Reclaiming Christian freedom for the modern age

  • Themes: Religion

Old beliefs based on fundamental principles once had the authority to champion liberation from base instincts and arbitrary social forces. We must reclaim that inheritance.

Jesus in the house of Simon the leper in Bethany.
Jesus in the house of Simon the leper in Bethany. Credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

The story of freedom in modern western culture is often associated with the decisive break with the past effected by the French Revolution. A new vision of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ was substituted for the oppression identified with the Christian tradition. The Revolution sought to replace religion with politics as the real source of man’s liberation. It was a shift which reflected a belief that evil is a consequence of society and not of original sin.

In this reading of the roots of modern concepts of freedom, the conventional view is that nothing very much happened between the death of Marcus Aurelius and the birth of Voltaire.

There is some truth in this story of discontinuity, but many of the ideas which inform modern notions of freedom — ideas that are seen as ‘self-evident’ — are undeniably a secularised version of the Judaeo-Christian inheritance.

The New Testament sets a high value on freedom and there is abundant evidence that the biblical narrative continues to inspire struggles for liberation.

Jesus Christ himself exhibited a remarkable degree of freedom from conventions. He was a religious teacher but neither an academic scribe nor an ascetic. He had no settled home, paid little special attention to his blood family, ate with all and sundry and was unusually open to children, women of dubious reputation, and even Samaritans.

For Christians, as John Zizioulas writes, ‘Christ is the whole reality of human being but he does not force himself upon us but appears among us as someone we can reject or accept as we like’.

Notoriously, some versions of Christianity have been highly controlling and coercive. Even if, from time to time, the distance between the Christlike ideal and ecclesiastical practice has prompted agitation for reform, nothing ought to obscure the repeated failure to do justice to the one who does not force himself upon us but appears as ‘someone we can reject or accept as we like’.

There is a dramatic picture in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov of a confrontation between Jesus Christ and the ecclesiastical hierarchy which sought to rule in his name.

The scene is set in Seville in the aftermath of a great auto-da-fe in which 100 heretics had been put to the torch. The Cardinal Inquisitor General recognises Christ in the crowd and imprisons him before he can protest. They have a rather one-sided conversation in which Christ is silent while the cardinal complains about his irresponsibility, and even lack of compassion, for the millions of spiritually second-rate people. ‘I tell you that man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born … even when all the gods have disappeared from the earth they will still fall down before idols.’ Anyone in leadership is well advised to revisit this prison scene on a regular basis.

The Christian movement inaugurated by Jesus Christ, and first known as The Way, was a challenge to ancient notions of theocratic absolutism. Under the Pharaohs, the Inca, the Emperor of China, or under Caesar, the order of society was conceived to be part of the divine order. In St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is shown a coin bearing the likeness of the Emperor Tiberius and the inscription, ‘son of the divine Augustus’. In his response, ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’, Jesus opens up a space for the secular life of the citizen, together with the need for a constant negotiation between the claims of a particular state or social custom and the service of the eternal God.

The early Christian community which sprang out of Christ’s self-sacrifice was a new kind of social organism. It was not just a federation of groups for the study of the teachings of Jesus Christ — there were many such groups in the Roman Empire, living without any threat of persecution. Christians chose to call their community an ecclesia, the word used of the sovereign body of a Greek city state, summoned by authority and composed of adult, male, freeborn citizens. By contrast, the Christian ecclesia from the beginning included slaves, women and children. The community so constituted was believed to be the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.

Membership of the new community involved a freedom from existing social and political norms, which proved disruptive. It became clear that religious freedom for the Christian ecclesia was not just a private matter but one which required civic autonomy.

At the end of his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Martin Luther King quotes from the words of St Paul, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female: for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’.

This was a universalising of the vision of human dignity and freedom which permeates the Hebrew Scriptures. According to the book of Genesis [I:26-27], God created human beings in his own image and likeness. This is the source of the now secularised conviction that all human beings have an innate dignity and enjoy various rights.

Man in Genesis enjoys a certain freedom, even in relation to God. God makes the animals, but Adam gives them names, which God accepts [Genesis II:19]. Significantly in the Quran, it is God who teaches man the names of the animals.

In our day, the appeal to human dignity is frequently made as if it was a self-evident truth, even when other parts of the biblical revelation have been abandoned. Nietzsche took a more rigorously consistent position, arguing that ‘Man in himself, the absolute man, possesses neither dignity nor rights nor duties’. It is culture and art that create beauty, and lives which come to possess dignity. Nietzsche’s view of human worth and dignity is inegalitarian, and achieved rather than innate. In consequence, he thought that the ethics of compassion associated with the biblical view of humanity would disappear with the death of God.

