Toward a theology of freedom
This afternoon I led an hour of a church history and theology class and I directed our attention toward the concept of freedom. Some of the content I’ve generated here on the blog in the past month has come out of my readings and research on this subject. I’ll share a little more of that in this space because I think it is worthwhile. I don’t really have any answers or firm ideas, so this is just me trying to process through these things with the help of some old white dudes. Help me do this.
In my context of white and middle-class America, my understanding of freedom is going to be completely different than that of, say, my Latino neighbors. Freedom is one of the (if not THE) dominant narratives of American culture, but I think the way it’s been appropriated is twisted. Freedom is understood as both freedom from and freedom to. Generally, freedom-talk is dominated by our autonomy and liberty to do whatever we want. What smart-ass kid has not retorted, “It’s a free country!” to another when told, “You can’t do that”? I think Luther is instructive on a fuller understanding of how our freedom is used.
Although we Christians are free from all works, we ought to use this liberty to empty ourselves, take on the form of servants, take on human form, and become human in order to serve and help our neighbors in every possible way. This is the very manner in which God in Christ acted and continues to act toward us. And this service ought to be done freely, having regard for nothing except the approval of God.”
Drawing his concept of freedom from Philippians 2, this kenotic understanding of freedom challenges our traditional understanding freedom to and directs our freedom toward the love and service of neighbor. For Luther, the purpose of freedom is so that we can invite others into freedom. Jacques Ellul says this along similar lines:
The Gospels clearly show that Christ is the only free man. Free, he chose to keep the law. Free, he chose to live out the will of God. Free, he chose incarnation. Free, he chose to die. Note the emphasis on choice. Choice is the most tangible expression of freedom.
The problem though is becoming free ourselves. Peter C. Hodgson writes in New Birth of Freedom: A Theology of Bondage and Liberation:
Freedom is one of those root words of human experiences––like ‘being,’ ‘truth,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘goodness’––for which a finally and satisfying and universally accepted definition can never be found.
So how is it that I come to define freedom? What does freedom mean for me? How does my freedom differ from my neighbor’s freedom, and how do I invite others into something so nebulous and subjective as a freedom which I may not understand? Our starting point is the neighbor, and learning to understand what freedom is for those around us. Jurgen Moltmann writes:
I become free when I open my life for others and appreciate them in their differentness and am gladly together with them. Human freedom is realized by
means of mutual appreciation and acceptance, that is, in personal communion. Then the other person is no longer a limit to my freedom. The other enlarges my limited life.
Freedom involves both risk and responsibility. Currently, my participation in Christ does not lead me into risk and responsibility. I do not feel as if I am living in freedom. I still feel deeply bound to myself, to possessions, to security and to comfort. Hopefully I find the courage to enter into the risk and responsibility of freedom and the interdependence that comes along with it.
What insights, thoughts or experiences do you have on this journey?
1. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian
2. Jacques Ellul, The Ethics of Freedom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1976, 51.
3. Peter C. Hodgson, New Birth of Freedom: A Theology of Bondage and Liberation (Philadelphia: Fortress), 1976, 43.
4. Jurgen Moltmann in On Freedom, edited by Leroy S. Rouner (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press), 1989, 44.