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Freedom and the Experience of Choice

In the world dominated by Western culture, the language of freedom has come to mean one specific thing: the ability to chose without constraint. This is a theological problem. What Robert Jenson rightly calls “the spurious freedom of unaffectedness” is ingrained in our imaginations from our earliest moments of life. We are trained and schooled to view freedom as the lack of constraint, the impresence of any restrainer, the absence of any impediment.

In the gospel’s language, however, this notion of freedom is utter and complete slavery to the principalities and powers. A life ruled by one’s unconstrained desires is not freedom, but utter futility, meaninglessness, and sorrow. From the standpoint of Christian theology the experience of choice bears no necessary connection to the experience of freedom whatsoever.

The experience of choice can only be an experience of freedom on the basis of what is chosen. Only if the object of our choosing is truly liberative can our choosing be an instance of freedom. Thus, I submit that our most profound experiences of freedom tend to come precisely in those situations where we feel we are actually unable to chose. The man who feels completely unable to choose to abandon his wife is experiencing true freedom. The person who cannot bring herself to consider leaving her church for the sake of an advantageous career is experiencing true freedom. The child who cannot do anything other than drink from his mother’s breast is truly and utterly free.

Freedom occurs when our lives rightly participate in the koinonial reality enacted by the gospel. Freedom occurs when our lives are rightly shaped to participate fittingly in the life of the triune God. The experience of choice is only an experience of freedom when our act of choosing draws us into conformity with Christ and participation in God. Choice can only be an instance of freedom when it is seized and transfigured into a true epektasis, an onward movement into the life of the Trinity through Christ and the Spirit. Only through the interruption of grace can our choices be an occasion of freedom.

In the day-to-day practices of living it is precisely those things that seem utterly un-choicelike, things we simply must do because we can do no other that are truly free. We are free, not in that we could do otherwise, but always and only in that we can do no other.

6 Comments

  1. philq wrote:

    A good example of how poor our modern notion of freedom is: we are constantly forced to supplement it with the language of disease. I love those inane arguments about exactly what point constitutes video game addiction (or whatever).

    Friday, September 5, 2008 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  2. Evan wrote:

    I’ve always appreciated Barth’s use of the image of “Hercules at the crossroads” to describe freedom as understood in much of modern thought.

    Friday, September 5, 2008 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  3. Kien wrote:

    Hi Halden – to your mind, can there be a distinction between external constraints (e.g., physical handicap, economic poverty) and internal constraints (e.g., values, regard for others). Perhaps a mistake that we often make is to conflate freedom from external constraints (which I think libertarians are right to care about) with freedom from internal constraints (which I think libertarians typically are not concerned with).

    I like to think that the modern concept of freedom has Christian roots. I like to think that Jesus started it off by proclaiming freedom to the captives.

    If the distinction between external constraints and internal constraints make sense, perhaps some thought needs to be given to whether there is always a clear boundary between the two freedoms. In particular, is culture an external constraint or an internal constraint. Perhaps in the context of minority politics, the culture of the majority is a form of external constraint which the minority legitimately resists. Equally, the majority may rightly resist the minority’s attempt to impose its culture on the majority. (E.g., a Hindu society resisting Christian appeals to low-caste Hindus, or the Anglican Communion resisting homosexual Christians.)

    Perhaps it is relevant to consider how the cultural value is transmitted. If it is transmitted through dialogue, discussion and an appeal to rationality or shared values, we each ought to be free (from both external and internal constraints) to internalise the external culture by adopting the belief or value as our own.

    Friday, September 5, 2008 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  4. Nathan Smith wrote:

    “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

    On a related note, the popular aphorism “freedom isn’t free” is deeply problematic in that we have to kill to secure it for ourselves, which is the deepest sort of selfishness, I think.

    Friday, September 5, 2008 at 10:48 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    I’ve encountered that passage before, and every time I’m completely floored. Slaves to righteousness! How far from the “freedom” of our age is true freedom, i.e. slavery to righteousness.

    Saturday, September 6, 2008 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  6. Jeremy Funk wrote:

    Halden,

    You write: “Only if the object of our choosing is truly liberative can our choosing be an instance of freedom. Thus, I submit that our most profound experiences of freedom tend to come precisely in those situations where we feel we are actually unable to chose.”

    The first statement certainly resonates with me. But I’m not sure how the second statement follows upon the first. Choices that are truly liberating are often choices that allow us to share ourselves most deeply or most authentically with others and with God and that in turn permit God and others share themselves authentically with us (sometimes the scary part). You may be saying that our making a liberating choice entails a certain kind of commitment—a commitment that then narrows one field of possible choices but opens up another field of new choices.

    You also write: “The man who feels completely unable to choose to abandon his wife is experiencing true freedom. The person who cannot bring herself to consider leaving her church for the sake of an advantageous career is experiencing true freedom. The child who cannot do anything other than drink from his mother’s breast is truly and utterly free.”

    I can’t help but note that of your three examples, the first two are truly volitional, and the third is almost completely biological (the infant’s “decision” is not a choice in the same way that the other examples are). But what you are driving at is the deeper principle that in making a choice that is truly liberating, one finds one’s home in or upon making such a liberating choice.

    I appreciate what Kein has to say: “Can there be a distinction between external constraints (e.g., physical handicap, economic poverty) and internal constraints (e.g., values, regard for others)? Perhaps a mistake that we often make is to conflate freedom from external constraints (which I think libertarians are right to care about) with freedom from internal constraints (which I think libertarians typically are not concerned with).
    I like to think that the modern concept of freedom has Christian roots. I like to think that Jesus started it off by proclaiming freedom to the captives.”

    I would like to do more research on the roots of the contemporary idea of freedom, about whether these roots are in fact derived from Christian teaching.

    As one who lives with physical disabilities, I am constantly working to increase my mobility and independence, but always in the context of community, and never equating freedom with autonomy. Given my limitations, I am almost constantly aware of the fragility of my life and of my dependence upon others. What I need to work on is becoming freer within this realization, working for greater freedom within it.

    Given my own situation, I struggle with the statement above: “our most profound experiences of freedom tend to come precisely in those situations where we feel we are actually unable to choose.” I would rather want to say that our most profound experiences of freedom come upon our making liberating choices, choices that open up our most authentic selves to God and to one another, choices that eventually become home to us.

    Monday, September 8, 2008 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

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