As we Americans get ready to celebrate our July 4th Independence Day, we can reflect some on what independence and freedom mean within the context of Christianity. Some modern notions of independence contain ideas that were not particularly in the minds of the early Christians as they too welcomed freedom in their lives, a freedom which came with following Christ. Modern ideas of freedom shaped by the 18th Century Enlightenment tend to focus on individualism and autonomy largely rejecting any ideas of societal expectations on and for the members of society. Early and Patristic Christians on the other hand often saw the revelation of God in Christ to be one of love which liberates us from selfish and self -centered interests and enables us to become one with God and with our fellow human beings. Love in their purview is the opposite of self-love. Self-love is always focused on one’s own interests while Christ-like love is focused on the good of the other: the salvation of the other. Here are some thoughts from Dr. Anton Vrame, Director of Religious Education for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, about freedom:
“… in modern Western thought, the notion of freedom has focused on individual independence to the point where dependence and interdependence are virtually excluded. According to much that is found in modern thinking, freedom is from others; it is a freedom of separation. … this ‘individualized freedom,’ taken to its logical outcome, ultimately becomes a freedom of alienation ‘of person from society, of people from each other, of humanity from the natural world, of the personal ego from the higher Self or spiritual essence.’
Many today are searching for a way of understanding freedom in a way that reconnects people with themselves, with one another, with the world, and with God. They seem to find their answer in a conceptual framework that considers freedom as a freedom for relationship, freedom for a communion of persons.
Human freedom is not an abstraction but a complex of personal actions, usually directed toward and typically involving other person. Directing one’s life to a future project – a goal of some type – is achieved within a world of other people. In order to become ourselves, others must be involved; without commitment to the freedom of others, our personal freedom is an illusion. We cannot become ourselves by ourselves, despite the perceptions created by self-centered individuality or individualism. The philosopher, John Macmurray, addresses this concern:
‘… True personal freedom is a freedom that chooses communion and fellowship with others, enabling and empowering persons to connect and unite with one another in order to transform themselves, one another, and the world.’
. . . The human vocation, in this view, is to grow from God’s image towards God-likeness. Growth and progress are not only possible but essential to human existence. Each person is on a journey: ‘to be human is to be a traveler, always on the move. Personhood implies constant discovery, ever new beginnings, increasing self-transcendence.’
Within the Orthodox Tradition, there is an understanding that the goal of education is to form ‘a whole person’ and that achieving this goal involves a dynamic and endless process of growth.
Growth in personhood has as its aim growth towards God-likeness, which is ultimately endless because God is a mystery: ‘ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, existing forever and always the same.’ Growth in personhood is growth and development of one’s humanity and is consistent with growth toward God-likeness. ‘How could you be God when you have not yet become human?’ St. Irenaeus asks. To grow in humanity is to grow in God-likeness, and to become more like God is to grow in one’s humanity.”
Christian freedom doesn’t mean independence from every one else on earth, but rather the opportunity to become fully human, which in Orthodox means to become god-like. Freedom and independence are for Christians the opportunity to follow Christ and to love one another as He loves us. Freedom and independence mean we are free to follow Christ in every aspect of our lives.
The Fathers thought the consequences of the ancestral sin included all of the divisiveness, inequality and alienation in the world. They saw the Fall as being responsible for the isolation of individuals, the loss of love between humans, for narcissism, egotism, rivalries and tensions between peoples. In some ways, all that the early Christians thought were the problems caused by sin became in the values of the Enlightenment virtue: the totally autonomous person who answers to no one, is not shackled by any commandments imposed by tradition, or loyalties to family or society. The Enlightenment picture of the “free” person sometimes looks a great deal like the person who is freed from bonds of mutual love and interdependence and concord, which in Genesis is much what Eve was like when she decided to ignore her relationship with God, Adam and creation and ate the forbidden fruit because to her that fruit looked good to and for her. In Genesis we are created to be social, relational, beings. It is selfishness and self-centeredness that prevents us from loving others.