God acts in history as liberator of the oppressed. There is constant reference to the experience of bondage [for example, Exodus XX:2] which leads on to prescriptions about Israelite behaviour towards foreigners [Exodus XXII:21. Deut.X:19. Exodus XXIII:9]. Biblical liberty is not only to be enjoyed by a privileged caste but shared.

In the New Testament, the death of Jesus is the new Exodus [Luke IX:31]; the passage to freedom. Freedom was liberation from captivity to a life enslaved to self-centred cravings and the desire to possess, which causes the individual to turn in upon himself [Gal V:1. Romans VIII: 21]. It was freedom for life as persons enabled to embrace a right relationship with God-the-beyond-all, and with neighbours. Freedom from captivity was the precondition of freedom for a profound relationship with the other, in which we find our true humanity.

As a new kind of social order, and as strangers and aliens [1Peter II:11], the Christian church experienced persecution at the hands of the state. At first, Christians were taught merely to endure, but they were led eventually to articulate the case for religious freedom.

The second century Latin theologian Tertullian coined the phrase ‘religious freedom’ [libertas religionis] in his Apology (AD 197). Then, in his public letter to the Proconsul of Carthage, ad Scapulam (AD 212), he wrote, ‘it is a fundamental human right [humani juris] … that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion –- to which free will and not force should lead us.’ This passage was not forgotten. It was written out in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand in an annotation to the relevant section on religious freedom in his 1782 Notes on the State of Virginia.

Crucial to the development of civic freedom in the West was the collapse, in the fifth century, of the institutions of imperial government. The church had an opportunity to assert its freedom, and this set up a tension between the two authorities of church and state which strongly influenced the mediaeval debate on freedom and rights.

At times, however, while denying the supremacy of Caesar, popes came close to claiming supreme power themselves.

Theocratic claims reached their high watermark in Boniface VIII’s Bull Unam Sanctam (1302): ‘It is altogether necessary for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.’ There was a strong response, not only by secular rulers, but by the supporters of a conciliar structure which could even discipline a pope.

From the twelfth century, representative assemblies met with increasing frequency, first in the church and then in the various monarchies of the West. The Fourth Lateran Council, convened by Innocent III in 1213, brought together great prelates, ambassadors of kings, envoys from Italian cities and elected representatives of cathedral chapters and collegiate churches. It put the representative principle into action with a prestige and on a scale which reverberated throughout Latin Christendom.

Medieval society was saturated with a concern for rights. The common gloss on Gratian’s Decretum laid down that ‘no one is to be deprived of his right except for very grave cause’. The problem is to determine when the doctrine of natural rights inhering in all individuals emerged from the medieval concern with the rights of particular persons and groups.

In the fourteenth century, William of Ockham appealed to the scriptural teaching on evangelical liberty, Paul’s ‘freedom with which Christ has made us free’ [Galatians V:1], and applied it to freedom from tyrannical government, especially in the church. Not even the pope could subvert ‘the temporal rights and liberties conceded to the faithful by God and nature’.

Thomas More appealed to Christian conscience as the basis for his refusal to swear the oath required by Henry VIII when he claimed Supreme Headship of the Church in England. More’s example brings us to the fragmentation of the Old Western Latin Church in the sixteenth century.

Revisiting the sixteenth century Reformation era with an eye informed by all that has happened in the intervening centuries suggests an ecumenical agenda for repentance. As we reflect on the aftermath of the French Revolution, and especially on the twentieth century rise of the messianic secular states in Germany and Russia, it is clear that one of the unintended consequences of the Wars of Religion was a disenchantment with the foundational place of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in the culture of the West.

The Reformation era resulted in an over-definition of mystery in the interests of polemics. The ‘mainstream’ churches were over-bureaucratised as they attempted to enforce uniformity within their territories. At the same time, they became more or less enthusiastic accomplices in the violent struggle of states and dynasties to establish themselves against rival powers.

It is also true that the scandalous denigration of the Jewish religion and people continued and even, in some places, became more acute. Wars of Religion persuaded many thoughtful people that competing Christian absolutisms provided a very questionable foundation for establishing public truth. Something more ‘objective’ was required, and the result was an impoverished form of ‘enlightenment’, which relegated the heart to the lumber-room of a cult of pure reason. Meaning was sacrificed to a rational pursuit of disembodied, mathematically established truth.

