Liberty From, Liberty For
“We have met the enemy—and he is us!” … Walt Kelly, “Pogo.”
“Come, let us play God!” … Leroy Augenstein
Is there a difference between Enlightenment liberty and Christian liberty? In this author’s judgment, there is no question about that. Christian doctrine in the biblical message stresses a difference, a vast one. The history of the divergence of these two ideas demonstrates it. Two significant watershed moments in the history of philosophy demonstrate it. (More on that shortly.) And our current cultural dissimilarities and debates readily demonstrate the difference. Equating the two terms, Enlightenment liberty and Christian liberty, in public discourse—whether intentionally or unwittingly—commits the fallacy of equivocation.
The difference lies not so much in the essential meaning or sense of the term “liberty” as in an immensely different degree of trust in human nature. The difference also stems from highly different worldviews and their understanding of epistemology. Previous generations could well understand Walt Kelly’s famous observation in his Pogo series, “We have met the enemy—and he is us!” The hubris of the present age seems to parrot the title of Bioethicist Leroy Augenstein’s book, “Come, let us play God!”
This distinction prompts some investigation into generational differences. At the end of Cecil B. DeMille’s last great film, “The Ten Commandments,” Charlton Heston’s Moses is climbing Mount Nebo. In dramatic fashion he turns with one final charge to the Jewish leaders, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land!” The reference from Leviticus 25:10 is to the year of jubilee when all slaves were set free. DeMille’s use of the text as the close of his 1954 epic film is entirely in keeping with the cold war time period, Brown vs. Board of Education, and DeMille’s own personal history and persuasions. This text is also the inscription on the Liberty Bell, adopted as an important icon by the Abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century. As surely as these two references seem pertinent to one another in thematic context, they also represent a significant blurring of the two kingdoms that was common some decades ago. God’s two kingdoms were often conjoined in our recent past to further various interests and agendas. While that amalgamation of the two kingdoms created its own problems, what distinguishes then (and DeMille, and the Liberty Bell) from now is a now-secularized cultural worldview that neglects or removes any biblical frame of reference to the flawed condition of mankind and the saving grace of God: now liberty is what we humans make it, and we have the capacity to make it what we will.
The source of truth in the Enlightenment is human reason that starts and ends with self. Enlightenment reason convinced itself that it could be and was free of all presupposition and self-concern, conveniently ignoring that it only saw itself in a mirror. As a result, the Enlightenment’s shaping of the source, norm, and value of liberty—the self—was the ending of any and all predetermination and restraint for the individual. Philosophically it culminated in the despair of existentialism in the twentieth century. Culturally it still echoes in the legal and social cries that insist on self-definition.
The source of truth for the Christian is the grace of God in Christ. Since that grace is as thorough and complete as it is (“I am the way, the truth and the life”), it speaks volumes about humanity’s incapacity to find liberty except coram Deo. Any experience of liberty apart from the word of Christ is at best a shadow of it and at worst an idolatrous imitation. To blur these two is to lose Christ.
The debate over human nature’s capacity to know, to practice and to insure liberty is evidenced by the Enlightenment itself. Thomas Hobbes, a thorough-going materialist, and John Locke, entirely given to empiricism, are typically located at opposite ends of the spectrum in their trust of human nature’s capacity to submit to the “social contract.” Hobbes’ dim confidence in the Everyman insisted that a social contract must give way to an absolute human power (his concept of a sovereign authority) to keep us from destroying one another. Locke’s confidence in humanity’s good will served as the basis for popular government in the fledging United States. His more optimistic version of the social contract intended to provide for us a way to serve the “common welfare.” But over time, Locke’s notion of “common welfare” has been transmuted by our culture from concerns that impact us to merely my own individual and unique well-being, and this demonstrates not humanity’s good will but the corrosive power of the individual’s absolute self-interest. It’s what theologians call “original sin.” In Lutheran thinking, this corrosive condition is so deeply entrenched in us, it can be effectively revealed to us only in God’s law, never discovered on our own.
Locke’s unwarranted optimism is also part of our discussions as Lutherans. As the German university system developed following the Reformation, an effort was made to devise an apologetic that was sourced in God’s left-hand kingdom. Several important thinkers have argued this intrusion of so-called “natural theology” eventually undermined the liberating voice of the Gospel. Prior to the Hobbes-Locke divergence as one historical example of the problem, a second and earlier instance was the war of words between Luther and Erasmus on the bondage and liberty of the human will. Scholars largely agree that Luther won that battle. Whether he won the war is still up for discussion. For our purposes, however, notice that the underlying difference in Hobbes-Locke and Luther-Erasmaus is the view of human nature, not the meaning of ‘liberty.’
At best, Enlightenment liberty is practiced as a shadow under the general provision of God’s grace that is working on humanity’s idolatry. Too often, it becomes a self-created cry of “freedom” from any restraints to that self and defiantly shakes its chains in the face of the Lord, echoing the Prodigal, “Give me my share of the inheritance.” By contrast, Christian liberty is known and practiced only by a “changed mind,” a mind continually being transformed to faith in repentance worked by the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. Christian liberty is always a liberty for, that is, for someone else; for the Christian is liberated from self to serve God as one serves his/her neighbor in vocation.