A 4th of July Meditation on True and Distorted Notions of Freedom

On the Fourth of July, in the United States of America we celebrate freedom. In particular we celebrate freedom from tyranny, and a government that is not representative; 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 context. Many modern concepts of freedom treat freedom as something of an abstraction. Consider the following imaginary conversation:

  • Q: What do we celebrate on the 4th of July?
  • A: Freedom…dude!
  • Q: But what do you mean by freedom?
  • A: I dunno, Freedom is like….not letting anyone tell you what to do.
  • Q: Really? Is that all? Does that mean absolutely no one can tell you what to do?
  • A: Like….you know…..yeah!
  • Q: Are there any limits to freedom?
  • A: like…..I dunno…maybe?
  • Q: So freedom isn’t absolute?
  • A: Hey man….I didn’t say that!

OK, perhaps a poor and stereotypical conversation with some “dude.”  But the point is that many speak of freedom in the abstract and have a harder time nailing down 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 it is not absolute, it cannot be. As limited and contingent beings, we exercise our freedom only within limits, and  within a described context. Pretending our freedom is absolute leads, not to freedom, but to anarchy. And anarchy leads to the collapse of freedom into chaos, and the tyranny of individual wills locked in power struggle.

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 is really free to act. Consider that

  1. We would not be free to drive, if all traffic laws were ended. The ensuing chaos would making driving quite impossible, not mention dangerous. The freedom to drive, to come and go, depends on us limiting our freedom and cooperate 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.
  2. Grammar or Goofy – Right now I am writing you in English. I appreciate the freedom we have to communicate and debate. But my freedom to communicate with you is contingent on 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 my “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.
  3. 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 today 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 my wish to refuse to follow the rule that I must first switch the power on, 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 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 word. 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 and insist merely on their rights 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” seek 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 protect 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 what Jesus means when he says that 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. Unfortunately many Catholics are also affected by this notion. To such as these, they say the Church is trying to “tell them what to do” and 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 hold that the announcement of Biblical truth threatens their  freedom,  and does not enhance it. 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 to enjoy its freeing power. And the paradoxical result is that the propostions 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 himself 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 a fearful vigilance. He was 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 than free than it claims:

  • 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 significant.
  • A kind of obsession with sex is evident 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) enslave many in a kind of financial bondage wherein they cannot really afford the lifestyle their passions demand, and they are unsatisfied and in deep debt.

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 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 contraints of grammar and rules of language.

Photo Credit: G.Krishnaswamy in the The Hindu

5 Replies to “A 4th of July Meditation on True and Distorted Notions of Freedom”

  1. Freedom has been subverted by Rights.

    A blessed Independence Day to you, Monsignor. Let’s hope and pray that we have many, many more.

    Not holding my breath, though…

  2. Epistle 186
    My some ideas of “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, in the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope preached that today is on 4 July 2011.
    And Today, Fourth of July is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain.
    We can read further on the Fourth of July here:
    Preaching method of Msgr. Charles Pope is to talk about Today (July 4, 2011), and then Independence Day of USA (July 4, 1776), and then freedom of modern world, and then freedom of Jesus (Jesus and freedom).
    Msgr. Charles Pope criticized strongly people who claim that truth of the gospel limits their freedom.
    Conclusion of Msgr. Charles Pope is that highest freedom is the capacity to obey God.
    Generally speaking, I utterly agree with Msgr. Charles Pope on the homily.
    Secondly, but permit me to add some issues hereafter.
    In my opinion, truth is gospel, and gospel also is truth.
    Gospel is Word of Lord Jesus. Therefore Word of Lord Jesus is truth or gospel truth.
    Words of Lord Jesus are words talking about God, to obey Words of God.
    Hence, Lord Jesus is a man having highest capacity to understand fully Words of God. As a result, four Gospels in New Testament said that Jesus is One and Only Son of God because “No one knows the Father except the Son” (Mt 11:27).
    We can read Mt 11:27 here:
    Finally, I affirm that Msgr. Charles Pope is a good preacher because “No one knows Me except Msgr. Charles Pope”./.

  3. Last year one of the cable channels showed a BBC series about the Revolution. The host interviewed a student who claimed the whole struggle was about the rich avoiding taxes and asserted that if the British had won, we’d have universal health care. People would rather have economic security than freedom now. Or else “freedom” is viewed as some sort of government entitlement.

    I’m afraid our nation would rather be secure than free. Slaves of the government rather than citizens.

  4. Msgr. Pope,

    This is an interesting topic. Perhaps you could expound on how catholic theologans are not free to examine the doctrines of the Faith using whatever doctrinal formulas they want. Rather, they are bound to the same theological definitions used by the Doctors and Fathers of the Church and must not invent new ones. The modern (and modernist) trend is incessant descriptions and never a precise definition resulting in implicit heresy.

  5. “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”

    — G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”, ch. 9

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