Freedom and Law: Moving Beyond the Secular-Religious Divide

Europe has abandoned religion at a very fundamental level and on a widespread scale. Religion no longer provides an interpretive framework for how the world fits together. It no longer informs social, economic, or political ethics. Religion is still present but either as a largely irrelevant entity that has absolutely no impact on lawmaking, politics, or economy (Christianity) or as a menace that needs to be contained before the genie gets out of the bottle (Islam).

Religious Roots of the Secular

The intellectual elites generally give no account of the fact that ethics, politics, and much of the fabric of our culture and society is deeply shaped and informed by Christian ideas about governance, morality, and eschatology. One notable exception, and perhaps an indication of change vis-a-vis this glaring case of amnesia, is the work of Giorgio Agamben, who relentlessly pursues the task of uncovering the theological origins of European politics. See for instance his The Kingdom and the Glory.

Not only are the Christian roots of European thought and public life deep and strong, they still bear great relevance for today. Understanding this could be of great help to bridge the Europe of today with the Europe that once was and help forge a path toward the future. Understanding the theological origins of our culture is crucial for understanding ourselves, which, in turn, is crucial for forging a way forward amidst the political, economic, and ecological challenges we face today.

Homo Religiosus

There is more to this than just the theological roots of a particular continent, in this case, the particular geopolitical unity that Europe is. There still is and always will be a proliferation of religions in the world simply because religiosity is essential to that which characterizes and sets us apart as human beings. For better or for worse, the being that is called homo sapiens is always at the same time homo religiosus.

Many secularists, humanists, and atheists may not like this, but it simply is a fact that our secular age is a mere blip on the horizon of human consciousness. Our future may well be characterized anew by the same religious fervor that marked medieval Europe. The future of religion may be quite different from the religions in the past. It may be more spiritual and move beyond ideas of classical theism. It may transcend the exclusivist approaches of the monotheistic religions. But it will be there.

This is not the place to argue for a return to religion. This is not my thesis and I have since long rejected the idea that religion solves problems. Rather, it creates new ones where it solves others. My ideas are more inclined toward a position in which the divide between religion and secularity is transcended. What that looks like, is, for now, the adventurous question of theology and philosophy today. It cannot be answered in a straightforward manner. The answer to that question us of great importance to the future of Europe. But I digress.

Lack of Freedom and Law

What we can do now, is to think about the intersection of secularity and religiosity by way of researching the theological roots of the modern world (Agamben) or by analyzing problems in our society as theological problems. The latter is admittedly a much easier and lighter task than the gargantuan task Agamben set before him. Indeed, my effort cannot even stand in Agamben’s shadow. One way is to do a genealogy of theological roots, another is to do constructive work to bring religious themes and secular life closer together in a way that is meaningful for people and society as a whole today.

One of the perennial debates in our societies is that of freedom versus law. It knows different forms: freedom versus law, freedom of speech versus censorship, freedom of sexual self-expression versus restrictive social ethics, freedom of religion versus enforced ideology, freedom of individual self-expression versus mutual accountability, hedonism versus ethics, etc.

No society can do without some form of law. Rules need to facilitate an ordered exchange of social traffic and human interaction. Without a law as the foundation, any community of people quickly descends into chaos and thus non-community. Laws function at every level: between friends, in families, in tribes, in villages, in societies, in companies, in space missions, in science, and between nations.

Likewise, without freedom, there is no community. Community exists by the grace of the free decision to engage in a relationship with an other. There is no life where there is no some measure of freedom. Without freedom no human development, no love, no innovation. Human beings wither in societies with strict social or governmental control. It results in apathy, disinterest, fear, and hatred. Lack of freedom is the end of human flourishing.

Freedom and Law Absolutized

If there was only law, we’d feel constricted and stifled. We would get crushed under the weight of our moral failure and our inability to meet the required standards of behavior. The law would become a monster that would loom over us with an ever imminent destruction. Where absolute law would crush us, absolute freedom would make us explode. Without boundaries, freedom cannot know itself as freedom. If freedom would be all there is, the demands for it would only be satisfied if each individual were to occupy an infinite universe completely alone, eternally.

While we have no problem acknowledging and understanding these basic realities of human existence, it seems rather difficult to bring the two parameters of human existence, freedom and law, into some balance with each other. We’ve seen how the choice of ideology over human freedom has worked out in the way communist regimes have organized societies in the past 100 years, We’re also realizing how the explicit choice for freedom can either lead to unfreedom sneaking in through the backdoor of freedom (fascism, populism), or result in a loss of meaning and the moral framework that is to uphold the very freedom that enables it (Europe today), or degenerate into the capitalist freedom that allows corporations to exploit and manipulate a country’s citizens and loot the treasury of the land of the brave and the free.

