Let Freedom Ring … With A Somwhat Confusing Clang? (for which I apologize)

Jonathan Rowe at Postive Liberty yesterday asks whether Human Rights are a Christian Concept? I’m gonig to set aside the question of whether the idea of individual or person is a Christian concept which was derived from the theology of the Trinity as has been claimed by a number of Orthodox theologians I’ve read recently. Without a modern notion of individual or person how else would we come to consider rights?

Instead, prompted by this post by Kim Fabricus at Faith and Theology on Freedom, I’m going to attempt (ineptly probably alas) to consider just one of those “human rights”, namely freedom. My reflections are below the fold, but do go and read those posts, as while I’ll exerpt them some, I won’t do them justice and they are thought provoking.

Mr Rowe makes some telling points in the negative. For example,

Though human rights, as originally conceived, have theistic and metaphysical premises, they are hardly Christian or Biblical. As Allan Bloom put it in The Closing of the American Mind:

[Enlightenment] provides the structure for the key term of liberal democracy, the most successful and useful political notion of our world: rights. Government exists to protect the product of men’s labor, their property, and therewith life and liberty. The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy. Rights…are new in modernity, not a part of the common-sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy. Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke. p. 165


Many evangelicals and Catholics today genuinely believe that slavery violates God’s law. Great. They do so, in interpreting Biblical texts, precisely by “argu[ing] that general doctrines such as the creation of human beings in God’s image implicitly denied the justice of slavery.” One reason why Christian Reconstructionism is seen as such a fringe movement is its beliefs — that we need to impose Old Testament death penalties and abolish religious rights for non-Christians (the OT says stone to death immediately those who encourage you to worship “false gods”) — violate liberal democratic sensibilities. However, if we go back to pre-Enlightenment times, what the Christian Reconstructionist “nuts” of today desire is not all that different from laws on the books in say Puritan Massachusetts. Further, their fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is just as sound as that of the more mainstream evangelicals who would recognize the rights of non-Christians to worship and no longer want to execute homosexuals. The main difference being the latter’s theology meets the baseline requirements for living in a modern liberal democratic society; the former’s do not

And he defends the idea that we should not tie human rights to any creed or faith tradition instead:

Further, since human rights are “universal,” (in principle, knowable by man as man from the use of his reason) it’s not a good idea to try to tie them to any one religious movement. If they ought be tied to any religious notion, we ought, like our key Founders and the Freemasons who so influenced them, tie human rights to a syncretic universalist theology, or a generic monotheism, where the concept of “God” reads so broadly as to even include polytheism or belief in the impersonal forces of Nature.  [ … a bit snipped … ]

Finally, entirely atheistic philosophical premises for universal recognition of human rights also ought be supported. The universality of human rights are so important that the arguments for it cannot be drawn from too many sources. This is something that the originators human rights and America’s Founders may not have been too keen with. But modern philosophy has progressed a great deal since that time. And thinkers from James Q. Wilson, to Larry Arnhart to Daniel Dennett have put forth convincing notions of human rights based on an evolutionary account of Darwinian human nature.

But examine freedom. Mr Fabricus tells us:

An intellectual history Europe since the Enlightenment could be written with the title “The Decline and Fall of the Concept of Freedom”. The nadir has now been reached with the banality of freedom as “choice”. From life-style and shopping, to schools and hospitals, to our bodies and death itself, the mantra is “choice”. Such an understanding of freedom “presupposes a blank will looking out at a bundle of options like goods on a supermarket shelf” (Rowan Williams). A more vulgar anthropology is hard to imagine.


Nor a more dangerous one: for “freedom of choice” read “will-to-power” and social nihilism. And all the more dangerous for the rhetorical force of the word “freedom”, with its claim to ideological innocence and, indeed, quasi- religious righteousness. Here a hermeneutics of secular suspicion is de rigueur – but so too is a hermeneutics of theological retrieval and reconstruction.

So, in considering the human right, “freedom” we need to be very careful on how we define it. Today’s largely secular thought, has perhaps debased this idea. Mr Rowe’s idea of getting our rights from a broad a base as possible might have perils beyond garnering larger support. The salt of freedom might lose its saltiness, as it were.

