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The Problem of Freedom [repost]


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?

Freed will

Living free


7 thoughts on “The Problem of Freedom [repost]

  1. ciram

    You are you, even if you choose to submit to some foreign power, because you still have the option of changing your mind. The freedom you call "slavery", Kant calls abandonment. We are driven by our instincts, but self consciousness allows us to shape them, with or without god, thus we are all condemned to be free in the worldly realm. The personal responsibility that comes with this is key. Don't give in to every primal urge, but not because the bible tells you not to, but because you tell yourself not to. This is empowering.

    Inflicting pain is wrong, because you feel pain and have the power to relate to others - not (only) because god says so.

    “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do. You’re your own man / your own woman.” You read this as "Be whoever", but really it means "be the best whoever you can be." If god is your route, so be it, but at least realize that you have made a choice, and there are other choices to be made. Don't take atheists as being "naturally" immoral.

    "In our natural state we ‘carry out the desires of the body and mind’."

    Self consciousness allows us to shape our natural state. It is not etched in stone, or defined by the bible.

  2. Glen

    Hi ciram,

    Welcome to the blog.

    I don't say that atheists are naturally immoral. We all have a morality (and we all fail to live up to it too!). I'm a little more interested in the justification people have for holding to their morality.

    You seem to put a lot of emphasis on our self-consciousness - as though that that could reliably shape our instincts. I'm quite certain we are able to shape certain of our impulses - but a refined murderous impulse can be even more dangerous than a crude murderous impulse, wouldn't you say? A crude murderous impulse might make you kill the person in front of you. A self-consciously refined murderous impulse might make you kill a whole people-group. And who's to say that's wrong?

    You say, "Inflicting pain is wrong, because you feel pain and have the power to relate to others."

    I really can't see how that equation works:

    "I feel pain" + "I have the power to relate to others" = "I mustn't inflict pain on them."

    Total non sequitur! Why not...

    "I feel pain" + "I have the power to relate to others" = "I better inflict pain on them before they inflict pain on me."

    Or indeed why not...

    "I feel pain" + "I have the power to relate to others" = "I know how effectively pain can motivate, so I will inflict as much as I can in the name of some grand ideal of mine."

    But really I'm not that interested in the morality question. I have no interest in making anyone "moral"! I speak in this post about freedom. (The problem is deeper than a problem of 'doing' - it's a problem of 'being').

    And I don't see how you have shown yourself to be free from the slavery of self-determination. You say that your self-consciousness shapes your impulses. Fantastic - shapes them into what mould? Fits them into what context? What is the environment in which your self-determined self flourishes? And who says? If you say 'I determine what's best for me' then you're trapped aren't you? You're a prisoner of your own self-determination (which is the point of this post).

    You correct my "Be whoever" by saying "Be the best whoever" - but "best" according to what measure? What is best for me to be and do?? Who can tell me what's best if I'm enthroned as king in my own little kingdom? "Be the best" simply boils down to "be whoever" in your system.

    What you need is a King who can tell you who you are. A King who liberates you from the prison of self and draws you into loving community. Jesus is this King and He draws us into fellowship with a heavenly Father, fills us with a holy Spirit and makes us family with other believers. *Then* we flourish. *Then* we are free.

    Have you read a Gospel any time recently? I recommend reading John - Jesus deals with these questions in great depth there.

  3. ciram

    To me, responsibility does not need a King. I am my own King, and so are you, because even under the so-called "protection" you say you obtain from Jesus, you are still free to refine a murderous instinct inside yourself.

    Yes. It would be wrong. Yes, you would go to hell.

    But, you could still choose to do it, unless of course you think you're worthy of constant divine intervention.

    This is why I place emphasis on self-consciousness. Along with your ability to choose, comes a responsibility to choose the right thing, not in the name of Jesus, but for your own sake.

    “I feel pain” + “I have the power to relate to others” = “I better inflict pain on them before they inflict pain on me.”

    Along with the pain, I also realize my existence (or rather, my fulfilled existance) as one that is social and reliant on positive human interactions. Getting rid of everything that causes pain is not an option. This is angst, and precisely what would cause half the religious population to go berserk if ever they did disprove god.

    When put side by side with someone who is "carried by the fellowship of a heavenly father" you could not tell us apart from our actions until you took away the heavenly father. It would leave me unchanged, still free to live and love myself and others. It would crush the religious man because, for him, the King is dead, his actions meaningless.

