The other day a friend of mine (who has given me permission to share this) was talking about her mixed feelings about whether or not she wanted to have kids. She’d long said she didn’t want children but realized one day that it wasn’t so much that she didn’t want to be a mother as it was that she didn’t want to be her mother. To make matters worse, she said, she’d come to see that much of what she’d been doing in life — her religious beliefs and sacred practices, her unwillingness to settle down in a relationship, and her no-holds-barred attitude towards life in general — was all done in reaction against her strict fundamentalist upbringing. How sad, we laughed, to realize that her rebellious life was still entirely defined by her parents and the past she didn’t want any part of.
While my friend’s experience may be a bit more extreme than most, this is a pretty common story. So much of the time, in opposing something we still let ourselves be governed by it. We see this in history with the weirdly codependent relationship between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism — how each side in the Reformation came to define itself in opposition to the other side. Similarly, two documents produced by conservative Christians in opposition to Modernism, The Fundamentals and the Acts of the First Vatican Council, are now often touted as two of the hallmark documents of the intellectual spirit of Modernity. Sooner or later, we all need to ask ourselves the question: Are we living our life for something or against something? If it’s the latter, chances are we’re still defining our lives by the very thing from which we’re wanting to be freed.
My favorite example of this is the story of the Buddha and his enlightenment: After years of struggling in severe fasting and not finding enlightenment, he came to realize that as long as he was defining his life by what he was and was not eating, he was still being controlled by food, no matter how little he ate. His extreme asceticism could not free him from his attachment to food because it was still an expression of that attachment. This epiphany was the key to his enlightenment, and it’s the key to our freedom too.
Whenever I think of this phenomenon, I’m reminded of the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey. Asked about freedom in the heart of the ‘Sixties, he responded:
As Christians we must be the sworn foes of persecution, of arbitrary imprisonment, of racial discrimination, of crippling poverty and hunger. We shall throw ourselves into these causes of freedom in the name of Christ; and our Christian discipleship will be tested by our practical concern for our fellows. But we shall be aware that while these issues are easily stated in terms of freedom from, awkward questions arise when we go on to questions of freedom for.
What the Archbishop was wisely getting at was that history shows that political freedoms, while certainly very important, are only half the battle. So many of us in the ‘free’ West are still bound in our hearts and minds, still defined by the principalities and powers at work in us — whether they are the energies of oppression and restriction or the energies of privilege and Mammon. Until we are freed from these things, according to the wisdom traditions of East and West alike, we are not truly free.
The first step in breaking free is to recognize — as my friend did — our lack of freedom, all the ways we are still tethered to the past. Then come the “awkward questions” Archbishop Ramsey noted: if we’re going to be free, what will we be free for? What values will we stake our lives on? What will we live for? What do we stand for? What will we fall for?
This kind of freedom is what human maturity and growth look like. The apostle Paul said, “It is for freedom that [Christ] has set us free.” The tautology is often mocked, but he has a point. Freedom is an incredible gift, but it comes with an awesome responsibility: the responsibility to be truly free. Not to be free from, but to be free for.