What is freedom: Choice or liberation?

August 10, 2007 at 11:04 pm 3 comments

One of the perplexing points Charles made to me in one of our recent exchanges on the nature of human free will is that true freedom does not require being able to choose between two or more different options. One can have freedom, he said, even without there being any possibility of choice.

This line of reasoning baffled me. Of course freedom equals choice!

Earlier this week, however, my wheels were seriously put to spinning when Dan of On Journeying with those in Exile addressed this same issue of the nature of freedom on his own blog (albeit in a completely different context).

The seduction of choice

As I realized when reading Dan’s post, the basic problem with equating choice and freedom is that one can have many choices and yet very little freedom.1

Think, for example, of a mother who gives her 5-year-old the choice of either taking out the trash first or picking up his toys first. Regardless of which choice he makes, he’s been “had,” because he’s been roped into cleaning.

In other words, he has a choice, but the freedom he feels is only an illusion—which the mother exploits to her own advantage.

fries.jpgThe same sort of choice exists at McDonald’s: small fries, medium fries, or large fries. Not no fries. Of course, patrons can choose no fries, but the point is that the experience of choice draws us into the particular set of choices offered (i.e. which size of fries), and this obscures our ability to reject that set of choices altogether.

On a more complicated level, we might, say, face a choice between a large house or a fancy car—but either way, we’re being seduced into a consumerist, materialist mindset.

Choice does not equate to freedom

So then, our experience of choice is not necessarily related to true freedom. In fact, choice can easily mask our true state of bondage. In his post, Dan quotes social theorist Jean Baudrillard to this effect (I think Baudrillard is here analyzing culture, not religion, but the comment is relevant nonetheless):

Indeed, we no longer even have the option of not choosing… Our freedom to choose causes us to participate in a cultural system willy-nilly. It follows that the choice in question is a specious one: to experience it as freedom is simply to be less sensible of the fact that it is imposed upon us as such, and that through it society as a whole is likewise imposed upon us…

trash.jpgWhat we are unconscious of is the fact that the choices themselves shape us and our values. The 5-year-old feels free, but in choosing to pick up the toys rather than taking out the trash, he is blind to the fact that he’s been lured into accepting the broader category of “chores.”

So again, the experience of choice masks his bondage.

I suspect this is a significant part of what it means to be in bondage to sin. The “bondage” probably does not mean we don’t actually have free will; it does, however, mean that we have “chosen” our way into our present slavery and don’t even know that it happened, let alone how to get out.

Freedom = liberation

So choice is not equal to real freedom. Then what is real freedom?

Dan suggests that freedom should not be equated with choice, but with liberation. He cites for evidence a few verses from Romans 8:

The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.

Here, freedom is not equated with choice, but with liberation from bondage to one master (sin and death) combined with the ability to serve a new one (the Spirit of God and righteousness).

I haven’t thought through this suggestion enough to flesh it out further, but even the preliminary outline revolutionized the way I think about freedom. Like I said, my wheels are spinning.

1Although I am realizing that choices do not equate to freedom, I am still pretty certain that true freedom must still involve choices. Otherwise, it is beyond me how it could be freedom.


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Jesus: Mission of disclosure Nice little insult

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Nathan  |  August 11, 2007 at 9:42 am

    This is good.

    Modern politics has defined freedom as freedom from coercion. But as you point out, a biblical conception of freedom is more like a freedom to submit to God’s law.

    As Calvinists like to put it, we do have human freedom of choice, but that natural freedom is not freedom from our own nature. We are born into bondage. We are not under coercion from without so much as we are slaves to who we truly are. We are free to choose anything our hearts desire, but not free to reform those desires.

    As Augustine put it, we are born non posse non pecare — not able to not sin. Then God moves us to a state in which we can sin or do good: posse non pecare — able not to sin. Finally, in heaven, we will be non posse pecare — not able to sin. (Which leads me to conclude that freedom, which must be in heaven, does not require the ability to sin. After all, God is free.)

  • 2. Stephen  |  August 11, 2007 at 7:53 pm

    God is free, i.e., sovereign. Anything God sets his will to do, God can do. I guess human freedom would have to mean something similar. The Augustine quote is a good one in this context.

    But it isn’t a topic I’ve given much thought to. I’m glad to see you’re reading Dan’s blog. He’s a very challenging sort of Christian!

  • 3. Jamie  |  August 14, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    Nathan: I like this–We are free to choose anything our hearts desire, but not free to reform those desires, but I’m not as sure about this–Finally, in heaven, we will be non posse pecare — not able to sin. I agree that it will be impossible for us to sin, but I suspect that will be only because we won’t want to, and not because God removes our free will.

    Stephen: It occurred to me in retrospect that Dan is a rather strange one for me to draw from. His blog seems to be heavily influenced by postmodernist critics, which I ordinarily dislike strongly, but I thought he had some interesting thoughts on this particular topic.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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