We Hold These Freedoms: Modern, Postmodern, Christian

Some years ago, as I was walking to Notre Dame with my then three-year-old daughter, she exclaimed that she wanted to see Jesus. She was no doubt thinking of the Word of Life mural popularly known as “Touchdown Jesus,” which towers above the entrance to Hesburgh Library. And that, as it happens, was where we were heading. A few minutes later, however, she was diverted by a three-foot-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty covered in glittery fake gold and standing—for what earthly reason I do not know—in the backyard of a residence a stone’s throw away. When she began to run to it, I said, “No, that’s something else.” She promptly returned to the path, and we resumed our journey. For her part, my daughter was too young to appreciate the little allegory our lives became in that moment; but the point of it has stuck with me over the years, and every Fourth of July is a poignant reminder: that Christ is not Lady Liberty, that Lady Liberty is not Our Lady, and that American freedom is not the same thing as the freedom of the children of God.

Of course, at some level this is a truth so obvious as not to be worth mentioning. Around this time of year, however, when the dream of American freedom is most exalted and its iconic power captivates the minds of men—perhaps many from foreign lands who have come to celebrate our national holiday with us—it would seem to be not only worth recalling, but even emphatically repeating. For in countless churches across our country, I dare say on the basis of some experience, American independence and spiritual freedom are not infrequently confused, even idolatrously so—when, for example, the Star-Spangled Banner is unfurled in sanctuaries like the Vexilla Regis or, as is more common in Protestant churches, displayed on widescreen television screens that are otherwise reserved for worship songs and sermon aids. Indeed, the confusion is at times so great that on the Fourth of July an unsuspecting visitor to such churches could not be blamed for thinking that American Christians, pledging their allegiance with their hands on their hearts, actually worshipped their flag, or the republic for which it stands, rather than Christ, whom another republic crucified.

This is not to say that Christians should not celebrate the Fourth of July. For it is surely right to remember our nation’s founding and express our gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy, including the freedom to be Christian without being persecuted for it, although this seems to be recently changing. It is also fitting that we remember that freedom is not free, that our freedoms should not be taken for granted, and that we honor the memory of those who died in our country’s service, having put the freedom of their countrymen above their own. In fact, such examples show that political and spiritual freedom are not unrelated—if both come with a cost, indeed, if both are founded upon self-sacrifice, and if the whole of Christianity can be understood in terms of liberation: as a proclamation of the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:21). As Christ says, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). And the similarities deepen as soon as we consider the story of Exodus and Israel’s liberation from Egypt—not to mention the countless stories of refugees and immigrants who have left the oppressive conditions of their homelands and journeyed to this country seeking a better life.

But clearly, these two freedoms are not the same. For one can be politically free, but at the same time spiritually enslaved. One could be free to purchase whatever one wants—a sports car, a sprawling mansion, a trip to the moon or Mars—but still be stuck in the mire of sin, as Paul poignantly describes in Romans 7. And the contrast between political and spiritual freedom sharpens as soon as we compare the chthonic convulsions of the free market, in which nothing is free, with the peace of Jerusalem, which is free and from above (Gal 4:26). This is not to deny the extraordinary advantages of living in a free-market society like our own, which now includes the luxury of having almost any imaginable product delivered to our doorsteps overnight. But every earthly kingdom has its temptations, and ours may be the most seductive to date—at least for those who have enough money to share in the privileges of membership and one-click shopping it affords.

Moreover, if we consider that our free market society is now more global than the Catholic Church, and that it promises to be more unifying of the nations than any religion ever could be (as its apostles confidently tell us), bringing peace to the world through its own form of free exchange, its own commercium admirabile, it is without doubt a kind of simulacrum of the kingdom of God—if not a veritable counterfeit. And this, it seems to me, should give us pause, or at least a moment’s notice, before we celebrate the Fourth as usual—as if America were the kingdom of God and American independence and Christian freedom were the same thing.

So, then, let us celebrate the Fourth of July, but let us not forget what freedom really means. Better yet, let us take the opportunity this day affords to speak about real freedom to a nation that is in free fall and evidently falling apart because it has blithely disregarded not just revelation and the testimony of the saints—which are automatically thrown out of court, while various ideologies, which have the form of religions, are given free rein—but increasingly even what support reason and common sense can afford, and, as a consequence, is immuring itself more and more in its own madness.