    My actions are never meaningless, because I know of them and I know that I am the one doing them.

    True freedom comes from within. I don't object to you calling this "the love of Jesus", but know that this is just one name, part of one construct, commonly known as Christianity.

    Fantastic – shapes them into what mould?

    Fits them into what context?

    What is the environment in which your self-determined self flourishes?

    And who says?
    You get the point.

    If you say ‘I determine what’s best for me’ then you’re trapped aren’t you?

    You’re a prisoner of your own self-determination (which is the point of this post).

    I am a prisoner of my own freedom. Yes. Kant said it. We are all condemned to be free and no Religion on this Planet is going to change that.

  4. John B

    Hi ciram,

    I appreciate your comments, and especially your insights into Kant. I've always found him too difficult to read for very long. This worldview is challenging because it presents not just an argument with Christianity, but a flat out contradiction and alternative to it. What an utter contrast between the view that, "I am my own King" and "Mine Mine Mine", with "King of kings and Lord of lords" and "Holy, Holy, Holy"! Jesus leads us to the Kingdom of God through the humility and self-denial of cross bearing, His and ours.

    Kantianism contradicts Christianity and vice versa. There's really no common ground to build on here. The declaration that "I am my own King" captures the essence of the fallen condition of the natural man. He is his own authority. He doesn't need, want, or trust God. He wishes God were dead, and given the opportunity, murders Him. The natural man is God's sworn enemy.

    With Kant all authority is collapsed into "Mine". My reason and my experience. With them I can be like God, and He knows it! Christianity doesn't deny the authority of reason and experience, but for believers, these aren't ultimate. Beyond them there is authority in the group, the body together in loving fellowship, committed to the good of one another. But beyond that, there is the ultimate authority of the Word of God, who reveals Himself to us and has actually spoken. There is not just "Mine", but rather a hierarchical order of authority, and the Word of God is sovereign.

    You wrote: "This is angst, and precisely what would cause half the religious population to go berserk if ever they did disprove god." I'd phrase this a little differently, but essentially I think that your statement is correct. If I were to come to the realization that, as you say, "I am my own King", utter despair and madness would surely result. For me, that's what's so destructive about Kant—he leads to Nietzsche! The heady optimism over independence soon descends into a pit of despair.

    Kant found wonder in nature ("the starry heavens above me") and ethics ("the moral law within me"). But the creation groans apart from redemption in Christ. And the transformation that conforms us to Christ and leads to glorification isn't moral; rather it's a changed nature, the adoption as children of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. The unsurpassed wonder of the cosmos is beheld in all fullness only in the face of our beloved savior, Jesus.

    I hope that you'll consider exploring Christianity. If you earnestly seek the face of Christ, He has promised to reveal Himself to you. He will transform the prison of your autonomy into the true eternal freedom of becoming a son of God.

    Although Kant said that prayer was absurd, I'm praying for you, ciram, because Jesus said, "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."

  5. Glen

    Hi ciram,

    I very much like what John wrote and commend it to you for further reflection.

    I'd only add that I found your sentence here very encouraging:

    "I also realize my existence... [is] one that is social and reliant on positive human interactions."

    That's where true flourishing and joy lies - community. Not the lonely throne, but the lively dinner table. Not trying to be a king, but rejoicing in being a child. (And even better - child of The King!) This is what Jesus offers us. And for free. :)

  6. ciram

    This will be my last comment because as you have put it, there is no common ground to be found, which I know, but if comments such as mine were not written, there would be no alternative to your views - and a view without alternatives is a doctrine, which leads to passivity, which in turn, I believe to be Humanity's greatest vice. The biggest problem I have with Christianity in this sense, is that it closes the books. "Though shalt have no other gods before me" is precisely what could prevent our race from discovering much more of "the unsurpassed wonder of the cosmos". An ideology that, first and foremost, declines any questioning of its authority is, in my view, to be considered with utmost skepticism. I do not wish to "seek the face of Christ" for I think this is a mental trap; if one is not open to discover anything and everything, one will find *some* thing. If you seek Christ you will find him, if you seek the number 23, you will find it. Religious preconceptions do not constitute freedom, they are a self-fulfilling prophecy - quite obviously part of the Bible so as to ultimately undermine doubt.

