Some Clarifications on Freedom: Choice, Good Action/Virtue, Capacity, and Liberation

Freedom plays a central role in Christian theology throughout church history. I think this is a wonderful thing, and speaks to how deeply Christian faith is always already concerned with human liberation. The covenantal peasant resistance movement that Jesus starts is about liberation from internal and external colonization, and so it also makes historical sense that freedom is an indispensable and central term in its vocabulary.

But because liberation is so central to the Jesus movement, it also becomes a central target for obscurantists who work to co-opt the movement and destroy its liberatory aims. As imperial court theology slowly emerges before and during the reign of Constantine, the work of melting down the early concept of “liberation” and forming it into something useful for Empire falls to the bishops. One of the most basic substitutions replaces liberatory freedom with a concept of freedom as bare choice. In its most degraded form, bare choice becomes the bare ability to be manipulated (either deceived or forced) into making a bad ‘choice’. This makes it easy to blame victims and ignore abuses of power and authority, by claiming that people who have been cruelly manipulated are simply revealing their preferences. Slowly, and then all at once, in the imperial orbit this non-liberatory concept of freedom is presumed and then embedded in theology as an early basis for Christian theodicy. Although the maximally degraded understanding of freedom as the freedom to ‘choose’ to submit to slavery can’t withstand even minimal scrutiny, it isn’t defended. Instead, it is presumed. This is a very clever propaganda technique: by assuming a new and oppressive meaning for freedom, and then making it seem as if it is necessary to faith in God, the oppressive meaning (falsely) comes to seem necessary. Simply assuming the bad prior leaves the corruption seeming beyond dispute. This reforging of liberation as the capacity to ‘choose’ submission to slavery comes early enough in church history to trickle out into confusions that are now familiar to Catholics, Protestants, the Orthodox and others.

The basic form of the mere choice theodicy looks like this: God is perfectly good, but allows bad things to happen so that there can be freedom (which just means choice). Adam abuses this freedom by choosing evil, though, and that’s how sin and death enter the world. This isn’t God’s fault, but Adam’s, and so God is exculpated. Although the roots of this (like the rest) are much deeper than Augustine, he deserves blame or credit for most skillfully sharpening it to its most devastating imperial point.

The same basic logic is also routinely transferred to a more extreme case: hell. Notice that Adam could make bad choices that have temporal consequences, consequences in history, without these being endless and ultimate consequences. So extending this to hell is, precisely, an extension of the corruption from finite to infinite, and from remediable to irremediable, and therefore from potentially having an end/goal to being pointless, endless, and goal-less. So in this infinite and radical extension, the same conceptual apparatus is redeployed to explain why a good God can (and even must) allow some people to be tortured forever. Endless torture, it is argued, also serves the higher good of freedom.

I think there are serious problems already with the freedom (as mere choice) theodicy, and these problems are dramatically amplified to an extreme degree when this becomes a rationalization for endless torture. The second argument essentially amounts to an ad absurdum mockery of the first one, as the discussion below will show. It distorts and adjusts the original to such an obscene degree that I think it helpfully illuminates what is already more mildly absurd in its less distilled forbearer. But precisely because hell stretches the freedom theodicy beyond recognition and tortures it in the most obscene way, the removal of this topheth (this fiery pit where children are sacrificed) also helps us see the redeemable fragment of choice that hell cannot destroy. What is this remnant of truth, this tiny bit of insight that has been abused by the demands of Empire? We will recover that lost seed and allow it to properly grow and develop over the course of this essay.

But first, hell needs to burn itself out. Let’s illustrate how the argument to hell from freedom as mere choice is already self-defeating.

Freedom as mere choice already defeats endless hell

Although the non-liberatory concept of freedom as (the ability to choose) slavery is already internally incoherent, the incoherence of the hell theodicy doesn’t stop with the internal coherence of this concept. To help illustrate this, let’s grant the idea that Biblical freedom merely means “choice” for the sake of argument, in order to illustrate a broader coherence in the standard arguments that proceed from it too. Not only is the concept internally broken, but even if it is granted, it rests in a more broadly incoherent framework as well.

