An evocative word.
What does it mean to us?
Usually it means a freedom from some kind of power so that we can realize our true potential. ‘I’m free to do what I want any old time.’ That kind of thing.
The question of ‘Who is this “I” who can do these things?’ is usually considered to be a restatement of the freedom mantra: I am the one who can do what I want. “I am who I am / I will be who I will be”, as Someone famously once said.
The link between such an account of freedom and the divinisation of the self becomes obvious in a thinker like John Stuart Mill. He said this in On Liberty:
In the part [of the conduct of an individual] which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of course, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
Now notice that Mill is concerned here with conduct that ‘merely concerns ourselves’. He’s well aware that the independent exercise of our wills can harm others and diminish their freedom. He’s no dummy. He has a whole apparatus of ‘rights’ with which to negotiate the competing claims of our own absolute freedoms.
When Christians argue against Mill, the argument should not be: “Hey, if everyone thinks they’re sovereign they’ll ride rough-shod over everyone else.” That would be a very pragmatic objection and one to which Mill has a whole raft of pragmatic solutions.
No, the problem is not what humanity does with their self-rule (they could be thoroughly virtuous with it). The problem is self-rule. Mill effectively poses the question, Who has the absolute claim over my life? He answers: I do. Mill’s philosophy here (which is the air we breathe in the West) is nothing less than the enthronement of man upon Christ’s throne.
But in critiquing such ‘freedom’ we can do more than simply denounce it as blasphemous. We would do well also to expose it as the worst kind of bondage. Why bondage?
Well let’s ask the question, Who is this self who is exalted to the throne? Who is the “I” that can do whatever “I” want?
Tellingly, this ‘freedom’ cannot positively give you an identity. In fact, to be true to itself, this kind of ‘freedom’ must refuse to tell you who you are. All that such ‘freedom’ can offer is the protection of a sphere in which you can pursue your desires. It gives you a kingdom (of one!) and a throne and it operates a strict immigration policy. Yet this border-patrol must not only exclude impediments to your desires, it must also exclude forces that would seek to direct those desires. It must repel all foreign claims upon you and leave you with an absolute and unquestioned independence.
You have your kingdom and your throne, but who are you? Well, You will be who you will be. And so, left to rule your own kingdom, you are a prisoner of your independence.
Consider this piece of advice being given to millions of men and women around the world right now:
“Don’t let anyone tell you what to do. You’re your own man / your own woman.”
Now aside from the inherent contradiction on show here, notice how you are to be directed in your sovereign rule. You must direct yourself. And the reason? You belong to yourself. This is the infuriating circularity
I direct myself.
Who is the I who directs?
The one with power to direct.
I belong to me.
Who is the one who belongs to me?
The one belonging to me.
What’s missing in all this is an environment in which to exercise our freedom. We have been treated as though the choices we make in expression of our self-hood are grounded only in ourselves as individuals. Yet we are who we are in a network of dependent relationships. The expression of our identity through responsible living and choosing necessarily occurs within an environment. Divorced from this environment, any experience of ‘freedom’ will actually take us away from our true selves.
This is the experience of the ant-farm in this famous Simpson’s clip…
The ants may have longed to be free from their glass case, but ‘freedom’ from the ant-farm proves to be “horrible” indeed. It destroys their very selves to be ‘free’ from the environment supportive of their own life and being.
We are the same. We don’t exist as free floating individuals to whom the greatest gift would be independence. We are truly free when properly related to the environment in which our personhood flourishes.
And this is why Mill’s definition of freedom does not help the exercise of responsible choice, it radically undermines it. Because I have been stripped of all claims upon me, all direction from outside, all sense of a context wider than me, I am left with a self that can only be defined in reference to itself and its own decision-making capacity. I have a naked self exercising a naked power, cut free from all that’s actually constitutive of my identity.
Therefore, necessarily, I’m going to have to go outside myself in order to live out my irreducibly relational existence. I need, so to speak, to make an alliance with a foreign kingdom.
Now our experience of this will feel like it falls into one of two categories:
Either A) I embark on an alliance as a dispensible means towards my self-determined end. In this case I’ll drop it as soon as it’s inconvenient — I’m in charge using you.
Or B) I genuinely give myself over to the foreign power and am determined by it — You’re in charge using me.
But the bible says, in practice A) is our sinful intention but it always collapses into B).
Let’s think about Ephesians 2:1-3:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.
In our natural state we ‘carry out the desires of the body and mind’. You might think that sitting on the throne of your little kingdom is the definition of freedom. But no, precisely as we ‘gratify the cravings’ (NIV) of the body and mind we are following the devil.
Just as we think we are exercising our self-rule, in that act we are being ruled by Satan. We imagine we’re strong enough to pull off A), in reality we have no bargaining power with the world, the flesh and the devil – they’re in charge using us.
The similarity between Mill’s quotation on freedom and Ephesians 2:3 is chilling. To exercise ‘sovereignty’ over our ‘body and mind’ is not freedom at all. According to the bible that is slavery.
If we’re going to find a true freedom it will have to be on an entirely different footing.
More on that later…
Rest of series:
Where to begin?
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