Once upon a time we thought we were using the same words. Living in a society that loved freedom and supported a Christian identity. Once upon a time, we may have been enraptured in such a fantasy. But lately, in our modern world, we have been surprised at the misunderstandings, the anger and hate, all in the name of freedom which we have always held dear. I have been curious about this shift in understanding, at the root level. How many of us in the public conversation have freighted the word “freedom” with very different definitions and expressions? America. Home of the brave… Land of the free.
The word “freedom” on the lips of a traditional theologian and the lips of a transitioning transgender teenager, while they speak the same syllables, their understandings may be worlds apart. Yet both live together, next door, in a small town that celebrates the 4th of July. Both live together, created blood and bone and breath and soul by an Almighty God placed into this piece of His eternal timeline.
However, when a misunderstanding arises, we must first define the terms. Rather than continue to argue past one another or continue to use misunderstood words that confuse. Instead of babbling in other languages to one another’s face, or degrading one another by ascribing false accusations. For that is when our conversations have already ceased.
Freedom, to the modern ear, has been cultivated to exist in a new place. Today it functions and is defended in personalized internal realities, not just physical external ones. We, as a popular culture, have reshaped our trusted authorities, we have redefined our guidelines for truth, and we now focus deeply on the self. Inspired by individualistic experiences in poetry (Romantics), an individualistic focus on the psychological self (Freud), individualistic subjective moralities (Nietzsche), an individualistic denouncement of external authorities (Marx), individualistic expression of an authentic identities (Rousseau), and individualistic expectations of the right to life, liberty, and happiness (Declaration of Independence). Here, freedom rings.
If you didn’t catch the more than obvious conclusions drawn above, our individualistic freedoms have been a part of American history, blossoming from sea to shining sea. But like a dandelion that bursts its beauty and dries to a feathery white, so this idea of freedom has been changing colors. Where once this freedom fought against the bonds of authoritarian physical slavery, political oppression, and financial limitations, we are now on the battlefield of subjective feelings and psychology of persons. Individualized self-freedom, not only questions all external dominance and institutional voice, but now it has fully grown to denounces any authority that may be contrary to the psychological identity of the internal self.
This is the common understanding of our modern freedom in our public sphere. Expressive individualism, creating one’s own purpose, meaning and ultimately one’s own identity. Presently it is a a serious offense if this self-aware freedom is denied. When ideas are challenged, whether they are grounded on fact, fiction, or an imaginary wish, we now hear a cry of “oppression” and “hate”. When history or biology asserts something that does not align with one’s internal view of truth, victims come forth to tell their own passionate story. It has become nonsense to separate idea from identity, sin from sinner, feeling from reality. If a position or belief is opposed, and the person feels rejected, now it is understood that the essence of that person is being rejected. One’s freedom is stripped from the inside, if freedom is now wholly rooted in the self.
Freedom of the Christian, however, has an entirely different flavor. The story of God begins and ends in the external. Creation of the world and of human life happens outside of my personal individual experience. Salvation and reconciliation is valid because of another, Jesus Christ, is a more perfect and complete person beyond one’s most authentic self. The external authority of God, the Church, and tradition are immediately at odds with the elevated expressive individualism the reigns in our culture. But most offensive to today’s culture, the freedom of a Christian is dependent on a particular view of our internal self.
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” (Romans 1:21,24-25)
Those who operate in a vacuum of God will live in their own self-made dark. Those who honor and worship something other than the Almighty God must choose the lust of their own heart. There are no other options. But both sides are equally doomed; no one is righteous, not the one who follows his own heart, not even the one who knows God, not the one thinks he has the universe figured out. The self is an inadequate authority, and foolish substitution, for true meaning and purpose in life.
This is the foundational wisdom for the freedom of the Christian. Wary of the desires of my heart, aware of the evil in my hands. Comfort in admitting, that I am a poor miserable sinner, and this mess is my fault. Repenting and sorry. Because my self-aware imagination is wrong, again.
And for this, creating my own purposes, choosing my own meaning, ignoring the God of yesterday today and tomorrow, for this Christ died. For all of the desires and wishes of my heart that have separated me from trusting a savior, for this Christ died. Christian freedom is a radical dependance on the destruction of the self. Christian freedom is and alway has been, a counter-intuitive submission to a hope entirely outside of the self. Simply because Christ died, you have been set free from sin and death.
But the word “freedom” lives today on the lips of all who are under these spacious skies and mountains majesty. Internal and external, our struggles and longings search for freedom. But we are speaking at each other by echos and across canyons. So what is to be done? Enflame the arguments? Build more towers for our own? Or can we possibly try to understand the other’s babble?
Decoding the divisive language of freedom, there is nothing new under the sun. No one is righteous, not even those of us who can see both paths. People will rise, voices will shout, and all of our conspiracies will fail. But the freedom of Christ is a promise to eternity.
So today, live in freedom. Boldly love. Happily work. Confess your sins. Continue to speak truth. Trust and believe in our freedom on account of Christ, which will outlast every self.