Thoughts on Galatians #14

Freedom is “the basic concept underlying Paul’s argument in Galatians” (H.-D. Betz). What does freedom mean? Is it about removing constraints? Music festivals like Glastonbury have a reputation for freedom of this sort, the freedom not only to relax but to let oneself go. But of course those who party in Glastonbury do not want chaos. “For musicians to be free to play the blues [or rock’n’roll], the guitar must be in tune, the pianist must be practiced if not perfect, serious if not completely sober, and the drummer and bass player must discover their ‘freedom’ within the quite severe constraints of a time signature” (Tom Wright). Music lovers want musicians to play freely but that doesn’t mean to play randomly and spontaneously without any constraints.

Freedom is sometimes expressed in terms of freedom of choice. Choice is indeed often an important component of freedom but it isn’t the be-all and end-all of freedom. I want a good electricity supply at fair prices. Competition and choice may well be a necessary means to that end but having a massive choice of energy suppliers is not an end in itself. In a medical emergency, many might value freedom from having to worry about the standards of different hospitals more than the freedom to choose from any number of hospitals. And while we appreciate a good choice of cereals on supermarket shelves, there may come a point at which too much choice becomes oppressive. We’ve got better things to do with our lives than choosing between 237 varieties of Swiss muesli.

Freedom is also often seen as acting in line with our desires – doing what I want and finding myself. But our desires are a complex matter and we all know that some of our urges violate rather than grow out of our deepest passions. And, to make matters worse, our deepest desire might be for something unreal, e.g., complete autonomy. A finite being cannot be absolutely independent, completely self-sufficient and autonomous; trying to be absolutely independent is in fact living in denial of our true selves.

Freedom is not incompatible with order and limitations; it is not about being left alone and unconnected with others. Freedom needs order to flourish. Free citizens will quickly cease to be free when law and order breaks down and rioting threatens lives and property. The freedom to do certain things often includes the freedom of not having to worry about other things, and such freedom often comes with routines and predictability more than spontaneity. Freedom is to do with our desires but not acting on whims: “True freedom is freedom from my silly little self, in order to live responsibly in love for God and others.” (John Stott).

“Freedom, like authenticity, is what we are promised when our desires and longings completely coincide with God’s designs and plans for us as fully human beings…To accept appropriate moral constraints is not to curtail true freedom, but to create the conditions for it to flourish” (Tom Wright).