A popular song says, “I’m proud to be an American. At least I know I am free.” We Americans cherish our freedom. Our freedom consists of our ability to live as citizens of the state with the protection of our rights. These rights are guaranteed by the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States ratified in 1791.
Freedom may be understood as either political or personal. In America, when we sing, “at least I know I’m free,” we are probably celebrating both political and personal freedom. The purpose of political freedom is to allow for personal freedom. The famous words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence express a vision of a society in which we are guaranteed our political liberty so that we may be free in our personal lives for “the pursuit of happiness.”
The struggle for political freedom was only begun when Jefferson wrote his eloquent words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness….” These rights have been interpreted to encompass more people than Jefferson envisioned when he wrote them, and the expansion of political freedom continues to be debated today.
The promise of personal freedom is no less simple than that of political freedom. It looks different to a politician than it does to a pastor. The politician extols “the American Dream” of everyone being free to live his or her life as he or she chooses. The pastor is sought out daily by persons who struggle to be free spiritually. Pastors know that often when we do what we want we end up in situations where we don’t feel free anymore, but we feel enslaved by our disordered desires. Our lives are wrecked by drug addiction, sexual disorders, greed, domination, and innumerable forms of personal problems whose symptoms are guilt, anxiety, depression, sickness, anger, and the inability to maintain a marriage or employment.
To a pastor, the aim of being a free person does not seem as simple as it is presented by the politician.
Often when we experience crises in our lives that are the result of our choices, we do not think of the problem we are having as being the spiritual challenge of becoming a truly free person. Obviously, we will be focused upon dealing with the particular problem we are having. Yet this particular problem needs to be understood in a larger spiritual context as our purpose to discover what genuine personal freedom is and how to experience it. The church‘s task is to help Americans to understand the freedom that our culture celebrates, but understanding freedom will require us to gain a much deeper perspective than is usually acknowledged in our culture.
Indeed, there is no subject that is more complex than that of the meaning of our freedom as persons. It is a subject that has been explored by philosophers for over 2,500 years in Western civilization. It cannot be grasped without an understanding of the unique existence of human beings and the nature of the world. From the Christian perspective, it cannot be understood finally except in the context of our relationship to God illumined by divine revelation.
We are Free
To begin, we have to become aware that we do possess freedom. Freedom is a unique characteristic of human beings. No other creature possesses freedom. Other creatures are bound by the laws of nature. They are determined by causation, the complex nexus of the forces of physics and interrelated events in the world. It is true that animals move themselves, but they are guided by the instincts of their species. But we human beings have the capacity to move ourselves and to make choices. In this sense, all human beings have a limited, but definite, capacity to be free from natural or historical causation. As G.K. Chesterton quipped, you don’t ask a puppy what kind of dog it wants to be when it grows up.
There must be some explanation for this freedom we human beings possess to transcend causation that makes us distinct from other creatures. One way of explaining this is to see that we have mind. Mind is the universe being aware of itself through us. The most amazing fact about the universe is that mind appeared in human beings who are the product of the evolution of a physical world. However we explain this fact, mind itself is the basis of our freedom to transcend the natural order. By our minds, we are conscious of ourselves as distinct from all other things, we are able to think and make judgments, we can even imagine the future and alternative choices, and we are able to then choose one action over another.
By having mind, we are able to become something more than individuals of a species; we are able to become persons. That is, we become an integrated organism that is able to determine its own existence.
A person is self-determining, but a person does not make himself or herself. Becoming a person occurs in a social process of relating to other persons in a society. The first person with whom we relate is our mother, but we develop as persons through an ever-widening experience of relating to other persons until we know ourselves as being members of a whole society, even members of the entire human race. Again, the fact that there are persons in a society of persons is an outstanding development in the evolution of a physical universe. However we explain this fact, it is true that there is no higher reality than that of the person or what we sometimes call personality.
Our having mind and becoming persons includes a type of consciousness we usually call conscience. Conscience is a form of thinking by which our minds make judgments about acts we are considering or have committed. An aspect of conscience is a sense of ought or responsibility to choose what is right or good.
The content of our conscience, or our awareness of what is right or good, varies to some degree in every human society. The variation in cultures should not be exaggerated because there are certain obligations that are felt in every society. For example, there is generally no society in which it is considered better to lie than to tell the truth. Nevertheless, some understandings of what is good varies in human societies. For example, in some societies polygamy is considered good whereas in others only monogamy is acceptable.
Because all persons have a conscience, then every person feels an obligation to choose between what is good or what is not good or evil.
So far, all we have done is to point to the phenomenon of human freedom. We are different from other creatures because we are free. This freedom is possible because we have mind. Because we have mind, we are able to become persons who could not exist except as members of a society of persons. Within our life as persons in society, we develop a conscience that is our awareness of an obligation to do good. This sense of obligation becomes a higher sphere of behavior in which we are able to exercise our freedom. Now, it is not merely a matter of being able to move ourselves in the natural world, such as building a rope bridge over a ravine, but it is a matter of exercising moral choices. Because we are persons in a society of persons we cannot escape being in a moral order in which we are obliged to use our freedom to choose good or evil.
