Ontological Freedom, Christians in the Public Sphere, and Liberatarian Ideas

John Rowe (for example this post at Positive Liberty) is just one example of many who frequently cite the notion that Christian theology is not one of freedom. Putting it quite strongly, a commenter Andy Craig apropos of the post above notes:

A pretty good argument as to why biblical Christianity is on the whole a fundamentally authoritarian worldview and has little place in a world of individual liberty, actually. It’s one of the main reasons I rejected Christianity and religion in general (most religions take a similar view of government authority).

In the post itself, it is noted that Romans 13 written by St. Paul in the rule of Nero (who it might be noted did have a predilection for augmenting lighting public fixtures with Christian corpses) specifically enjoins the Christian,

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

which is pretty straightforward … it seems. However, this in a large measure misses the point.

Another Positive Liberty writer, Jason Kuznicki was for a time (and who knows it may return), reading and discussing science/speculative fiction with an eye to libertarian politics. Recently, I just finished reading The Algebraist by Ian Banks which is an excellent hard sci-fi yarn. A principle foil in this story is the race known as “the Dwellers”. Dwellers are likely the first intelligent life in the universe, they are a long lived (some individuals apparently have been alive for billions of years) race dwelling in the gas giants thoughout the galaxy(galaxies?). Their society is in many ways very libertarian. Some features that support this notion:

  • Dwellers, unlike humans, are not “dependent rational animals” for they basically are not dependent on society (or others) as we are. Their young for example are not raised by parents but abandonded at birth.
  • Dwellers, or so they say, are incapable of experiencing physical pain.
  • Dwellers, like other libertarian societies (for example the “Western” folkway in early America), are casual about violence within their societies.
  • Their social structure is essentially “flat”. There are no rulers and an absence of hierarchical structure in their society. For example, their military organization might better be compared to a volunteer fire department or a enthusiasts club. Wars are not infrequent, but are largely viewed as entertainment.
  • Their economic and some other notions support this as well, but that is enough detail for now. However, by virtue of their larger numbers (gas giants on which they dwell have far more real estate than the planets of the “quick” more conventionally terrestrial races) and longer lived civilization they are the dominant race in the galaxy … but being essentially libertarian in makeup that they are dominant isn’t readily apparent to the other races.

Fyodor Dostoevsky as noted by Metropolitan John Zizioulas (a Greek Orthodox bishop and theology) coined the notion of “ontological freedom”. One of Dostoevsky’s characters (either in The Devils or Notes from the Underground I forget to which he referred) claims that true (ontological) freedom is obtained when one is freely willing to commit suicide. Like the Dwellers who are an working out of an alien society of ontologically free individuals, a person willing to freely sacrifice his life rather than do what that person does not wish to do is ontologically free. By “ontological freedom” one means that one is, by virtue of their particular mode of being, free.

Christians are, and should regard themselves as, ontologically free. A Baptized Christian is, and should believe himself, to be free in exactly this regard. Though Christ and Baptism he is promised eternal life and therefore should be unconstrained. When I was a child, I recall hearing a tale of repression of Christianity in China. A large group of people were asked, individually to renounce their faith or be shot. The first few did so. Then a young woman did not, she was shot. And following that, the rest (several thousand if memory serves) followed her example. She, and those who followed, were ontologically free. She could not, and was not, able to be constrained by the state or any other exterior agent or actor.

What I’d like to claim is that the straightforward notions of the relationship between government and the Christian is more akin to a libertarian than authoritarian ideal. That is, while the classical libertarian wants to rebel against authoritarian structures, the Christian being ontologically free (ontologically libertarian?) does not rebel in the conventional fashion, but in a more fundamental manner is always rebelling in the manner of being “in but not of.” Nero can demand, worship the state religion … the Chrsitian response is not to rebel, but, like Mr Banks Dwellers, ignore the request and prayerfully submit to being used as torchiers along the Appian Way.

Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn poetically noted that “the line between good and evil passes through every human heart” … and it is in this fashion that the Christian rebels. That is to say, by refusing to do evil oneself.

Modern evangelicalism with its attention to politics and much of the modern church as well, should be reminded that political tools are welded (wedded) to violence and are not part of the apparatus that should be employed (or perhaps even is employable) in the name of Christ.

Do what is right and righteous and repent of your sin. Ask or enjoin your neighbor to do likewise. Death has no sting, so there is no reason to participate in evil. Do not do more would be the implication and example set by early Christian communities.

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3 comments

  1. Anne says:

    I think I see where you’re going. I’d suggest substituting ‘martyrdom’ for ‘suicide’ in that equation. The Christian is to live life with a cross on his shoulder: as much as we try to leave a trail of good behind us, we are not to let anyone coerce us by threat of force. We may cooperate with government — but only insofar as that’s compatible with following Jesus.

    Take care & God bless
    WF

  2. Mark says:

    Anne,
    I used suicide for two reasons. First, I did this because M. Zizioulas following Dostoevsky did as well. Second, I think Dostoevsky intentionally used suicide first to frame “ontological freedom” because of it frames the notion the strongest and removes it from a religious/faith context.

    Once having framed this in that manner, it is not martyrdom itself from which Christian ontological freedom comes. That in turn is Baptism and the promise of eternal life … and the faith in the same.

  3. Anne says:

    🙂

    My objection wasn’t that suicide “removed” it from a religious/faith context — it’s that it made it *incompatible* with many religious/faith contexts, Christianity among them. The Christian “suicide to the world” is baptism; we are in theory to be living now as if already dead and risen. All that is left us in this world is not to try to reclaim that old life. Anyway, framing it in terms of suicide makes it inconceivable within a Christian context, as best I can tell.

    Take care & God bless
    Anne / WF