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Freedom: Augstinian-Style

James K.A. Smith’s article in Evangelicals and Empire is good overview of the contrast between the rhetoric of freedom in the West and the classical Christian and distinctly Augustinian notion of freedom as rightly ordered desire:

If we valorize freedom as mere freedom of choice, then we end up affirming the condition of a disorderd should as metaphysically normative, and we will end up describing as “free” what Christian theology describes as a state of sin. We will also end up describing the rightly ordered agent as some how unfree because he is not free to do otherwise.

I pretty much agree with this. The equation of freedom with the experience of choice is, frankly just stupid. Also, I am a firm believer that true freedom is freedom that can do no other. The one who cannot help but love his wife is free. The man who chooses to cheat on his wife with his secretary is enslaved.

But, of course this line of reasoning has an ideological danger to it (which does not militate against it—it just needs to be noted). Equating freedom to rightly ordered desire must not be allowed to turn into a sort of enforced moral totalitarianism if it is to be true freedom. In other words, while reducing freedom to choice is slavery, it is not any less slavery to say that since freedom is not ultimately about the experience of choice it doesn’t matter whether or not we coerce the choices of others.


  1. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    Always good to hear someone reiterate the difference between a classical idea of freedom and the utterly vacuous freedom as choice.

    As for the ideological danger, I think that’s precisely where the Yoderian call to an ethic of nonviolence plays in: love of neighbour (and enemy) follows the kenotic pattern of Christ’s love for the world. Christ’s love does not violate the will, but rather calls us to love in such a way where we can do no other than to love.

    Thursday, May 14, 2009 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  2. kim fabricius wrote:

    Well put, Halden. Certainly nowhere in the NT does eleutheria mean freedom of choice, and II Peter 2:19 explicitly states that the “freedom” to do evil is the sheerest slavery, viz. to disordered desires (cf. John 8:34). Freedom of choice – and our responsibility for the choices we make – is, to be sure, anthropologically presupposed; hence, yes, any form of “enforced moral totalitarianism” is theologically illicit. But, ultimately, with Augustine, true libertas is not freedom to sin but freedom from sin (not posse peccare, which amounts to non posse non peccare, but non posse peccare); in a word, the freedom of the children of God: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (II Corinthians 3:17).

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  3. Bobby Grow wrote:

    That’s very Affective of you, Halden ;-)!

    I totally agree with you, it is this Pauline/”Augustinian” view of ‘freedom’ that has had great impact upon my ordo salutis; amongst other things.

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 2:39 am | Permalink
  4. d barber wrote:

    Why does ideology reside only in coercion? Why can’t ideology reside precisely in the idea of a good order? (Furthermore, why can’t the either/or choice between right order and freeedom-as-slavery be ideological?)

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    The more I’ve thought about it, the more its clear to me that there is no conceptual way to avoid potential ideology in any sort of normative ethical or theological formulation. So yeah, ideology could reside in all of those things you mention, but can’t ideology pretty much reside anywhere?

    What would a pure, non-ideological theological construct even be?

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 8:20 am | Permalink
  6. d barber wrote:

    So maybe, in the Augustinian spirit, we need a theory of “just” ideology?

    I don’t see why the (apparent) unavoidability of something renders that thing legitimate. At the very least, a constant awareness of ideology is required. This would mean, for instance, that theology could not be exempted from ideology (and that one could not, as Kerr does, oppose proper, apocalyptic theology to ideology).

    The initial question to ask is not “what a pure, nonideological construct would be”, but rather, “what are the implications of not being able, at least at the outset, to think of a nonideological construct”.

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 9:06 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Well, what do you think the implication of that would be?

    But I also wonder why does any either-or choice have to be inherently ideological? I would see a upbiquity to the potential for ideology in just about any sort of theological formulation, but not necessarily its actuality.

    In other words, an either-or choice between two notions of freedom might be ideology, or it might just be right, and saying prima facie that it has to be ideological seems, well, like an ideology…

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  8. d barber wrote:

    The implication would be that the apparent impossibility of evading ideology might become a restriction that forces theology to reinvent itself, to be creative. The implication would be that comparisons between the “modern”/”contemporary”/whatever and the Barthian/Augustinian/whatever become prohibited. Such comparisons are alibis, rather than confrontations with genuine contemporary challenges. Talking with J Carter about his assertion that theology is caught up in racism, he said the same sort of thing — the theology that we need has not yet been written.