After all, madness is nothing more than the state of a soul trapped in itself without any outside; and it is a sign of madness that a madman may think he is free—as free as a bird—even though he may be living in an asylum. What, then, ought we to conclude about a free society that has no outside, but lives entirely in itself and unto itself, and allows no Logos—no heavenly Word—to enter into communication with it? At the very least, we might say that this society is not in touch with reality, as David C.  Schindler has pointed out in Freedom from Reality. But is its celebrated freedom then not real? In some sense it surely is, for it is not not freedom [sic!]. But, if we know anything about the freedom of the saints, it is not real freedom, freedom sensu eminenti, and in fact may be becoming more and more like the freedom of an asylum.

But if American freedom is not real freedom, but at best a symbol of real freedom, a symbol, moreover, that can easily become our national idol—the American idol—what then is real freedom? This question is not easily answered because it is something that can be understood only by those who have some experience of it; and even such experience as we may have of it is only a pointer to the freedom of the saints, which is found atop Mount Carmel, as John of the Cross says in his eponymous work. But, from a Christian standpoint, this much is clear: it is a freedom that is found along the Way that Christ, the Logos, is: a freedom that is found not by following one’s own will, wherever it may lead, but by binding oneself to God’s holy will, wherever it may lead; a freedom that is found not by buying at will but by selling at will, indeed, ultimately by selling all that one has (Matt 13:44-46); a freedom that is found not along commercial highways and by satisfying ever more desires elicited by ever more products, but along a rugged path of ever-narrowing desires (Matt 7:13-14), which leads to a single-minded desire for the one thing necessary (Luke 10:42).

Admittedly, the gospel of a freedom found through obedience and self-denial may sound strange to American ears, which is why many, even in many churches, may not have heard it. (It is easier, after all, to offer up hymns to the glorious republic, as we are wont to do in conservative churches, or hymns of self-affirmation, as we are wont to do in liberal churches). It may even sound stranger to us Americans than it did to the Romans who first heard it.[1] From the standpoint of American freedom, Christian freedom might even seem to be the opposite of freedom, a kind of slavery, or, at best, a kind of paradoxical freedom. But that is precisely the point here: although we slight the difference every day, and seem to forget it entirely on the Fourth of July, these freedoms are as different as night and day. But if they are so different (even to the point of contradiction) is there then no connection between them after all? Did we not say that they were not unrelated? The simplest answer to this question is that freedom is an analogical term, and that American freedom and Christian freedom are related according to an “analogy of freedom.”

But what then does this mean? Have we not proposed an answer that is hopelessly obscure? After all, analogies are not easy to pin down (they are said to limp) and lend themselves more to intuition than to analytic precision, which is why a calculating, scientific mind, unused to figures and poetry, may have trouble grasping them. To the eye of the poet and intuitive reason, however, and a fortiori to the eye of faith, the whole of reality is analogical, including the reality of freedom. To understand the nature of freedom we therefore have to consider the analogical order[2] in which freedom exists; more precisely, we have to consider the larger philosophical and theological question of an analogy between God and creation, the so-called analogia entis (an analogy that, at the end of the day, we could also understand as an analogia libertatis, since to be is ultimately to be free, and vice versa).

From this perspective, following Hans Urs von Balthasar and his mentor Erich Przywara, it will become clear that just as created being cannot be understood apart from divine being, human freedom cannot be understood apart from that good and holy freedom that is divine, to which human freedom is ordered as to its own perfection. At the same time, however, according to the same analogy of freedom, we cannot understand the mystery of human freedom without granting that human freedom is a genuine “other” of divine freedom, and that its real ordering to divine freedom must be freely embraced. And in this regard Aristotle’s definition of analogy in the Metaphysics as “one thing to another” (allo pros allo) is apropos, since it does justice both to the ordering within the analogy (“other to other”) and the mutual alterity of the terms of the analogy (“other to other”)—both of which need to be kept in mind if we are going to get freedom right.