So, if it is important to know what freedom is, and be careful about debasing it into “freedom of choice” to replace a better definition and suffer the consequences in future generations, we might do good to turn a comment of Mr Rowe’s  on its head. That is, to consider that “rights consdered” are not a modern concept and that perhaps the a definition of freedom might be found in (late) antiquity that might better serve, although alas might be Biblically based at its core. John Zizioulas for example in the book I’m working my way through writes extensively about an ontological definition of freedom as a more fundamental definition of freedom. It’s derived from St. Maximus and the Cappadocian fathers exegesis of the Bible and their subsequent understanding of personhood being fundamental and not based on our substance and that the freedom consists of transcending the boundary of self in part of the imago Dei and the freedom as found in the Trinity. But I’m afraid I’m still working my way through a fuller understanding of these ideas, as the terminology is still a little foreign to me and the text is probably complicated by being a translation (though perhaps by the author). But I’ll leave with one of Mr Fabricus final points:

The starting point for such an account will be freedom as divine gift, the gift of me and the gift of others. I am free to be the unique person the Father has created me to be, freed by the Son from the false self I have become, enslaved to sin and death, freed for life in the Holy Spirit who perfects human freedom. The Trinity sets me free from self-concern, above all the self-concern of fear. But in the same dynamic movement, the Trinity sets me free for other people, given to me to love. Evangelical freedom is thus not the “freedom” to do what I want. “What kind of power would that be! Man becomes free and is free by choosing, deciding, and determining himself in accordance with the freedom of God. The source of man’s freedom is also its yardstick” (Karl Barth).

You can be the judge of whether freedom as a concept (or as a right) has a intrinsic relationship today with Christian thought.

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  1. , another (in French) at TheoHead, and another at Spaceman Spiff. In the last few days, there have also been some very interesting engagements with Kim’s propositions on freedom: see the discussion at Pseudo-Polymath, and the critical response at Positive Liberty.

  2. […] Mark Olson quotes approvingly the following lines by Kim Fabricus: An intellectual history Europe since the Enlightenment could be written with the title “The Decline and Fall of the Concept of Freedom”. The nadir has now been reached with the banality of freedom as “choice”. From life-style and shopping, to schools and hospitals, to our bodies and death itself, the mantra is “choice”. Such an understanding of freedom “presupposes a blank will looking out at a bundle of options like goods on a supermarket shelf” (Rowan Williams). A more vulgar anthropology is hard to imagine. […]

  3. Isaiah Berlin distinguishes between two types of liberty, one “positive,” one “negative.” The present set of human rights are “negative” liberties. The right to free speech is also a prohibition to prevent one from speaking. A “positive” liberty, the freedom TO, eat, shelter, and clothe is not constitutionally guaranteed. Neither sense of “liberty” is mentioned in the Bible.

    Pauline “freedom” and “liberty” are entirely equivocations, which are never defined. Usually, they are “negative” liberties, being “freedom FROM the Law,” but Paul always has other laws he’s willing to substitute. Jesus never uses the word or any of its cognates. Paul, who in one place decries the “life by the letter” and approves the “life of the spirit,” sure spends considerable effort in “lettering” the Greek churches. He even letters how the Eucharist is to be celebrated, so much for “freedom!”

    Slavery is a term approved by Jesus, Paul, and the Prophets. Where are “human rights” suggested in the Bible? Nowhere! Where are the Enlightenment concepts of freedom, equality, justice, autonomy, etc.? “Wives be submissive to your husbands,” does not seem to espouse “equality” to most of us. Banning women from speaking in the church does not confer a sense of equality among the sexes. Read Philemon and Paul’s advice to a slave. Jesus uses the Master/Slave terms frequently in his parables. What kind of “justice” is the “first shall be last and the last shall be first?”

    Humans have either a FREEEDOM TO or a FREEDOM FROM, the latter a negative freedom, the former a positive freedom. The ONLY freedom the Bible suggests is freedom FROM the Law. Which Law is unclear? Mosaic? Decalogue? Levitical? Most Christians believe the latter, so the prohibition of “men lying with men” no longer applies. Except, it still does. How about mixed fabrics? Diets? Where’s the FREEDOM from arbitrary?

  4. Postscript: Freedom FOR is typical nonsense, and Barth was typically nonsensical. Without a choice (any choice), the notion of freedom lacks all freedom of will. Choice is inherent in all freedoms, for without it, nothing is free. Freedom would be unintelligible without freedom of choice. “If and only if A” offers what? Fixity, not choice, and certainly not freedom.

