Freedom: To Love as God Loves

A man is truly free when he exists as God exists; and this way of being is relational. In the words of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, it “is a way of relationship with the Word, with other people and with God, an event of communion, and that is why it cannot be realized as this achievement of an individual, but only as an ecclesial fact.” Communion makes beings “be” and freedom constitutes true being. True freedom does not lie in our ability to make choices – this only manifests the dilemma of necessity – but in our ability, by grace, to love as God does unconditionally, to overcome the fears, anxieties and limitations of our mortal biological existence, and to conquer death. (Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy, p. 78)

Human Freedom means God’s Enslavement

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  (Philippians 2:5-7)

One of the great mysteries of Christian theology is the humility of God.  God is willing to serve our needs, and to even humble himself to become a servant, a slave who works for our salvation.  God’s humility and God’s willingness to serve us are true because God is love.  God is willing to empty Himself (kenosis) for us humans and for our salvation.  This is the incarnation of love – God becoming human in Jesus Christ.

St. Ephrem the Syrian in one of his hymns on the Nativity of Christ expresses this kenotic theology this way:

“Behold, our freedom forced our Lord to be a servant to us.” (HYMNS, p 181)

When God created us with free will, God knew full well that we might choose against him.  God knew our freedom might lead to His needing to save us.  Thus, as St. Ephrem notes, the freedom which we so enjoy carries the implication, the corollary, that God would have to become our servant to save us.  This doesn’t alter God’s love for us.  Despite the humility required from God in creating us (needed to save us through the incarnation), God created us anyway.  He gifts us with freedom knowing He will have to save us – thus our freedom forces God to be our servant.

This is the great mystery of God’s kenotic love.

Next time you hear the expression, “Freedom isn’t free”, think about what our freedom cost God.

Religious Freedom

“Freedom obliges, freedom calls for sacrificial self-giving, freedom determines one’s honesty and strictness with oneself and one’s path. And if we want to be strict and honest, worthy of the freedom given us, we must first of all test our own attitude toward our spiritual world. We have no right to wax tender hearted over all our past indiscriminately – much of that past is far loftier and purer than we are, but much of it is sinful and criminal. We should aspire to the lofty and combat the sinful. […] And it would be a great lie to tell searching souls: ‘Go to church, because there you will find peace.’ The opposite is true. She tells those who are at peace and asleep: ‘Go to church, because there you will feel real alarm about your sins, about your perdition, about the world’s sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth. There instead of lukewarm you will become ardent, instead of pacified you will become alarmed, instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become foolish in Christ.’

Lady Freedom

It is to this foolishness, this folly in Christ, that our freedom calls us. Freedom calls us, contrary to the whole world, contrary not only to the pagans but to many who style themselves Christians, to undertake the Church’s work in what is precisely the most difficult way. And we will become fools in Christ, because we know not only the difficulty of this path but also the immense happiness of feeling God’s hand upon what we do.”

(Mother Maria Skobtsova, Essential Writings, pp 114-115)


Independence Day 2014

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.

Orthodox Passivity: Why We Think “Someone Else” Must Lead

If you like to listen to discussions regarding contemporary culture and Christian conviction, I would recommend subscribing to Mars Hill Audio.   You can get their bimonthly audio magazine in various formats – CD, MP3, etc. and listen to it at your leisure.   Each edition offers 90 minutes of interview and discussion on a variety of topics.

The May/June 2008 edition (Vol 91)  has several interesting interviews with  John Witte from the Emory University Law School Center for the Study of Law and religion, Hugh Brogan author of ALEXIS de TOCQUEVILLE: A LIFE,  and Daniel Ritchie English Professor at Bethel College in Minnesota.  I will offer a brief synopsis of what I got from their interviews and what it might offer in terms of understanding the OCA financial crisis.   What I took from the different interviews is this:

From John Witte –  as a historian of law, he spoke about 4 watershed or revolutionary moments in Western civilization.  Two are relevant to what I want to say.  First there was the embrace by Constantine of the Christian Church, and the return embrace by the Church of the Roman Empire.  For the first time Christians used law and the legal system to resolve theological issues.  The church took on the features of the imperial monarchy in its dealings with dissent and problems.   This generally involved a heavy handed and hierarchical method of dealing with issues.  Pastoral thinking gave way to hierarchical rule.  But then according to Witte there was a Papal Revolution occurring in the 11-13th Centuries in which the church threw off its royal and imperial rulers and established the church not only as an independent legal entity but also a power player in determining law.   The church retained the hierarchical heavy handedness, but shook off the imperial control of secular authorities. This particular change is something which affected Western Christianity, but not very much the Orthodox, who maintained a close tie between civil and church authority/law despite being under Muslim and later Communist domination.   The Orthodox Church has not in the old world established itself as an independent legal entity in completion with the state for power, and certainly has nothing equivalent to the international (uber-national!) status of the Papacy.

From Hugh Brogan – Alexis de Tocqueville noted that European society was totally based in social status or level.  Everyone knew their place in society, how to dress and how to speak and what was expected of them based upon their social status.  But de Tocqueville was struck by how America, though founded by Europeans had nothing like an inequality of status.   He saw in America a freedom for everyone to solve problems and not to wait for or rely on the people of the “right” status to solve the problems. 

Daniel Ritchie picked up on this same idea about how in aristocratic societies everyone has a defined status, place, role and duty.  Everyone knows their place and relies on people of the right status to fix problems.  However in a democracy there are few defined duties.  Everyone can equally work to solve problems or ignore them, and people can become petty and avoid civil duty.   He says this opens the way for tyrants because the many are willing to let someone else do the work.   Ultimately people look to defend their rights, while the duties of citizens become less clear.  

What came together in my mind is how this in some ways explains what happened in the OCA.  The OCA exists in a democratic society, and yet its structure is purely aristocratic, hierarchical and authoritative.  Egalitarian Americans tend to demand action to fix the problems, but then as Orthodox waited for the proper authorities to do it for them.  Only with the rise of and the Orthodox Forum, did the American side of OCA members rise and band together to work on a solution and demand that the authorities fix the problem.   The passivity we see is an end result of the “old world” overly heavy authoritarian and hierarchical attitude which caused people to passively accept what was the prerogative and competency of “someone else” (= the bishops) to fix. 

While some complain about such egalitarian democracy working its way into the Church, I think this is the very gift that God is offering to Orthodoxy by bringing it to America, and through America offering it to the entire Orthodox world.  The image of the Church as the Body of Christ (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12) is much better suited to democratic ideals than to pure hierarchical status.