I have always struggled to understand what Christians mean by freedom. There is quite a lot in the Old Testament about Israel as free people, in the New Testament about how Christ sets us free, Christians talk a lot about freedom, and yet Christianity has always seemed to demand things like obedience, submission to God's will, adopting a moral code where certain things are right and certain things are off-limits, none of which really seems like freedom.
For a number of years now I've been pondering this question, and the result is a book which has just been published, entitled “Bound to be Free: the Paradox of Freedom”, published by Bloomsbury. At the risk of sounding a little arrogant I think I may have worked it out - at least to my own satisfaction!
The problem is not so much a Christian understanding of freedom, but the secular way of thinking about the concept which most of us imbibe without even thinking about it. The book traces the roots of secular notions of Freedom in the libertarian tradition exemplified by thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. The basic idea here is that freedom is individual freedom. It is the ability to do what I choose with my own goods, talents, time and opportunities, without any hindrance from wider bodies like the state or government. J.S. Mill extends this into the idea that such freedom is necessary from all kinds of social restriction and expectation, and that individuals should be free to do as they choose, as long as they do not harm other people, and do not infringe upon the rights of others to exercise their own freedom within their own personal space.
If that's the way we understand freedom, then it's not surprising that Christians struggle to fit biblical notions of freedom into that framework. However, there is I think a problem with this secular way of thinking about it.
Societies need to somehow square the circle of allowing and enabling personal flourishing, while at the same time enabling social cohesion. The secular libertarian view allows a certain level of personal liberty, but doesn't do very well when it comes to social cohesion.
Basically the problem is this. On this view of freedom, the Other, whether understood as my neighbour, my wife, my children, my friends, or the state, is understood as essentially a limitation or even a threat to the exercise of my freedom. The exercise of freedom is possible within my own personal space, as long as I don't tread on the toes of anyone else, but this sets up the other person as someone whose boundaries I need to tread very carefully, and needs to be resisted in case they tread on mine, precisely because the Other is a potential threat, and therefore someone essentially to be feared.
The Christian idea freedom is very different. It is not freedom to do as I want, because what I want is so often the problem. The Christian doctrine of sin tells us that our desires are not always very healthy, in fact very often we desire what will ultimately destroy us, our relationships and even our planet. Instead Christian freedom is the freedom from anything that would hold us back from becoming the people that we were meant to be - people capable of love for God and for our neighbour, as Jesus taught we were to be.
It is therefore freedom from that obsession with ourselves, our image, wealth looks and prospects, and freedom to be properly self-forgetful in love for our neighbour. It is not so much freedom for myself as freedom from myself. It is freedom from habits we wish we could kick, political systems that stop us caring for one another, an economy that sucks us into personal self-centred consumption. The key to that, says Christianity, is learning first of all a love for God - a recognition that I am not the centre of the universe, and that I need to learn to re-boot my life to fit the way the world is, where God lies at the centre not me, as I develop a relationship with my Creator. I then learn to love those he has given to me – my neighbour for starters. Freedom is therefore a gift and not a right, and the Other becomes not a threat nor limitation, but a gift - a gift to enable me to exercise this crucial virtue of love, and to grow in my ability to love my neighbour. The other is now not a threat but a gift, and so the Christian account of freedom squares the circle of personal flourishing and social cohesion much better than the secular one does.
Of course there's a lot more to the book than this, but it begins to give you a sense of the argument. If you want to get your copy – click here.