By Tony Crescio
Our country is once again on the eve of the celebration of our Independence Day, a day which we rightly commemorate because of the victory won for human dignity; as freedom was gained for a people to live life according to the dictates of conscience, not the mandate of the state. In the midst of this celebration, it would do us well to examine how we understand freedom, and how we have made use of the freedom that has been given to us.
Let us begin by asking the question, what is freedom? For many of us, freedom is something akin to being able to live according to free will; coming and going as we please, pursuing the career we wish to, living where we’d like, and just basically having the overall ability to make decisions without being held back by any outside authority. To be sure, this is a very American way of thinking of freedom, but does it capture all that freedom is; is it the Christian conception of freedom?
Well yes and no. Yes because “[F]reedom is the highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image and, consequently, is a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 199). Moreover, the Church agrees with society at large in the role that freedom is to play in everyday life in many ways, teaching that “[T]he value of freedom…is respected when every member of society is permitted to fulfil his personal vocation; to seek the truth and profess his religious, cultural and political ideas; to express his opinions; to choose his state in life and, as far as possible, his line of work; to pursue initiatives of an economic, social or political nature” (Ibid., 200). So far so American, right?
If we go a bit deeper, distinctions begin to be made. As we see that, for the Church, freedom is not something that can be won in the truest sense (though to be sure at times people must fight to possess the ability to exercise the freedom that is proper to their nature), but rather it has been given to us as a “gift, one to be received like a seed and to be cultivated responsibly” (Ibid., 138). If, on the other hand, we exercise this gift irresponsibly the consequence is that “freedom dies, destroying man and society” (Ibid.). Our next question must be then, how do we exercise freedom properly?
Freedom exercised properly leads the individual to a full experience of life, and, we are most fully alive when we live a life that is consistent with our ontological end as creatures created in imago Dei; this ontological end being perfect unity with our God. Therefore, a freedom exercised properly is a freedom which moves the individual into an ever more intimate experience with the life of the Trinity (cf. ibid. 135). For Christians, the way to accomplish this is through a life of discipleship to Him Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, Jesus Christ, Who tells us, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). Notice what is implied here: the Truth is consistently the same; it does not change (though it can be continually known to a greater degree), for the Truth is a Person, Jesus Christ. Moreover, there is no freedom to be had apart from this Truth, for only He has the ability to bring us to the fullness of life as only He can bring us into full and perfect communion with our God; and consequently, only He can reveal humanity to itself, both individually and collectively (cf. Redemptor Hominis, 8). Thus, we have arrived at a definitive point of distinction between what has become the post-modernist secular view of freedom and the Christian understanding of true freedom.
For its part, the “post-modern secular” culture holds to the idea that truth is relativistic and ephemeral. This culture often speaks about finding one’s true self, and ascribes to the idea that freedom can be found in this “finding of the self” and living accordingly. However, because it does not hold to an idea of an immovable and unchangeable truth, there is no assurance that one will move towards one’s truest self. In fact, it is just as plausible that one will move in the exact opposite direction.
As Christians, we must share the desire of our God that all might come to experience life to the very fullest (cf. John 10:10). And therefore, we must never hold back from proclaiming the disquieting fact that the freest life ever lived was lived over two-thousand years ago in the Middle East, culminating on Calvary, and that if we desire to live a truly free life we must likewise pursue a life of self-giving love. Let us examine our lives to see if this is the manner in which we have been exercising our freedom, and the manner in which we see it being exercised around us. If not, we must resolve to make it so, as it is only by living lives of self-giving love that we, as a people, will have the opportunity to experience a truly beautiful life. For in living lives of love, together, we reflect Him Who is Beauty Itself.