By the same token, we have two errors to avoid if the mystery of freedom is to be preserved: to wit, the errors of both secular and theocratic (or integralist) politics, each of which is its own form of halving, and thus profaning, of the mystery of freedom. For whereas the secularist profanes the mystery by dogmatically excluding from the public sphere the question of freedom’s ordering to a divine order that is true, good, and beautiful, the theocrat profanes the mystery of human freedom by dogmatically denying the legitimate otherness of human freedom with respect to divine freedom, and therewith the legitimacy of free public discussion about any divine order that the theocrat would wish to see upheld or realized. Thus, curiously, as much as they are opposed to one another, they are in fact mirror images of one another. Whereas in the first case any divine order is de facto denied (since blatant disregard is a form of rejection), in the second case the freedom of the public sphere is denied. Whereas the secularist gives no room to God (whose Word is shamelessly rejected), the theocrat gives none to man (whose rights and freedoms are not even discussed). Neither, therefore, is reasonable, which means that each is its own form of fanaticism.

From our guiding question about freedom we thus come rather quickly to some tricky questions about politics, and, more positively, to the need for an analogical politics that is able to navigate between the ideologies of secular and integralist politics. If an analogical account of freedom and a corresponding politics are to be persuasive, however, they must prove to be more satisfying than not only any humanly constructed sacrum imperium, but also their modern and postmodern rivals. In what follows, therefore, after specifying what I mean by the analogy of freedom, our task will be to consider in order the three freedoms in our title—the modern, the postmodern, and the (Catholic) Christian—in order to show how the predicaments of the first two find their resolution in the last. And this will involve a bit of narrative about how modern freedom came to be, how postmodern freedom came to be, and how, finally, a divinely human freedom can come to be.

The Analogy of Freedom

Analogies, of course, can be construed in a variety of ways, depending upon whether one emphasizes the similarity or the difference of what is being compared. For some, analogy may mean nothing more than a graded continuum; for others, it may mean a purely metaphorical relation without any real connection or substance. What I mean by analogy, however, is neither the one nor the other, but a real similarity between two things that are otherwise really different—and in the case of God and creatures are radically different.

Thus, what I mean by an analogy of freedom, in the broadest sense, is that freedom is attributed to various things in a variety of ways that are neither the same nor entirely different. For example, we speak in natural terms of the freedom of the wind or of the freely flowing river; we speak in political terms of freedom from tyranny and oppression; we speak in commercial terms of the freedom of the consumer to choose from a variety of products; we speak in Stoic terms of freedom from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; and we speak in Christian terms of freedom from sin and the “passions” of a fallen nature from which we habitually “suffer” (e.g., greed, anger, envy, lust, pride, and so forth), so that, freed from every sin that would entangle us (Heb 12:1), like a tree with the room and right conditions to develop into its full form, we are free to follow the freely blowing Spirit and become the likenesses of God we were created to be.

Now, all of these senses of freedom are obviously different, but they nevertheless bear an analogous relation to one another since “freedom” is used in all of these cases neither univocally (in which case their meanings would be identical) nor equivocally (in which case their meanings would be totally different). In other words, there is a connection among them, prescinding from the more complicated question of whether their connection is notional and merely in the mind or in some real sense in the things themselves. At the same time we can see that some things are freer than others. We can see as clear as day that a man in prison is not as free as one who is not; and we can see, though it may be much harder to see, that a great Stoic or an imprisoned John of the Cross might in some sense be freer than any free man. All of which leads us to ask, nota bene by the force of reason, whether there is also a primary sense of freedom, a primary analogate, to which all of these freedoms refer—a divine freedom that is somehow imaged in these other freedoms but that also transcends them as the supereminent source from which their own meanings flow.

And so, from the question of an analogy of freedom we inevitably come to the overarching question of an analogy between God and the cosmos, between divine reality and created reality. And we would equally have arrived at this question if, instead of freedom, we had taken as our starting point any one of the classical transcendentals—unum, verum, bonum, pulchrum, etc.—by which our minds are naturally led to ponder the question of Unity Itself, Truth itself, Goodness itself, and so forth. For, like freedom, all these terms are analogical terms, which eo ipso invite us to think metaphysically, indeed, theologically, about their ultimate source, meaning, and ground.