It is also fair to say, however, that in the turmoil of the Reformation era, there were new Bible-based assertions of liberty. Calvin in his Institutes (1536) echoes Luther’s call for Christian liberty –- liberty of the individual conscience from Catholic Canon Law and clerical control; liberty of political officials from ecclesiastical power and privilege; liberty of the local clergy from central papal rule.

The notion that there should be a separation of the offices and operations of church and state flourished in the various experiments in the new communities in America, especially associated with the names of Roger Williams, the founder of Providence Rhode Island, and William Penn. In a letter to Lord Arlington, written from the Tower of London, Penn said, ‘Force may make hypocrites but it can make no converts’. He quotes Tertullian and Lactantius and, like John Locke’s Letter concerning Toleration, sums up a century of Christian argument about religious freedom.

St Peter said, ‘Live as those who are free but do not use your freedom as a cloak for wrong doing; live as servants of God’ [First Epistle of St Peter II: 16]. There are countless examples of what happens when there is an excessive focus on freedom from constraint, but less emphasis on freedom for life as persons who can bring other persons to fulness of life. Even the revolutionary poet John Milton, in the chaos of mid-seventeenth century social conflict and religious fanaticism, was moved to declare that ‘Liberty hath a sharp and double edge, fit only to be handled by just and virtuous men’.

The phenomenon of ideologically or religiously inspired terrorism has forced us in our own time to think about the limits to freedom. But in 1945, contemplating the wreckage of western civilisation, the evils of coercive regimes and ideologies were appallingly clear. In the post-war period there were, in consequence, efforts to enshrine in the law of nations protection for the freedom of the individual from external oppression.

Although the twentieth century saw the defeat (though who can say for how long) of race-centred fascism and class-centred communism, now there are different challenges, and in this fresh context we are called upon to restate the vision of human freedom. The world seems to have been re-imagined as little more than a global marketplace, committed to a project of growth without limit, with no end in view beyond the process itself. The consequences of this way of living have become clear in the many threats to the health of our planet and the human eco-system.

But how can imaginations and desires shaped by advertising and economic imperatives be free to find delight and fulfilment in non-material relationships?

It has taken the passing of several generations to bring to light the soulless implications of the dominance of a form of radical positivism that recognises the empirical number-based sciences as the only valid form of knowledge.

There are constant invocations of human dignity and the rights of the individual, but the reality is that each of us is increasingly subject to a seemingly irreversible extension of process and impersonal systematisation that leaves the deracinated individual with no place to stand from which resistance might be possible.

The glorious inheritance of democracy depends on the existence of a demos, a people with shared memories and a sure grasp of fundamental principles. As the various associations which incubate this shared culture are dissolved, demos becomes ochlos, a crowd of contextless people visited by gusts of indignation fanned by social media. It is a situation in which algorithmic influencers have a vast potential for manipulation in contemporary democracies and dictatorships alike.

We are always fighting the last war and prosecuting extinct heresies while the stealthy advance of what Jacques Ellul calls la Technique proceeds virtually unremarked.

Some see this as a hopeful development. Silicon Valley’s Kevin Kelly sees technology growing into something self-aware and independent of its human creators, which he calls the ‘technium’. In his book, What technology wants, he explains, ‘It may have once been as simple as an old computer program, merely parroting what we told it, but now it is more like a very complex organism that often follows its own urges’.

As our systems become so large and our technologies so complex, it seems harder to steer them in our chosen direction, or to make them respond to human needs in our schools and hospitals. The cry ‘take back control’ is often simplistically directed at some particular institution or person, but it reflects our unease at the gathering strength of an inhuman force that seems to be, in some inexplicable way, independent of us, yet is, at the same time, acting within us. As Jacques Ellul asks, ‘What does freedom mean in an age of “continually improved means to carelessly examined ends”?’

The western tradition of freedom permeated by a Judaeo-Christian belief in the dignity of all human beings once had the authority to champion liberation from sub-human instincts and arbitrary social forces. Now this authority is more often associated with repression or a mere expression of personal or class preference, while behind the curtain, the technium continues to advance.

Once the curtain is drawn aside, however, and the technium is revealed, a fresh re-statement of the human ideal of freedom is possible, drawing on the resources of centuries of reflection on Judaeo-Christian practice and other wisdom traditions.


Richard Chartres