At this point in our reflection, we need to pause to consider an explanation of why or how it is that we exist as creatures who possess freedom because we have mind that enables us to be persons in society in which we have conscience that acknowledges that we are part of a moral order. There is an explanation, but it is more than an explanation.
The explanation for all these facts about reality that are disclosed through the awareness of our freedom is the existence of God. The amazing fact that mind appeared in the evolution of a physical universe is best explained by assuming that there is mind in the universe itself as well as matter (understanding matter in the sense of energy events according to the new physics). As James Jeans said, “the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” And the presence of mind in the universe is best explained as the production of an ultimate power that is Mind or God. Only the existence of God is the best explanation of this kind of world because only God is the explanation that can explain itself since the world is dependent upon God for its existence, but, by definition, God is dependent upon nothing else for God’s existence except its own existence as self-sufficient.
Moreover, since we become persons as we grow up in a society of persons, God must be personal or else we have the absurdity of the human person being higher that the source of all creation.
The best explanation, then, of the reality of the world and ourselves is God. This reasonable conclusion is reinforced and illuminated by faith, which is a direct perception of a Presence that communicates its Mind to our minds that we call revelation. Through revelation, which transcends what reason can figure out, we come to know God as a Thou in relationship to us and to every I. Indeed, we know this Thou as a Trinity, a communion of Persons in whose image we are created to be persons in a community of persons.
God is the only sufficient explanation of all reality which we begin to explore when we begin with the fact that we possess freedom. Yet this explanation is more than an explanation. It is more than an explanation because God is not only the reason things are as they are, but God is also the Thou with whom we are in a relationship.
When we consider that we are persons who not only know other persons in society, but also the Person of God, then we have to realize that the moral order of which we are aware as members of a society is greater than that which evolves within a society, but includes also the character and purposes, i.e. the will, of God. Our conscience feels an ought not only to society, but also to God. Our experience tends to confirm that there is an obligation we have toward God beyond just what we owe one another in that we are aware that the right and good we feel we owe one another is also felt by them. When our parents teach us what is right, we sense that our parents are also obligated to do the right they teach us, and that authority for what is right resides beyond them. And, in every society, there is a collective awareness that there is a moral order greater than the society itself.
What this means is that moral goodness cannot be understood only sociologically. Certainly we apprehend moral goodness through our social relations. But moral goodness itself is apprehended because it is transcendent, having its ultimate origin in God who is good. The sociological fact that some moral standards vary somewhat in different societies would not mean that there is no ultimate standard of moral goodness in God, but would only reflect the achievements and deficiencies of different societies in their apprehension of the good that has its source in God.
Moral goodness is one of three great transcendentals of which we are aware along with truth and beauty, all of which have their source in God. We are obliged to exercise our freedom in choosing to find truth and beauty as well as goodness, but our ethical life (compared to our intellectual life and aesthetic life) is focused upon our using our freedom to choose moral goodness.
We Misuse our Freedom
We are free. Our freedom is our dignity as human beings. Yet, at the same time, our freedom is our misery.
It would seem that if we are persons like God who can know the good and who possess freedom to choose it, then we shall always choose the good because we know it. Yet that is not our experience as persons or as a human race. Each of us can say with the apostle Paul, “For I do not do the good I want, but evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19). Our experience proves that even though we perceive the good and desire it, in fact often we do not choose it. To acknowledge this fact does not mean that we consider human beings to be inherently evil, but it does mean that we are aware that we are in a predicament that is the source of much human suffering.
Our predicament consists of the paradox that, having god-like freedom, we act like gods even though we are creatures who do not possess the wisdom and power of God to choose the good. Having the freedom to choose, we tend to refer our choices to ourselves, making ourselves the center of our choices and doing what we want. Having the freedom to choose the good, we choose what appears to be good to us (what we want), but what is not good for us. What is good for us may actually require self-denial. Moreover, what is truly good may be what others need rather that what we want. So then, we experience our predicament of being free moral persons who tend to be self-centered and to fail to choose the good.
In the Christian tradition, our tendency toward self-centeredness is described as the misuse of freedom by Adam and Eve in paradise that introduces a disorder in human nature into which we are all born. In ancient Christianity the Fall was usually understood (though not always, e.g. Origen) as a historical event. Modern Christians, who are aware of the symbolic character of the story of Adam and Eve and the theory of evolution, understand the Fall not as a historical event, but as a phenomenological description of a real human predicament all persons experience. We make ourselves the center of our choices (“you will be gods, knowing good and evil”) and thus bring misery on ourselves.
