That Old Thief
Coming to terms with temporality as a fundamental condition of our lives – avoiding the illusion both of absolute indeterminacy and slavery to time – will thus be critical to enjoying genuine freedom. – Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time, p.203
The word “freedom” is a source of more trouble in human life than most others I can imagine. What constitutes true freedom? Are freedoms something we just “have” because we exist, a thing that must be acknowledged by others? What kinds of freedoms are part of human existence? How far do they extend? If freedoms are just part of being human, is there any proper restraint that can be placed on them that has any legitimacy?
And what of the freedom we Christians have, a freedom from the bondage of sin and the penalty of sin, death? How do we enact this particular freedom, given that the flip-side of this freedom from sin and death is a freedom for service to others? Doesn’t this just reinstitute bondage in a new guise? Isn’t the pretense of self-giving just slavery to those who demand this is what we are “supposed” to do?
This last argument was the radical response from the tail-end of the Romantic/Enlightenment era: To claim that we are “free” all the while subservient to an arbitrary authority – the Pope, the Bible, the clergy – substitutes one set of chains for another. True human freedom can only be achieved by realizing these shackles are not real. True human freedom comes in living and acting as one chooses, without thought for others. Our freedom is our own; our lives, our health, our well-being – that is the only real goal of true freedom.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky wrote a morality tale about true human freedom. Raskalnikov realized just a tad too late the lie embedded in the claim that true human freedom is freedom to do as one chooses without fear of consequence. We learn at the end that, in fact, Raskalnikov had lived a life serving others; he was a good neighbor, a good friend, someone willing to be and do for others. The “freedom” he enacted in the murder of the old woman wasn’t freedom at all.
So much of our talk about “freedom”, be it legal, political, religious, what have you, is stuck in an insistence on absolutes: Either freedom is the complete removal of all constraints, or it isn’t real. The most extreme examples of this kind of thinking, at least here in the United States at our current moment, is the notion that we individuals, apart from any legal, constitutional, or other authority, are free not only in our persons but our property as well, from any interference by any authority, whether designated or proclaimed. This includes matters such as taxation, restraints on trade, regulation of commerce, speech, the possession of certain deadly items, and this list could go on.
The flaw at the heart of this position is summed up so well by the epigram from Jeremy Begbie. Any absolute claim to freedom fails precisely because we are bound by the inexorable, ineluctable, unforgiving reality of time.
We are bound in a most fundamental way, an inescapable way. We come from non-existence; we move through time which does not slow down, does not ask us if we are happy, does not hold others for our enjoyment. Then, at some point, perhaps minutes, perhaps decades later, time, for us, does the one thing we have wanted all along – it stops. It is only then we realize that our secret plea that time stop for us carries with it a cruel price.
True freedom, then, in no small part includes coming to terms with the boundaries that are set for us before we ever were, a boundary that sits, patiently, waiting for us to reach it, to plead for just one moment more, one more breath, one more smile with a loved one, one more glance at the tide rolling in or the leaves changing to autumn orange. True freedom begins with understanding our lives are already chained. If from navigating from the beginning to the end doesn’t involve awareness of the inherent limitation to existence, we are fooling ourselves, believing that time is ours, a thing among others to control, rather than the arbiter of all that happens.
With the rise of the rhetoric of individual freedom, usually couched in terms of relations with the state and its authority, humans began to believe it possible to insist that our lives were unbound by constraint. This has reached the absurdity, in our current moment in North America, that there are some who believe any authority not granted to be so by a particular individual is not in fact an authority at all.
When St. Paul wrote that we are freed for the sake of freedom, his first concern was to insist that we who are baptized in the blood and raised in the robes of the crucified and risen Christ now live free from the sin that bound humanity to the ultimate punishment, death as separation from God. Secondarily, he was also trying to make clear that issues such as circumcision no longer marked the beloved, called community. Precisely because of the passion and resurrection of Jesus, we bear a different mark as a community: the mark of the cross. Our freedom does not lie in adherence to one set of rules or laws. True freedom, freedom in the blood and glory of Christ, is freedom not only from sin and death. It is also freedom to bring this news to the world, through acts of piety and service, to witness in word and deed to the saving act of the Father through the Son in the Spirit, bringing to birth a new Creation, the Creation God intended. Our freedom, then, is freedom for God.
We cannot be free in this way unless we embrace the reality that our existence is bound to time. Being bound to time, that means we are mortal, limited on either side of our brief sojourn by non-existence. What we have through the sacrificial death and victorious resurrection of Christ is the opportunity to make our time God’s. Ours is the God of true freedom, including freedom from the fear that time dictates the limits of what we can do and who we can be.
The human fear of time shows itself in our denial of death; our constant struggle against aging and the toll it takes on our bodies; the many ways we hide the ill, the dying, and the dead from our lives so we do not have to face the truth that, no matter how long we live, no matter how well we love, no matter how much we accumulate, time wins in the end. If we can face that reality, and negotiate the hazards with a modicum of success, which would include embracing that reality and refusing to allow it to define us and our actions, that is the first step to real freedom, even the bound and limited freedom that we have.