Christianity is Freedom

Jeff McLeod

The Christian faith from the beginning is the sacrifice of all freedom…. –Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.  –Saint John Paul II

I know it sounds like a slogan, but freedom is under attack. Look at Nietzsche’s statement: if you are a Christian, you are not free. You are actually a threat to freedom. To this I want to ask, if you are not Christian, where does your freedom come from? I think many people have been led to believe that freedom is a feeling inside of you that Christianity squelches. But freedom is not a feeling. Others have been led to believe that freedom is something a government gives you if you obey its rules. But freedom is not servitude.

Please God, we need a refresher on what freedom is and where genuine freedom comes from.

Freedom includes self-mastery

The classical Aristotelian notion of freedom is: liber sit qui causa sui est – “what is free is cause of itself.” St. Thomas Aquinas (e.g., ST II-II Q19, Art 4) accepted this definition, but he developed it as well. At its root, to be free means you are the author of your actions. This principle underlies the notion of human freedom developed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC sections 1730 to 1748), where we encounter some radical ideas that are well worth unpacking.

We see a confirmation of the Aristotelian formula that man is to be “master over his acts.” We see that every act we perform is “imputable to its author.” We trace the implications: to be free is to be responsible for one’s actions. To whom? To God.

To be truly free we must accept responsibility for our acts.

To develop this idea in your mind, start with the fact that inanimate objects are moved by external causes, but persons act under a special kind of cause known as a reason. A person is someone whom you have a right to ask “Why did you do that?” Such persons are expected to answer by giving their intentions, the reasons for the act, and by doing so they affirm themselves to be the cause of their actions. This unique social interaction – not seen among other animals – is acquired with little or no training. Toddlers seem to understand it intuitively.

“Why did you hit little Skippy?”

“I hit Skippy because he took away my paint brush.”

Children understand the language of free will and intentional action fluently almost as soon as they learn to speak. The toddler loves the paint brush, Skippy threatened to deprive him of it, and therefore the toddler lashed out. It might not be a good explanation, but it is a valid and remarkably nuanced one.

The toddler also knows that some of his acts are genuinely not his own. He knows the difference between his being free versus his being constrained by the forces of nature much like a billiard ball is. “I didn’t hit Skippy, someone pushed me and I bumped into him, so it wasn’t my fault.” His logic is once again sound.

How could anyone not be in awe of the natural moral reasoning of small children? The moral law, in the form of conscience, is indeed written in our hearts.

But along with this innate avowal of personal freedom, we detect a counter-tendency to abuse the logic of freedom through deception of others and self-deception as well, to fabricate or to hide behind purely mechanical causes – like hokey psychological explanations – to distance ourselves from responsibility. This is the residue of original sin.

“Someone bumped into me, yeah, that’s what happened.” Or, “I just couldn’t stop myself. She made me so angry I just couldn’t control myself so I let her have it.”

The writer of the Old Testament seized on this flight from freedom when he described the golden calf incident at Sinai. According to the story, Moses came down the mountain after several days away and found to his horror that the people had built an idol, a golden calf. He demanded accountability from his executive officer, the high priest Aaron. Moses demanded a reason why they built the calf. Aaron replied:

“They said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’

“So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” (Exodus 32:23-24).

Out came this calf. Poof!

The heartbreak of this story is that obeying God and conforming oneself to his divine image is what makes a people free, in the authentic sense of being creative authors of their lives. But this people had no clear grasp of what was being offered. God offered freedom from the humiliation of being knocked around and made slaves by the powers and principalities of the earth. These people were led out from the bondage of Egypt, only to subordinate themselves to an inanimate golden calf in the wide open desert.

Freedom sees the world as it really is

If you do not aim to know the truth, the world as it really is, you are not free. Our freedom is constrained by what we know and what we avoid knowing.

When we are called on to give reasons for our actions in the privacy of our hearts, do we really want to know the situation completely? Or do we fixate on parts of our situation, avoiding eye contact with the rest?

