Posted by: gcarkner | September 1, 2012

Will Christianity destroy my personal freedom?

Will Christianity  Ruin my Personal Freedom?

Christians are sometimes tagged as holding a negative, uptight religion within a trajectory that keeps an interesting and fun life out of reach. As the stereotype goes, faith places them in a lifestyle box, with a lid. Nietzsche called it the iron cage or a morality that stifles creativity. There is that long list of  prohibitions we hear about. How attractive is that?

Ouch! Unfortunately, this kind of judgemental legalism (even pharisaic self-righteousness) is often too true of some Christians. But this outlook is a long distance from the biblical perspective on Christian life and values, and simply does not represent the majority of believers today, people who explore life’s adventure to the full, who long for a robust life. It also misses the main point of its founder and exemplar Jesus of Nazareth–who is a symbol of grace, forgiveness, inclusion and embrace of life (Philip Yancey, What’s so Amazing about Grace?). Faith is mostly about what one affirms, rather than what one resists.

Many young believers, upon entering university, have felt pressured to throw out Christian values and norms, to go with the peer group, or the extreme party scene. They suddenly vote for the permissive life. The total rejection of traditional Christian values, however, is often based on a tragic misunderstanding of genuine faith commitments. The Christian ethic is deep and constructive, distinctive on both personal and social levels. It is a positive alternative to both uptight legalism and lax permissiveness. Rather, it is rooted in a life-giving love, joy and meaning, rather than dour isolationism full of restrictions and rules.

The basic Christian conviction here has a trajectory of deep freedom, a freedom that is interwoven with the good (David Gill, Becoming Good). This was a key discovery in my PhD dissertation on the crisis of late modern self, one that is heavily oriented to a radical reinvention. Philosopher Charles Taylor has done a major critique of today’s common concept of freedom: i.e. one that is ideological, contentless and unstructured (Hegel and Modern Society).  Historically, it has often been very destructive, even with the highest ideals of a new man and new society. Christian faith does not buy in to such definitions of freedom. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31, 32). This captures metaphorically the quest for deep freedom, a refusal of overly subjectivistic (solipsistic) ethics which can be arbitrary, chaotic, self-indulgent, even irresponsible.

The Christian journey follows a trajectory that develops one’s identity as a thick self. Christians neither live superficially, nor do they fit a narrow template of bland uniformity. They are motivated by an inner content and security to express themselves in fresh ways, thereby bringing life and vitality to others. They are free to take responsibility for the Other, and make a contribution to the world. At their best, they move into a positive, constructive, and caring lifestyle. At the same time, they do walk away from a selfish, bigoted, and destructive one. Priorities such as social justice, the poor, the environment, the virtuous life and the sanctity of life are on their radar.

It is a deeply personal ethics of love and respect (I John 4). This is necessary for all relationships, finding its source in the very character of an infinitely good and loving God (D. Stephen Long, The Goodness of God). It offers a solid foundation upon which one can build a life and discern right from wrong, the higher moral ground from the lower (e.g. benevolence vs. selfishness). Part of its creativity is the gift and calling to mediate this goodness to society. To balance our discussion, we should also ask the tough question: “Will naturalistic materialism destroy my personal freedom?” Christian ethics, at the end of the day, also provides an objective reference point to resolve relational conflicts and promote fairness, basic rights and justice.  Thus we have at hand form and freedom, a deep character freedom with structure, driven by compassion like the beautiful waterfall below.  The extremes of  both irresponsibility and legalism are not on offer in this thought experiment; it entails a very strong affirmation of life (Romans 8) and a rich or thick definition of freedom.

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