Unmoored Freedom is No Freedom – A Reflection on the 4th of July

To most modern minds, freedom is a very detached concept; it is an abstraction of sorts, a free-floating power unmoored from any limits or defining standards. Freedom today is often viewed as personal and self-referential, with little consideration as to how one’s “freedom” might affect that of someone else. A healthy sense of the common good suffers mightily in a world of deeply conflicting personal freedoms.

I have written before on the paradoxes of freedom and will not repeat all of that here, but one point to reiterate is that for us (who are limited and contingent beings) the only true and healthy freedom is a limited one.

I was free to write this column and you are free to read it, but for shared communication to occur, we must each limit our respective personal freedom by following certain rules. I had to post the article in the expected place and you had to go there to read it. I had to follow many grammatical and linguistic rules in order to be intelligible, and you must apply similar norms in order to understand. As soon as either of us starts to cop an attitude and say, “I won’t be told what to do; I’ll do whatever I please,” communication suffers. Therefore, each of us limits his freedom in order to communicate.

Another example can be found in the realm of sports. Rules, in a sense, make the game. The players and spectators limit their freedom by accepting that a given game has a specific goal. Further, there are boundaries and rules of play. If some or all of these limits were removed, there would be no framework. Players would start moving aimlessly about the field and teams would break apart. Spectators would argue about everything and even forget why they were in the stadium to begin with. All order on the field and in the stands would break down; even the distinction between the field and the stands would start to lose meaning. Chaos and conflict would result.

To some degree this picture describes our modern age. Cultures, like the microcosm of a sports event, need agreed upon goals and rules of play in order to function properly. In the modern Western world, we are currently engaged in a misguided experiment as to whether a culture can exist without a shared cultus.

Obviously, the word cultus is at the heart of the word culture. In Latin, a cultus is something for which we care or about which we are concerned; it is something of worth, something considered valuable. It describes the most central, fundamental values of a group. In later Latin, cultus came to describe the worth or value we attribute to God, who is our truest goal.

Remove the cultus from culture and you get the breakdown we are seeing today. While pluralism and diversity have value, they must exist within a framework that is shared and agreed upon. Otherwise pluralism and diversity are unmoored and become like ships crashing about in a stormy bay.

In order for a culture to exist, there must be a shared cultus, a shared focus on what is good, true, beautiful, and sacred. Our modern experiment shows the failure of trying to have a culture without this.

Bishop Robert Barron, himself commenting on Pope Benedict’s analysis, writes the following:

The setting aside of God can take place both explicitly (as in the musings of the atheists) or implicitly (as in so much of the secular world where “practical” atheism holds sway). In either case the result is a shutting down of the natural human drive toward the transcendent and, even more dangerously, the elevation of self-determining freedom to a position of unchallenged primacy.

[Pope Benedict elaborates] here a theme that was dear to his predecessor, namely, the breakdown of the connection between freedom and truth. On the typically modern reading, truth is construed as an enemy to freedom—which explains precisely why we find such a hostility to truth in the contemporary culture. Indeed, anyone who claims to have the truth—especially in regard to moral matters—is automatically accused of arrogance and intolerance.

Society will be restored to balance and sanity, Benedict argued, only when the natural link between freedom and truth—especially the Truth which is God—is reestablished. … Behind all our arguments about particular moral and political issues is a fundamental argument about the centrality of God [Vibrant Paradoxes, pp. 217-218].

Thus, freedom cannot be an abstraction. It cannot be unmoored. It is not an unlimited concept. Freedom can only exist in a healthy and productive way when it is in reference to the truth—and truth is rooted in God and what He has revealed in creation, Sacred Scripture, and Tradition. This is the cultus necessary for every culture. True and healthy freedom is the capacity to obey God. Anything that departs from this necessary framework is a deformed freedom, on its way to chaos and slavery.

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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1733).

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Two Stories About Detachment

It is common to think of detachment as something the poor easily have and the rich seldom have. Whatever the statistics on detachment as related to wealth, it is certainly true that there are some poor folks who are greedy attached to this world’s riches, while there are some rich people who are quite generous and unattached to the possessions their wealth affords.

Two stories come to mind. I do not recall the sources, and I have likely adapted them over the years. They speak to the difficulty of maintaining a healthy detachment from material wealth regardless of one’s financial health.

