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Freedom of the Child vs. Freedom of the Adult

LIke, I expect, most of my contemporaries, I wrestle with the concept of freedom. I have resisted the claim of certain philosophers and theologians who say that I am truly free simply if I am able to make a choice without any external constraint (no “gun to my head” and the like). They are saying that I am, so to speak, left to my own devices . . . but I, instead, want to be free to make choices among those devices. I like to think I am selecting among live, interesting options in my mind, not merely being free to opt (without external constraint) for what my mind automatically, reflexively, predictably selects as a function of its collection of values, drives, appetites, etc. I’m not a machine, nor a plant, nor even merely an instinctual animal. I’m a human being, and that, for me (as for most of us) means I can make choices among options that variously appeal to me: chocolate sometimes, vanilla others. I choose!

The connection with modern attitudes of the sovereign self, consumerism, autonomy, and the rest of the sociological term-set is obvious. But troublemakers like the eighteenth-century American pastor and genius Jonathan Edwards lurk nearby. Edwards explodes the fond idea that I am freely choosing among live options in my mind, truly able to opt maybe for A and maybe for B. Edwards, in a powerfully simple reductio argument, asks in reply, “On what basis would you choose A over B? Okay, and from whence did that basis arise? And from whence did that arise?” And so on—back to (for Edwards, a staunch Calvinist) the true “sovereign Self,” that is, God.

Such a view can make us sound like automatons: now choosing (in the most fundamental choice of our existence) against God, now choosing (as God graciously forgives and regenerates and reorients us in conversion) for God. But it’s not obvious to me where Edwards’s argument fails. If I am not choosing A on the basis of values/desires/appetites that were given to me by God (at my origin or along the way in circumstances God sovereignly provided), then if I did instead freely choose those values/etc., on what basis did I freely choose them? The reductio springs out again, and I’m stuck.

Happily, Edwards and others reframe the question of freedom for us. With the help also of Thomas Merton (and those two writers are not typically invoked in the same theological argument, I daresay), it seems to me this morning (!) that we can distinguish between the freedom of child and the freedom of the adult.

The child is free to choose more widely than is the adult. The child is free to stick his finger in the electrical socket . . . because the child is ignorant (or stubbornly disobedient). Try to persuade an adult to do that. He or she is apparently less free than the child.

The child—at least, the very small child—is free to put herself in the centre of the cosmos, a whirling little black hole of need, preference, and demand. We abide by a baby’s imperious egotism, but we certainly don’t abide the same attitude in a ten-year-old, much less an adult. Again, paradoxically, the child is freer than the adult.

Come to think of it, I am freer than God. I am free to do damaging things . . . because I don’t know any better. God knows better, and couldn’t possibly bring himself to do them. I also am freer than God in that I am capable of sinning (indeed, I am quite a virtuoso at sinning) while God cannot sin at all.

Obviously, there is something wrong with my definition of freedom if I can coherently claim to have more of it than God does. And there is.

Merton says this:

To the extent that you are free to choose evil, you are not free….

We can never choose evil as evil: only as an apparent good. But when we decide to do something that seems to us to be good when it is not really so, we are doing something that we do not really want to do, and therefore we are not really free.

Perfect spiritual freedom is a total inability to make any evil choice. When everything you desire is truly good and every choice not only aspires to that good but attains it, then you are free because you do everything that you want, every act of your will ends in perfect fulfillment.

Freedom therefore does not consist in an equal balance between good and evil choices but in the perfect love and acceptance of what is really good and the perfect hatred and rejection of what is evil, so that everything you do is good and makes you happy, and you refuse and deny and ignore every possibility that might lead to unhappiness and self-deception and grief….

God, in Whom there is absolutely no shadow or possibility of evil or of sin, is infinitely free….

The other freedom, the so-called freedom of our nature, which is indifference with respect to good and evil choices, is nothing more than a capacity, a potentiality waiting to be fulfilled by the grace, the will and the supernatural love of God.

…Since true freedom means the ability to desire and choose, always and without error, without defection, what is really good, then freedom can only be found in perfect union and submission to the will of God….

Therefore, the simplest definition of freedom is this: it means the ability to do the will of God.

Merton covers a lot of ground in a short space. As I have pondered his words, it has helped me to cast the distinction between my “default” definition of freedom and his (correct) definition of freedom as the difference between a child’s freedom and an adult’s.

Let me put it graphically. The child’s freedom is to want to eat and, indeed, to eat all the good food he likes, whenever he likes, as much as he likes. If he is growing properly and exercising adequately, he can let his appetite be his guide. Not so the free adult. The free adult is truly free to be able to control his appetite, to direct it appropriately to choices that bring him the most health and happiness, even as that ability to choose the best means the ability to deny himself certain pleasures that the child is free to enjoy.

Edwards tells us that the fundamental derangement of sin is not that we seek our self-interest. It is good and proper and helpful that we do seek our self-interest. What sin does is confuse us as to the direction in which our interests properly lie. Sin makes us think we will be happier if, as Merton puts it, we keep the wrapping paper and pretty little box while discarding the diamond ring they contain. True freedom is being able to distinguish between rind and fruit, and infallibly choosing the fruit. If you are not always in fact choosing the best, you are not somehow not free—for who would not always prefer to choose the best?

I need to graduate, then, from the infant’s freedom (“I can do what I want!”) to the adult’s (“I can do what is best”). That is the process of sanctification. That is growing up. And that is better.

Does that seem right to you?


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