If freedom (understood as the ability to choose) explains why evil is allowed to exist, freedom must be of enormous and transcendent importance. But if this is true then it is already incompatible with traditional accounts of hell, because they portray human life as an infinitesimal moment of choice vanishing before the limitless, choiceless state afterwards. If choice is such a transcendent good, why should we have an infinitesimally brief period of freedom (choice) that ultimately gives way to an infinite period without freedom (choice)? We could grant that freedom (choice) is transcendentally important to God. But then why would it be restricted to a moment of time that ultimately recedes into utter nothingness against the infinity of unfreedom in which we are ultimately embedded?

This objection only directly defeats claims that hell is necessarily eternal. Some argue that hell is only contingently eternal: that is to say, they claim that people could, in theory, choose to leave hell at any moment … it is just that they never do. However, once we have a hell that can be escaped at any moment, but isn’t ever opted out of by anyone, then we need a concept of a human will that can perfectly choose suffering, literally without end. Whatever that is, it bears no resemblance to any human will we have ever observed or experienced. To its credit, this clever defense is not so immediately self-defeating as the notion that freedom is the highest good that justifies its own endless removal. However, it does involve a surreal and absurd anthropology, even as it also already destroys the traditional concept of an endless choiceless hell; it has, for all of its cleverness, also already given way to a hopeful universalism. That is good enough for our purposes now. Purged of the self-defeating notion that freedom is so important that it can justify its own endless removal, we have already found the seed of true freedom, even if it has been burned like the phyrotrophic lodge pole pine so that it is prepared to grow again.

But unless it develops, the freedom (as mere choice) theodicy is a stunted and stunting thing. The underlying notion of freedom here, freedom as the freedom to choose (and especially to be manipulated into choosing badly), is sometimes called voluntarist freedom. We can begin to question this in a lot of ways, but we might start by noticing that voluntarist freedom cannot be what the Bible generally concerns itself with when it talks about freedom. For example, it would be bizarre to translate, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” as “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall give you the ability to choose evil.” Biblical freedom is not a liberation to evil, not even the capacity for evil (which we already have), but a liberation from evil itself. The central challenge, articulated at the heart of the Didache and throughout Scripture and tradition, is of crucial narrative importance even to the story of Adam. If freedom just means choice, and knowing the truth merely gives us choice, we end up in a vast array of bizarre conundrums that have spurred endless, fruitless theological debates and schisms. These conundrums, which also render Scripture incoherent, should tell us that we’ve missed something that must have been relatively simple for the writers and readers of Scripture, but which theologians have turned into an endless mine of obscurity. How did they do that? By adopting a notion of “freedom as mere choice” that has roots in reading Genesis 1–2 as a freedom theodicy, which depends on this concept of freedom as the capacity to choose evil.

The Bible is only intelligible if we have a broader concept of freedom as liberation

My contention here is that a worthwhile concept of freedom must absolutely be able to hold choice within it, but it can’t merely be that. Even choice itself is poorly conceived as nothing but the freedom to choose between good and evil, when authentic freedom should include the capacity to knowingly choose (ideally without manipulation) among multiple goods as manifestations of the Good.

A notion of freedom that cannot hold more than mere choice renders the Bible unintelligible to us. Counterintuitively, I suspect that this defect is one of the reasons that “freedom as choice” has gained so much traction. It has been very useful for imperial court theology for a very long time, precisely because it makes the liberatory challenge of scripture unintelligible to us at personal and social scales. Why would imperial court theologians, such as Augustine, want this? Because the kind of freedom the Bible discusses liberates people from Empire, and so destroys it, and this is the last thing an imperial court theologian wants. I mean this precisely: I think the destruction of their position as imperial court theologians is the ultimate longing of their hearts, whether they know it or not. It is the oblivion of their false persona that they unknowingly pursue. We can justify this claim by noticing that freedom as mere choice, lacking these liberatory elements, is the freedom of the way of death. It is, precisely, the freedom to choose death and destruction that they, and Empire, work to preserve. They want to remain sinners for as long as they can. God make them holy, but not yet. Not until freedom as the capacity to choose evil is extinguished. When it is extinguished, their personas as imperial court theologians die the ignominious death they deserve, and they may begin to find their true identities in Christ (God willing).

