Freedom and the Will and the Church

Once each month a group of friends– people from our church, and other friends not involved in church– get together at the sweetest brewery in town (Function Brewing: revived brick building, maple floors, great beer) and haggle through an issue of the day. We’ve discussed topics like Suffering, Race Relations, Power & Authority, Homosexuality, Trinitarian Theology, Ghosts, Anger, you name it.

This morning I got a text from one of the new guys who just had a big discussion with his friends on the topic of freedom of the will. I texted him back. A rather long response to be typing with my thumbs on an iPhone. My “shoot from the hip” thoughts on freedom of the will are below. Perhaps these will stir up your own considerations, or rekindle your sense of community desire and commitment…

A discussion on “Freewill” all hinges on your understanding of the notion of “free”. What is “freedom” ultimately?— Is it the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want? If this is the case, then our freedom is then contingent on both our “wanting” and our ability to actually get/do what we “want”. If this then is the case, then the conversation about free will must necessitate a conversation about human desire, and even whether our desires themselves, or our ability to desire ultimate good, are in line with what “goodness” actually is.

If freedom is the ability to choose that which we desire, then I must admit that we do have a certain amount of freedom, yet even that is boundaried and shaped by our circumstances as well as our capacities to gain what we desire. If freedom is the ability to choose that which is good, then I must confess that when I honestly examine my own heart (aka “desires”), if I were left to my self, without the extra nos (“outside of me”) intervention of an ultimately good and powerful being who has the power, desire, and will to reshape my ability to desire, I would never choose that which is good. Even when I seemingly chose the “good” (eg helping others, caring for the environment, etc), self-oriented fixation on the pleasing of my own desire, propping up of my own deficiency, exercise of power over others, would always weasel in. Thus, left to myself, any good that I choose would become corrupted by Self. In which case, I must then ask, “what kind of freedom is it that is enslaved to the pleasing or justification of one’s own desire?”

Further, this question also brings up another dynamic of freedom, one that is fairly recent to western thought since introduced by Kant, and this is one of the idea of “autonomy.” Is “freedom” the same thing as “autonomy”? And is “autonomy” even a good thing, something that is inherent in human design? I would argue that it is indeed not good; however, it has become one of the primary drivers of our current culture- both inside and outside of the church.

“I decide what is best for me.” “I am my own authority.” “Just me and Jesus.” “I think, therefore I am, therefore I can be utterly independent of any one, any institution, and community, any tradition, all of those are suspect and come under submission to the autonomous self.”

Although perhaps not inherent within the idea of “freedom,” the above mindset has become the paradigm that many approach the notion of “freedom” with. And, this also is why “church” has become for many a “food court” for the autonomous self, who is under no authority, to consume and get their feet wet with no reciprocal obligation or commitment to a real church organism AND organization.

Certainly, human community should not be some huge complex co-dependent community, people should be appropriately “differentiated,” but this is far from the notion of “autonomy” or “freedom” that has become the ideal in our present generation. But, healthy “personal differentiation” (or boundaries of knowing where your Self ends and another person’s Self begins) has become overtaken and exaggerated by our hyper-individualistic tendencies further exacerbated by a tech age that facilitates and encourages solipsism. This is so because “autonomy”/”freedom” fundamentally has come to connote Self over and against commitment and submission to the common good, which leads to lack of commitment, lack of unity, and a bunch of lonely people wanting relationship yet medicating themselves with the “aura” of community.

And, this is where I see our obsession with autonomy leaving this current generation. I meet person after person, couple after couple (some whose relationships are falling apart), who say they want “community,” “relationship,” “vulnerability,” etc. yet when these things actually require something of them… “peace out,” they’re gone. The reason why is that true “community,” real “relationship,” intimate “vulnerability,” is not something that we can merely consume or splash around in the shallows with. Our generation has created cliches out of these concepts in order to suit their desires (not for true transformation which ultimately requires the pushing in to conflict and pain under Christ’s leadership), but for an easy, emotional therapy, a soothing of their anxiety so they can continue functioning as autonomous Selves, with no attachments holding them back, no commitments restraining their options, no boundaries restricting their attempts at immediate gratification of desire, and no obligations to an institution bigger than themselves requiring them to sacrifice personal preference for the sake of the “community” they so long to have surrounding them.

And, this also is another key to the “aura of community.” No longer do people in our culture see the necessity to become a part of a community, for them to enter in to belong; instead, this has been exchanged for the expectation that the community is meant to curve in around them, their desires, their schedules, their needs, their tastes become the all important priority for the community of faith. And, so churches have learned to strategize and create program after program, make change after change to suit the constantly fluid desires of the consumeristic American mindset. And, so we see a schizophrenic theological and ecclesiological landscape, of churches creating their own individualistic confessions and practices to appeal to the masses who expect a food court filled with options, each courting them, personally.

There no longer remains the calling of the community to the person, requiring something of the person to become a part of the community. This smells of heavy-handed authority because it obligates and limits personal autonomy for the sake of the church community’s mission and priorities qua¬†Jesus’ missional church.

Give over, submit, our individualistic autonomies for the real freedom that comes with will and desire renewed by the God who calls us into the true and good community of Jesus’ church? No way. This is not what our generation wants. I’ll stick with the aura of community, thank you very much. Give me the cliche, give me the shallows.