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Gillis Harp on the Tyranny of Modern Freedom versus the Freedom of Jesus
The 125th anniversary of Grove City College was marked by the publication of an institutional history entitled Freedom’s College. The title was appropriate given the college’s long-established defense of American political and economic freedoms. The title was also inspired by the famous Supreme Court case of the 1980s when the college defended her independence from federal interference.
It strikes me as very wise for a Christian college to enjoy a good deal of independence from intrusive state controls. The separation of church and state is one of the historical distinctives that helps account for the relative health and prosperity that Christian churches have enjoyed in the United States in contrast to the experience of Christianity in, say, Western Europe. This sort of freedom and other historic American political freedoms should definitely be celebrated and defended by Christians.
But I would like to address some problematic notions of freedom that have gained currency among American Christians, especially in recent decades. Some conservative Christians have, I fear, uncritically accepted ideas of personal and civil freedom that are at odds with traditional Christian teaching. Some have naively accepted what are essentially Enlightenment understandings of liberty that are at best in tension with what Scripture and Christian tradition teach.
First, I’d like to survey the sources of these popular views and clarify the problems with them. Next, I’ll describe a Christian perspective on this subject. And, finally, to conclude, I’ll try to offer a few practical suggestions about how to resist this tendency. My main point is a simple one: that for the Christian, freedom can never be asserted in an unqualified, absolute sense, without limits or some higher end in view. In other words, the Christian must always ask, freedom for what?
For a long time, and especially since the Enlightenment, many in the West have defined freedom simply as the right to do as I choose, as long as I don’t hurt others. Note how this open-ended definition has no larger good or final goal in view. It is primarily negative, i.e., my freedom is defined as the freedom from external restraint or from imposed restrictions.
It is often argued that individuals should be left free to pursue their particular ends without reference to some larger social good. Indeed, some enthusiasts assert that there is actually no larger social good. They go as far as to assert that there is no such thing as society! For some, that’s just a meaningless abstraction. There are only individual goods, no general interest of the community in any organic or larger corporate sense.
Our self-centered consumerist society has latched onto this particular idea of freedom in recent decades. Of course, by doing so, it reduces our significant freedoms to trivial choices. I remember a promotional program that the convenience store Seven-Eleven ran back in the nineties. It was for their soda-fountain drinks. Big posters in red, white, and blue proclaimed: “Super Big-Gulp. America Loves the Freedom!” At the time, I wondered what foreign visitors would think about the American idea of liberty when it was reduced to being able to purchase a garbage-can-sized cup of Mountain Dew. Clearly, this is choice with no higher end in view, choice as an end in itself; choice reduced to just following my personal passion for soda or Slurpees.
William Cavanaugh, a theologian who teaches at St. Thomas University in Minnesota, addresses the question of this trivialized notion of freedom and how impoverished it is. He argues (drawing upon Aristotle and others) that this sort of freedom has no end; it is undirected freedom. Cavanaugh argues that for freedom to really constitute and create human freedom, there must be a telos, a goal or end in view. In his book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, he writes, “The absence of objective goods [that is, moral ends worth pursuing] does not free the individual, but leaves him or her subject to the arbitrary competition of wills.” It creates the sort of world vividly described by the inspired author of the Book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Cavanaugh cites examples of areas in which such an extreme approach can actually produce what he calls “unfreedom.”
Nor is this competition of wills fought out on a level playing field. Some commentators praise the consumer as sovereign in our day, yet they overlook the fact that billions of dollars are spent to persuade him to choose certain things, as advertisers cleverly manipulate “goods that cannot be commodified, such as self-esteem, love, sex, friendship and success.” In such a system, Cavanaugh concludes, “You still exercise free will, but the dynamics of power have shifted because the situation is set up to advance the interests of others.”
Free for God
This is clearly not the freedom celebrated by traditional Christian thinkers; they have never been indifferent about the particular ends for which one exercises freedom. For example, St. Augustine’s political thinking was founded on the idea that what a community loves profoundly shapes what sort of community it will be. Much modern political thinking tries to construct systems that are so flawless that no one has to be good in order for them to function. They run on their own, with no need of human virtue. Yet Augustine repudiated such an approach. He understood that he who worships the self will create a self-absorbed community. Undergraduates often experience this truth in their dorm life. A selfish roommate can easily destroy genuine community.
