignity. On the other hand, it will also mean a critique of every tendency to reify or totalise individual “rights” at the expense of human togetherness in community. Moreover, just as God has entered into solidarity with us by becoming poor and lowly in the crucified Jesus, so too we will seek solidarity with the poor and the marginalised and the oppressed – so that we will have the freedom to critique every system that privileges the rich over the poor, the powerful over the weak.

None of this should be taken to suggest that as members of the Christian community we are free from responsibility to the state. Rather, we are to carry out our political responsibility precisely by indicating that every political system and ideology is already critiqued and relativised by the coming kingdom of God which has appeared in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

In all dimensions of life, therefore, the community lives in the freedom of the Spirit under the lordship of Jesus. As the community expresses its freedom in these varied ways, it demonstrates its own participation in the life of Jesus. Thus the Christian community provides the world with an anticipatory glimpse of God’s coming kingdom – a kingdom in which all creation will at last be liberated under the kingly lordship of the risen and ascended Jesus.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV/4, Lecture Fragments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).
  • Barth, Karl. Against the Stream (London: SCM, 1954).
  • Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom, 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 2003).
  • Käsemann, Ernst. Jesus Means Freedom (London: SCM, 1969).
  • Küng, Hans. On Being a Christian (New York: Doubleday, 1976), pp. 581-602.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), pp. 79-111.
  • Tanner, Kathryn. The Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
  • Williams, Rowan. The Truce of God (London: Fount, 1983).


Closed said...

One of the problems with this is it still sets up those of us who critique on behalf of rather than waiting attentively with and in that waiting let others speak and offer critique of their own from their own place, perhaps even of us. That makes room for us actually being an us.

I always have to ask myself, who decides when rights are reified or not, and who is the community being spoken of? Community can easily blind itself to its participation in harming others and if powerful can simply respond to its critics--you're reifying rights. Usually those who speak these words, including Archbishop Rowan Williams, are those who enjoy a full portion of rights within a society structured to benefit some and not others, though it isn't obvious to those who benefit that those others do not.

There's still a center/margin dynamic here, that needs some work that undoes the underlying sense of us/them, powerful/powerless, insider/outsider that too much of liberation speak seems to become when spoken from those doing liberation on behalf of others. In that way, someone like myself can offer a response to someone telling me what my cross is and should be, when it might be having the strength and courage rather to confront those who decide and have the power to enforce what the crosses of others or the conversions of others should look like.

W. Travis McMaken said...

I really appreciated this post. However, I wonder how your organization might change and how other strands of thought might be included, if you incorporated into your treatment the notion that the human person is also freed in relation to herself, that is, the Christian is free to be truely human. Of course, freedom to be truely human involves freedom before God, each other, and the world.

Anonymous said...

Is "bath" perhaps too thin a description of baptism? In addition to a personal cleansing, it is also participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Maybe you'll be saying more about sacraments later?

Anonymous said...

In the line of Luther and Barth on Christian libertas. A truly tremendous post, Ben.

For me, Patrickc's point about baptism as participation in the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6) is the only addition you might incorporate into this essay when you turn "Theology for Beginners" into a small book. For our ultimate enslavement is to fear, and the ultimate fear (as the existentialists remind us) is the fear of death. Baptism means that our death is now behind us, not ahead of us - and not metaphorically but quite literally. Thus I once preached a baptismal sermon entitled "Witnessing Your Own Funeral".

byron smith said...

This is one of the best so far. Thank you.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for these comments -- the points about baptism and death are especially helpful.

David W. Congdon said...

Fantastic. Your discussion of the social extent of our Christian liberty is excellent and especially apropos in the American political context with which I am familiar.

A book worth mentioning, though perhaps too narrow for a general reading list, would be Eberhard Jüngel's The Freedom of the Christian: Luther's Significance for Contemporary Theology. I think what Jüngel helps articulate is precisely what WTM suggested: a focus on one's relation to oneself. As you know, Jüngel characterizes sin as relationlessness, and a restored relation to God enables one to have an appropriate relation to oneself, rather than being incurvatus in se -- turned in upon oneself. It might help to add something along those lines in a future expansion of these posts in what I can only hope will be your own version of a "Dogmatics in Outline."

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