Yet, any meaningful relationship with the other or with others is predicated upon the possibility of having just enough freedom and just enough restriction. Any activity human beings employ such as art, music, thinking, discovering the meaning of life, or trading requires the coordination of freedom and law.

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Thinking the Unthinkable

The only solution to the conundrum of freedom and law is a sublation of the two in which true freedom is found in law and the true law is found in freedom. This may look like an utterly paradoxical formulation, and, indeed, it is a paradox. But remember that a paradox is a seeming contradiction.

One could suggest that the paradox be formulated in a different way so as to undo the ambiguity and to give the statement more clarity. That, however, is misunderstanding the paradox, for its purpose is to help us think beyond the boundaries of what we think possible. Kierkegaard wrote: “This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”[1]

The two paradoxes of true freedom in law and true law in freedom are to aid us to come to a deeper understanding of the true nature of law and freedom in such a way as to make us see that both don’t need to be brought in balance. Rather, they find their true fulfillment in each other.

The Christian Concept of Freedom

Thinking the unthinkable of freedom and law is at the heart of the Christian tradition. No one understood this better than Bonhoeffer, who opposed Barth’s emphasis on God’s formal freedom necessitated by the idea of God as a sovereign lord who is Wholly Other. Bonhoeffer proposed a different kind of divine freedom. “Sure, God is free,” he mused, “but the God we talk about is the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. And, thus, when we talk about God’s freedom, we look at Christ and then realize that God’s freedom is a freedom for humanity.”

The face of God in Christ is one of humility and a willingness to invest the divine life in the wellbeing of the world. God was free in God’s promise to be present to and exist on behalf of humanity. What this freedom led to is clear when we realize that Jesus died on the cross. The freedom pro nobis (i.e “for us”) that characterized God’s freedom in Christ is one in which God bound God’s self to the determination to exist for others. It is a freedom in which the very essence of law, namely to restrict freedom such that the other is not harmed, is not only fulfilled but brought to a higher plan: God willingly allows harm to be done to God such that God dies.

The Christian Concept of Law

We then also come to a better understanding of the law. From the outside, law is restriction that seeks retribution for transgression. It always has a tendency to be untethered from its true meaning which is to enable genuine community, which is creation’s deepest need. Law should really be justice on a public level in the same way that love governs the private sphere. (Cornel West has repeatedly said: Justice is what love looks like in public). The law is never a purpose for itself.

In that way, the law no longer primarily leads to retribution and punishment, but to freedom. Transgression ought to be met with forgiveness so that the ensuing transformation may, through restoration, lead to the freedom originally intended by the law. In Biblical terms this is grace. It is not our own ability to hold ourselves accountable but to be held by the other in forgiveness in spite of our failure. This forgiveness enables, restores, and encapsulates the essence of community.

Overcoming the Dichotomy

The Christian doctrines of revelation and grace, then, or in modern terms, what God looks like to us and what God does to us—and truly the two are two sides of the same coin—provide tremendous resources for the way we organize our societies with regard to freedom and law. Law expressed as the boundary of love and the freedom to forgive could completely revamp our penal system (especially so in the USA) toward restoring inmates as human beings in society. It could also completely transform the way politicians and political parties interact with each other or the way companies treat their customers, or the ways we go about the debt of nations in the developing world, etc.

The face of the divine in Christ as self-giving freedom bound in promise to the other, could teach us and instill in us a vision of a different kind of freedom where our primary goal is not to maximize our individual self-development and enrichment, but to address the question of how I can be of service to others today and tomorrow. Freedom of speech then, to name just one of the freedoms mentioned earlier, never bumps into the limits of free speech because the speech seeks a freedom to edify, protect, and speak up for the other.

All of humanity is called to the true freedom in which law and freedom are sublated into the freedom of being free for those around us in forgiving justice. People don’t need to be fundies, or liberals, or Christians for that matter, in order to get this. It is in this way that I believe the Christian tradition has something of vital importance to offer to our secular culture. It is time for our public debate and our secular cultures to be once again inspired and informed by the Christian tradition. This is not a return to a Christian state, but an overcoming of the dichotomy of the religious and the secular.

[1]  Kierkegaard, Søren (1844). Hong, Howard V.; Hong, Edna H., eds. Philosophical Fragments. Princeton University Press (published 1985). p. 37.

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