This is not to say that an analogy between God and creation is self-evident. According to Thomas, not even the existence of God is self-evident. But the analogy of being, or the existence of God it implies, is not therefore unreasonable. On the contrary, following the brilliant Erich Przywara, who in 1932 developed the Thomistic understanding of the “analogy of being” in his Analogia Entis, the analogy between God and creation can be rigorously demonstrated.

To show how this is so, however, would take us far afield from our topic, and Przywara’s argument is, alas, hard to follow. So for practical purposes let us proceed from the standpoint of faith, from which the analogy of being follows as a matter of course. For just consider what its denial would entail. It would entail one of two equally unacceptable conclusions for Christian theology: either that there is no difference between God and creation, or that the difference between God and creation is so great, concretely as a result of the fall, that there is no longer any similarity or ontological connection between them.

But no saint has ever said such a thing. For this would be to say that the fall has not only wounded creation, leaving it in a terminal condition from which only God could save it, which all confessions (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) hold, but that it had destroyed creation altogether, leaving in it no traces of truth, goodness, or beauty, in short, no traces of God’s workmanship, and no image of God, however fallen, left to redeem. To be precise, it would mean that the fall had destroyed not only every existential bond between God and creation, but even every essential bond between them. But this is impossible inasmuch as, according to Maximus, the logoi of creation dwell inviolably in God.

And so, however great the fall, and however attenuated the analogy may become due to our falling away—to the point of a precipitate flight from God and every divine order in the name of human freedom—it is impossible to fall outside of the analogy of being, which is to say, outside of the order of creation which Christ, the Logos of creation, came to redeem. Neither, when creation is finally perfected in Christ, will the analogy of being be set aside. For even then, even in the state of the most perfect spiritual union between God and creation in Christ—when the creature has become so much like God that one sees God in the deified creature—God remains the Creator, and the creature remains a creature. To be sure, in Christ, by dint of the hypostatic union, the two are one, and it is this unimaginably intimate union that is offered by grace to all who believe in Christ.

But the oneness does not abolish the twoness, just as in God the divine unity does not abolish the distinction of the divine persons. On the contrary, one could argue, the closer one comes to God, and thus the more deified, the more acutely aware one becomes of what Augustine so memorably confessed in the Confessions—that the God who is nearer to me than I am to myself, and the ever deeper wellspring of my own being, is profoundly near to me as the one who infinitely transcends me: tu autem interior intimo meo et superior summo meo. Indeed, paradoxically, the closer one comes to God, like Isaiah amid the seraphim (Isa 6:1-5), like Paul returning from the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2), the more aware of one’s sin, and thus of one’s actual distance and difference from God, one becomes.

My point, in any event, is that the principle of the analogy of being, of the God who is mysteriously in all things and beyond all things, is implied in all that Christians believe. It is, one could say, a matter of orthodoxy, leaving merely the ecumenical question of whether it can in principle be demonstrated, as Przywara following Aquinas sought to show (in order to show that faith in God is most reasonable), or whether, as Karl Barth more fideistically contended, it is strictly a matter of faith. But, assuming some kind of analogia entis, how more precisely ought we to understand it given the ambiguity in the meaning of the word analogy? To know how the Catholic Church answers this question, it is enough to consult the Fourth Lateran Council’s edicts against Joachim of Fiore’s Trinitarian theology.

Now, normally, one would think that the analogia entis belongs to the doctrine of creation and has little to do with Trinitarian theology. Yet it was precisely in the context of Trinitarian theology that the Council formulated it—at least in its most basic shape. For whereas Joachim had directly compared the society of the Church with the Trinity as a society of persons, in what was essentially the first case of social trinitarianism, the Council stipulated the following: inter creatorem et creaturam non potest tanta similitudo notari, quin inter eos non sit maior dissimilitudo notanda [between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude] (Denz. 806). In other words, even in light of revealed doctrine one cannot affirm any similarity between Creator and creatures, however great, without bearing in mind the greater dissimilarity between them.[3] Such, then, is the basic idea of the analogy of being as Przywara consistently taught it: as much as creaturely being comes from God and must therefore express something about God, what it means for God “to be” and what it means for creatures “to be” remain radically different. At its simplest this is because God is Being, being from himself, being a se, whereas all creatures, from sub-atomic particles to the entire universe, are from Being, and so being from another, being ab alio; moreover, because in God essence and existence are simply one, as Thomas says (sua essentia suum esse), whereas in creatures they are really distinct, so that God is the One Who Is (Being Itself, ipsum esse) whereas creatures are being-in-becoming, that is, being underway to Being from which they came, and by grace becoming in God who they are.

