Is Christianity the “archenemy of freedom?” Tim Keller examines that question in chapter five of Making Sense of God, titled “Why Can’t I Be Free to Live as I See Fit, as Long as I Don’t Harm Anyone?” Click HERE for an index of all my posts in this book study.
- Personal freedom to “do as I choose” has become an absolute, ultimate good in our culture. (97-98)
- It hasn’t always been this way, and Keller traces the philosophical and religious history of how this has come about. (98-99)
- Keller argues that “the ideal of individual freedom in Western society has done incalculable good” (100) because of the advancements it’s helped make toward a just and fair society. However, he makes five arguments against the worldview that says we should have zero constraints on us so we can do whatever we want and choose our own values.
- It is impractical – None of us can have all the freedoms we want simultaneously. For instance, an aging person can’t eat whatever they want, not exercise, yet still be active and healthy enough to enjoy their grandchildren. We have to choose which freedoms are the most important and which are “more truly liberating.” Keller argues that unlike the “no restrictions” definition of freedom, “Real freedom comes from a strategic loss of some freedoms in order to gain others.” (102)
- It is unjust – Acting truly autonomously without thought to others is unjust. Like it or not, the truth is we are connected to family, friends, and communities, all of which are affected by our actions. “No man is an island…” (103-104)
- It can’t stand alone – Why can’t I live how I want as long as I don’t harm anyone? “The harm principle is useless and even disingenuous as a guide. It works only if we are all agreed on what ‘harm’ is – and we aren’t.” [Think about divorce, pornography, abortion, etc.] (104-105)
- It corrodes community and relationships – Me-centered societies don’t function very effectively, and absolute personal freedom isn’t compatible with love relationships. A good relationship always involves both people giving up some of their wants and independence to accommodate the other person. It’s actually by giving up freedoms (not holding tightly to them) that we gain the greater freedom of a strong love relationship, something we all want whether it’s with our partners or our kids or our friends. (106-109)
- It is incomplete – We want to be free from constraints, but what does that free us to do? “Our culture is mortally afraid of saying what that should be or where we should land…so we just drift.” (109)
- Ultimately, we are never truly free anyway because all of us worships and is controlled by something. Similar to other ideas throughout the book, we all have subconscious goals and ideas that control and drive us to do what we do. (Comfort, approval, wealth, etc.) Even if we try to live not serving or beholden to anything, we are actually then the opposite of free, enslaved to the god of our own independence, constantly trying to keep everything and everyone at arm’s length. (110-111)
- So what is the Christian view? “Do we have to choose between freedom and faith in God?” (100) Well, if absolute freedom is not workable (for all the reasons listed above) and we all serve something, the better question is “which ‘master’ will affirm, cherish, empower, and honor us, and which ones will exploit and abuse us?” (112) Which system will provide the right constraints that actually gives us more freedom?
- “If we try to live for anything else, it leads to slavery, but when we begin to live for God and follow his will, we find that we are actually becoming who we were meant to be, realizing our original design.” (113)
- “If there is no God, you will have to turn to some created thing [e.g. wealth, relationships, career] into a god to worship, and it will punish you with inner fears, resentment, guilt, and shame if you fail to achieve it…What if, however, there is a true God, and if he came to earth to die for our sins on the cross? Then there is one Lord who, when we fail him, will not punish us but forgive us. If you serve your career, your career will never die for your sins…but Jesus was crucified for you.” (112-113)
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Parenting provides a great illustration of some of the concepts Keller discussed in this week’s chapter. When we tell our kids not to run into the street, to wait for Mom before jumping in the pool, or to eat a relatively balanced diet, it surely feels to them like a yoke of slavery. But of course, those rules are there for their good. Yes, they’re unwelcome limits on their freedom right now, but in the long run, those limits actually provide a greater freedom, the freedom of living healthy, safe, and uninjured.
In the same way, Christianity argues that God is a loving Father who has designed us and the world a certain way, and the commands He gives are for our good and to help us flourish.
But I was thinking…really, any religion or worldview can argue that their rules lead to a fuller and happier life. So is Christianity really any different? I love that Keller touches on something so important here. Yes, Christianity says there is a deity who created you and he has rules that are for your good, but it’s not slavish, one-sided relationship where humans just work and work to try and be accepted by this god. Christianity is the only religion that says God sacrificed for us first and that His sacrifice on our behalf was greater than the sum of anything we could ever do for Him. Therefore we live for Him and obey Him not because we have to, not because our actions constitute any type of repayment, but because we simply love Him and see Him as our greatest treasure.
“Jesus essentially says to us: I put on you the burden of following me, but I have already paid the price, so that when you fail you will be forgiven. I’ve taken off you the burdens of salvation through your striving and effort. I’ve removed the burden of guilt or shame for past failures. I’ve taken off the burden of having to prove yourself worthy of love. I am therefore the only Lord and master who, if you find me, will satisfy you, and if you fail me, will forgive you. (116)
Christianity is the only religion that claims God gave up his freedom so we could experience the ultimate freedom – from evil and death itself. Therefore, you can trust him. He sacrificed his independence for you, so you can sacrifice yours for him. And when you do, you will find that it is the ultimate, infinitely liberating constraint.” (117)
- If you’ve read the chapter, were there any quotes or sections that were particularly thought-provoking to you?
- What are some ways that you’ve given up certain freedoms to gain something better than what you lost?
- Take a minute and reflect on this re-framing of Christianity. If you are not a Christian, does anything in this chapter make you see Christianity and the rules aspect of it any differently? If you are a Christian, ask yourself why do you obey God? Is it to try and gain points with Him? To try and pay Him back for all He’s done for you? To feel superior to others? To look at your life and be proud of how well you’re living inside the rules? Or is learning about and obeying God a delight and joy because you love Him, for all He’s done and for all He is?