Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Time and again American films seem to suggest that the God that Americans worship is called 'Freedom'. I guess it stems from the American Revolution and the idea that freedom from British rule was the aim, especially as it was so close in time to the French Revolution which had as its slogan, "Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood".

I'm not sure how well this idea fits with Christianity. To be sure, the American Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but how can religion be free when religions themselves are so exclusive? Since Islam regards changing one's religion from Islam as a crime punishable by death, there can't be much freedom there. In fairness, the Constitution didn't envisage anyone choosing to be a Muslim; rather it gave people freedom to be Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist or even Catholic.

However, Christianity is often criticised for its exclusivity. Tim Keller quotes two young New Yorkers, "Christians believe that they have the absolute truth that everyone has to believe - or else. That endangers everyone's freedom." and "A one-Truth-fits-all approach is just too confining. The Christians I know don't seem to have the freedom to think for themselves. I believe that each individual must determine truth for him- or herself."

Emma Goldman called Christianity, "The leveller of the human race, the breaker of a man's will to dare and to do; an iron net, a straitjacket which does not let him grow or expand."

Modern man does not believe in any absolute truth, he thinks of truth as something that you have to work out for yourself.

Thus at the end of the 2004 movie I, Robot, the Robot, Sonny, says to Detective Spooner, "Now that I have fulfilled my purpose, I don't know what to do."
Spooner replies, "I guess you'll have to find your way like the rest of us, Sonny. That's what it means to be free." Even the Supreme Court has enshrined this view in Law: The heart of Liberty is to define one's own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe, and the mystery of human life. (Planned Parenthood v Casey)

Michel Foucault, the French philosopher wrote "Truth is a thing of this world. It is produced by multiple forms of constraint and that includes the regular effects of power." Some have extended this idea to suggest that all truth claims are the effect of the exertion of power - truth comes out of the barrel of a gun. This really is Orwell's Ministry of Truth stuff. And of course it doesn't work. North Korean propaganda that they have the best health service in the world doesn't make it so. They still have a high infant mortality rate.

The assertion that all truth is a power play falls prey to its own assertion since that assertion would consequently also be a power play. If, on the other hand, like Freud, you assert that all truth-claims about religions and God are just psychological projections to deal with your guilt and insecurity, then Freud's assertion is caught in the same tea strainer. It is clearly impossible to proceed in this post-modernist way. Something has to be true and other things untrue.

The exclusivity of Christianity is said to be inconsistent with the ideas of a liberal democracy. Many urban neighborhoods contain residents from different races and religions who nonetheless live and work together as a community. All that is required is for them to respect each others' rights and privacy and to work for equal access to jobs, education and political decision making. Common moral beliefs are not necessary. But this is an oversimplification. A liberal democracy must assume a preference of individual to community rights, a division between public and private morality, and the sanctity of personal choice. These beliefs are foreign to many cultures. The idea of inclusive community is an illusion. Every community holds beliefs that create boundaries, including some and excluding others from its circle. Christianity is no different from any other set of beliefs in this respect. If a Gay/Lesbian Society had a Secretary who came out at a meeting with, "I have just had a religious experience and I now believe homosexuality to be a sin" she would almost certainly be expelled from the Society. Would anyone then accuse the the Society of exclusivity? Every community has boundaries. We might accuse Christians if they are rude or unkind to unbelievers, but hardly for maintaining boundaries to their membership.

Others accuse Christians of being culturally rigid. This is so laughable as to hardly be worth considering. It is an accusation that might be made of Muslims, but Christianity grew up in a Jewish context, quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire and then later spread to the barbarians of Northern Europe. Later it became dominated by Europeans and North Americans, but today most Christians live in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

In 1900 Christians comprised 9% of the African population and Muslims 36% today it is 44% and since the 1960s they number more than the Muslims. In China since the Western missionaries left in 1947 there has been explosive growth even among members of the Communist Party, so that it is projected that by 2040 there will be 1.5 billion Christians. In South Korea in the past 50 years an infinitesimal proportion has grown to 49% of the population. Christianity is the most culturally diverse of all religions. Secularism and capitalism are far more destructive of local culture.

