Freedom has become a buzz word more and more around this time of year. Freedom of speech, freedom of choice, economic freedom…I mean, we’re Americans, right? Freedom is what defines us.
But how free are we really? Is there really any such thing as true freedom?
I would like to propose that freedom is actually an illusion. I can hear the grinding of teeth right now. But let me approach this statement from three different contexts.
Individual freedom was not thought of as a concept until the Enlightenment movement in the 18th century. Until then, personal autonomy was unrealistic. If my grandfather was a bricklayer and my father was a bricklayer, I too would be a bricklayer. There was no choice. The constraints of society and the limits of technology kept personal ideas of freedom suppressed. But during the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the Enlightenment, these constraints were thrown off and freedom of the individual began to seem like a probable concept.
Charles Taylor, in his book Sources of the Self, indicates that during the Enlightenment many people were also led away from theism because to truly be free you had to be “free” from the belief of God. Theism was viewed as morally inferior, for to believe in God was to acknowledge a power outside yourself and thus negate your own personal freedom. This gave rise to belief systems such as Agnosticism and Atheism which predicate themselves on the concept of individual freedom, that is “I can’t believe it because I can’t know.” This can also be seen in the famous quote by Enlightenment philosopher, Rene Descartes, “I think therefore I am.” Thus, because of the philosophical and technological advances of the Enlightenment, the concept of personal freedom begins to move from a social privilege of the aristocracy to an inherent right of every individual.
As technology advanced over the next couple of centuries, an individual was no longer necessarily tied to their community. It was now possible to travel the world and rid themselves of their familial legacy in the hope of starting a new life for themselves. In Western society (particularly in the United States), this individual freedom manifests itself many different ways. From the political process to the products we buy, we are told that we have freedom of choice. I remember in elementary school being told that I could be “whatever I wanted to be.” As I think back, I believe this sentiment was used more as an affirmation of my developing identity rather than a description of reality.
I can’t really be whatever I want to be.
Who are we kidding? I can never play in the NBA. I can never be president of the People’s Republic of China. I know what you’re thinking…Sure you could, Todd. You just have to work hard and never give up (other American virtues). That’s just it! My personal freedom is qualified by my resources. Who I am and what I do is determined by my ability to pay for it. I can be whatever I want to be…as long as I have endless amounts of time and money. That, my friends, is not freedom…that is consumerism.
Every aspect of our life in postmodern America is commodified. Even our spiritual formation is viewed as a product that we choose. It is simply another accessory to our life, like the car we drive or baseball team we support.
As we look toward Holy Scripture, we can see that freedom is never viewed as the ability to be/do whatever we want. Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt, not to live out their lives however they like, but rather to become the servants (literally “slaves” in Hebrew) of God. Therefore, the freedom that God offers is not from slavery itself but rather the unjust rule of oppression. This is picked up in the New Testament as well as the apostle Paul says, ”
“17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
19 I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. 20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21 What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:17-23)
Author, Christopher Wright, writes that God is not merely intent on liberating slaves but on reclaiming worshipers. The freedom described in Scripture is never “freedom from.” Rather it is always “freedom for.” Christ sets us free for freedom’s sake (Gal 5:1), not so we can be whatever we want to be, but so we can be what we were created to be.