Reflections on ‘Freedom’ in Our Present Time

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of freedom recently. As with so many things, different people seem to use different definitions of freedom and this complicates our collective conversations. I am not going to try to persuade anyone about the right definition of freedom. With that said, I want to highlight a few reflections on freedom that I find helpful in our present time.

First, in her 2012 Tanner Lecture, Ester Duflo, the 2019 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics asks the following question:

Some might argue with the idea that the status quo is more constraining for the rich than for the poor: after all people in rich countries can go on camping trips and drink un-filtered water, while people in Udaipur, India may have a very hard time getting all of the required immunizations for their children even if they wanted to. Let’s assume, however, for the sake of argument, that it is in fact easier for a poor person in a developing country to escape the status quo of unclean water, unimmunized children, and no health coverage than for a rich person [in a “rich country”] to move in the opposite direction. While, at first glance, that seems to suggest the poor person is more free, could we nevertheless argue that, in some sense, the poor person has less freedom than the rich one?

Duflo goes on to suggest that to answer this question, we first need to define “freedom.” Using the definition of “freedom” as detailed by Amartya Sen: freedom is the ability to realize one’s potential. Freedom is, therefore, fundamentally associated with Sen’s concept of capability, where life, physical health, mental health, and personal agency are all essential capabilities. Thus, to experience “freedom” is to be able to access these capabilities. As Duflo bluntly points out:

It would make no sense, for example to claim that people in Haiti are free because the can die of cholera if they decide to. The presence of cholera makes them less free: freedom to lose is not freedom. […] In other words, although the set of options available to me would seem to be the same, I am in fact more free in a society that puts chlorine in my water even if I did not explicitly ask for it than in a society that does not.

So, to summarize so far: Duflo, and by extension Sen, defines freedom as the ability of individuals to access essential capabilities. This contrasts with a definition of freedom where freedom is the realization of the largest set of possible choices. This is an important distinction because, in some cases, having more possible choices actually leads to less ability to access essential capabilities.

Second, in his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College (video recording here, full transcript here), David Foster Wallace notes the following:

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

DFW suggests here that our culture (in the United States, at least) includes a default definition of freedom that implicitly places each of us at the center of our own existence. This definition is perhaps natural because it is how we perceive the world around us, from our own perspective. DFW argues that it is possible, perhaps helpful, and also challenging to choose to think differently. We can choose to take ourselves outside of the center of our own perceived universe and instead pay attention and be aware of the possible complexities and needs of other people. The ability to make this choice is real freedom.

Third, and finally, in a 2013 sermon entitled “Paul and the Puzzle of Freedom” N.T. Wright asks:

What does the Bible say about freedom? The obvious place to begin is the Exodus. Many of you will have Jewish friends and neighbours who were celebrating Passover a few weeks ago. Passover is the freedom-festival par excellence. It recalls the time God went down to Egypt and rescued his people from slavery. Many times since then the Israelite people have been outwardly enslaved, but the annual Passover declares their belief that they are God’s free people, and one day will be truly free again. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the freedom-loving God, the God who rescues slaves and makes them his children and his heirs. It is no accident that when Jesus of Nazareth drew his kingdom-work to its shocking climax, he chose Passover-time, freedom-week, the moment when all Israel was celebrating what God had done and praying for what God would do. And the message of Easter is, not least, the message that he has done it at last. For freedom the Messiah has set us free, declared St Paul.

The trouble with the Exodus, of course, is that you can take Israel out of Egypt but it’s much harder to take Egypt out of Israel. As soon as they are across the Red Sea, the people grumble because they haven’t enough to eat and drink. That sets the pattern for the next forty years: it’s only a short step from gratitude to grumbling, and people will gladly swap freedom for food, and all sorts of other things as well. And Paul, in both Romans and Galatians, has exactly the same thing in mind. In Romans 6, 7 and 8 he tells the story of being in Christ as the story of the new Exodus. And, at the critical point, in chapter 8 verses 12–16, he says, in effect, that the point of freedom is not to go back to Egypt again. ‘You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery,’ he says, ‘ to slide back into fear; you’ve received the spirit of sonship.’ It’s one thing to stop being a slave. It’s quite another to learn how to be a son, a mature child of God. That’s why, when he helps the Corinthians to think through the same point, he agrees with their radical freedom-slogan: ‘All things are lawful for me!’ Yes, maybe, says Paul, but not all things are helpful. All things may be lawful in one sense, but not all things build you up, make you a strong and mature human being in the Messiah’s life and service. This is a point today’s church has all but forgotten, as our western modernist notion of ‘freedom’, owing more to the Enlightenment than to scripture, slides across into would-be Christian imagination.

As Paul puts it in today’s reading from Galatians 5: you were called to freedom, but don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Rather, be slaves to one another in love. Here is the Pauline paradox: to be free, learn to be a slave! Remember that most of the things Paul calls ‘the works of the flesh’, things like bitterness and sorcery and hatred, could just as easily be practiced by a disembodied spirit. Paul is not against things because they are to do with the body. So what does he mean when he says we are to be slaves to one another in love? Here is the puzzle, the paradox. All freedoms generate new forms of slavery. If you use your freedom to dive headlong into the destructive life of anger and envy and malice and sexual immorality, those things will enslave you: they will create habits of mind and imagination, far more powerful than habits of the body. The alternative is to learn the central Christian virtue, which is love: and love means enslaving yourself to other people in a whole new way, making their needs your priorities and their sorrows your concern.

Through the letters of the Apostle Paul, Wright makes a point—similar to Duflo, Sen, and DFW—that freedom is not simply defined as the ability to fulfill personal wants and desires. Instead true freedom, or at least the type that Paul describes to the church in Galatia, is the freedom to love other people. This means to make the needs and troubles of others your own priority.

So, that is all for today. Three reflections on freedom—from three very different perspectives—that, I hope, help us all think through our actions and behavior in our present time.

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