    As for whether the desire to evade ideology is itself ideological … I think it’s important to give some substance to the term here. Obviously there are a lot of angles to take here, probably Althusser being most determinative, but for the sake of clarity let’s say that ideology consists in proposing a set of relations as necessary, when they are in fact contingent. Is it possible to think of being in a nonideological manner? I think so, and I also think it’s possible to think of Christianity in a nonideological manner (I’ve not used your language of “normative” here, I’m not sure what you mean by it). But if being and/or Christianity are to be thought nonideologically, I imagine we’re going to need to drop Augustine, who asserts a “right order,” one of harmonics (or in RO terms, analogy).

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  9. d barber wrote:

    In other words, the opposition to ideology is in the name of contingency, of possibilities still to be imagined, new paths. The idea of identifying the right order, and opposing this right order to disorder, etc, is a way of cutting off the production of these new paths.

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 9:48 am | Permalink
  10. kim fabricius wrote:

    Absolutely, Halden. Indeed your final question is precisely what, as a leitmotif, gives the theology of Rowan Williams its no-bullshit critical edge. Williams is acutely aware that theologoumena are inevitably ideologically contested sites; aware too how often Christian doctrines have been deployed in oppressive ways. Hence Williams’ question (in “The Finality of Christ”): “How shall religious language and action free itself from ideology (in the malign sense of that word)?” Answer: “God can only live in the grammar of religious talk when that talk expresses God’s freedom from it” – i.e., God’s freedom from the church’s God-talk itself.

    Hence then, for example, Williams’ reservations (in “The Judgement of the World”) about the ecclesiocentrism of Linbeck’s project, and his insistence that theologians learn “negative capability” (Keats) and practice “playing away from home”. But, even further, for Williams theologians need to be suspicious of suspicion itself: i.e., they must be open to the Crucified and Risen One critiquing critique itself.

    In short, “a pure, non-ideological theological construct” is future all the way down. Between the times, all theological constructs are subject to Luther’s simul.

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  11. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Thank you Kim, that was well put . . . especially the point on Luther’s simul.

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Ok. I mean, I’m sympathetic to this construction, though I do think that certain sorts of “this/not that” constructions are just inevitable, and in fact, absolutely necessary in Christianity.

    For example, when Barmen says that Jesus alone is Lord and there is no other Fuhrer, I don’t think this is an evasion of the problem or some sort of ideological short-circuit.

    Now I agree that constructing theology solely on the basis of comparisons is ideological, but turning that into a sort of discriminating principle between “ideological” and “nonideological” theologies seems to amount to, well, exactly the same thing.

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  13. d barber wrote:

    Concerning Kim’s claim: ““a pure, non-ideological theological construct” is future all the way down.”

    Isn’t this itself ideological, to claim that it is _necessarily_ the case that theology is ideological, and that is is _necessarily_ the case that the future will not be ideological?

    And as an aside, isn’t the logic of _simul_ precisely what enables accomodation with violence, etc? (from a Yoderian perspective) And please note that I’m not positing some pure community, I’m just asking why we are presupposing all these necessities (necessarily simul now as well)?

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 10:45 am | Permalink
  14. d barber wrote:

    But it’s not the same sort of thing, because it’s an entirely different sort of discrimination. Whereas a “right order” theology tries to bring about a presupposed necessity, such that anytthing resistant to that “right order” becomes disorder, a nonideological theology would seek always to find new, contingent possibilities.

    The discrimination between ideologicla and nonideological, in other words, is in service of novelty, whereas the theology on the basis of comparisons (Augustine vs, Barth vs, Analogy vs, etc) is in service of inoculation against novelty.

    Furthermore, even a critique of the ideological/nonideological distinction as being ideological … that presupposes that it’s good to critique ideology! So what’s so bad about ideology returning, even in the critique of ideology? If ideology is something that ought to be critiqued, then keep critiquing.

    Unless you’re arguing that if ideology keeps returning, let’s just not worry about it?

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    I see your point about right order theologies, but I still don’t see much of a material difference. Finding “new, contingent possibilities” will necessarily exclude other possibilities, much in the same way that right order theologies do.

    And are you saying that ideology critique is simply in the service of opening up novelties? Why is novelty inherently nonideological?

    Now, I’m certainly in favor of ideology critique, and the whole scheme of contingency you’ve described. But to again return to my example of Barmen above, I’m just unconvinced that “this/not that” comparisons are illegitimate or ideological in theology. I think that sometimes they are absolutely necessary. And, as intimated above, I think the same sort of comparative scheme you protest is operative in your construct above in which theologies in the service of novelty are good and (at least potentially) nonideological, whereas theology that admits comparisons is inevitably evasive and ideological.

    This isn’t to say that you’re wrong about the whole issue of contingency and opening up new possibilities, I’m all for that. But, the notion that comparative critique is always ideological, evasive, and wrong is not yet convincing to me.

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  16. kim fabricius wrote:

    Thanks for that, d barber. Some clarification:

    With the simul I’d use the word “actuality”, not “necessity”: that’s the way it is, is it not? However, with Barth (after Calvin), I would add that the simul is not evenly balanced, rather there is an order, a direction, from the peccator to the iustus (or sanctus), due to the promised presence of the Holy Spirit. Which is why the simul need not and should not lead to any accommodation with violence; on the contrary, there may, by grace, be a movement from violence to peace. But in via the simul does suggest that vigilance and humility will be the sub-soil of our claims and our actions.

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  17. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Even better ‘well put’!

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  18. Paul wrote:

    Here’s a parodoxical twist on a Kierkegaardian axiom, in light of the above discussion: “Freedom of the heart is to will one thing.”

    Saturday, May 16, 2009 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  19. Smith seems to have made a logical mistake. It doesn’t follow that because in some cases the freedom that has alternative possibilities as a condition permits evil, that it always or necessarily does so. If all the options are good, one can meet that condition without the possibility of evil. God chooses between alternatives in creation and redemption and both options are good.

    If it is stupid to equate the experience of choice with freedom, is it likewise stupid to equate the experience of consciousness with a supposed fact of consciousness? If we are going to license eliminitivism with respect to one, then on parity of reasoning we should do so for the other.

    Secondly, Augustine’s conception isn’t *the* classical notion. It is the dominant notion in the Latin West. Take John Cassian’s comment for example.

    “And David my father would have built a house to the name of the Lord God of Israel: and the Lord said to David my father: Whereas thou hast thought in thine heart to build a house to My name, thou hast well done in having this same thing in thy mind. Nevertheless thou shalt not build a house to My name.” This thought then and this purpose of king David, are we to call it good and from God or bad and from man? For if that thought was good and from God, why did He by whom it was inspired refuse that it should be carried into effect? But if it is bad and from man, why is it praised by the Lord? It remains then that we must take it as good and from man.”

    The wife example given assumes that to otherwise is to choose an option opposed to another or to choose contrary to. But if I have a plurality of good options, I can choose otherwise without choosing in opposition. That is, the fundamental mistake is thinking that good has an opposite.

    Saturday, May 16, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  20. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Just a point of clarification regarding Dan Barber’s statement about my work on apocalyptic above. It is simply not the case that I seek to oppose a “proper, apocalyptic theology to ideology.” I think such a strategic theologizing of apocalyptic vis-a-vis a given ideology is itself ideological, as I make clear in my critique of Hauerwas. I agree with Dan that is a way in which to think being and even the Christian life non-ideologically, but I don’t think that is to be located in some “proper, apocalyptic theology” (I don’t even know what that would be, actually). My point in the book at least is that Christian apocalyptic is the way by which we speak theologically of that gracious action of God whereby we might be freed from ideology for doxology. I don’t mean to set apocalyptic theology against ideology, per se, so much as to think God’s apocalypse in Jesus Christ as the grace of our passage from ideology to doxology. If there is for me a way of being and acting non-ideologically, it is above all to be and to act doxologically (which cannot occur in the formulation of a “proper, apocalyptic theology” vis-a-vis “ideology”).

    Now, I agree that we need an account of what we mean by ideology here, as well with his assessment that theology as such and in-itself does not overcome ideology. I do, however, want to be clear that I don’t think (as Barber presumes I do) the answer to these questions lies merely in the articulation of a proper “apocalyptic theology” as such. Which means, of course, that having written 200 or so pages on the subject, I must be given to speak ironically when I say that.

    Saturday, May 16, 2009 at 9:20 pm | Permalink
  21. Alex wrote:

    This seems to the crux of the problem here.

    Other the both example, what is so problematic about freedom being seen as lack of coercion and the possibility of self-determination as is often the case in analytic accounts of compatibilism? In the West it is very easy to condemn such an idea, but for much of the world, the very idea that one might be able to choose one’s own path in life, free from the over-determined influence of power is revolutionary – here I am thinking particularly of feminist struggles. And this is not to endorse the neo-conservative agenda – capitalism itself despite it’s claims to meritocracy is deeply privative of this simple account of negative freedom (indeed as a phenomena, capitalism seems to show the thinness of the negative/postive freedom difference) where those at the bottom literally have no> choice over their lives.