  5. Mark says:

    First, unless you hold to Sola Scriptura than “only” talking about Scriptural references to freedom doesn’t make sense. There are examples going quite a bit back (Saints Macrina and Emmelia manumitting their slaves for example in the 4th century).

    David Hackett Fischer has a very large book tracing the idea and symbols for freedom that this country has had in just the last two centuries, entitled Liberty and Freedom. If you are defending the notion that “Freedom” = “choice”. If you have not already, you might also view his Albion’s Seed in which “Publick Liberty” was a New England concept of liberty/freedom which involved the freedom of a community to set it’s own law and choose who might enter into that same community. That is choice at a larger level which at the same time is akin to a freedom FOR, in that it restricts choices then for individuals within the community. The point being that Freedom as a concept has not an atomistic or even static meaning over the centuries. If we fall into the trap of thinking that the simplistic notions of modernity (especially popular modernity) are a pinnacle of understanding, then that is a pretty sad (vulgar?) thought.

    Zizioulas in Communion and Otherness traces ideas of ontological freedom to St. Maximus and the Cappadocian Fathers. Choice is not necessarily inherent there, I think, although I’m not convinced I understand it fully. However, a clue that it might not, is that Zizioulas notes ontological freedom in the context of suicide as an ulitmate expression of it following Dostoevsky. However, I think the theological notions of freedom are generally shown alongside notions of hierarchy and that modern American sensibilities (rightly or wrongly) have the notion that hierarchy is inherently bad. Hierarchy and equality, to your notion are in conflict. I think your wrong, but I haven’t fully developed my thoughts on that matter as yet. There have been a few recent posts where I’m considering that in the “Christian Philosophy” category, if you’re interested.

    It was my reading of the dietary and other Levitical Laws is that they aren’t very arbitrary at all. In the sense that they are put in place for reasons which can be understood. That is, separation of fabric and foods, are done for to allow daily praxis to recapitulate theology, e.g., the ontological division in Genesis 1 (the separations done by God) are recapitulated in the separation in food and clothing or the prohibition against eating of blood to remind one that Life is Sacred. The decision to stop this in Christan praxis is due to either ignorance of the original meaning (which is somewhat doubtful for the Church as a whole) or that they have another reason why that is no longer a practice that is still required. In general I think you do yourself a disservice if you assume all is arbitrary there, but on another note, a recent commenter pointed out that I might read de Bouvier, and in the Amazon links when I was searching them down, a quote of hers caught my eye as about arbitrary actions.

  6. “And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said:

    “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;
    this one shall be called Woman,
    for out of Man this one was taken.” (Gen 2:22-23)

    “In the womb, the body of a developing fetus is female by default and becomes male if the male-determining gene known as SRY is present. This dominant gene, the Y chromosome’s proudest and almost only possession, sidetracks the reproductive tissue from its ovarian fate and switches it into becoming testes. Hormones from the testes, chiefly testosterone, mold the body into male form.” (New York Times)

    The Bible lies. Liars cite the Bible, and the Regress is infinite. Too bad hell is not.

  7. Mark says:

    While, I’m a little perplexed as to how you connect this to theology and freedom … I have two questions for you.

    First, do you know what “lie” means? Given that Genesis predates modern micro-biology by just a few decades … you will have some difficulty establishing that the author of Genesis 2 had data about such as that which you quote which he knowingly misrepresented.

    Second, why is it that those who are antagonistic to Scripture also flock to the most ham-handed literal hermeneutic they can put their hands on?

  8. IF scripture is the Word of God, then God’s Word misstates the facts. Man proceeds from woman, not vice versa. The Genesis statement is bearing false witness. Bearing false witness is lying.

    Biblical hermeneutics is four-fold: literal-historical, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. As numerous saints have claimed, the literal-historical is proud, while the other three polysemy is spiritual.

    What purpose (spiritual or otherwise) bans mixing two different fabrics, consuming milk and meat together, banning scavengers (if all God’s creation is “good”), of males lying with males, of rituals for menses, etc? Do you advocate the Levitical Code of Holiness as a Christian? I thought the Law was superseded by Jesus? If so, do you advocate stoning to death rebellious sons? Is wealth a sign of God’s favor, then why does Jesus proclaim poverty? Have you sold all your worldly goods and given them to the poor? Jesus says to do so, and the early Christians did, handing their property to the Apostles to “give to each according to each’s need.”

