Bound to be Free

by Reinhard Hütter

Reinhard Hütter teaches theology at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August10, 2004, pp.24-27. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author compares three levels of freedom: 1. Political freedom; 2. Moral freedom; 3. Freedom of living with God. Genuine freedom comes only when it is received by faith.

At the end of the popular movie Braveheart, just before being beheaded, the Scottish hero William Wallace utters his last word: "Freedom." In light of this cruel ending, many might want to respond with a sigh of relief and a sense of pride: "I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free" -- a statement that can be variously applied to any other modern democracy. In modern democracies we usually need not fear that we might be beheaded when we fight for our own freedom or for that of others. And this surely is one great thing about freedom.

Yet we profoundly deceive ourselves when we stop there in thinking about freedom. Why? Because, strangely enough, there are worse things that can happen to us than being beheaded. We need to ask more rigorously: What is so great about freedom? And we must also ask about the nature of freedom. What do we mean when we talk about freedom? And who has this freedom?

In our day-to-day thinking we tend to confuse three levels of freedom. We tend to think first of political freedom: the freedom of Braveheart, the freedom that was at stake in the American Revolution – that is, Jefferson’s, Franklin’s and Washington’s freedom, and by extension the freedom sought by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.

When we reflect a bit longer on the topic, we arrive at a second kind of freedom, the kind that is the presupposition of political freedom: moral freedom. This is the freedom on the grounds of which we are morally responsible. This aspect of freedom was most famously and lastingly developed by Immanuel Kant in his concept of autonomy. Moreover, according to the principles of Enlightenment political thinking, only truly autonomous -- that is to say, free -- persons can be entrusted with the complex project of political self-governance.

Modern thinking about freedom stops at the point of autonomy (postmodern thinking despairs long before). Yet in order to grasp what is so great about freedom we have to push beyond Kantian autonomy to a third level, where we find ourselves in the strange but exhilarating company of people like Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila, Jonathan Edwards and Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Edith Stein and Sergius Bulgakov. While they undoubtedly differ in numerous important respects, these Christian thinkers all agree that it is this third level of freedom that is most fundamental and decisive: the freedom of living with God.

It is at this level of freedom that all freedom stands or falls. This third, most fundamental level addresses the question, What constitutes the human as human? What makes us who we essentially are?

The epoch of modernity defined itself by rejecting Christianity’s answer to the question, What is so great about freedom? Goethe’s famous poem "Prometheus" captures the modern answer: what is great about freedom is moral sovereignty and self-sufficiency. By heroically defying the gods, Prometheus claims freedom for himself and the whole human race. Moreover, he shows that freedom makes him Prometheus in the first place: "Here I sit, forming men / In my own image, / A race, that is like me, / Made to suffer, to weep, / To take pleasure and to enjoy itself, / And to pay no attention to your kind, / Like me." I call this perspective, in which the Promethean "I" imagines itself as sovereign, the modern daydream.

Having been foreshadowed in various ways for about 150 years, the modern daydream of the sovereign self came to full bloom at the end of the 18th century. What had happened? A disastrous and deeply pretentious "exchange of attributes" between God and humanity had occurred: freedom for contingency. Humanity had usurped libertas, the full and ungrounded freedom of sovereignty. For Luther and previous orthodox Christian theologians, sovereignty had been solely a divine attribute. In the modern period, in exchange for sovereignty, humanity handed over to God contingency, the essential attribute of what it means to be a creature. The world was now thinkable without God. Like Prometheus, humanity was now completely its own sovereign.

It did not take long for the nihilistic implications of this usurpation of divine sovereignty to be felt. God not only became contingent but was even pronounced dead. This move is the presumptuous last consequence of modernity’s answer to what is so great about freedom: God is dead and the human is divine.

In humanity’s utmost presumption lies the seed of the fall from the modern daydream of freedom into the postmodern nightmare of freedom. It is important to remember that part of the modern daydream was a fundamental exchange of juridical positions between God and humanity, that is, between bench and dock. In C. S. Lewis’s apt description: "The ancient man approaches God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock."

During reason’s trial of God, the god of the deists died in the dock. And with this god dead, only humankind is left to blame for the miseries that we inflict upon each other. Theodicy turns into anthropodicy. That is, in the face of evil and suffering, it is now humanity, instead of God, that needs to be acquitted. Moreover, the nature of salvation has changed. If we don’t save the world, no one else will. Progress has turned from an optimistic possibility into a sheer necessity. If we don’t decide and thus choose who we are or what we want to be and do, some other human will. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous dictum: "We are condemned to be free."

Faced with the infinite responsibility that accompanies the claim of infinite freedom, the Promethean self loses its nerve, capitulates, and flees from the posture of heroic sovereignty into the self-deceptive camouflage of petty license. License promises ultimate relief, because it allows the exhausted and overextended modern self to let its desires rule without accountability. "Freedom" now means living out whatever drives us. Such freedom, however, is eventually exposed as a life that consists in nothing other than the search for the next sensual pleasure.

Let me give a perhaps trivial but nevertheless pertinent illustration. In college most students think they are "free" to have alcohol at parties. But soon they find out that they have become unable to have fun at parties without alcohol. The same with sex. In college, many students think, they finally are "free" to have sex in a relationship, or worse, to simply try out and enjoy sex for its own sake. Yet soon they find out that they have become unable to have fun and fulfillment without having sex. They are no longer free not to have sex. This bondage to sex will begin to dominate and ultimately destroy any relationship. While promising unlimited freedom, license traps them -- and all of us -- in bondage.