A wandering monk moved about preaching. He owned only the clothing on his back and, strangely, a golden begging bowl, gifted to him by a benefactor who was also his disciple. One night as he was about to lie down among the ruins of an ancient monastery he spied a thief, lurking among the columns. “Here, take this,” he said, handing the golden begging bowl to the thief. “That way you won’t disturb me once I have fallen asleep.” The thief eagerly took the bowl and ran off. But the next morning he returned, saying, “You have made me feel poor, giving me the bowl so freely. Teach me to acquire the riches that make this sort of lighthearted detachment possible.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Among the wandering shepherds was a leader who lived in riches, with luxurious tents, surrounded by servants. So lavish was his wealth that his tent pegs, driven in the ground, were made of solid gold. A poorer shepherd came by one day with his wooden begging bowl, cracked and warped. Seeing such wealth, he begged from the wealthy man but also upbraided him for such conspicuous wealth. Nevertheless, the wealthy man welcomed him, served him a fine meal, and permitted him to rest in his expansive tents. Early the next day the wealthy man said to the poorer one, “Come, let us go up to Jerusalem.” Staff in hand, the wealthy man left his wealth and luxury behind without a thought or care. A short way into the journey the poor man realized that he had left his wooden begging bowl behind and wanted to go back and get it. But the rich man said, “I left all my wealth behind without care or worry. Yet you are so attached to a cup of little or no worth that you cannot go up to Jerusalem without it. You upbraided me for my wealth, but I want to assure you, the golden tent pegs to which you objected were driven into the earth, not into my heart.”

Yes, detachment is ultimately a matter of the heart. It is not wrong to enjoy the good things of life, but too often they possess us, and we come rely on them so heavily that we cannot imagine living without them. We who live in these times of widespread comfort sometimes discover that we lack the freedom to live without them. Further, though surrounded by abundance, we see to be more fearful, not less. Though this age is filled with luxuries and creature comforts, we seem more anxious than ever; we just have too much to lose. The tent pegs that belong in the earth are so often driven into our heart.

St. Paul describes the grace we should seek:

I have learned to be content regardless of my circumstances. I know how to live humbly, and I know how to abound. I am accustomed to any and every situation—to being filled and being hungry, to having plenty and having need. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength (Phil 4:11-13).

Without this grace, it is clear how quickly our hearts enter bondage and we go astray. Help us, Lord, to enjoy what you have given but not so much that it becomes a substitute for you. May trust and gratitude be our guide to detachment.

 

Two Teachings on Discipleship from Jesus

In the Gospel for today (Monday of the 13thWeek of the Year) Jesus gives two teachings on discipleship. They are not easy, and they challenge us—especially those of us who live in the affluent West.

Poverty– The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Here is a critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us.Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God, or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?

In this verse, the potential disciple of Jesus seems to have had power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he saw Jesus as a political messiah and wanted to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s kingdom is not of this world.

We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only do they not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.

The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that piles of wealth are seldom our lot. Why? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful shortcuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less comfortable place to lay their head. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.

Thus “poverty” is a discipline of discipleship.What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.

Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that is poor. However, it also means being free of the many obligations and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your possessions. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.

Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered. Yes, poverty is an important discipline of discipleship.

Promptness (readiness)The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple!”

Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because. There are always a few things resolved first.

It’s the familiar refrain: I’ll do tomorrow!

There is peril in procrastination. Too many people always look to tomorrow. But remember that tomorrow is not promised. In Scripture there is one word that jumps out repeatedly; it’s the word now. There are many references to the importance of now or today rather than tomorrow:

  • Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).
  • behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).
  • Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).
  • Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).

That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.

There is an old preacher’s story about delay: There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man.The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there’s a Hell and most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there’s no Hell or that there’s no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “You’re the man! That’s the plan!”

Yes, promptness is a discipline of discipleship. It is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.

Here are two disciplines of discipleship. They are not easy, but the Lord only commands what truly blesses. There is freedom in poverty and joy in quickly following the Lord!

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True Freedom, As Articulated in the Story of an Ancient Philosopher

credit: Xufanc, Wikimedia Commons

There is an old story that speaks to the true source of freedom:

The philosopher Diogenes was eating bread and lentils for his supper. He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who said, “If you would learn to be more subservient to the king, you would not have to live on lentils.” Diogenes replied, “Learn to live on lentils and you will not have to cultivate the king.”

We often think that money, power, and access give us freedom; this may be partially true. If I have money and access I can usually procure more things and have greater variety, but what deeper freedoms have I surrendered for the surface-level freedoms of variety and quantity? In return for these lesser freedoms, the world usually demands a loyalty that require us to surrender important core principles. In exchange for access to this world’s income, approval, and trinkets, it is usually demanded (explicitly or implicitly) that we adopt the ways, thinking, and morals of the world. Satan articulates this transaction very clearly to Jesus:

And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours” (Luke 4:5-7).

In making this one concession, Jesus would have gained the “freedom” to maneuver and to do as He pleased—but what a concession!

Worshiping the devil or his world (for he is the prince of this world) is too high a price to pay for its passing and limited freedoms. Yet in subtler but real ways, it is something most of us do. We will compromise moral truths and even commit sin in order to ingratiate ourselves to others. To be popular, we will parrot the views of the world—even if they are contrary to God’s revealed truth; we will remain silent when we should speak. We do not always do this in malice, but rather out of our weakness. We feel pressured to conform, knowing that it is required for access and approval.