    Do you continue steadfast in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread [Eucharist], and the prayers? That is what it means to be a Christian. Do you obey the Church of Rome, which is the living God house and the pillar and bulwark of the truth, or do you follow the Bible? If the Bible, on whose or what Authority? Certainly not Jesus or the Bible. Jesus never commends scripture, but confers all authority to his apostles and their successors, which is the Church of the living God (to quote scripture), who alone is given the keys to the kingdom.

    Do you know the meaning of the word “ontology,” because you sure do not use it in a meaningful way? You even misstate that food and fabrics are to be separated, which is not what Leviticus commands; only the prohibition of the admixture of two or more fabrics. Do you follow Deuteronomy’s command to stone-to-death rebellious male teens?

    If Jesus is the living bread come down from heaven, that unless you eat his flesh and drink his blood you have no life in you? Are you a cannibal vampire? Do dead rise from their graves, do Virgins give birth, does water change into wine, do donkey’s speak perfect Hebrew, does the “sun stand still,” did David love Jonathan more than any woman, is Jesus’s beloved disciple also his sexual lover, why does Yahweh allow Satan to torment Yahweh’s righteous servant Job as a sadist?

    Paul claims he is an apostle, but he wasn’t. There are only Twelve, Matthias replacing Judas, and Paul would make Thirteen, which violates the Twelve as heirs to the Twelve Tribes of Israel? Each of the Twelve had their Sees, what did Paul have? Paul insists the letter kills, the spirit gives life, but then writes a dozen letters, tells how people should behave, which sounds a lot like laws, perhaps not the Mosaic Laws. If neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, why must females submit to their husbands, slaves submit to their masters?

    Why is the last first and the first last? Jesus despises family values, claiming he brings dissension, not togetherness. Isn’t the Gospel just a proto-Manifesto of the dispossessed to yet another Promised Land, to overthrow the mighty, and exalt the lowly? Do you concur with Benedict XVI, the universal pastor: “{Mary is] A virgin attentive to God’s word, she lives in complete harmony with his will; she treasures in her heart the words that come to her from God and, piecing them together like a mosaic, she learns to understand them more deeply (cf. Lk 2:19, 51); Mary is the great Believer who places herself confidently in God’s hands, abandoning herself to his will. (102) This mystery deepens as she becomes completely involved in the redemptive mission of Jesus.” Either Mary is the co-mediatrix, or the Bishop of Rome is wrong, or the Perfect Disciple, who follows, who is not “FOR.” Being “FOR” would be a pawn/tool, is never used in the Bible, and makes one human a device for another. Barth is off his rocker.


  9. Mark says:

    I think your implied notion of how Spirit and the author of Scripture interact is naive, if you think that “lying” is an apt term.

    I haven’t personally taken classes in hermeneutics but I think if you claim there are “only” four, you oversimplify overmuch.

    In referring to ontology at Genesis 1, I was partially referring to this post, I’m sorry I didn’t link it. It in turn is drawn from Kass Beginning of Wisdom, which I thought an interesting book as well as a demonstration of a philosophical hermeneutic (I’m not sure which of your “four” categories that might be).

    What I meant by not mixing food and fabric, was referring to mixing foods with foods or weaving together different fabric of course, separately, such as meat/dairy or cotton/flax. I hoped that would be obvious, alas. And I thought I’d explained that the reason for that (spiritual/ritual) was to allow one’s praxis to recapitulate one’s theology.

    As to follow Rome or the Bible ala Sola Scriptura, uhm, I’m Orthodox, which is a somewhat different tradition than the one you at which you target, I think. And, no I haven’t sold all I own, however, I am seriously considering doing just that after my children are grown and if I happen to outlive my wife.

    I’d take it as most of your questions are meant rhetorically, but in general I think you’ve happened on another hermeneutic, the antagonistic, in which your method of extracting meaning from Scripture is to take whichever interpretation you can find which you find the most convenient to create acidic polemic. If your questions are not meant rhetorically, while I don’t have enough time to do justice to your questions, I’d refer you to the Ethereal Library, here. St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on the New Testament would be good place to start.

    And finally, while I may be reading too much between the lines, I think you need a little more apathy (of the good kind).

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