    Doubt, although sometimes devastating, is a part of human existence. Yes, it can crush entire societies, and yes, I see why thus religion was once instated. But to the natural man it is also a glorious part of our nature. It lies at the basis of revolution, of improvement and self-fulfillment. There is no ultimate truth other than one's own existence and this, of course, can cause anxiety. With "abandonment" from deity, comes doubt, but also what I consider TRUE freedom. Not freedom as you describe it - freedom to live within a given, written, system - but even freedom to identify, question and improve these systems that govern your existence.

    First and foremost Christianity, and in fact most religions, are systems that deny its followers these rights to improve them, even though the people who have instated it, constantly revise it themselves but, "in the name of god" - just so as to *brush over* the incongruencies their doctrines produce in everyday life. I am so glad the church has accepted, say the big bang, but this should not have to come from a central figure. Not from some pope or priest or even your "lord". YOU should look at the world as it presents itself to you, and create systems that allow you to live in it in harmoniously. This necessarily includes even people who are fundamentally different to you. Yes, they will not all fit into your system. This will in turn create an iota of doubt, possibly anxiety. But people who are not "created in gods image" - people who are aberrations, cripples, outcasts, misfits also have a right to make decisions, also have a right to live harmoniously.

    Not in some self-righteous crusade should allow for this, but for your own sake. For example, religion denies its followers the right to free love and the full realization of humankind as sexual beings. It instates "family" as the ultimate social order, even though our impulses are much more diverse. It denies homosexuals and other groups the right to be as they are. It denies questioning the honour of parents. This is not freedom, these are systemic limitations. GOOD and EVIL. GOD and DEVIL are concepts that are far too simple. We are ready, I think, to go beyond black and white, and accept shades of gray. The examples of sexuality or social institution may not be relevant to you, but once you stop forcing yourself to be religiously conformist (no pun intended), you are absolutely sure to discover tiny idiosyncrasies also within yourself.

    If to you these limitations describe your type of freedom, so be it, but to me this is precisely the kind of "freedom from" that you mention at the beginning of your post and sadly your religious "freedom" often becomes an imposition upon other beings that have no great "inalienable" system on their side.

    This subject is bigger than religion and if you truly believe nothing is bigger than religion, I advise you, on your quest of happiness and self-fulfillment, to join a monastery and find your fulfillment with god and also to keep it to yourself, because it simply can not be for all.

    The sentiment of freedom beyond religion has value in social interactions, in politics, everywhere. I do not consider myself Kantian or Hegelian or a follower of any one philosopher or god, even though they all said intelligent things. I consider myself Human and that is all. Existentialist is most befitting.

    I have freedom *to*, freedom even to fight your bogus ultimate freedoms, and one last time, so do you. Simply saying "because god says so" does not actually dissolve your responsibility to think. Simply attaching everything you do to some bible verse, does not make it right. You are interpreting them, you give these words meaning and so you have responsibility to think for yourself.

    If to you “I feel pain” + “I have the power to relate to others” = “I mustn’t inflict pain on them.” does not make sense, then change the way you think so that it does - if it is indeed what you consider "right".

    If, on the other hand, you consider the statement nonsensical, then that is your choice, and in choosing thus to destroy everything that causes you pain, doubt or anxiety, you would become my enemy.

  7. John B

    Hi ciram,

    Glad to see this further clarification from you, and encouraged, as there are some very notable Christian writers who are also regarded as Existentialists. But in looking at religion existentially, you've missed the mark by a wide margin, as to the essence of Christianity, which isn't a religion at all; it's the end of religion. If you're reading the Gospel of John, Jesus is very clear about this in his dialog with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. Not a new religion; Christ inaugurated a new life. In Him, religion is obsolete, as he's overcome the wall of separation between God and humans.

    Christians have long been aware of the kind of angst and despair that concerns modern existentialists. In the first chapter of John's gospel he writes: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.”. Christianity witnesses to the end of all joy and satisfaction in the natural world, which was condemned at Golgotha, when it condemned Christ. Indeed, in the death of Christ on the cross, natural life ended. There is no authentic existence in the old creation. And in His resurrection Christ restores humanity to its ordained role as God's image bearers and brings in the new creation in the Kingdom of God.

    " has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. ...if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15, 17)

    The truth of the gospel is very near to us, but it is outside of us, and it's worthy of all acceptance because it is God's Word and not our own.

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