Freedom is a complex beast

In the film I, Robot, the 2004 Will Smith thriller—Sonny the robot says at the end, “Now that I have fulfilled my purpose, I don’t know what to do.” Will Smith’s character responds: “I guess you’ll have to find your way like the rest of us, Sonny. That’s what it means to be free.” In his definition–To be human then is to be free and to be free is to develop our own truth, meaning and purpose. Freedom in this context is defined as freedom from restrictions.  We hear this everywhere in the Western world—we must be free to create and determine ourselves.

yellow wall

The problem? I think the Truth is more important than we think and freedom is more complex then we think.

Truth is more important than we think

Today we think if you comply with truth, it lacks freedom. But there is no way today to not make a truth claim. Even the claim: “there are no absolute truth claims,” is a truth claim in that we are seeking individuals to agree with our statement. Michel Foucault says all truth claims are power claims. He is right to some degree, but then even that statement is a claim to power as he thinks it’s true! In other words we can’t get away from believing in truth. We all make truth claims.

In a recent New York times blog, Morris responds to Amy Pellegrino who wrote, “We should be smart enough to adapt our own feelings about what the truth is when necessary. Truth is what we believe it to be.” He says,

If you were strapped into an electric chair, there would be nothing relative about [truth.] Suppose you were innocent. Would you be satisfied with the claim there is no definitive answer to the question of whether you’re guilty or innocent? Or would you be screaming, “I didn’t do it. Look at the evidence. I didn’t do it.” Nor would you take much comfort in the claim, “It all depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?” Or perhaps you’re not the condemned man but just a visitor seated in the gallery preparing to witness the execution. You might say to the condemned, “You think you’re innocent. I think you’re guilty. But it doesn’t really matter because truth is subjective, and each one of our individual opinions about whether you’re guilty or not is true.” Or how about, “There is no such thing as truth. You’re just unlucky.” People often confuse the difficulties of ascertaining the truth with the relativity of truth. They are quite different. (We may have difficulty fixing the exact date of the Battle of Hastings, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen at a specific time). Most post-modernist professors argue that truth is relative except when it comes time for tenure.

Morris shows us what leads to oppression is not the truth claim itself, but what is in the truth claim. Everyone makes truth claims. The real question is which ones are the best ones?

Freedom is more complex than we think

At the same time, freedom is more complex than we think. As we said earlier, the modern conception of freedom is only the absence of restrictions-freedom from anything. That definition is not complex enough because it doesn’t acknowledge that no one is free from restrictions completely.

For example, as you get older you can’t just eat whatever you want. You have to restrict your freedom to stay healthy, and you have to restrict your freedom to spend to have enough money. If you want a job you have to restrict yourself now to study skills that could lead to a job in the future.

So real freedom is not freedom from all restrictions. If you had no restrictions you would have no friends (as friends demand your time, money, effort), no loved ones (love means commitment to another even when you don’t want to be), no career, no money, nothing. That means when people say I want to be free from to define my own reality, they really don’t know what they are talking about. You always have restrictions.

The real question is which restrictions are the right ones?  Which restrictions will lead to the most freedom? At the very least it means freedom is more complex than we thought—it is not just freedom from, but more freedom to something.

So what freedom is the most liberating? I think Christianity stacks up well.

Love may be the most-liberating freedom-loss of all because you are not your own anymore. A real love relationship means both sides must turn to the other and say “I will adjust for you, and I will change for you.” At first sight Christianity looks like it is dehumanizing because it looks like it is only one way—we have to adjust for Him. While this may be true in other religions—in Christianity in the most radical way, God adjusts for us—through the person of Christ becoming human, vulnerable, suffering and dying in our place. The cross is the place where he submits to our condition and dies in our place. That’s what God is saying in Christ—I will adjust for you. I will change for you.

From now on the main motivator for Christians is the love of God moving us and compelling us to want to restrict ourselves to what he loves, as we trust that he knows what is good for us. The more you see what the Christian God did for you, the more you are motivated to live for Him. Just like any other love relationship. Now that is a freedom—it is restrictive—but frees us like no other freedom as it’s a love that never lets us down, and always holds us up even when we screw up and mess up.

Any other love—any other truth you place yourself under—will destroy you. If it is your career—what happens if you fail in your career? You are devastated. What happens if you succeed? You become proud, even arrogant. A person, a family—all will destroy you if they are your ultimate truth. Only Christianity says you are saved by grace—God freely gives us his presence–though we don’t deserve it. When we are impacted by that truth it transforms and remakes us. 

Michael Keller


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