Real Freedom?

Just one more from Tim Keller’s comment section, and then I’m going to stick to my guns and stop looking at those ugly things.  This is one I found today:

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Keller is saying there that the freedom God intended us to have can only be held through the observing of certain restrictions (including, of course, moral ones), restrictions which are not abnormal but absolutely normal, fitting our very beings.  That is a standard Christian understanding of “restrictions” (or “commands” or “teachings” or whatever else you want to call them).  I believe it is an understanding of reality.  I believe it is an inescapable truth, and that life becomes happier or easier or better or more glorious when we live in harmony with that truth, aligning ourselves with those restrictions.

The person who commented, though, (and whose identity I have obscured) apparently believes the opposite.  He believes in “throwing off” those restrictions rather than aligning with them.  He believes in ignoring or denying or violating our design rather than accepting it.  He believes this will give him real freedom, and he expresses that with the indignant disdain that has become unfortunately too common in such discussions.

It is not a new idea.  I heard this idea from atheist Christopher Hitchens several years ago.  He stated it during a debate with apologeticist William Lane Craig.

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The statement to notice there is close to the end.  Hitchens refers to “the poisonous role played by fellow primates of mine who think they can tell me what to do in the name of God.”  You can find that statement somewhere in the debate below:

So Keller’s commentator says real freedom is throwing off the restrictions of religious leaders, implying that such restrictions are wrong (if freedom is right, anything which restricts it must be wrong/evil/unjust, right?), and Hitchens says that “fellow primates” telling each other what to do is the name of God is poisonous.  And there is a lot of indignation in those assertions.  There isn’t a lot of logic, though.  Here’s a couple logical problems I see with these complaints about restrictions/being told what to do.

People tell other people what to do all the time.  My self-proclaimed secular society tells me what to do all the time.  They tell me not to be racist, not to be sexist, and not to be a dozen other similar things.  They will punish me harshly if I do those things.  What they don’t tell me is why I can’t do those things or by what authority they are telling me not to do those things.  They tell me they are wrong (even as they tell me there is no such thing as wrong), but they don’t tell me why they are wrong or why they are the ones to tell me they are wrong.  Does Hitchens regard this as equally poisonous?  Is this one of the restrictions Keller’s commentator would like to throw off?  I doubt it.  They more than likely accept those restrictions (even as they proclaim a wrong-less worldview).  Why, then, do they get so bent out of shape about these other restrictions?  Why do they act like religious leaders are the only ones who proclaim such restrictions?  If you’re going to live in the presence of other people, you are going to be told to do or not to do hundreds of things from the moral to the civic.  Getting upset at that is not wise.  Getting upset at only half of that is even less wise.

Other leaders promote the same restrictions religious leaders do.  Religious leaders often promote sexual restrictions.  In our sexual society, that is probably what generates the most resistance.  They are not the only ones to promote such restrictions, though.  I saw a news story on TV last year about a high school counselor who forces her female students to be abstinent.  She does so not because she thinks sex is wrong but because she knows pregnancies and STDs will keep these young women from completing college.  Is she wrong in having those restrictions?  Is it right for her to point out the physical consequences of sexual activity but wrong for religious leaders to point out the (very real) spiritual consequences of sexual activity?

Religious leaders don’t force anyone to do anything or stop anybody from doing anything.  I certainly don’t.  I haven’t been given that authority.  I wouldn’t take that authority if it were offered to me.  Such authority would offend my faith, in fact; my faith is based on reasonably persuading people to come to God of their own free will, to respond to them with their hearts.  That can’t be forced or coerced, and I don’t try to do that.  What I do try to do is tell people what the right choices are and (like the high school counselor above) what the consequences of wrong choices will be.  I tell them that and then allow them to make their own choices.  Without fail, those who have chosen what I (and God) have said is right turn out much happier than those who chose the other way

Let me give you a short story here: a guy came into my office years ago to ask me for permission to commit adultery.  Yep.  He had the chance to commit adultery and wanted my okay on it.  He was not getting the intimacy from his wife which he needed, he found another woman in an open marriage who would give him that intimacy (at least for awhile), and he wanted me to tell him it was okay.  I couldn’t tell him that.  It was hard not to; it was very hard to tell a guy starved for intimacy that he couldn’t go get some.  However, I also told him that not only was adultery wrong, but it had consequences.  I told him any intimacy he found with the other woman would be short-lived.  I told him I doubted she was really in an open marriage; I suggested that her husband had just found a way to talk her into allowing him to have sex with other women and would be angry if she had sex with other men.  I told him he would have a secret to keep, and doing so would be unpleasant.  I gave him lots of good reasons not to commit adultery.  But I didn’t stop him from doing it.  He went and did it.  Then he came back a month later and told me I was “right” (which is not my goal; I’m not trying to be right; I’m trying to help people live what God calls “fruitful lives”).  He said that the husband was angry and threatened him.  He said he wished he had never done it.

I don’t make other people’s choices for them; I can’t and wouldn’t.  Nor do any other religious leaders I know (and I know a lot).  I simply tell people what I think is the right choice.  Hitchens is doing the very same thing.  So is Keller’s commentator.  I don’t see why it is wrong for me to do so when it is (apparently) right for them to do so.

Hitchens and Keller’s commentator are telling me what to do.  Hitchens’ big problem is people telling him “what do do” (he uses that phrase a couple times in the debate).  That’s apparently the commentator’s problem as well.  And yet they are doing the same thing.  They are telling me what to do even as they say I should not tell them what to do.  Telling people what not to do is telling them what to do.  Should I, then, through off their restrictions on me?  It seems like a big paradox or audio feedback loop, but it is true.  One man’s liberator is another man’s dictator.  I’m sure Hitchens would be surprised to be called a dictator, and I’m sure he was not trying to be one.  But he does seem like one to me.

What religion tells us to do is by and large accepted as correct.  That might sound strange, particularly with the problems the non-believing sector has with the believing sectors teaching on sex.  Nonetheless, it is true on the larger scale.  The primary teaching of my faith is love.  Love God is the first commandment, and loving others is the second.  Everything beyond that, including the sexual restrictions, is about how to love God and others in specific situations.  And that is something most people (probably even Hitchens and the Keller commentator) agree with.

Again, a little story helps here:  I was in the gym locker room with a fellow pastor a couple years ago.  We were talking about the faith, not realizing that anyone else was in there with us.  All the sudden, a guy came around the corner and started yelling at us, telling us that we don’t need things like the Bible and Hell.  “Why can’t we just do unto others?” he asked me.  Because I am gracious, I didn’t embarrass him by telling him that “do unto others” comes from the Bible he just said we don’t need.  Whether or not I told him that, though, the point remains that most people agree with love and kindness and compassion.  And those are the things my faith teaches.  Those are the things the restrictions are meant to produce.

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The end of the matter, then, is that I’m not poisoning anybody, nor are the many other religious leaders I know.  I’m not restricting anybody, either; Keller used that word because it fit that context, but I’m sure he would agree that what he is calling restrictions are really not restrictions at all.  No, I am freeing as many as I can.  I have found from my own experience that nothing is as freeing as the way of Christ, as way that (like all ways) has boundaries but which leads to a much better place in a much better manner than any other way I know.  People can get indignant about that; they have (as we see here) and they always will.  But their indignation doesn’t make any sense.  What they are pursuing, whether they know it or not, is not real freedom.  A life without boundaries is not a life of freedom; it is, as Peter says, a life of mastering, of being mastered, of being a slave.  No, it is the life of boundaries that is free.  It is the restriction-giving God who gives real freedom.

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