What makes a person free?
What is the intellectual basis for claiming that an individual should be free?
What is freedom anyway?
According to authors like Terry Eagleton and Charles Taylor, our postmodern world no longer bases an individual’s freedom on the fact that we are God’s creation, nor because of our rationality and free will, nor because of unfolding historical processes moving the human race toward inevitable progress. Those had been the bases of freedoms in the past, argued by Aquinas, Kant, and Hegel, respectively. Instead, for postmodern secular thinkers today, freedom is based on the discrediting of those very ideas. We are considered to be free because there is no cosmic order, there is no essential human nature, and there are no truths or moral absolutes that we must kneel to. Today the view is that there are no longer any foundations at all because the universe itself is arbitrary, contingent, aleatory. Nothing, then, has any rightful claim on us, and we may live as we see fit.
Today, freedom is defined as the ability and opportunity to live as we see fit. Therefore, any person, any institution, or any religion that dares to argue otherwise is seen as trying to suppress freedom and oppress individuals.
This is why Christianity is viewed with such disdain in American culture. Its teachings constrain our impulses and order our choices, thus it is seen as an archenemy of the kind of freedom that is defined as the absence of limitations or constraints on us.
Christianity is the problem, argues society; but the truth is that society’s vision of freedom is an unworkable impossibility. In other words, nobody can actually live by the definition of freedom – the absence of constraint on choices – that our culture is pushing on us.
Tim Keller argues the point in this way:
Imagine a man in his sixties who likes to eat whatever he wants to eat. He also loves to spend time with his grandchildren. Both of these activities are an important part of what makes his daily life meaningful and satisfying. Then at his annual physical a doctor says to him, “Unless you severely restrict what you eat from now on, your heart problems will worsen and you will have a heart attack. You must completely stop eating all of your favorite foods.”
The modern definition of freedom is the ability to do whatever we want. However, how does that definition work when our wants are in conflict with each other? He certainly does not want to be bedridden or to die, in which case his freedom to be with his grandchildren and see them grow up is curtailed. But, of course, he also wants to eat his favorite foods, eating being a major source of comfort and good feeling. This is the complexity of real life. He can accept either the limits on his eating or the limits on his health. It is impossible that he will have freedom in both areas. There is, then, not just one thing called “freedom” that we either have or do not have. At the level of lived life there are numerous freedoms, and no one can have them all. This man will have to decide which freedom to sacrifice for the other, because he will not be able to have both. The choice should not be hard in this case. If he wants the freedom of sustained loving relationships, he will give up the freedom to eat what he wants.
The question is not, then: How can this man live in complete freedom? The proper question is: Which freedom is the more important, the more truly liberating?
We see, then, that freedom is not what the culture tells us. Real freedom comes from a strategic loss of some freedoms in order to gain others. It is not the absence of constraints but it is choosing the right constraints and the right freedoms to lose…The liberating, “right” restraints we have spoken of, among many others, are not things you make up to please yourself. They are hard realities about the way we are and the way the world is. You don’t choose them, you submit to them.
If you see a large sailboat out on the water moving swiftly, it is because the sailor is honoring the boat’s design. If she tries to take it into water too shallow for it, the boat will be ruined. The sailor experiences the freedom of speed sailing only when she limits her boat to the proper depth of water and faces the wind at the proper angle.
In the same way, human beings thrive in certain environments and break down in others. Unless you honor the givens and limits of your physical nature, you will never know the freedom of health. Unless you honor the givens and limits of human relationships, you will never know the freedom of love and social peace. If you actually lived any way you wanted – never aligning your choices with these physical and social realities – you would quickly die, and die alone.
You are, then, not free to do whatever you choose. That is an impossible idea and not the way freedom actually works. You get the best freedom only if you are willing to submit your choices to various realities, if you honor your own design.
And that’s what Christianity does. It governs our choices, not to oppress us but to free us in the best way possible so that we can thrive.
Christianity is not the enemy of freedom. It is the source of real, lasting, and workable freedom.
Instead of always buying what culture is selling, we would do well to push back on culture’s claims about life to see if what is being said is logically consistent. More often than not, what we’ll find is that culture does not and cannot live by its own mantras.
God has designed you with the freedom to think for yourself – use it.