The modern daydream of sovereignty has turned into the postmodern nightmare of bondage. Friedrich Nietzsche, the first and already the last genuine post-modern, attempted to fuse radical freedom and absolute determination as he celebrated the endless will to power and the eternal return of things. Nietzsche’s profound postmodernity was not the faddish contemporary postmodernism; he took a lonely, radical and ultimately deadly path. Today’s postmodernists, by contrast, tend to occupy chichi coffeehouses and the humanities departments of countless colleges and universities -- a lifestyle option secured by a TIAA-CREF pension plan.

And so in late modernity both "modernity" and "postmodernity" have become lifestyle options in a consumer society that mistakes license for freedom. It is no surprise that this kind of society finds itself caught on a manic-depressive roller-coaster ride between the dizzying heights of the modern daydream, which suggests that our freedom is endlessly expanding, and the despairing depths of the postmodern nightmare, which intimates that our freedom has been totally eclipsed.

What does all this mean? Whenever "freedom" becomes simply an issue and a catchword, limited to the political and moral levels, and especially when it is reduced simply to license, we become dangerously oblivious to the fundamental crisis of freedom that threatens humanity. Our concern for political and moral freedom in the face of the real crisis of freedom resembles a homeowner’s preoccupation with a fire in the backyard trash can while her house burns down behind her.

In the midst of the presumptuous "public sphere" daydream of cloning humans and tinkering with the human genetic code -- not to mention the unchallenged "private sphere" supremacy of license -- we may simply lose the ability to ask what is so great about freedom and still expect an answer that truly liberates and transforms our lives.

We should have a serious look again at Aldous Huxley’s prophetic novel Brave New World. We find there hauntingly displayed how license and genetic programming go together: the late modern subject understands itself to be at once completely "free" and completely "determined." And we should read right afterwards the equally prophetic encyclical The Gospel of Life, by Pope John Paul II. Living for a while between these two texts, we will start to understand that we have come to the brink of denying human freedom and dignity on its most fundamental level, a denial that ultimately encompasses moral and political freedom as well.

How can we open ourselves to a truthful answer to the question about freedom? How can we gain access to an answer that truly liberates and transforms? We must start by allowing ourselves to be awakened from both the daydream and the nightmare. And waking happens first by hearing.

It was common consensus for centuries of Christian thinking that creation’s whispering sound has always already been around us and in us, addressing us constantly in the sheer fact of creation. Our being God’s creatures, that is, our being constantly dependent on the Creator and called to acknowledge the Creator in gratitude, is thus an evident truth -- yet one from which we have fled into daydreams and nightmares. Even though creation ceaselessly addresses us, our dull ears need a stronger signal, God’s own waking call, God’s own Word become incarnate.

The Christian insight into freedom is that genuine freedom is an original gift of God. Martin Luther expresses this insight in his commentary on Genesis 2, which he sees as a portrayal of the fundamental human predicament. Luther assumes that humanity was originally created for a freedom grounded in an intense and joyful communion with God, a communion that receives its proper creaturely form by following God’s commandment. For Adam, says Luther, genuine freedom and God’s commandment stand in no contradiction to each other. Rather, God’s commandment gives concrete creaturely shape to genuine freedom. In breaking God’s original commandment, humanity abandoned the very form of genuine, received freedom and lost the original communion with God. Only then did the commandments turn into the law that both constrains and unmasks the human pretension to self-grounding. Only then did God’s law turn into the yoke that only Christ can lift.

In Christ the triune God restores the original communion as a gift received by faith alone through Christ’s self-donation on the cross, thereby fulfilling the law in an exemplary way and granting life in God’s spirit of love, The law is abrogated through Christ insofar as it constrains, unmasks and convicts the sinner. Since sin, however, is still present in the life of the Christian, the law continues to unmask sin, keeping the believer focused on the need to continuously receive the gift of Christ’s self-giving that constitutes genuine freedom. In short, an ongoing struggle continues in every Christian between flesh and Spirit (Rom. 8:13-14).

Yet this struggle must not be conceived as a static dialectic, an unending back-and-forth between sin and forgiveness, but must be seen as a dynamic -- whose subject and agent is Christ through the Spirit -- that results in an ongoing growth in faith. It is on this basis that God’s commandment, God’s law, can become a source of genuine delight -- which is the enactment of genuine freedom.

Thus the law’s content is restored to its original intent as the genuine expression of God’s will: the law of love. It provides the creaturely form of genuine freedom, the freedom of communion with God as received by faith. Now it is God’s own law of love received in Christ, a law therefore welcomed with delight: "Whenever there is this delight, it does what God commands. Then the law does not cause a guilty conscience, but causes joy, because one has become another person already" (Luther).

Genuine freedom comes only when it is received by faith. There is no other source. Genuine freedom grows out of the restored and redeemed relationship with the One who, as Luther put it so memorably in his Small Catechism, "has created me together with all that exists." The very heartbeat and life of this relationship and thus of true freedom is love, the caritas created by the Holy Spirit in the human heart.

St. Augustine remains the unsurpassed ecumenical teacher of the West, ceaselessly instructing us about the intrinsic relationship between true freedom (vera libertas) and love (caritas): Charity restores our will’s undivided desire for God. Now our will delights and trusts in God’s goodness and is set free from its bondage to fear and lust; propelled by the heartbeat of caritas, true freedom unfolds.