A two-faced freedom
In light of the continuing political uprising throughout the Middle East, American leaders are reported to be recalculating their approach to the Muslim world.
Politico's Ben Smith wrote this week that the Obama administration "clearly sees an opportunity," signaling "that they're hoping the changes in Tunisia and Egypt spread, and that they're going to align themselves far more clearly with the young, relatively secular masses" in countries like Iran, Algeria and Lebanon.
Is this a new moment for American relations with Muslim countries? Is freedom a religious or secular idea?
The differences between a secular and religious understanding of freedom are profound, and well worth considering, especially in light of the struggle for democracy we see in the Middle East.
According to the secular ideal, and one that's probably espoused by most Americans, "freedom" is the ability to choose between various options. I am free to prefer strawberry over chocolate ice cream; free to marry Tom, not Tony. Put more abstractly: to be free is to exercise one's decision-making capacities and in doing so, to express oneself by actualizing one's personally honed desires. Alas, the expression of such secular freedom is most often shown through consumerism. I'm free to be -- or buy -- whatever I want, and no one can stop me!
In sharp contrast stands the religious notion of freedom, which at least for Christians was probably best articulated by Augustine back in the 4th century. This view, old-fashioned but still valid, maintains that true freedom isn't about choosing things, rather it's the fundamental decision every human makes to live a virtuous life, or not. This religious understanding of freedom holds that each individual is capable of living rightly or wrongly. In virtue, there is freedom in the deepest sense: one stretches forth to their fullest potential. If one lives selfishly, even though you may be freely choosing it, this Augustinian view of freedom insists that you are actually putting yourself into a prison. Why? Because to reject goodness is to constrain one's highest possibilities and, instead, dwell in the small, limited, and isolated island of "I."
Admittedly, it's easy to misconstrue this religious ideal, and see it curdle into legalism and rules, which often get confused with self-help maxims: Don't have that second glass of wine! Be nice to your dreaded boss! Really, though, the religious definition of freedom is concerned with much larger issues such as how to experience the joy of love; how to have honest, sustained friendships; how to care for others; how to feel gratitude for even the smallest of blessings; or how to see the ultimate value of everyone and everything we experience.
When I contrast these two versions of freedom, I often think of a marathon race. As a runner, you can exercise your mind and body daily, so that when the whistle blows, you move ahead freely and fully alive to all you can be. Or, you can indulge your every whim, eat fatty foods, sleep late, and keep promising you'll go to the gym tomorrow. When the race starts, you try to leap into action, but can't. Your muscles are, in a sense, imprisoned. Whatever you might want, you are not free to run. It's that simple.
Around the globe, we are witnessing nations and peoples striving towards greater freedom. It is thrilling to see this fundamental need finding its voice in a fight against tyranny. However, which sort of freedom will prevail? How tragic if the battle is won by a trivial self-expression of "I shop, therefore I am," and the groundswell of the human spirit is curtailed by a celebration of market capitalism and the freedom to Google-at-will and buy, buy, buy rather than the higher virtues of charity and compassion and concern for flourishing communities. Will we choose the prison of me-me-me, or the freedom of loving our neighbor as our self? The race is on.
Posted by: MarkNS1 | February 22, 2011 5:59 AM
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Posted by: fester60613 | February 16, 2011 8:34 PM
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