Freedom cannot be defined in negative terms such as the absence of confinement or constraint. In fact, constraint is often the means to liberation. To express yourself on the piano you need to constrain yourselves to years of practice. Someone has estimated that to be really good at anything, be it violin playing or surgery, you need 10,000 hours of practice. However, all the hours of practice in the world will not turn a 5 ft 3 inch basketball player into a world beater. There are other constraints to his freedom. On the other hand there are many people in our society who are pursuing careers that pay well but do not really fit their talents. Such careers truly are straitjackets.

Disciplines and constraints only liberate us when they fit with the true reality of our nature and capacities. You do not free a fish by putting on your lawn, but when it is disciplined by the constraints of the water it finds freedom and its life is enhanced. Likewise in our lives freedom is not so much the absence of constraints, but a matter of finding the right ones for our nature.

One of the most frequent assertions by moderns is that every person has to define right and wrong for himself, but when asked if there is not someone in the world right now doing things that they think ought to be stopped no matter what they personally thought about the correctness of their behaviour, they would always answer, "Yes, of course." Few people would condone female circumcision on the grounds that it is what is believed in such and such society to be right for women.

Does this not point to the fact that there is out "there" some sort of universal morality?

Love is the ultimate freedom but it is terribly constraining. Fran├žoise Sagan , the French novelist, was asked whether in what she called her satisfying life she had all the freedom she wanted, replied, "I was obviously less free when I was in love."

To experience the joy and freedom of love you must give up some personal autonomy. Love limits your options. But here is the paradox: human beings are most alive and free in relationships of love.

Freedom is not the absence of limitations and constraints, but it is the finding of the right ones that fit with our nature. Lovers accept mutual constraints.

But isn't loving God a one-way sacrifice? We do all the adjusting?

This may be true in some religions, but it is not true for Christianity. God has adjusted to us in his incarnation and atonement. Jesus accepted the limitations of humanity and became vulnerable to suffering and death. On the cross he submitted to our sinful condition and paid our penalty. If he did this for us, what would we not do for him? As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:14, "The love of Christ constrains us."

Is it easy to love God? It is for those who do so. Is it easy to love my wife? Nothing could be easier. When you love someone, no sacrifice is too much, no gift too costly, no service too demeaning. Loving Jesus is not giving up freedom. It is finding freedom in him.


Burke said...

I agree with the Enlightenment view on this.

Freedom, in a political context, is the absence of coercion by the govt. More particularly, the govt operates as a retaliatory force and does not initiate force against its citizens. The govt exists to protect them, not to oppress them.

Historically, people in the West learned that they had the faculty of reason. They then decided that they did not need to be ruled by the Church or a monarch. They had to be free to rely on their reasoning minds.

That's what the 18th century Enlightenment was all about. The Founders in America were Enlightenment intellectuals. They were greatly influenced by John Locke, and they remembered the atrocities of the church, the Inquisition, etc.

It has always those who deny the supremacy of the mind who act to force the lives of thinking people. And collectivists are no different. They just replace "god" with "the collective" as the source of their revelations. Both religionists and collectivists teach selflessness and self-sacrifice as their morality and advocate socialist-statist govt's to force individuals to toe their lines.

Today, it's collectivism versus theocracy in the form of socialism in Europe and elsewhere or religion in the Middle East. In America it's the collectivist left versus the religious right.

If we have a future worth living, however, it will be a consequence of men choosing rationality and freedom.

Terry Hamblin said...

I agree that to be free there should be no coercion by state or church, or indeed from employer or Trade Union.

That is not to say that there should be no constraints. Samuel Rutherford's famous dictum, Lex Rex, indicates that the rule of law will constrain freedom. Indeed, we are less free if there is anarchy. If my neighbour considers himself free to bulldoze over my garage because it spoils his view, I need redress in law to prevent his doing so.

What I was considering in this piece were voluntary constraints. If you love someone, you will bend over backwards to please her, even if it means giving up one of your other delights. For me it meant giving up whole days spent playing cricket.

For those who truly love God, serving him is no sacrifice.