Suppose your friend confides in you that she is trying not to get pregnant in order to hold on to her marriage since her husband says he does not want the burden of children. Is your friend truly free? Is her husband? There is a mutual self-deception. Both are afraid; the blind lead the blind. I wonder what Jesus would do if he was her friend? I strongly suspect he would help her face her situation without blinders, just as he did with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 6:17-19.

Jesus said, “Go, call your husband and come here.” The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.”

Perhaps Jesus would ask, what is it you are afraid of?

Christianity offers something new. It is not a set of rules, it is no political utopia. The Gospel is a personal challenge. We believe that the God of the Universe took on our nature to meet us and draw us out from our self-deceit into genuine self-possession. This is true freedom.

Christ made this perfectly clear in his interactions with people. To the extent that we are not actively pursuing the truth about ourselves, to the extent that we avoid looking thoughtfully at our circumstances, we abdicate our freedom just like Aaron did with the golden calf. And God mourns our error with the same intensity.

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:2)

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5 thoughts on “Christianity is Freedom”

  1. Pingback: Terrify Neighbors with the Gospel on Halloween - BigPulpit.com

  2. But along with this innate avowal of personal freedom, we detect a counter-tendency to abuse the logic of freedom through deception of others and self-deception as well, to fabricate or to hide behind purely mechanical causes – like hokey psychological explanations – to distance ourselves from responsibility. This is the residue of original sin.

    It seems that this “counter tendency” of which you speak might be modern psychology. You seem to pooh pooh it as a counter-tendency to abuse the logic of freedom through deception. And then you propose “original sin” as the real problem.

  3. Dr. McLeod, this may have been far– or not too far– from your mind as you wrote this, but an entire homily encouraging Catholics to come back to Confession could be crafted from what you’ve expounded on here. Way too many of us either reduce it to a ritual, to therapy, to something to be managed, or even to going to the Prinicipal’s office for a telling-off. We forget that in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are reconciled to God, and to the Truth– and in the process, the truth about ourselves. When we think of it that way, we can see how a good Confession enables us through grace to live our faith with integrity, because it’s actually part of the “spiritual physics” (Fr. Robert Barron’s term, not mine) of our faith in action.

    Two aspects of your discussion of self-mastery leap out in particular:

    “When we are called on to give reasons for our actions in the privacy of
    our hearts, do we really want to know the situation completely? Or do we
    fixate on parts of our situation, avoiding eye contact with the rest?”

    and

    “Perhaps Jesus would ask, what is it you are afraid of?”

    Perhaps a thorough, meaningful examination of conscience often begins by asking some form of that last question.

    1. What a wonderful direction you opened up. I wholeheartedly agree. Your connection to reconciliation wasn’t as close to mind as I now wish it had been!
      I have been reading St. Ignatius about spiritual discernment, and am thinking a lot about the spiritual influences on our decisions. I got caught in the idea of our allowing evil spirits to influence our considerations, which is very easy for them to do, for anyone to do, when we ourselves are not master of who we are.
      So this piece is a somewhat of a tangential reflection on St. Ignatius, the sources of our choice in life, for good and evil.
      WSquared, I really like your idea about reconciliation. I can just picture a really strong piece about what reconciliation, and how it very literally and very concretely gives us true freedom.
      It was your idea! I wonder, would you like to write a piece on this topic, and publish it here? I would gladly give up my column for you as guest writer. I would get permission from the publisher but she is so wonderful and so good to me, I believe she would consider it.
      You seem like a very deep person, and someone who loves her faith.

    2. If you do not aim to know the truth, the world as it really is, you are not free. Our freedom is constrained by what we know and what we avoid knowing.

      That seems ironic because I see religious people as not aiming to know the real truth and the world as it really is. I see them aiming to believe in “the Truth” which is entirely different from the real truth. Or at least “the Truth” is inconsistent with what the secular world sees as being true.

      So, who has the right opinion of what is actually true? And which truth will truly set us free? Is it “the Truth” that will set us free? And, if so, how? Or is it the truth recognized aside from what is held by religious people.

      This is the essence of today’s culture war. It is why there is no middle ground. Each person must decide which “truth” is real and which is made up. Is religion myth or reality?

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