What is missing from freedom, understood as the ability to choose evil? Four elements, organized in a particular structure. These are: (1) freedom as the capacity to choose in general, which implies the enduring capacity to make knowing choices (this is not just the capacity to choose badly, either through misinformation or otherwise), (2) freedom as the capacity to realize ends, (3) freedom as ‘virtue’, such as freedom from bad choices like addictive ones and (4) freedom as liberation at all scales (from personal to social to cosmic).

These additional elements of authentically liberatory freedom are, precisely, what imperial court theologians must exclude so that their apparently interminable arguments can spin and defer and delay the real matters at hand. A very common response to efforts to restore these other crucial elements to our concept of freedom is to slander and libel those who can hold more, by insisting that they have abandoned freedom as choice. Here, I want to respond to these kinds of false charges by clarifying that these other views of freedom can and must hold freedom as choice, and precisely because they hold it so well they must also go beyond it.

This diagram lays out the key concepts and their relationships succinctly:

Starting on the top left, we can see the highly constrained understanding of freedom as choice. Common terminology here is fraught, and I want to spend a moment on it. The terms “libertarian freedom” and “voluntarist freedom” are routinely used for this idea of freedom as mere/bare choice. Here, I’ll generally use “voluntarist freedom” to indicate that this piece isn’t about contesting Libertarian politics. Although “libertarian freedom” often means the same thing as “voluntarist freedom”, it needs to be noted that some Libertarians don’t think voluntarist/libertarian freedom should define our position. Personally, I join these discussions as a Libertarian who opposes the Propertarian co-optation of our movement, but I won’t get into those weeds for now. I will just note that there is a longstanding relationship between neo-Confederate politics in the US and the “libertarian” (but actually propertarian) defense of slavery, and the connection is as simple as it is Orwellian: their argument is that freedom is the freedom to own property, and of course slaves are property. Property has long been a euphemism for chattel slavery in these discussions, and in this way they literally argue that slavery is freedom. After all, slavery is, precisely, the freedom of the slaveowner to choose the evil of owning humans as if they are cattle. Still, I don’t want to lock all Libertarians into this, and am happy to encourage Libertarians to abandon the merely voluntarist freedom that is so central to arguments for slavery. This essay may even help empower us in intra-Libertarian disputes. But here, we will stick with “voluntarist” so that a more thorough political contestation of the language can be saved for another day.

OK. Now on to the substantive conceptual discussion, the one that reaches through the semantics to the concepts beyond, to the kind of concept of freedom that is needed for a more satisfying, liberatory account of freedom that is actually compatible with the Bible.

Freedom as Choice

Crucially, narrowly voluntarist freedom includes the “freedom” to choose evil as a pure manifestation of freedom. However, freedom (as choice) can just as easily refer to choices among goods, even if the idea of a choice between good and evil obscures this crucial point. Freedom as mere choice, as I use it here, means that freedom lets us choose all kinds of things: good things, bad things, neutral or indifferent things. Still, even this simple point is often confusing for some people. The arguments around freedom so routinely presume that choice is only the capacity to choose between good and evil that it causes us to miss what is more routinely meant by choice: the capacity to choose among goods.

Our more comprehensive (teleological) idea of freedom will still hold the idea that freedom involves the ability to make bad choices. Allowing freedom as mere choice to include the full range of choices is not to exclude bad choices at all; it merely includes good choices, too. What a broader concept of freedom “loses” is precisely the blinkered narrowness that makes the freedom defense of hell tick. It is this “loss” of this loss of meaning that makes an expanded notion of freedom far less useful for a theodicy that includes endless (and therefore goal-less) torment, but far more useful for everything else. Once the capacity for choices among goods comes into view, it becomes clear that the freedom to make bad choices is a kind of failed, truncated, or abortive freedom. The freedom to make bad choices (at least for a time) is arguably a necessary element of freedom, but more comprehensive notions of freedom must ultimately be something more and better than this.

As soon as we explicitly add the choice among goods to our understanding of freedom as choice, something really is lost. But it is just the sort of loss that (for Christians) has always been seen as gain: we come to see that bad choices can, in time, be traded for good ones.

