All across the United States on the Fourth of July, we celebrate freedom. In particular, freedom from tyranny, from government that is not representative, from unchecked power, and from 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. Let’s talk about some of the details.
Most people like to think of freedom as absolute, as in, “No one is going to tell me what to do.” In the end, though, freedom 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, which then leads to the collapse of freedom into chaos and the tyranny of individual wills locked in power struggles.
Yes, one of the great paradoxes of freedom is that it really cannot be had unless it is limited. Absolute freedom leads to an anarchy under which no one is really free to act. Consider the following:
1. Without traffic laws we would not be free to drive. The ensuing chaos would make it quite impossible, not to mention dangerous. The freedom to drive, to come and go freely, depends on us limiting our freedom through obedience to agreed-upon norms. Only constrained by traffic laws and agreed-upon norms can we really experience the freedom to drive. (See photo at upper right.)
2. Grammar or goofy – Right now I am writing this post in English. I appreciate the freedom we have to communicate and debate. But my freedom to communicate with you is contingent upon my limiting myself within the rules we call grammar and syntax. Were there no rules, I would lose my freedom to communicate with you, and you would not be free to comprehend me. What if I were to say, “Without not calendar if said my you in existential mode or yet,” and you were to respond, “dasja gyuuwe reuwiojlfs”? We might be exercising our “freedom” to say what we please, but our insistence on that absolute freedom would effectively cancel the experience of freedom, for we would not really be communicating. When we demand absolute freedom from the limits of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, we are really no longer free to communicate at all. Anarchy leads not to freedom, but to chaos.
3. Music or mumble – Once 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 with 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 set of rules and norms. Within and because of these constraints and rules, I am free to play the organ. 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 it by accepting constraints upon it. Without constraints and limits, our ability to act freely is actually hindered.
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. Because we are limited and contingent beings, we can only exercise and experience our freedom within limits.
This is also an important lesson to the modern world. Too many people 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.
In rejecting proper boundaries, though, we usually see not an increase of freedom but a decrease of it for everyone. Our culture is becoming increasingly litigious as burdensome laws are passed by a “nanny-state” seeking to regulate every small aspect of our lives. Among the sources of the growing number of intrusive laws is people’s refusal to limit their bad behavior, to live up to their commitments, to exercise self-control, or to live within safe and proper norms. Many insist that the solution to protecting them from others who abuse their freedom is more laws. Many have been successful in getting increasingly restrictive laws passed.
Again, the lesson is clear: freedom is not possible without some limits. When reasonable limits are cast aside, the paradoxical result is not more freedom, but far less. 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 of these—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 meant when He said, “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. 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. Jesus said 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” must be false. I must accept the truth and base my life on it in order to enjoy its freeing power. 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 they were not so much prison walls as they were defending walls. True, one had to limit oneself by staying within them to enjoy their protection, but within them there was great freedom because one was not constantly fighting off enemies or distracted with fearful vigilance. People were freed to engage in 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 abound in our society.
● Neuroses and high levels of stress are major components of modern living.
● A seeming inability to establish and honor lasting commitments has contributed to the breakdown of the family.
● An apparent obsession with sex has led to widespread STDs, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood (absent fathers), and abortion.
● Greed and addiction to wealth enslave many in a sort of financial bondage in which they try to maintain a lifestyle they cannot afford and yet are still unsatisfied.
The so-called “freedom” of the modern world (apart from the truth of the Gospel) is far from evident. This bondage also extends 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 to hindered freedom and even outright slavery.
Ponder freedom on this 4th of July. Ponder its paradoxes and accept its limits. Freedom is glorious, but because we are limited and contingent beings, so must our freedom be limited. Finally, ponder this paradoxical truth: the highest freedom is the capacity to obey God.
2 Replies to “A 4th of July Meditation on the Paradox that Freedom Can Only Exist Within Limits”
I think much of the confusion of concepts comes from trying the concept of freedom to the will of God claims that cannot be demonstrated.
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