Much political and social discourse today focuses on freedom, whether the freedom to do something or the freedom from some force, institution, or person. In truth, this goes for both sides of the political aisle. Pro-choice advocates often assert a woman’s “right to choose” (that is, having the freedom to choose) while defenders of religious liberty proclaim the freedom of conscience to withhold certain services under specific conditions. The point is not to pick a side (though as a Catholic it should be clear with whom I agree in each case), but to indicate that discourse about freedom undergirds our political conversations.
It was with this in mind that I recently watched an interview between a Buddhist monk and the seminarian and theologian turned atheist philosopher, Martin Heidegger. During their conversation and while discussing religion in particular, Heidegger makes a blunt (and insightful) statement about the limits of freedom:
“[Religion is] a bonding-back to powers, forces and laws, that supersede human capability…no human being is without religion…[whether that religion be] the belief in [the absolute authority of] science…[or] an atheistic religion, namely Buddhism, that knows no God.”
Heidegger wants to remind the monk that no one can escape limits upon freedom, that is, everyone lives their life according to a code of rules. There is no person who has the absolute liberty to do anything he wants; such an individual is always circumscribed by his beliefs, his culture, and any number of other factors.
That’s all well and good, but why is this interesting for contemporary Catholics? Well, Christianity teaches us that, paradoxically, we are limited insofar as we are created beings, but that we may also achieve absolute liberty in service to God, that serving the divine is the true means of our becoming free. One can see this in the writings of St. Paul (or so Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have taught us):
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery…For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:1, 13-14)
And this freedom is precisely slavery to God, it is the adoption of the yoke of Jesus Christ. We see this in the beginning of the Epistle of Jude: “Jude, a slave of Jesus Christ and brother of James, to those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ: may mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance” (1:1-2).
This seems an important reminder to me in our day and age. There is true freedom to be found in serving Christ, in upholding His commandments, most of all his directive to love one’s neighbor as oneself. We must keep in mind that whenever we use the language of liberty in political discourse, it is in relationship to, and as a shadow of, the ultimate freedom found in Christ. Our submission to Him is the only absolute liberation, for it is as Jesus tells us:
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28-30).