The one philosophy lecture I remember most vividly from my undergraduate days was about freedom. In a course on St. Augustine, we learned about freedom of the will and the important distinction between two kinds of ‘freedom’ – liberty and license. License is “the freedom to do whatever I want” and liberty is “the freedom to choose the Good”.
In Catholic theology, we are taught that our desires are good. They are good because it was God who gave us desires – and the longing to love and be loved were written on our hearts because we were created for love – not the possessive “I have to be with you or else I’ll die” kind of love (eros), mind you, but the “I would give away everything I have, even my life, to keep you safe” (agape) kind of love. We were made for the greatest romance the world has ever known – meant to be wooed and pursued by the Lord of Heaven and Earth, who, though having given up his very divinity and life for us, still gave us the freedom of will to love him or reject him.
It took me a long time to learn that God is not against the desires of my heart to love passionately. Nothing pleases him more than my desire to love! But what I never used to realise is that because of my wounded human nature I cannot help but also love destructively. In my hunger for love, I sought to grasp every whiff that smelled like love – I craved signs that I was accepted, approved of, and that my affections were returned. It was always about my need, my wants, and how somebody else made me feel… though I wanted to be able to love selflessly, I could not, because I was not free to do so. I was a slave – a slave to my disordered affections; a slave to my wounded nature; a slave to the desperate and irrational fear I had of being unloveable and unloved.
So whenever I loved, I sought to possess. Love to me meant that I had to be with the object of my affections. I wanted, needed the one I loved to know that I loved him or her … because perhaps if they knew just how much I loved them, they would love me too. So great was my enslavement that I was unable to see what was truly good for the one I love, or even what was truly good for me. Never could I understand how choosing to let someone go, or choosing not to be with someone, could be the greater act of love.
God loved me too much to let me continue living with such a counterfeit notion of love. He allowed, time and again, for some of my greatest attachments to be sundered. And although there was always great pain involved, there has also always been great relief and gratitude. Why? Because the truth was that those attachments had become destructive for me and for others, but I had been either too blind to see, or did not have the moral courage or strength of will to step away from the friendship. I was not free to choose what was truly good.
Christians live from a perspective that our postmodern world finds repugnant. We do not believe that we are the masters of the universe or that we are the authors of life – whether biological or spiritual. We do not believe that we are the creators of moral law either. We believe instead that life and this created world is gift, that we exist because a loving God wanted us to be, and that our lives have meaning and purpose because we are loved. We acknowledge that many things in this world and in our own lives are not as they should be because we are often tearing down instead of building up. But we don’t see re-writing the rules as a solution – we believe in getting to know the One who had written the laws of desire into our hearts and letting him reveal to us our beauty and mystery.
What then, is freedom? It is the liberty from the need to have unrestrained license. It is the liberty to live our lives as we were meant to live it – with fullness of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. It is the liberty of a restored will that can joyfully and eagerly choose what a restored intellect accurately apprehends as good and true. It is the liberty to easily choose what would enable ourselves and others to flourish, not only in this earthly life, but in eternal life. Freedom is the liberty to live no longer in the limited strictures of my rights and needs but to know the joy of laying my life down for the love of others.
This is freedom: