Let's get freedom right in 2021
What if your compass didn’t point North? What would that mean for you? Well, one way of looking at it is to respond with a joyful shout: “FREEDOM! Now I am no longer bound by the arbitrary and meaningless restrictions of that terrible tyrant, magnetic North! No longer will North, South, East and West be imposed upon me! I can finally chart my own course—I am FREE!”
You could do that, but you would not likely make reliable progress, you would not likely be readily understood, and you would likely discover eventually that having a compass that points North is a valuable tool for getting to where you want to go.
I think of these things because we are at the outset of a new year, with the end of an exceptionally miserable year still visible in the rearview mirror. We would like to be free from all the terrible things (both foreseeable and unforeseeable) that afflicted us in the year 2020. Yet that desire leaves us with a question: “What would we like to be free for?”
That’s not quite the right question, is it? If we ask the question as a precursor to the declaration, “I want to be free for whatever I choose—no matter what!” then we have just invested in a compass that does not point North. Such a compass can’t help us to locate where we are, what is around us, and where we might go. Yet even an accurate compass cannot tell us where we should go, and that’s what freedom-for is … well … for …
We finite and fallen humans are very keen to have freedom-from, that is, freedom from restrictions, limitations, regulations and consequences. I must confess that I am certainly no stranger to such desires. That freedom-from, however, needs to be purified and then perfected by knowing where we should go. Otherwise, we end up like the toddler who screams and convulses because his will has been thwarted.
Let’s take a different look at freedom-from, which moral philosophers call “negative freedom”:
True freedom is the active ability of a man who is not enslaved to sin. (St. Philaret of Moscow)
True freedom requires an active, continuous striving against evil, error, illusion, addiction, confusion and seduction. That striving is a struggle to the degree that we deviate from truth, and habituate ourselves to value and desire wrongly. Negative freedom entails that we renounce in thought, word, and deed whatever keeps us from what we ought to have, be and do. The battle for such freedom is waged successfully only by the man who knows that his worst enemy is his own sin—which will keep him from becoming what he ought to become, namely, a saint.
Now let’s complement negative freedom with what moral philosophers call, “positive freedom” or freedom-for:
There is an essential bond between human freedom and truth, so that freedom which refused to be bound to the truth would fall into arbitrariness and end up submitting itself to the vilest of passions, to the point of self-destruction. (Pope Leo XIII)
True freedom is unavoidably linked to truth. The truth which will set us free is in fact the Person of Christ, he who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He who is the Eternal Word of the Father offers us the gifts of reason and faith, nature and grace. He alone can reveal to us who we truly are, the great depths of depravity from which he has saved us, and the great heights of glory to which he calls us.
Anyone who has attained the age of reason and lived through 2020 knows that errors and abuses of freedom, whether within individuals or among communities, lead to disasters of every kind. As we start the year 2021, rightly desiring to be free from the traumas of 2020, let’s focus on discovering and pursuing what we ought to be free-for:
It is no new thing to fall in the mire, but it is an evil thing to lie there fallen. Bravely return again to that place from whence thou camest: the Enemy mocked thee falling, but he shall know thee stronger in thy rising. (Ephrem the Syrian)
Whatever the year 2021 may bring us, let’s orient ourselves to the truth, free ourselves from all that is not true, and go towards where we each all need to go, namely, sanctity.
When I write next, I will offer another reflection on freedom. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.