I recently read Tim Keller’s latest book, Preaching, for a seminary class, and it was simply incredible. Yes, while the general thrust of the book is certainly angled for preachers, it is without a doubt a book for all Christians. (In fact, had I been the author, I would have renamed the title in order to broaden the target audience. And I’m kind of upset the title is “Preaching” because it’s highly likely most Christians won’t dare to pick it up.)
The main thing I appreciated about this book is its commentary on how the gospel intersects all cultural narratives and affirms/challenges their relative, foundational premises. Below is an entire section of chapter 5 where Keller addresses the holes in the Absolute Negative Freedom worldview, which is by far the most pervasive worldview in America today. Check out what he has to say, for I couldn’t possibly express the complications behind the sentiment of this worldview any better than he did.
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Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred. (Philosophers call this “negative freedom”—freedom from constraints—which they contrast with “positive freedom,” the freedom to pursue some good aim.) Absolute negative freedom becomes the chief moral good, so that “the [only] sin which is not tolerated is intolerance.” This poses many problems both philosophical and practical.
One is that this narrative’s sacralizing of personal choice erodes community and fragments society. Remember Taylor’s quote that “to have any kind of livable society some choices have to be restricted, some authorities have to be respected, and some individual responsibility has to be assumed.” Sociologists have documented the growing civic and political disengagement of younger adults. The more people are invested in the late-modern understanding of the sovereign self and in its younger brother, absolute negative freedom, the less they feel a loyal part of the greater body politic.
Another problem with this freedom narrative is the unworkability of what has been called the “harm principle.” Taylor summarizes it as “no one has a right to interfere with me for my own good, but only to prevent harm to others.”36 The harm principle seems to make freedom of choice into a self-correcting absolute. In this view, a society does not need to lay down any moral principles at all—it can be “value free.” Everyone is free to live in any way she chooses, as long as it doesn’t curtail someone else’s freedom. However, the Achilles’ heel of this theory is the assumption that we all know what “harm” is or that it can be defined without recourse to deep beliefs about right and wrong.
One person says that it harms no one for a man to consume pornography privately in his own home. Others counter, however, that pornography will shape how he talks and acts with others, especially with women. Beneath these different conclusions about harm lie different understandings of the right and wrong way for individuals to relate to community. In other words, any decision about what harms others is rooted in specific views of human nature, happiness, and right and wrong—each of which is a matter of faith. So even if we all agree that freedom should be curtailed if it harms people, since we can’t agree on what harm is, the principle is useless in practice.
The freedom narrative also thins out the pursuit of meaning in life. Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould once was asked “What is the meaning of life?” and responded, “We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures. . . . We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer—but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, is ultimately liberating. . . . We must construct these answers for ourselves.”37 If there is no God and we have not been put here for some purpose, then there is no “discovered” meaning in life—no purpose that is there, existing before us, for which we were built, and with which we are obligated to align ourselves. This absence frees us, Gould says, to decide what things are meaningful for us. We may find that building homes or painting pictures or raising a family gives us purpose. So those are the meanings we choose for ourselves.
Philosopher Thomas Nagel, however, says that created meanings are less rational in principle than discovered meanings. Most of us would agree, Nagel argues, that we only have meaning if we feel we are making a difference, that what we do matters. But, he argues, if there is no God and you write a “great work of literature that continues to be read thousands of years from now,” nevertheless “eventually the solar system will cool or the universe will wind down and collapse and all trace of your effort will vanish. . . . If you think about the whole thing . . . it wouldn’t matter if you had never existed.” In other words, if there is no God or anything beyond this material world, then whether you’ve been good or cruel or murderous will make no final difference. No one will be around to remember anything. That means you can live a meaningful life only if you are careful to not think out the implications of your view of the universe. That’s not a very rational way to live. Religious believers, however, draw greater meaning in life the more they think out the implications of their view of the universe. In their view, right actions now count literally forever.
Luc Ferry, another atheist, makes a related argument—that these created meanings are not just less rational but more selfish. We may decide to give our lives to serve the medical needs of poor people; but why, within a secular framework, is that significant? The proper answer according to the freedom narrative is that we are doing it not because we are obligated to do it but because we freely choose to find this activity significant for us. However, Ferry argues, that means we are actually helping sick people for our sake, not theirs. We are doing it because it makes us feel worthy and significant. Self-created meanings come terribly close to simply living for oneself.
The final reason that this narrative does not ultimately work is that the modern idea of freedom itself is an illusion. Remember that the modern concept of freedom is absolute negative freedom, the absence of any constraint. The fewer limits or boundaries I have on my desires, choices, and actions, it would seem that the freer I am. However, this does not do justice to the complexity of the dimensions of freedom and the realities of incarnate and communal life.
A sixty-year-old man may have a strong desire to eat fatty foods, but if he regularly exercises his freedom to give in to that desire, his life will be curtailed in some way. He must choose to lose a lesser freedom (to eat these foods he enjoys) for a greater freedom (health and long life). If you want the freedoms that come with being a great musician—the ability to move people with your music and to make a good living for your family—you will have to give up your freedom to do other things in order to practice eight hours a day for years. Freedom is not, then, simply the absence of restrictions, but rather consists of finding the right, liberating restrictions. Put another way, we must actively take tactical freedom losses in order to receive strategic freedom gains. You grow only as you lose some lower kinds of freedom to gain higher kinds. So there is no absolute negative freedom.
The ultimate proof that the freedom narrative does not work—is love. No love relationship can grow unless each person sacrifices some freedom in order to serve the other, yet these restrictions, if accepted mutually, lead to the various liberations of mind and heart that only love can bring. Most people will say they feel most like “themselves” when they are truly loved and loving another—but that requires the surrender of complete self-determining freedom. As we have seen, the late-modern freedom narrative undermines human community in general. But it is especially corrosive of marriage. A late-modern person, controlled by both the freedom and identity narratives, wants a spouse who “accepts me as I am” and neither demands that you change nor requires you to sacrifice any of your own substantial desires, interests, and dreams. This kind of marriage is a fiction—it doesn’t exist.
The very theme of the kingdom of God, when preached properly and fully, directly challenges yet fulfills the late-modern desire for freedom. We can see in daily life how the disciplines—freedom “losses” like practice and dieting—lead to other kinds of freedom gains. We also see how when employees submit to the leadership of a great CEO or team members to that of a great coach, everyone on the team realizes his potential and everyone thrives. Submitting to the right rules and the right leader can bring all sorts of great freedoms. If we see this to be the case, then how much more liberating will it be to submit to the true king of our souls? When the Bible talks about God’s returning to judge the earth, even the created order is liberated from decay (Psalm 96:11–13; Romans 8:20–23).
All of this supports the famous claim by Jesus that knowing him sets you “free” (John 8:31–36), meaning “The ultimate bondage is . . . rebellion against the God who has made us. The despotic master is not Caesar, but shameful self-centeredness, an evil and enslaving devotion to created things at the expense of worship of the Creator.”
Tim Keller, Preaching, Chapter 5: “Engaging the Society Narrative: Absolute Negative Freedom”