The Modern Sacrament of Freedom

Having recently written on the god-like aspirations of contemporary technological development in relation to the problem of GM food, I was struck by Richard Bauckham’s critique of a far more prosaic manifestation of the same temptation—the car.  In chapter 2 of his wonderful God and the Crisis of Freedom, he has this to say about that infernal contraption:

“The modern dream of freeing humanity to be whatever we choose to be by transcending all limits has, of course, produced the ecological crisis.  This has exposed the myth as a dangerous fantasy.  The attempt to transcend all limits has brought us up against the undeniable finitude of the creation to which we belong.  We cannot reject limits without destroying the creation on which we depend.  We cannot make ourselves gods, independent of the rest of nature, supreme over it, molding it into whatever future we choose.  But the habit of trying is not easy to break.  Modern humanity is addicted to the freedom that rejects all limits.

There is no more pervasive symbol of this freedom and its destructive futility than the car.  Cars are the modern sacrament of freedom; they symbolize it and promise actually to give it.  We can glimpse the kind of freedom they promise in the typical television advertisement: an individual driving through open countryside, mountain ranges, and deserts with the widest possible horizons.  Some also navigate through picturesquely narrow streets.  Cars offer individuals the freedom to go wherever they wish, whenever they like, as fast as possible.  They give independence, freedom to be entirely one’s own master, not dependent on others, not even accompanied by others.  They suggest the freedom of escape from any situation and of new opportunities and experiences always to be found along a new road.  They give the feeling of control over one’s destiny.  This is why most car owners cannot imagine living without one.  But, as always, this kind of freedom restricts the freedom of others.  The more people have cars, the more difficult life becomes for those who cannot afford them or are too old or too young to drive; public transport decays, and shops and community facilities are no longer within walking distances.  But the more people have cars, the less the car owners themselves enjoy the freedom they value.  Commuters spend highly stressful hours in bumper-to-bumper, slow moving traffic.  Motorways become car parks.  Roads destroy the countryside the car owner wants the freedom to enjoy at the weekends.  Moreover, since car ownership has become common, cities and most aspects of life in cities have developed in such a way that normal life requires constant long journeys.  The freedom to travel has incurred the necessity to travel.  Again typically of this kind of freedom, cars increase personal independence at the expense of the community.   Many a vast residential area is for many residents no more than a place through which they drive on the way from their houses to other destinations.”

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