Macquarrie and The Ambiguities of Freedom


Excerpt from “In Search of Humanity: A Theological and Philosophical Approach” by John Macquarrie. Includes portions of pages 21-23 (Crossroads, 1983).

There are many examples in history of the flight from freedom. Every dictator of whom we have heard was able to wield his dictatorial power only because his fellow citizens were on their part willing to yield their freedoms. We often talk as if all over  the world people were longing for freedom, but this is not so. The anxieties and responsibilities of freedom, at all levels from personal freedom to political freedom are no sooner understood than they are shunned. People prefer the security and mediocre contentment that come from routine patterns of existence and from following the line of least resistance. ‘People love slavery and authority,’ wrote Berdyaev. ‘The mass of mankind has no love of freedom, and is afraid of it.’

Freedom, then, whether we are thinking of its many outward manifestations or of that mysterious creativity which is at its root, is a strange contradiction. It begins as a nothing which becomes very real and precious. It is earnestly desired, and yet at the same time people shrink from it and avoid it. It is creative and life-enhancing, but it can equally well be disruptive and even destructive. It brings to those who exercise it a feeling of enlargement and exhilaration, and yet, if they pause to think for a moment and gaze into the depth of freedom, they experience anxiety. These are tensions that cannot be removed. They belong to the very essence of our human condition, as finite beings thrown into a factical existence where much has already been determined. Only God can be free from the tension, because only God would have the capacity to exercise a freedom not trammelled by external givens. …

In spite of the tensions and in spite of the threats of disruption, freedom, we believe, is worth maintaining and increasing. It is so because it is essential to the human adventure. Where freedom has disappeared, humanity too has disappeared, and the human being without freedom has been reduced a member of a herd or a machine or a plant or a stone or some other object whose nature is wholly given. Such a person ceases to be that unique being who has been told to sculpt himself from the as yet uncarved material, and to make his nature out of an as yet plastic possibility. But the invitation to embark on this adventure is fraught with danger and anxiety, and this explains why in every society so many people prefer security to freedom and unconsciously yearn for a return to the untroubled irresponsibility of the womb. …

The traditional natural theology saw the traces of God in his created works. I am suggesting that we can also see him in the work he has left unfinished, in the freedom and openness that remain. And a God who is seen in this second way is far more interesting and exciting from a human point of view. The God of natural theology and of philosophy has always been suspect among the religious, because as the First Cause or Supreme Intelligence or Great Mathematician, he seemed remote from human interest and also from the God of the Bible. His creation, however wonderful its beauty and order, could hardly be more than a glorified toy– like, say, these intricate clockwork models of the planetary system which we sometimes see in museums. …

But if we suppose that there is a breach in this structure, so that some of the creatures are not just part of nature but are themselves centres of freedom and creativity, then God’s creation could no longer be considered as, from his point of view, a toy or even a work of art. It would become a potential partner with God able to respond to him and to join with him in a continuing work of creation. Of course, since freedom is in itself neutral, the free creatures of the universe might turn against God. Man is God’s risk. But even when one allows for the risk, how much richer is a universe that can freely respond through some of its members than one which can be no more than an object of contemplation, however infinite its interest!

End Quote

In missions, in evangelism, we often focus on the idea of Freedom in Christ. But this terminology, has aspects of metaphor built into it. A metaphor implies its own negation. When we say “The Lord is my Shepherd,” it is only true (as a metaphor) if we acknowledge that in many really important ways, God is NOT literally my shepherd, and in many important, ways, I am not a literal sheep. Freedom in Christ is only true once we understand that in some ways it is balanced by “Dependence on Christ.” Our freedom is not found in rebellion, but in our partnership with and dependence on God as our Creator/Designer.

When we share Freedom in Christ with those who are both fascinated and terrorized by the abstract ambiguous thing (or nothing) that we call freedom, we must be sure that we are clear regarding what Christian Freedom Is and Is not, and what fears of freedom, and what perversions of freedom can easily syncretize with the concept of Christian freedom.

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