Paradoxes of Freedom (part 2 of 3): True Freedom Is Limited

This is the second in a series of three posts on the often-paradoxical characteristics of true freedom.

Another one of the seeming paradoxes of true freedom is that it cannot be had unless it is limited. Absolute freedom leads to an anarchy in which no one is really free to act. Consider that we would not be free to drive if there were no traffic laws. The ensuing chaos would make driving extremely difficult—and dangerous! The freedom to drive, to come and go, depends upon us limiting our freedom to drive however we please; we cooperate through obedience to agreed-upon laws of the road.

I am writing this post in English. I appreciate the freedom we have to communicate and debate. However, my freedom to communicate with you as well as your freedom to comprehend me are contingent upon me limiting myself by obeying the rules of English grammar, syntax, and semantics. Consider these “sentences”:

Horse gravy not trap if said approach acre world existential yet sweater fire.

dasJja, gyu4.uwe %&^% ]*UVO(&, ixf gauy ga(&68Gn9 (!*&r(*wt(3

What, can’t you read? You don’t understand? Clearly, when I exercise absolute freedom neither of us is really free.

So, the paradox of freedom is that we can only experience it by accepting constraints upon it. Without limits, we are hindered from acting freely.

Jesus and freedom – Here, too, is an insight into 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). Note the use of the word “if” at the beginning. Jesus is saying that if we limit ourselves to holding to His teaching, we will be truly free. Limiting oneself, not merely doing what one pleases, is what unlocks the freedom that Jesus offers.

See how different this is from how many today conceive of freedom; they hold that the announcement of biblical truth threatens freedom! To such libertines, any limit is an attack on freedom. Jesus says just the opposite. 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 to enjoy its freeing power. The paradoxical result is that the propositions of the truth of God’s teaching do not limit our freedom so much as enhance it.

Image – Absolute freedom is not really freedom at all. It is a state of chaos in which no one can really move. Every ancient city had walls, but they were not so much prison walls as defending walls. One had to limit oneself to staying within the walls to enjoy their protection, but inside there was great freedom, for one was not constantly fighting off enemies or living in 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 consider the result of rejecting those limits. As we discussed in yesterday’s post, the libertine world, which demands to live apart from God’s truth, does not seem very free. Addictions, compulsions, neuroses, and high levels of stress are widespread in the modern West. We have seen the crumbling of the nuclear family due to the seeming inability of so many people to establish and keep a lasting commitment. An adolescent obsession with sex has led to promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, single mothers/absent fathers, and abortion. Greed and addiction to wealth enslave many in a kind of financial bondage; they cannot afford the lifestyle their passions demand, so they are deep in debt and still unsatisfied. The so-called freedom of the modern world apart from the truth of the gospel is far from evident. It looks a lot more like slavery. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 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 to bondage.

This creative video features an interview that illustrates how we are free to communicate only within the constraints of grammar and the rules of language.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Paradoxes of Freedom (part 2 of 3): True Freedom Is Limited