And yet—and now I come to the point of this brief but necessary metaphysical detour—when we come to the concept of freedom, the importance of the analogy of being somehow escapes us: we fail to see that what is true of being must also apply to freedom. As a result, we end up making the same mistakes with regard to freedom that we typically make with regard to being: either we separate divine freedom from human freedom, as if the two had nothing to do with one another, or we collapse the analogical interval between divine and human freedom to the point of denying human freedom altogether.

The former is the error typical of secularists, who would make human freedom absolute and thereby foreclose the question of the positive ordering of human freedom to divine freedom (a question that is not simply a matter of faith, but also a matter of reason). The latter is the error typical of theocrats, who, impatient with human freedom and the evils committed in its name, wanting to see the kingdom of God without waiting for it (Matt 13:24-30), would fall prey to evil in turn by converting the liberating invitation of the gospel into a dreadful obligation and the analogical ordering of human freedom into a rigid order. In sum, if the secularist leans towards nihilism (a freedom without reason and order), the theocrat leans toward fascism (a rational order without freedom).

Admittedly, adjudicating between these perennial rivals is not easy because both have legitimate concerns. Indeed, each represents, one could say, half of the truth of the analogy of freedom, which makes each of them both right and wrong. But half-truths are not much better than lies, and are usually more dangerous because they have a semblance of truth about them, which makes it easier for them to gain credibility. If we are to get freedom right, therefore, we have to try to overcome the dialectic and put the pieces that have fallen apart, which is the tragic tendency of a fallen world, back together. And this can happen only if one comes to see from one’s own position (whether more secular or more theocratic, more liberal or more conservative) the particula veri in the other. Then we might be able to have a real conversation about the meaning of freedom and begin to do justice to the concept that we of all people in the world ought to understand—but apparently do not. For not only do we not appreciate the analogical interplay of freedom and order, neither do we see that freedom itself is an analogical term, which cannot be understood apart from its primary analogate—until, that is, we see that human freedom is an image of divine freedom, and that it flows away the further it runs from its divine source.

In the meantime, as we are learning what real freedom is, which in the Christian East goes by the name of apatheia and is the freedom to love as God loves, and as we are learning how to walk in the freedom of the Holy Spirit, which the world can neither receive nor learn—inasmuch as it refuses the faith by which it is received and the obedience by which it is learned—let us approach the mystery of Christian freedom in steps. Concretely, let us approach it by what it is not, passing through the more common forms under which freedom has historically appeared—forms that, try as they may, fail to do justice to the mystery of freedom: either because they deny the analogy between divine and human freedom, understanding freedom in purely natural (or rational) terms; or because, in a further declension of the meaning of freedom, freedom is understood in isolation from nature and reason altogether. The former is the positive form of freedom peculiar to modernity. The latter is a purely negative freedom, which emerges only once the positive core of modern freedom has decayed into an increasingly ghostly half-life. The next installment of this series could therefore be described as a kind of ghost story: a story of freedom’s ghosts.

[1] Granted, the Romans were slaveholders, and it was precisely the gospel of freedom for all that was their writing on the wall. But they at least had this advantage over us when it came to understanding the gospel: they at least knew something from their philosophers about the evils of pleonexia and the virtue of self-control, whereas we have made a virtue of greed and admire nothing more than wealth, which we call success.

[2] For the classic discussion of the analogy of being see: Erich Przywara, Analogia Entis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).

[3] Again, following Przywara, this applies even to the state of the most intimate and glorious union with God by grace, lest the distance of reverence and relationship between Creator and creature be abolished, and grace cease to be grace.

Featured Image: Photo by Robert Locke on Unsplash.


John Betz

John Betz is Associate Professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in systematic and philosophical theology. He is the author of After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J.G. Hamann and the co-translator of Erich Przywara's Analogia Entis.

Read more by John Betz