Freedom as Power / Capacity

Another concept that people sometimes hope can hold “freedom” is freedom as the capacity to act. Freedom as power. This is quite close to Amartya Sen’s capacities approach to freedom from Development as Freedom, if we read Sen uncharitably. As a historical matter, note that capacity and capacity for good are traditionally conflated in the classical concept of “virtue”, but here we will disambiguate them in the post-Humean world we live in: I think it is important, both conceptually and semantically, to distinguish “is” from “ought”. This is how we can distinguish freedom as capacity from freedom as virtue, which we will treat next.

There’s an important insight in Sen’s work, and it helps us distinguishe freedoms that include capacity from those that don’t. Existentialists will sometimes argue that even with a gun to our heads, we remain truly free because we can still choose death. But the force of this kind of observation depends on a radicalization of “freedom as bare choice”. We can sense that something essential to our normal notion of freedom has been lost here. Part of that loss is precisely this sense of freedom as capacity. You can be free on paper, but if you can’t actually do the things you choose, it is a hollow freedom. Freedom as power helps us see how freedom as bare choice makes common cause with the Jim Crow South and countless other oppressors. If someone can choose slavery or death, for example, we might say that they have chosen slavery. But this is an abusive and cruel absurdity. A worthy freedom is not only a dead letter on paper, but freedom must involve actual capacities if it isn’t to collapse into its opposite, tyranny.

Freedom as choosing the good: Freedom as ‘virtue’

In suggesting that a fuller freedom involves a choice among goods, might I instead just be saying that freedom is nothing but ‘choosing’ the good? Maybe freedom is nothing but virtuous living, doing the right thing. (Here, I am using virtue in its contemporary English sense, although we should note that virtue contained the implication of power as well as moral goodness in its ancient equivalents.) Freedom, taken to mean nothing but choosing what is morally good, is really the mirror image of freedom as the ability to choose the bad. This notion naturally crops up when “libertinism” (as the ability to make bad choices) is contrasted with true liberty, which might then seem to be nothing but ‘choosing’ the good.

Those emphasizing “freedom as choice” will likely feel that the freedom to choose the good is no choice at all, and they’re right. But at the same time, there really is a sense in which freedom involves freedom from the domination of bad choices. Being freed from addiction, for example, isn’t a ‘liberation’ into an ability to choose drugs. It is a liberation from choosing drugs. So this notion of freedom as choosing the good is also intuitive and powerful, if inadequate on its own. So I think it is enormously helpful to clarify that a fuller kind of freedom involves choice among multiple goods, even as it can also hold the capacity to choose badly in limited ways for pedagogical or epistemological purposes, especially if we are exploring options and don’t fully know good from bad. Excessive focus on choice between good and bad leaves us with an overly constrained sense of freedom. So it is helpful to pause and notice something that really should be obvious: we all feel freer when choosing among goods that may, themselves, each be distinct manifestations of the Good. The capacity to choose among goods might also be called creative freedom.

Teleological freedom is a synthesis of these three

All of this brings us to an ancient concept of freedom that beautifully synthesizes all three of these concepts into a more coherent whole. That is teleological freedom, or the “freedom of ends.” A very closely related term is “intellectual freedom”, although here I choose the language of teleology because I don’t mean to imply a particular conclusion to medieval scholastic debates about the primacy of intellect or will. My sympathies there are consistently Franciscan, but I don’t intend to delve into that here, except to note that my choice of terminology (teleological, not intellectual) is intended to bracket that conversation and hold it open for another day.

We can most easily access this idea by thinking in terms of a person who can choose a good and worthy goal (telos) and who then has the capacity to carry it through to completion. Here we have choice, capacity and the good all working simply and in harmony together. Importantly, this more holistic notion helps address many of the confusions that we encounter with the truncated ideas of freedom, the various points at which they seem to each collapse into unfreedom.

After all, choosing addiction isn’t freedom.

And having capacity without choice, and without a good end, is like being an enormous beast pulling a cruel machine. Freedom isn’t mere arbitrary capacity, but necessarily brings capacity and good choices together.

And being a good little boy, without choice or capacity, is being a doormat, not freedom.

Personal teleological freedom is our first concept of freedom that is worthy of the name, precisely because it integrates these various components harmoniously; it holds them all gently, bringing them together without forcing anything. It is expressed simply and compactly like this: freedom is the capacity to choose among good ends, and accomplish those ends. (And perhaps, especially for limited beings like us with imperfect knowledge, some capacity to choose the bad comes along for the ride, at least for a time.) Anything short of this collapses into unfreedom, under scrutiny. It can only be ‘defended’ by not defending it: for example, by presuming it.

