On the Fourth of July in the United States of America we celebrate freedom. In particular we celebrate freedom from tyranny, freedom from government that is not representative, and freedom from unchecked power and unaccountable sovereigns.
Yet as Christians, we cannot overlook that there are ways of understanding freedom today that are distorted, exaggerated, and detached from a proper biblical, Christian, or Natural Law context. Many modern concepts of freedom treat it as somewhat of an abstraction.
Yes, many speak of freedom in the abstract and have a hard time nailing down the details. So let’s talk about some of the details.
Most people like to think of freedom as pretty absolute, as in, “No one is going to tell me what to do.” But in the end freedom is not an abstraction and is not absolute; it cannot be. As limited and contingent beings, we exercise our freedom only within limits, and within a prescribed context. Pretending that our freedom is absolute leads to anarchy. And anarchy leads to the collapse of freedom into chaos and the tyranny of individual wills locked in power struggles.
One of the great paradoxes of freedom is that it really cannot be had unless we limit it. Absolute freedom leads to an anarchy wherein no one is really free to act. Consider the following:
- We would not be free to drive if there were no traffic laws. The ensuing chaos would making driving quite impossible, not to mention dangerous. The freedom to drive, to come and go, depends on us limiting our freedom and cooperating through obedience to agreed-upon norms. Only within the limited freedom of traffic laws and agreed-upon norms can we really experience the freedom to drive, or to come and go. (See photo upper right.)
- Grammar or Goofy – Right now I am writing to you in English. I appreciate the freedom we have to communicate and debate. But my freedom to communicate with you is contingent upon me limiting myself to the rules we call grammar and syntax. Were there no rules, I would lose my freedom to communicate with you. And you also would not be free to comprehend me. What if I were to say, “Jibberish not kalendar if said my you, in existential mode or yet.” And you were to respond: “dasja, gyuuwe %&^% (*UPO(&, if sauy ga(&689 (*&(*))!!” We may be exercising our “freedom” to say what we please, but our insistence on that freedom in too absolute a way really cancels the experience of freedom, for communication shuts down and nothing is really happening. When we demand absolute freedom from the limits of grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and so forth, we are really no longer free to communicate at all. Anarchy leads not to freedom, but to chaos.
- Music or mumble – When I finish writing this post, I am free to go over to the Church and play the pipe organ (which I think I’ll do). But I am only free to do that because I once constrained myself for many years of practice under the direction of a teacher. I am also only free to play if I limit myself to interpreting the musical notation within a series of rules and norms. Within and because of these constraints and rules, I am free to play the instrument. I may wish to refuse to follow the rule that one must first switch on the power, but I am not going to get very far or really be free to play unless I obey.
So the paradox of freedom is that we can only experience freedom by accepting constraints to our freedom. Without constraints and limits, we are actually hindered from acting freely.
This is a very important first step in rescuing the concept of freedom from the abstract and experiencing it in the real world. Absolute freedom is not freedom at all. Since we are limited and contingent beings, we can only exercise and experience our freedom within limits.
This is also an important lesson to our modern world. For too many today push the concept of freedom beyond reasonable bounds. They insist on their right to act, but without accepting the reasonable constraints that make true freedom possible. Many today demand acceptance of increasingly bad and disruptive behavior.
But in rejecting proper boundaries, we usually see not an increase of freedom but a decrease of it for all of us. Thus our culture becomes increasingly litigious as burdensome laws are passed by a “nanny-state” seeking to regulate every small aspect of our lives. Among the sources of growing and intrusive law is that some refuse to limit their bad behavior; some refuse to live up to commitments they have made; some abandon self-control; some insist on living outside safe and proper norms. Many insist that the solution to protecting them from others who abuse their freedom is more laws. And many are successful in getting increasingly restrictive laws passed.
Again, the lesson is clear: without some limits, freedom is not possible. And when reasonable limits are cast aside, the paradoxical result is not more freedom, but far less of it. Freedom is not absolute. Absolute freedom is not freedom at all; it is the tyranny of chaos and the eventual erosion of freedom.
Alexis De Tocqueville said, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” In America today, we are seeing the erosion of all three in reverse order. Those who want to establish freedom in the abstract will only see that freedom erode.
Jesus and Freedom – This leads us to understanding what Jesus means when he says, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
There are many people today who excoriate the Church and the Scriptures as a limit to their freedom. And sadly, quite a number of these are Catholics. To such as these, the Church is trying to “tell them what to do.” Christians are trying “to impose their values on the rest of us.” Now of course the Church cannot really force anyone to do much of anything.
Yes, many claim that the announcement of biblical truth threatens their freedom. But Jesus says just the opposite: it is the truth that sets us free. Now the truth is a set of propositions that limits us to some extent. If “A” is true then “not A” is false. I must accept the truth and base my life on it in order to enjoy its freeing power. And the paradoxical result is that the propositions of the truth of God’s teaching do not limit our freedom, they enhance it.
Image – As we have seen, absolute freedom is not really freedom at all. It is chaos wherein no one can really move. Every ancient city had walls. But these were not so much prison walls as defending walls. True, one had to limit oneself and stay within the walls to enjoy their protection. But within the walls there was great freedom, for one was not constantly fighting off enemies, or distracted with fearful vigilance. People were freed for other pursuits, but only within the walls.
Those who claim that the truth of the Gospel limits their freedom might also consider that the world outside God’s truth shows itself to be far less free than it seems.
- Addictions and compulsions in our society abound.
- Neuroses and high levels of stress are major components of modern living.
- The breakdown of the family and the seeming inability of increasing numbers to establish and keep lasting commitments is quite evident.
- A kind of obsession with sex is apparent, and the widespread sadness of STDs, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood (absent fathers), and abortion are its results.
- Addiction to wealth and greed (the insatiable desire for more) enslaves many in a sort of financial bondage wherein they cannot really afford the lifestyle their passions demand, yet they are still unsatisfied.
The so-called “freedom” of the modern world (apart from the truth of the Gospel) is far from evident. These bondages also extend to the members of the Church, to the extent that we do not seriously embrace the truth of the Gospel and base our lives upon it. The Catechism says rather plainly,
The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” (CCC # 1733)
In the end, the paradox proves itself. Only limited freedom is true freedom. Demands for absolute freedom lead only to hindered freedom and outright slavery.
Ponder freedom on this 4th of July. Ponder its paradoxes; accept its limits. For freedom is glorious. But because we are limited and contingent beings, so is our freedom. Ponder finally this paradoxical truth: the highest freedom is the capacity to obey God.
This video is one of my favorites. It shows a “Jibberish interview.” It illustrates how we are free to communicate only within the constraints of grammar and the rules of language.
Photo Credit: G.Krishnaswamy in the The Hindu