There is no reason to believe that there was a time in our primordial past when humans ever lived in a spiritual state when they always chose what is good rather that what they wanted. Our spiritual predicament is what one would expect of a creature who evolved in nature with mind to become a person. Yet the Christian idea of the Fall is not intended to be science but revelation. It is often assumed that what is revealed in the Fall is that we are all sinners. However, a revelation is not needed to show that we are self-centered. What the Fall reveals is that God created us with a purpose so that we would have a human nature of living in a spiritual state in which we always choose the good. The Fall is more about our future than our past. We are fallen, not from a past state, but from God’s purposes for us. The state of being what God intends for us is one in which we always choose the good. Since that state of being is our true human nature according to revelation, the apostle Paul can speak of “the good I want” while he acknowledges his predicament that “the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Our tendency to misuse our freedom by choosing what seems to be good to me, but what is not truly good, is the source of the suffering we experience in life. This is the reality many persons confess to their pastors in the confidentiality of a counseling room. Sooner or later we discover the hard consequences of using our freedom in self-centered ways and experiencing the irony that our free choices have led us into a miserable bondage.
This is why many of us Americans are deceived by many of the signals given in our culture that freedom is simply a matter of choosing what I want now because it feels good to me. This is the message of the serpent to Eve in paradise: you can be like god and choose whatever you want, and you will have a great experience! This naïve message came through to millions of Americans in the 1960’s, and those who believed it and acted on it often discovered that it was a lie. At least, it was a half-truth. We are free, but, at the same time, our ability to be free will lead to our downfall unless we learn the way to true freedom.
The Way to True Freedom
What, then, is true freedom? What is that freedom that would lead us to happiness? True freedom is the freedom to choose the good. It is the freedom, not to choose the apparent good I want, but to choose the actual good that will prove to be best for me in the long term and that is good for others and that is according to the will of God, the Creator of the moral order and the source of the good. But how can we experience this possibility of choosing the good?
The solution to the antinomy of being free, but misusing our freedom, can be found only in revelation. Only revelation discloses that there is available to us what is called divine grace, and its disclosure in Jesus Christ is good news.
There is only one way we can find freedom to always choose the good, and the way to this freedom requires that our self no longer be the center of our lives.
We are not able to escape from our self-centerness by ourselves. The self is too firmly seated on its own throne and too bound to our own cause to surrender itself. It may try by its own strength to exercise its judgment and control better, but it will not surrender on its own.
Only God can save us from ourselves. God’s salvation is traditionally called redemption, which is a word to describe God’s action to deliver us from our predicament and to liberate us from our self.
God does this by offering us faith. Faith is trust in God and obedience to the good will of God. There is no faith without the surrender of the self to God. When this surrender happens, then the center of our lives becomes God rather than our self.
Faith becomes a possibility in the encounter between the divine Thou and the human I. In this encounter, God’s love is given to us, and our response is the trust and obedience of faith. In the presence of this love, we experience how we no longer have to hold ourselves together because we are held by God in God’s love. It is this experience of the love of God that enables us to let go of our self and to be liberated from our self-centeredness. In the same movement of response to God’s presence of love, we also begin to move toward others to love them as we ourselves are loved by God.
This experience is an experience of what we call grace. Grace is God’s love toward us to which we respond by faith. It changes our desires because they are no longer directed to our self but guided by God toward the good. Now we use our freedom to choose the good. We have not lost our freedom and become God’s puppets. We are indeed free, but we use our freedom differently because what we desire has been changed in the experience of the love of God. This new freedom to choose the good is the true freedom of the person.
This experience of grace has happened to countless persons. It is what happens in the pastor’s counseling room when persons confess their bondage, accept the truth that their bondage is the result of choosing the satisfaction of the self-centered self, hear the good news of God’s love, and experience the liberation of this love in prayer.
While this experience is real, it is only the beginning of the way to true freedom. We are changed, but we need to continue to grow in grace. Our faith has to be tested daily, and it has to be kept strong through continual prayer, fellowship with others on the same journey toward real freedom, and a network of spiritual disciplines. Christians differ about the degree of true freedom we can experience in this life. Even in those traditions like the Methodist tradition which offer hope of being perfected in love, there is an awareness that every stage of perfection opens up a new phase of moving onward toward a state of grace in which we are even more fully free.
How is this experience of grace known to us? It is not self-evident. Human reason, which can know how we are free compared to other creatures and which can observe our predicament of misusing our freedom, cannot know of grace unless it is revealed to it. The revelation of grace comes through Jesus Christ: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 5:9-10).
Grace is not one of the self-evident truths Thomas Jefferson named in the Declaration of Independence. It remains unknown to many Americans who celebrate their freedom. It is the truth we need to know before we set out on our pursuit of happiness or when we have come to the roadblock of our self-centeredness. It is the truth of which Jesus spoke when he said to his disciples, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).
This is the freedom the church wants every American to know.