Our forefathers sang joyous songs about freedom ringing from every mountainside and wrote words about freedom’s holy light. Poets, statesmen, even philosophers assumed that godly faith was the companion of liberty in all its conflicts, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims (Tocqueville). And a connection between freedom and law was commonly assumed, as in the words of one writer, “If liberty with law is fire in the hearth, liberty without law is fire on the floor.”
Today our countrymen are generally the inheritors of these freedoms gloriously spoken of—liberties of choice about ways of learning, working, speaking, worshiping, and so on. Yet our land is also confronted with an increasing tumult about lack of freedoms. This growing protest, with its sharpening profile of disillusionment and bitterness, hardly reflects a spirit of thanksgiving for freedoms inherited and possessed.
One way or another, the word freedom assumes preeminence in the modern vocabulary. Many of our countrymen are still singing psalms of thanksgiving for their freedoms while at the same time they are haunted by freedom’s cry for deliverance uttered by the alienated and dispossessed. The freedom theme may generate a feeling of exhilaration or of sadness and pity. There is also another kind of freedom shout that arouses a sense of foreboding and dismay, for it is a raucous and militant demand that radical changes must take place “now!” This revolutionary emphasis on “now-freedom” usually has utopian and perfectionist overtones. Strangely enough, it may arise from the soil of affluence and academic privilege. This impatient and aggressive stance is often heralded as a necessary prelude to substantial breakthroughs for a revised social order of one sort or another. I wish to suggest, however, that this peculiar kind of freedom-cry may be less a high moral protest and more a symbol of inner contradiction and spiritual insecurity.
Perhaps it was in this context that D. H. Lawrence wrote about a shout of freedom that is the rattle of chains. When the freedom-cry is overpitched and overanimated, it may reflect more the agony of spiritual desperation, the rattle of inner chains, than the vision of true liberty. Dostoevsky is credited with similar insight in his portrayal of a man driven to murder out of his own weakness, desperately trying to prove to himself that he is not a slave to that weakness. Friedrich Nietzsche is a tragic example of a man so obsessed with the dream of power and freedom that he even tried to destroy God, and eventually succumbed to madness in a frenzy to achieve his goal.
It is not hard to see how a downtrodden person who is powerless to do anything about his predicament might become obsessed about freedom. It is less easy, however, to explain an obsession of this sort in those who have acquired some amount of freedom and power. Yet it often seems that freedom whets the appetite for more freedom, power for more power, money for more money.
Freedom, it appears, is a seductive elixir when mixed with the wine of power and tasted by the man who is intrigued with the vision of a perfect setting (especially when this prospect is pursued overtly or covertly in the name of man). However, this potent combination may also become an opiate that dulls the sensitivity of the human spirit. This was perceptively illustrated by Nathaniel Hawthorne a century ago in his “Birthmark,” a commentary on the ebullient secularist demeanor of the new sciences of his day, fascinated as they were with the ideal of human perfectibility, the concept of knowledge as power, and the prospect of complete autonomy of the human spirit. Hawthorne, with the discerning eye of a New England Puritan (surely no defender of the concept of human perfectibility), tells about Alymer, scientist of world renown, whose wife’s beauty was marred only by a birthmark on her cheek. Even though Alymer stands at the pinnacle of his scientific career, flushed with honors and successes, he gradually allows these honors to be overshadowed by an obsession about the birthmark, symbol of imperfection. Finally Alymer gives way to this obsession and, with a godlike assurance of his own powers and a zeal to blot out the imperfect “now,” performs a scientifically perfect operation and removes the blemish. He seems to be eminently successful in this ultimate venture—only to discover that his wife has suddenly stopped breathing. Alymer loses her, but in the end seems to be more grieved over the failure of his supreme effort than the loss of his wife.
The enigma here is that men, whether deprived or privileged, ignorant or learned, tend to become obsessed by the desire for freedom and power as the antidote to some kind of bondage that stifles them; with no release forthcoming, they are confronted with a real danger of the transforming of humanity into inhumanity.
There is yet another dramatic narrative to be reckoned with, an account that may well be considered the alpha and omega of all commentaries on freedom, power, and perfection. This is the Adam and Eve story, the Genesis synopsis of the creation of man, who was endowed with unique freedom among all the creatures of earth and with power to subdue the world, and who lived without sin in a utopian garden.
The crucial difference between secular attitudes toward freedom and this biblical version has to do with the issue of independence. The Genesis version of freedom is framed within a context of man’s dependence on, and answerability to, his Creator. In the secular view, freedom seems to be the first word; in the biblical view, freedom actually stands in subservience to obedience. The first word about man is that he is dependent, not that he is autonomous. The Creator endowed man with the glorious capacity of being free to answer yes or no, even to God himself, but man was in no sense endowed with the capacity of being non-answerable to his Maker. Man must answer yes or no to God, and his freedom is contingent on his answer. To say no to God is to forfeit the very groundwork of human freedom, and to slip into the precipitous realm of the unfree, from which, humanly speaking, there is no recourse, just as when the eye is destroyed there is no recourse from physical blindness.
The secular confusion about what really is the ground of freedom, and the disconcerting paradox involved in seeming to lose one’s freedom in the act of pursuing it with great vigor, are counterbalanced with striking simplicity in the words of ancient Joshua: Choose (freedom) this day whom he will serve (the other side of the freedom coin, from the biblical perspective). Freedom’s cry for freedom in the name of man leads to an obsession about freedom, not to mention an eventual bondage. Freedom received within the context of obedience to the Eternal Word is true freedom; as it is written, If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. All of which is to say: Choose to be a slave in the right way and be free, or choose to be free in the wrong way and be a slave.
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