    Why does it have to be the stark either/or that Smith presents?

    Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  22. Alex wrote:


    Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  23. Thom Stark wrote:

    Althusser strangled his wife.

    Just sayin’.

    Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  24. Thom Stark wrote:

    Absolutely right. Which is precisely why your avatar would insist that we need more than one account of “freedom.” The question is, “Freedom from what?” or “Freedom for what?” And the answer is multifarious.

    Which, with you, is my objection to the Augustinian notion of freedom. It’s too limited, and the postlib Augustinian-inspired critique of liberalism is well overstated. Freedom to choose isn’t stupid. And it’s not the tyranny of choice over virtue. It’s just one kind of freedom among others. Liberalism may be faulted for emphasizing one freedom over others, but they must be read contextually. Most of the original architects spoke from a time and place when the virtues were still taken for granted.

    Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  25. Alex wrote:

    Not just this, but I was thinking last night, in fact, what evangelical want, in the manner in which they operate as the shills for imperialism, is precisely rightly ordered desire. Whatever one thinks of evangelical Christianity, they certainly aim for rightly orientated desire, even if the desires are homophobic and pro-market.

    If the evangelicals overstate ‘freedom as choice’, then their mirrors in the post-liberal camp overstate ‘freedom as rightly ordered desire’ as if it is a magic trick that solves the problem. And I am far from a liberal about this.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 1:57 am | Permalink
  26. Doug Harink wrote:

    In the gospel of Mark (for example, because that’s what I’m probing right now), Jesus creates free persons by uttering the words, “Follow me.” “Immediately” those called do so. What kind of choice did they have? (That’s a real, not merely rhetorical, question.) It’s not about coercion or non-coercion, but about the divine power to call and create a human person. Freedom, then, has to be understood in relation to the one whom the disciples follow.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  27. kim fabricius wrote:

    Following on from Doug’s point, here is some vintage Bonhoeffer (on the call of Levi [Mark 2:14]):

    “The call goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus. How could the call immediately evoke obedience? The story is a stumbling-block for the natural reason, and it is no wonder that frantic attempts have been made to separate the two events. By hook or by crook a bridge must be found between them. Something must have happened in between, some psychological or historical event. Thus we get the stupid question: Surely the publican must have known Jesus before, and that previous acquaintance explains his readiness to hear the Master’s call. Unfortunately our text is ruthlessly silent on this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of call and response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in psychological reasons for a man’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once. This encounter is testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus. There is no need of any preliminaries, and no other consequence but obedience to the call” (The Cost od Discipleship, p. 48).

    Check our Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew”.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  28. Doug Harink wrote:

    Exactly! Thanks for Bonhoeffer quote, Kim.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  29. Thom Stark wrote:

    I would say the biggest problem with liberalism is not that it holds up the “freedom to choose” as the primary form of freedom, but that in liberal societies there is not really much freedom to choose in the first place. We are given products and told that we have absolute freedom to choose, between them, or whether or not to consume them. Precisely the freedom we don’t have is the freedom to choose what and how and why we produce in the first place. We are told we have that choice, of course, when we are told that are shopping carts are our votes. But in reality desire for otherwise unwanted products is formed because we also do not have the freedom to choose what and how we market. Money, rather than democracy, drives the culture.

    I think what the postliberal critique of liberalism really wants to critique is not the freedom of choice qua choice so much as the fact that the freedom of choice in a liberal society is an illusion.

    In a different society, one in which ownership of the means of production is public, not private, a truly practical dialogue will be able to take place about the relationship between production and desire. In other words, the freedom to choose can become the freedom to choose the good–for society, not just for the individual or for the local community, and the processes will be more authentically democratic, thus the good will be able to take center stage as the subject of concern. False or deficient notions of the good will be subject to revision, etc.

    Thus I submit that “freedom to choose” is only a problem for us theologically because what is called “freedom to choose” is actually not. In a democratic economy, however, freedom to choose for the first time has the potential to become the reality in technological society.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  30. d barber wrote:

    More at

    Monday, May 25, 2009 at 7:30 am | Permalink
  31. dan wrote:

    “The equation of freedom with the experience of choice is, frankly just stupid.” but it’s great for a market economy!

    Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

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