What is Freedom?

So there are actually a lot of competing answers to this question.

Classical liberal thinkers land on negative freedom–freedom from oppression, freedom from slavery. Even liberal rights are negative in the sense that they assume the need for defense against those who might otherwise trample one’s freedom to worship, speak, own, etc. Classical liberals therefore see a place for government in refereeing an even playing field and protecting our right do do things if we can. For instance, if you can afford to buy a house, the government will back up your property rights; if you can write a letter to the editor, the government will guarantee your right to have a contrary opinion.

Socialists tend to move into the positive freedom territory–freedom to. They argue that in order to be truly free one must be enabled by the joint stock of society to achieve at least some minimum security so that other freedoms become realizable. For instance, they argue that free speech doesn’t mean much if a person is too busy trying to pay for food to focus on current events or find a venue to speak their mind. They argue that people should have the freedom to actualize themselves, but in a capitalist economy, only a few really have that ability.

Christians and other religions, notably Islam, go beyond these concepts of freedom. To believe that God truly rules means that earthly rulers and ideologies do not have the final say over their lives. Freedom from this perspective means emancipation from earthly powers.

In the research I’ve done in the past few years, looking at the work of Edmund Burke, Carl Jung, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Christopher Lasch, Wendell Berry and Walter Brueggeman, among others, I have seen an area of agreement around this: true faith liberates people from “ideological possession”–the focus on political ideology considered “saving” — and “mammonism,” the focus on money as the primary goal of life.

That means that those whose primary focus is ideological or economic, who spend most of their mental energy defending their earthly tribe or figuring out how to make the right money moves, are not free. Conversion can have the liberating effect of realizing the supremacy of God over all things human. All things human can come to seem inevitably partial, flawed, mixed.

There are probably other ways of avoiding ideological possession–but maybe not any that are superior. The greatest other way in our society is numbness, apathy and cynicism, or just wallowing in the immediate goings on, or in materiality. Another way, which some can achieve, is through sheer intellect, maybe. However, I think it’s worth seriously considering the way of faith because we can see and feel the fruits of it in the here and now in liberation, a liberation we desperately need, from ideological possession and tribalism. That is, it gives freedom now, and not only after we die.

Of course faith comes with dangers too, but you know it’s gone bad if it becomes an oppressive regime or angry rant rather than a freely chosen way of life that yields real fruits in better, more harmonious living. For too many, faith is associated with the angry rant or oppressive sanctimony, and that is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.

When we need you the most, Christians, where are you?


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