Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Freedom Is for Worship

In our contemporary conception of freedom, we include religious freedom as a subset of our constellation of rights. As the idea has been secularized, it's not so clear that the freedom to worship is the original freedom, particularly for those without material means, because it establishes our origin above society. Other freedoms derive from this one.

In Exodus, the demand for liberation is initially a request for time off to attend a religious retreat. This exercise of freedom requires at least a pause from daily necessity (vacation!) and is designated for worship of God.
After that, Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Let my people go, that they may celebrate a feast to me in the desert."
Pharaoh answered, "Who is the LORD, that I should heed his plea to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD; even if I did, I would not let Israel go."
They replied, "The God of the Hebrews has sent us word. Let us go a three days' journey in the desert, that we may offer sacrifice to the LORD, our God; otherwise he will punish us with pestilence or the sword."
The king of Egypt answered them, "What do you mean, Moses and Aaron, by taking the people away from their work? Off to your labor! (Exodus 5:1-4)
For the Greeks, freedom came from the prosperity of slave-owners who were freed from personally performing the labor required for the maintenance of one's family. Participation in the polis was considered the act of free men. Later, Greek philosophers located freedom in a personal realm, as a cultivation of soul which preferred to be far from the public light. Hannah Arendt points out the contradiction between these two forms of freedom.
This freedom which we take for granted in all political theory and which even those who praise tyranny must still take into account is the very opposite of "inner freedom," the inward space into which men may escape from external coercion and feel free. This inner feeling remains without outer manifestations and hence is by definition politically irrelevant. Whatever its legitimacy may be, and however eloquently it may have been described in late antiquity, it is historically a late phenomenon, and it was originally the result of an estrangement from the world in which worldly experiences were transformed into experiences within one's own self. ("What Is Freedom?")
Freedom as a philosophical concept did not arise until Christianity, also according to Arendt. "[I]t was the experience of religious conversion--of Paul first and then of Augustine--which gave rise to it." Freedom is linked with its expression, that is, in the "gift of action".
[D]o we not rightly measure the extent of freedom in any given community by the free scope it grants to apparently nonpolitical activities, free economic enterprise or freedom of teaching, of religion, of cultural and intellectual activities? (ibid.)
Human action, as a fruit of freedom from external coercion, now encounters a personal obstacle, the division in the will described by St. Paul.
Historically, men first discovered the will when they experienced its impotence and not its power, when they said with Paul: "For to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not."
Despite this handicap to freedom, action is the hallmark of humanity and an innovation in the history of creation according to St. Augustine, as Arendt explains:
In the City of God Augustine, as [is] only natural, speaks more from the background of specifically Roman experiences than in any of his other writings, and freedom is conceived there not as an inner human disposition but as a character of human existence in the world. Man does not possess freedom so much as he, or better his coming into the world, is equated with the appearance of freedom in the universe; man is free because he is a beginning and was so created after the universe had already come into existence: [Initium] ut esset, creatus est homo, ante quem nemo fuit. In the birth of each man this initial beginning is reaffirmed, because in each instance something new comes into an already existing world which will continue to exist after each individual's death. Because he is a beginning, man can begin; to be human and to be free are one and the same. God created man in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning: freedom.
The concept of freedom was forged in the crucible by the first Christians, who gave their lives for belief, and they associated themselves with the seven Maccabee brothers slain earlier for fidelity to the Jewish law. In their case, interior freedom came up against exterior coercion. Even as these Christians, noble and slave, were persecuted, they maintained, as did their Master, that the rulers were given authority from above. But they followed a higher authority which did not admit of the deification of rulers, and this origin is the source of their action, or affirmation of belief.

This expression of interior freedom was a serious challenge to the power of the state. Donata of Africa said at trial: "I honor the emperor because he is emperor, but worship can be given only to God." (Church and State in Early Christianity, Hugo Rahner) A millenium later, St. Thomas More would paraphrase in words from the scaffold: "The King's good servant, but God's first." This courage of action came from a conviction stronger even than the natural desire for self-preservation; it comes from a connection with an origin which is the source of all that is human.

[to be continued]

1 comment:

Dcn Scott Dodge said...

This why JPII insisted that, apart from the right to life, the most fundamental human right is freedom of religion.