Notes Toward a Doctrine of Christian Liberty: Freedom and Social Identity

From Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, ch. 5, “Freedom and Its Loss”:

“From an objective point of view unsociability can be described as a loss of order, from a subjective point of view as a loss of freedom.

“‘Freedom’ is a term with a range of meanings.  First and most formally, it is simply the power to act, that ownership of one’s behavior which distinguishes the intelligent agent from creatures of instinct.  Stripped bare of all social context, this is a power of individual human nature, which may usually simply be assumed.  The assertion of freedom in this form always belongs with some kind of individualism.  Here is the freedom-as-defiance of the existentialist, and of the teenager who refuses to get out of bed in the morning.  But freedom so conceived is abstract and unproductive.  To give the term a moral significance, we must understand it in terms of the orientation of the individual to social communications.

“And so there arises a second and more substantial sense of freedom: the realization of individual powers within social forms.  This is the sense in which we can say the the objective correlate of freedom is authority.  Authority (in the broadest sense, not political authority alone) attaches to those structures of communication in which we engage in order to realize freedom.  And this is the sense in which freedom may be lost.  Loss of freedom does not mean that the social orientation of human beings can be utterly thwarted.  But we can be deprived of the structures of communication within which we have learned to act, and so we can find ourselves hurled into a vacuum in which we do not know how to realize ourselves effectively. . . . But what we can say of the individual in these circumstances, we can say equally of the society.  It is not free unless it can sustain the forms that make for its members’ freedom.

“Freedom is a term used almost exclusively to focus attention on the possibilities of its loss. . . . That is why it is no easy thing to construct a positive program around the idea of freedom.  Politicians who praise freedom too profusely in flourishing circumstances are viewed with understandable suspicion.  Yet when some concrete threat appears, whatever it may be, ‘freedom’ is the first word on all our lips.

“If freedom is the self-realization of the individual within social forms, the twin guiding lights of sociality and individuality mark the runway along which any discussion of freedom must get airborne, whether its flight path then turns in a socialist direction towards securing individual freedom by way of social structures, or in a liberal direction towards securing social freedom by way of individual liberties. . . . ‘Freedom’ speaks of a certain conformability of society to individuals and of individuals to society.  It is a measure of fit between the communications which the individual hopes for and those which the society sustains.  As such, it is a matter of more or less.  Even in the most oppressive circumstances it is not wholly absent.” (67-69)

. . . 

“Freedom, then, has to do with a society’s particular historical way of existing. Societies cannot be free if they cannot sustain their historical identities.”

“Social identity, then, is an important contributing element in the freedom of an individual.  There can be no ‘freedom’ in having many spheres to participate in, unless one can rationally conceive of a whole that connected those spheres together. . . . However, there is more to personal freedom than simple participation in a tradition. . . . It is an imprisoned self-knowledge that cannot distinguish one’s calling from one’s social identity. . . . There is an eloquent difference between the term ‘identity’, used both of societies and of individuals viewed objectively as members of societies, and the term ‘vocation,’ used only of ourselves as subjects. . . . ‘Vocation’ takes us beyond identity, to a fulfillment in service that is extended to us personally by God.  And this provides us with a third sense of the term ‘freedom,’ as the individual’s discovery and pursuit of his or her vocation from God.  It is to this that Christians have pointed when they have spoken of ‘evangelical liberty,’ the liberty of baptism.” (70-72)

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