Instead, Christians have always hastened to ask, “Freedom yes, but for what?” In Freedom, Faith and the Future, Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said that in the mid-twentieth century “we know what we want to free men from. Do we know what we want to free men for?” Freedom simply to follow my personal whims or passions is ultimately slavery. Just obeying my every desire can ultimately be a horrible bondage for sinners like you and me. Christians have historically seen such a model of freedom as mere license, not true Christian freedom.
By contrast, Ramsey contended that the Christian is always “free from someone and free for someone. He is free from self, and free for God.” Of course, Jesus himself is our most powerful example, with what Ramsey characterized as his amazing “blending of authority and self-effacement.” Significantly, Jesus is free, but free “into another.” Note how Christ says that he must be about his Father’s business, and how he asks in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion that not his will but the Father’s be done. Jesus allowed short-term concerns to be overridden by the Father’s larger redemptive plan.
Of course Jesus isn’t only our example in this realm of personal freedom; he is also the one who actually makes our real freedom possible. As Ramsey explains, “Christians see Jesus not only as the image of what freedom is but the source of freedom to us.” That is, in personal relationship with Jesus, we learn “about God as creator and saviour and about ourselves as creatures and sinners, we are set in the path which leads to the freedom of mature sonship.”
The Blessing of Authority
But our challenge as Christians in today’s world is complicated. First, we are certainly called to fight the public injustices that destroy human freedom. In this struggle, we should cooperate with non-Christians, men and women of good will who share such concerns. But at the same time, our vocation is to proclaim a message that is offensive to the modern mind and therefore a difficult calling. It is a message about a higher understanding of freedom than that put forward by the Enlightenment and its followers. It is the message that the enemy of this higher freedom is, to quote Ramsey again, the “self,” and that the goal of this higher freedom is the “glory of God.”
American Christians haven’t always done a good job of making that latter point. Instead, we have often been seduced by the Enlightenment’s perspective and the narcissistic, consumerist version of liberty that blossomed during the twentieth century.
There was a time when Americans understood these truths better. The first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, John Winthrop, drew a helpful distinction between natural and civil liberty. The first was the freedom that individuals have to do whatever they want. It is the same natural liberty that animals enjoy. But, as Winthrop explained, “If you stand for your natural corrupt liberties, and will do what is good in your own eyes, you will not endure the least weight of authority, but will murmur, and oppose, and be always striving to shake off that yoke” (as documented in Judges). On the other hand, civil liberty for Winthrop was founded upon hierarchy and subjection to authority. We modern Westerners aren’t comfortable with those concepts! By contrast, we have embraced instead a very individualistic, rights-based attitude.
Studying Scripture can help us clarify our thinking on this subject. The Book of Judges and the Old Testament in general furnish many negative examples of this sort of individualism. Left to their own devices, individuals doing what’s right in their own eyes can make quite a mess of things. Commenting on the passage from Judges previously cited, John Wesley concluded, “Blessed be God for magistracy!” At the same time, in Galatians, the Apostle Paul explains what real freedom, Christian freedom, is for: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:13–14).
Bolstering Family & Communal Duties
How, then, should we as Christians confront our culture’s destructive hyper-individualism, its unbalanced stress on individual rights? Cardinal George of Chicago commented recently that “in the United States, individualism as an ideology is so closely associated with creativity and personal freedom that the Gospel’s injunction to surrender oneself to Christ and to others in order to be free has become largely incomprehensible.”
How can we make it more comprehensible? One thing we could certainly work on is the bolstering and promoting of mediating institutions, such as the traditional family. “If, in fact, we are able to strengthen family life,” Cardinal George concludes, “when it seems to be dissolving, that would be a great step forward, because there people learn that they are not the most important person.”
Perhaps we can also begin to change our political language, not always insisting on our rights but stressing our communal duties instead. Such a change of approach can certainly help both the private and public spheres—both our political life and our family life. May God grant us the grace not to be indifferent about our ultimate ends, but to always ask “Freedom for what?” and to use our freedom primarily in the service of others. •
Gillis J. Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and the author of Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks & the Path of Liberal Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). He and his family worship at Grace Anglican Church in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.