Is giving in to this pressure really freedom? As Diogenes teaches, we need to learn to “eat lentils” if we want to be free. We must become free of our desire for this world’s passing trinkets (and they are only trinkets compared to what God offers). Until we do this, the shallow freedoms of the world will appeal to us too much. Of true freedom St. Paul writes,

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13).

Help us, Lord, to be truly free.

On the Paradoxical Freedom of Poverty

There is a saying that you cannot steal from a man who has nothing and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose. Of Jesus, the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head (Matt 8:20), this was surely true. The world had no claim on Him, nothing with which to hook Him or claim His loyalty. Even His life could not be taken from Him, for He had already laid it down freely (cf Jn 10:18).

St. John Chrysostom spoke of it boldly in a sermon that paints well the paradoxical freedom of poverty and enslavement of riches and possessions. I’ll return to that in a moment.

First, consider that for most of us, the heart of the slavery comes from our attachments to this world. So easily do we sell our soul to its allurements; so easily does the world ensnare us with its empty promises and trinkets that so quickly become duties, distractions, and requirements. In our heart, we know that the things of the world weigh us down, but still our addiction to things draws us further into the endless cycle of ever-deepening desires and the increasing inability to live without many burdensome things.

It isn’t just things that entrap us. The world also hooks us with the mesmerizing promise of popularity, promotion, and even fame. In our desperate pursuit of popularity, we soon will do almost anything and make almost any compromise.

Jesus says, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matt 6:24).

Other relevant passages from Scripture include these:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15)

Adulterers! Do you not know that the love of this world is hatred toward God? Therefore, whoever chooses to be a friend of this world is an enemy of God (James 4:4).

In the end, most of our slavery and anxiety is rooted in our love for this world and our fear of losing its pleasures and its promises of power and popularity. It is without a doubt the greatest human struggle to escape from this world’s hooks and shackles and become utterly free—free to follow the Lord unreservedly and with no fear of what the world might do in retaliation.

In one of his sermons, St. John Chrysostom describes well the human being who is utterly free. It is a magnificent portrait, one he was able to exhibit not merely by his words but by his life.

Born in 344 at Antioch, he grew into a young man very much admired for his brilliance and oratorical skills. In 374 he fled to the mountains to live quietly and to break the hold that the world had on him. Following six years of “holy silence,” he worked quietly as a priest. In 398, however, he was summoned to be bishop of Constantinople. He was beloved for his powerful capacity to preach and received the name “Chrysostom” (Golden mouth). Yet not all appreciated the freedom with which he preached, a freedom that led him to denounce vice openly, no matter who was doing it. He was exiled twice (in 403 and 407) by powerful enemies, and though they tried to break his spirit and rob him of his joy, they could not prevail. Although he died on his way to his final exile (during a miserable journey in terrible weather), he died with joy, saying, “Glory be to God for all things. Amen.”

The world could not prevail over him. He did not fear it, for he owned nothing of it and owed nothing to it. It had no hold on him.

Thus speaking not only from Scripture but from experience, St. John Chrysostom said,

“The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence …

“Let the world be in upheaval. I hold to his promise and read his message; that is my protecting wall and garrison. What message? Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!

“If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? Though the waves and the sea and the anger of princes are roused against me, they are less to me than a spider’s web … For I always say: Lord, your will be done; not what this fellow or that would have me do, but what you want me to do. That is my strong tower, my immovable rock, my staff that never gives way. If God wants something, let it be done! If he wants me to stay here, I am grateful. But wherever he wants me to be, I am no less grateful …

“For though my body die, my soul will live and be mindful of my people” (Ante exsilium, nn. 1-3).

This is freedom. You cannot steal from a man who owns nothing and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose. You cannot deprive a man who has Jesus Christ.

Pray for this freedom.

Three Words That Can Change Your Life

Sometimes we like to complicate things, but every now and again it’s good to simplify, to make things plain and simple. The other day it occurred to me that three words describe the wellbeing that I have discovered in my physical, emotional, and spiritual life: move, breathe, and trust.

“Move” pertains to the physical, “breathe” to the emotional and psychological, and “trust” to the spiritual. Let’s look at each in turn.

I. MoveSome years ago, my doctor told me that the secret to good health, strength, and longevity, comes down to one word: “move.” A sedentary lifestyle can cause innumerable problems: weight gain, lethargy, fatigue, boredom, depression, muscular atrophy, weak and/or brittle bones, shallowness of breath, poor posture, a weakened heart, and an increase in the likelihood of pulmonary problems … just to name a few.

