For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery Gal. 5.1
The above statement by St. Paul makes no sense to most people today, including Christians. What do you mean, ‘for freedom Christ has set us free?’ most would say. We’re already free to make whatever choices we want to make and do whatever we want to do. The reason why Paul’s statement makes no sense to our modern ears is because our notion of freedom is radically different from his. In David Bentley Hart’s book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, Hart summarizes our modern notion of freedom as trusting there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom (p. 21). The world, ideas, what’s right and wrong is not something that already exists that we need to discover, but instead, all of reality is like a blank canvass upon which we impose whatever truth we choose to impose on it. The modern person may believe in almost anything, or perhaps in anything, so long as all these beliefs rest securely upon a more fundamental faith that I decide what is true or not true. We choose truth, truth does not choose us!
What attracts many of us to this modern, nihilistic notion of freedom is that it presumes no system of beliefs that ought to be imposed upon others and no single correct path to truth that others ought to be made to tread. Therefore, we are free from subservience to creeds, or to religious fantasy, or to any form of moral or cultural absolutism, and so ideally have relinquished every desire to control anyone else.
However almost no one is entirely modern in this way or, at least conscience, of thinking about freedom in this way. Many still believe in a God and even atheists believe it’s important to place certain limits upon the will’s free exercise for the betterment of society. Still there is an overwhelming consensus in the right to decide for ourselves so that we are obedient to nothing else but our personal volition. This priority of free choice applies not only to what we purchase and how we live. In political and ethical debates regarding economic policy, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, censorship, genetic engineering etc. ‘choice’ is the principle most frequently invoked by people.
The consequences for us are evident all around us. On the political level, there is an widening gap and distrust between different political parties and ideologies. National identity can no longer be trusted to hold a nation together. We have only to look to our neighbour beyond our southern border to see this taking place. On the ethical level, there is no longer a coherent pattern of thought, tradition or belief system to guide our discussions. Instead, so there is no impingement on our free choices, ethics is an improvisation of ideas that suite our individualistic decisions. Accordingly, everything is possible making consensus impossible. Lastly in the religious realm, God has become a mere consumer item. We pick and choose whatever god we want, sometimes from within a religion, but increasingly from different ones as well. And when that god does not suite our needs, we create another one.
Now don’t think we Christians are oblivious to this choice-centered notion of God. We’re as good at creating God in our own image as anyone else. That’s why we have so many denominations, ‘shop’ for church communities, and readily get upset when the preacher does preach exactly what we believe. We’re as modern as everyone else in our culture.
But there is another way as St Paul suggests. For Paul, true freedom is inseparable from one’s nature; we are truly free only when we can flourish as the kind of being one was created to be. For Plato, Aristotle and Christian thinkers such as Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, John of Damascus or Thomas Aquinas, true freedom is emancipation from whatever constrains us from living a virtuous life or experiencing the full fruition as God’s creatures. Among the things that constrain us are our untutored passions, our willful surrender to momentary impulses, our foolish or wicked choices. In this view of things, we are free when we achieve that end towards which our nature is oriented towards. Therefore, we are free, not merely because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well. Hence St Augustine defined the highest state of human freedom not as ‘being able not to sin’, but as ‘being unable to sin’.
But how to we get to this point of ‘being unable to sin’? That’s were Christ comes into picture. The modern notion of freedom assumes we can reach this point on our own, (in fact that we’ve already reach it!). But the evidence around and within us shows this is not true. How can we can we say, we can choose wisely when the world is in such a mess, with all its injustices, evil acts, suffering and death? How can we claim we’re truly free to choose what best for us when anxieties and restlessness continues to grip our hearts and minds and suicides are on the rise? The reason why we’re gripped by so much injustice, suffering, anxiety and restlessness is because there is no such thing as just being free. We can only be truly free when we’re freed for something or someone.
That is why Paul says, for freedom Christ has set us free. For Paul freedom is not unconstrained choosing, but instead being freed to live the virtuous life, care for people, love each other as God loves us, in other words to become what Christ created us to be. For Paul, freedom has a goal and that goal is our participation in the eventual new heaven and earth where, as was the case for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we will once again live in God’s presence, free to not sin and free from all pain, suffering, anxiety and death.
But what happens in the meantime? In the meantime, Paul warns us to not submit again to a yoke of slavery, that is to the modern notion of freedom. A life that is based on mere freedom of the will only leads into an abyss of confusion, anxiety, ethical and religious confusion, in other words, a yoke of slavery. But if we turn to Christ, he can and will set us free for freedom, to at least begin to live free of anxiety, to be virtuously, in peace knowing God is with us and for us and with a purpose, showing the world what God’s new heaven and earth will look like.