Freedom as liberation holds all of this elegantly, across social scales

Nonetheless, I don’t think Christians can stop with this notion of teleological freedom. Our tradition and our central scriptures are concerned with an idea that I think is even more encompassing, even more intuitive, and even more primordial. It is freedom as liberation. Liberation must include liberation into teleological personal freedom: it must involve being able to effectively choose and achieve good ends. But it is also about more than an individual choosing these things. It is about being embedded in relationships (family, local, national, international, global and cosmic) that are themselves also teleologically free. And it involves liberation from oppressive forces, including addictions, Empires and powers even greater than that which impede and corrupt us. It involves liberation from the kinds of evil spiritual powers that also corrupt freedom itself, along with every other good. In this sense, this essay is part of the work of liberation: if you understand it, you will be freeing yourself from a spiritual deception, a rhetorical manipulation, that has supported not only some empires, but all kinds of oppression. But it isn’t complicated. At a basic level, it is as simple as noticing and being able to say that this does make sense: “You will know the truth, and the truth will liberate you all.” Personal teleological freedom becomes a pinhole through which we glimpse what it would mean to be in a liberated universal cosmos. Or at least to be in a healthy relationship.

This brings us back to the old freedom (as mere choice, and specifically bad choice) theodicies, from which I think a lot of evil ultimately comes flowing out. Insofar as freedom theodicies involve a kind of ultimate elevation of a maximally degraded voluntarism, the real mischief comes in the impoverishment of our sense of freedom. A great deal of the history of theology involves people attempting to hold Scripture and the tradition and the world in the feeble arms of “freedom as choice (for evil),” failing, and then searching for a rationalization for the failure. Often, the people who have devoted enormous efforts to these kinds of rationalization will lash out at people with more worthy notions of freedom. For them, freedom is bare choice (for evil) and it must be bare choice and it can only be bare choice, because they’ve invested countless hours (and the church has wasted centuries and millennia) trying to make this concept hold more than it can.

But their pretensions can already be pierced at the level of theodicy, long before they are wildly overextended to the point that endless oppression has become freedom. And they routinely are pierced, including by clever children everywhere. If your parents set you next to a deadly cliff so that you could be ‘free’, would they be good parents? I just asked my 7-year-old daughter this. She shook her head with saucer-eyes, recognizing the absolute absurdity of the idea. Would these parents exhibit an understanding of freedom that is worthy even of human beings, let alone a god, let alone God? Are these the sort of people who should be trusted around children? No, not at all. The freedom theodicy constructs a god who is much worse than the most minimally competent parent, on the basis of an astonishingly blinkered concept of freedom. A lot of effort has been wasted from early on in church history, on an approach to theodicy that warps our understanding of freedom, chopping it down to a shape unworthy of the name and incompatible with normal usage and Biblical usage. This notion then becomes a ready rationalization for all kinds of abuse, neglect and oppression. It should be done away with, long before it gets ludicrously overextended to rationalize the most absurd concept the human mind has ever conceived: that freedom and love require endless torture.

So this approach to theodicy is a dead and deadly branch, liable to kill someone when it inevitably falls. Do Christians still have any way of responding to the problem of evil? This is a common objection, and it is the fruit of the brilliant rhetorical strategy I mentioned at the start of the article. How do you get people to accept an absurd concept, such as this ridiculous understanding of freedom? You don’t argue for the concept; that can’t really withstand scrutiny. Instead, you assume the bad concept and you build something supposedly necessary on top of it. In this case, they have built a god on it.

Still, I think that we can easily (and more easily) defend the notion that there is a God if we smash their idol and do away with the faulty prior they have buried underneath it. We can lovingly hold the best of the freedom theodicy even as “liberation as freedom” lovingly holds teleological freedom, which holds choice, capacity and good ends. A much better approach to theodicy is available on the other side of this cleansing, and it is this: evil exists so that it can be overcome. This theodicy is to the freedom (as bad choice) theodicy as liberatory freedom is to “freedom as mere choice.” But that is an exploration I’ll leave my readers to engage more freely than I could, if I laid it all out right here and now.

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Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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Daniel Heck

Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.