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What does Christianity say about freedom?


By Andrew Kirk

In recent history a 'free' society seems to have become humanity's chief goal. It has become an all-encompassing ideal. However, to find a description of freedom's meaning that every segment of society can accept is a tall order. The majestic concept laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that refers to freedoms such as those of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and association, represents a pure ideal. In practice, it is difficult to convert these into realistic policies.

The idea of freedom, though highly venerated, is much disputed. Some think of it in 'negative' terms – 'freedom from' external controls. A person is free only when able to will an action without pressure or duress. This means that individual consciences should be defended against any kind of authoritarian interference. Others wish to emphasise the 'positive' aspects of freedom – 'freedom for'. On this view freedom is about possibilities. People may, for example, be free theoretically to join a club (no gender, race or age limitations apply). However, if the entrance fee and annual subscription is beyond their financial resources, they are not free to join. The existence of conditions that make choices possible is part of actual freedom.

There are many aspects to freedom. It is associated, not only with individual desires, political and economic movements, but also with philosophical thought, artistic endeavour and spiritual experience. Existentialist philosophy captures a prevalent mood in contemporary Western societies. Basically it affirms that humans do not possess a given essence, prior to their actual concrete action in the world. They are free to choose what they wish to be. They are also responsible for what they choose. They are only free, when they do not submit to the imposed meanings and values of others. “Be, whatever you wish to be” might be the motto adopted.

Such a statement sums up some people's notion of artistic freedom. Personal authenticity for artists should originate in and be guided by the spontaneous, imaginative side of their nature. Artists have a duty to themselves to impose their forms on the medium they are using as an expression of their individual preference alone. Art is corrupted when forced to express a certain ideology or conform to public opinion, or even the consensus of fellow artists.

In the real world these idealistic views of freedom are fanciful. Human experience shows that outward circumstances, over which individuals have little control, circumscribe lives. Nevertheless, some will affirm that there exists within us an inner citadel which no-one can breach, which enables a form of self-emancipation. Through activities such as meditation, right thinking and a healthy lifestyle, the pursuit of a personally-fashioned 'spirituality' can help people to transcend the limitations of a culture that exalts the value of material progress. Freedom is, then, not seen as another commodity that can be given or withheld by someone else, but a reality over which the individual has ultimate control.

In broad terms, it might be possible to summarise a general view of freedom as comprising the conviction that any person is free to act in accordance with their desires and conscience, as long as they do not inflict harm on anyone else. This maxim owes its origin to John Stuart Mill (On Liberty). The Christian view of freedom, however, owes its origin to a different source.

Using proof texts from the Bible to prove theological or moral points is generally not advisable. However, in the context of reflecting on the relation between Christian belief and freedom, there is one passage in the New Testament that is probably an exception. In John's Gospel, a polemical discussion between Jesus and the 'Jews', which refers directly to the source of authentic freedom, is recorded. The key text is John 8:31:

“Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free'”.

This sentence is itself a truth claim on the part of Jesus. However, it elicited a negative response from his hearers. They rejected the notion that they had to be made free, because “they had never been slaves to anyone”. Jesus disabuses them of their false confidence, because like the rest of humanity they are all slaves to sin. In their innermost being they are not free. Paul sums up the problem from his own experience:

“I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin...I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...It is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me...If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom 7:14-20).

This is a depressing truth about human self-understanding. It is, however, a reality that our conscience demonstrates, if we listen honestly to what it tells us.

Jesus teaching becomes more contentious, when he declares that the 'Jews' reject what he says, because their thinking is ultimately affected by a disposition, influenced by 'the father of lies', to believe falsehoods. Jesus finishes his disputation by stating that the fundamental problem about being free is to know the truth about God and to act on it.

So, the first and last word that Christianity says about freedom concerns right belief about God and Jesus “who has made him known” (John 1:18). The human proneness to invent fallacious creeds and attempt to live by them, or to succumb to desires prompted by our sinful nature, are the reasons why the deep depths of authentic freedom elude us. The only possible solution is to submit ourselves to Jesus' authority, dwell in his word and practise the truth it specifies. Then, and only then will humans be made genuinely free.

According to this view,

freedom is the fruit of conversion – a radical transformation of the way one is oriented either towards the truth as it is revealed in Christ or towards the false assumptions of a world unconscious of any need to be accountable to its Creator. The change is made possible by God himself who, in the death and conquest of death by Jesus Christ, has taken upon himself all the consequences of our epistemological futilities, existential confusions and moral blindnesses and broken their power to keep us enslaved to an unreal world”. (1)


(1) J. Andrew Kirk, The Meaning of Freedom: A Study of Secular, Muslim and Christian Views (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998) p. 210

Rev. Andrew Kirk is an ordained Anglican minister. He has spent much of his life teaching theology in tertiary educational institutions and has taught courses on all six continents. Since retirement (in 2002), he has been involved on a part-time basis with graduate institutes in Eastern and Western Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada, both teaching and supervising doctoral students. He has degrees in theology (missiology) from the Universities of London, Cambridge, and Nijmegen. He was a founder/member of the Latin American Theological Fraternity (1970), associate director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (1982-1990), theologian missioner of the Church Mission Society (1982-1990), dean and head of the Department of Mission, Selly Oak Colleges (1990-1999), and senior lecturer for the Department of Theology, University of Birmingham (1999-2002). He is the author of many books.



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