Well, you get the point. Move! Walk every day. Except for swimming, there is almost no better exercise. If your joints are already giving you problems, an elliptical machine is a good low-impact option.

I was a runner earlier in life but my knees suffered. Personally, I don’t think that the human body was designed for distance running; there’s just too much stress on the joints. Injury is common and some of the joint damage can be permanent. Because of this, I took up walking about fifteen years ago and try to walk at least two miles a day, six days a week.

Walking is low impact and easy on the body. It promotes aerobic rather than anaerobic breathing. It requires little to no equipment and provides time for praying, listening to music or podcasts, talking with a walking partner, or chatting on the phone (I recommend a hands-free device so that the arms can swing naturally). I really look forward to my evening walks!

The people of the Bible were amazing walkers. Our Mother Mary, St. Joseph, Jesus, and all the Apostles made the annual trek to Jerusalem on foot, 70 miles each way. They walked through very hilly and mountainous regions. Mary walked the 70 miles to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant. She and Joseph walked hundreds of miles to Egypt, carrying Jesus, and then back again. The people of the Bible were hardy; they walked nearly everywhere, often carrying heavy loads.

Move! Walk every day if you can. If you need to, start by just walking one block; then try to increase the distance a bit every day. When you can, take the stairs instead of the elevator and walk instead of driving. No matter what, though, get off the sofa. Some people even have standing desks in their offices.

There’s are handy little electronic devices that actually count your steps for you each day. The goal for the average adult is 10,000 steps per day. Yours truly averages 12,000-15,000 a day.

Move; it will change your life, improving not just your body but your soul as well.

II. Breathe My psychotherapist has a plaque on her desk that reads, “BREATHE.” Most of us don’t know how to breathe properly. We breathe with our chest and only fill the top of our lungs.

It isn’t hard to learn how to breathe better, using the belly. Babies do it naturally, but as we get older and more self-conscious about the appearance of our bellies, we tend to breathe less deeply.

To breathe is to get in touch with both our innermost self and our body. Breathing is very spiritual. As we breathe in, we receive the blessings of God; as we breathe out, we let go of inner stresses and struggles. Exhaling is a form of release, inhaling a form of receiving.

Deep breathing can be very relaxing; it reduces stress and is a wonderful way to prepare ourselves to pray. Too many of us are out of touch with our body and our very self. Breathing can reconnect us to our own self and to God. Too many of us store up a lot of stress. We need to learn how to exhale. Too many of us live on fumes. We need to learn how to draw more deeply from the life breath God offers. Breathe!

III. Trust My spiritual director has often reduced his advice to me to one word: “trust.” The root of all the anxiety I have ever experienced is not trusting God. To the degree that I have learned to trust God, I am less anxious. In fact, I rarely get anxious anymore. It is the result of a fifteen-year journey out of panic disorder and into trust.

I cannot write an entire article on trust here, but I’d like to emphasize two things.

First, the illusion of control is a big enemy of trust in God. Control is ultimately an illusion. You may have a few things under your control, such as what you will eat for dinner or where you will shop for clothes, but even those things are based on innumerable other things that you cannot control: whether or not you will live to see your next heartbeat, whether or not there will be an accident that backs up traffic on your way to the store, or whether or not your car will break down. You also have no control over whether the store burns down or the item you want to buy is actually in stock.

Control, in any thorough sense, is both illusory and limited. Thinking we can and should be in control is to live under an illusion, and living under such an illusion is stressful and frustrating.

We often think that if we could just be in control we would be less anxious; but this is not so. The great paradox about serenity is that acceptance of the fact that there are many things we cannot control reduces anxiety and brings peace. The fact that we are not in control is a “hard” truth that brings great serenity and engenders trust if we come to accept it.

Second, a central way to open the door to trust is to remember to be grateful. In the spiritual sense, to remember means to have deeply present in my mind and heart what God has done for me, so that I am grateful and different because of it. To remember is to discipline my mind and heart to ponder how good and faithful God has been, to spend time every day considering the gifts and graces of God and how He has sustained and provided for me. This makes me grateful and different.

It also builds trust, and trust drives out our fears, resentments, and anxiety. Through gratitude, I become a man of hope. That is, I confidently expect God’s help and providence to see me through to my goal of being with Him in glory.

An old song says, “Through it all, I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I’ve learned to trust in God … I’ve learned to depend upon His Word.”

Well, that is my story; I’ve learned to trust. Over the years, in the laboratory of my own life, I have proved God’s Word and His promises and found them to be true. Learn to trust, to lean, to let go. God says, “I’ve got this, so you let go.”

These are three words that can change your life: move, breathe, and trust.

A 4th of July Meditation on the Paradox that Freedom Can Only Exist Within Limits

(credit: Rgoogin at Wikipedia)

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. (See the video below.)
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.