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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 6: Society and Freedom

Life oscillates between analysis and action. Thinking is for living. The two should be kept together, but one cannot be reduced to the other. The Buddha recommended action as opposed to speculation. He advised pulling out the arrow in the wounded man, rather than discussing the situation. After Martin Luther King, Jr., a Negro emancipation leader, was stabbed, however, all night the doctors worried the paper knife out of him. The thrust was right next to the main artery of the heart, and one pull would have finished the earthly life of so great a man as King. Action waited on analysis.

An elderly man found a driver pinned under an overturned car. Carefully he was weighing how to remove him without harming him when four college youths jumped out of their car and ran to lift the overturned vehicle. The older man cautioned them, but to no avail, for as they lifted, their feet sank and slipped under them in the swampy soil. Down came the car on the victim! This was action without analysis. Both analysis and action are needed. In life, they belong together.

This chapter concerns analysis of our social freedoms and how faith can help secure them. Correct analysis aids action. Trouble from analysis comes mostly when it takes the place of action or when the analysis is wrong. We shall consider three different forms of social freedom. those connected with our physical, with our mental, and with our social life.


Man’s physical freedom is not a lower kind of freedom. As human beings, one indispensable element of earthly life is physical. Too often spiritual or moral freedom is pictured as separate from physical freedom, whereas it ought to be included in any genuine human freedom. The Christian faith as incarnational honors the physical realm and works to fulfill it. In this first area, we have selected three basic social freedoms: freedom from want, freedom from war, and freedom to travel. All of these will be treated as both actual and symbolic needs, i.e., what we select for mention is only a small part of physical freedom, pointing to the larger total need of man as a physical being.

During the Second World War, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised that the Atlantic Alliance would work to secure for the world freedom from want. For a long time before this declaration, the Communist nations had defined freedom in terms of economic security and opportunity. Many experts in the underdeveloped lands of the world have argued that political or other freedoms can have little meaning as long as people are starving. Freedom from want is a basic freedom. Negatively, this freedom can be expressed as the security on the part of all co-operative citizens not to be without needful sustenance for living: the freedom not to have to starve. The means to realize much freedom would be responsible promises by society, through whatever agencies, to provide sustenance for all. But food is more than bread and meat. Food is physical sustenance for people who are not only animals but sensitive social beings. Therefore provision for food alone does not meet the need for freedom from want. Such promises can provide security against the threat of starvation and are that far good, but they leave man, the human being, frustrated, for living depends on purpose. Man eats to fulfill a purpose; he does not fulfill a purpose to eat. This truth is often forgotten, minimized, or ignored.

Freedom from want is therefore organically connected with freedom to work. The right to work is intrinsic to creation. Society is under divine order so to organize its economic life as to provide to the maximum of its wisdom and resources the opportunity for all for creative work. With automation in a new dimension at our doorsteps, such a demand is difficult to fulfill. The old economic talk of a labor pool was irresponsible of human purpose. The new threat merely to replace men with machines is equally a revolt against God and man. It is not enough to produce as never before, perhaps soon in terms of atomic and solar energy or by the utilizing of our oceans, if such production be at the expense of inclusive human participation. Whatever the future holds, to promise men bread without work is to ruin them where they live most deeply, as useful human beings carrying on a meaningful existence. Since obviously we cannot get back to before the machine, as Gandhi advocated, in order to meet man’s basic need both to work and to eat, we must find ways of providing creative uses for leisure that shall call for ever new kinds of meaningful work. Naturally, people must be fed while they are unable to find work, but feeding them cannot fill their need for work.

Such economic freedom to provide both fulfillment of purpose and the feeding of the body requires fullness of faith. When faith in God as concerned with the common good and the whole man becomes real, society will become so organized as to center its attention on the needs of the whole man and of all men, finding ways for them not only to have food but to feed on the bread of purpose. The Welfare State is here to stay. We will not go back on the Social Security Act of 1935. But the larger task is effectively to improve the state’s concern with physical freedom and to organize and marshal all property to this end. This task is a world-wide demand, summoning for constructive co-operation both halves of the world to surpass the past in re-examining both the purpose for living and the production and distribution of goods to all peoples of a new age of world-wide freedom from want. We must have a whole new level of creative work to utilize God’s creation and to release man’s spirit.

A second vital freedom in the physical realm is freedom from war. As long as society can command some bodies to kill other bodies, to spend years in training for destruction, or put people in camps, or prisons, or even kill them if they refuse military service, man is a slave in the realm of his body. Besides, the major portion of physical resources levied for the common good is wasted for economically useless purposes and even for making the means of destruction. Then, too, millions have lost their lifetime earnings and physical property in war, or they have been uprooted from their native lands, becoming homeless and purposeless in refugee camps, or bewildered and frustrated in lands not of their free choosing.

A minimum physical freedom is absence of such physical threats. War is an irrational hang-over of barbarism. Man must face the fact that now he will either conquer war or be destroyed by it. War among nations in terms of man’s full destructive powers is no longer an option. Man now chooses basically war or life, but not war and life. Man’s faith, the very basis of his freedom, has of late become nearly buried by his outright defiance of God in the practice of war. Man’s abuse of his physical community has reacted as a paralysis or as a thick curtain both in his relation to God and to his fellow man. Crime and all other abuses of the body, such as alcoholism, are due in greater proportion than we know to man’s deep fear of war. The dread of war oppresses the depthconsciousness, particularly of our young people.

To destroy war, however, and set man physically free in this respect, man must learn to live as a civilized being, using a minimum of physical force under judicial processes. He must learn to depend on nothing but police force, and that not as a constant threat but only in the solution of exceptional situations. In other words, society must become organized with a maximum view to social security and creative fulfillment. Such organization centers in the co-operative society. Wealth should be produced at the maximum, shared at the maximum, and enjoyed at the maximum. Thus freedom from want can help cure the overagainstness and the personal and organized greed which indirectly promote war.

The surest antidote to the inner and outer conflict which eventuate in crime and war is faith in God as the ground and goal of community. Immaturity, insecurity, sin, divided responsibility and faulty organization, where a limited loyalty is made more important than loyalty to the whole, conspire to produce war. Only faith, lived, following as well as engendering confession, can provide the kind of directive and motivation that can now wisely and constructively outlive war and secure social freedom. When society persists in preparing for, and engaging in, war it denies a physical freedom in God which alone is the bedrock and ample foundation for social freedom.

A third freedom in the physical realm is the freedom to travel. When man is chained to one spot he is not free, whatever the nature of the chain may be. No flight of the imagination can take the place of flight in the air. When the government of a nation withholds a passport from any sane and law-abiding citizen it makes man’s final loyalty the nation, and robs man of his humanity. Man has a right of access to every land. When a country denies access to any sane and responsible individual of another nation who is physically able to travel, such a country shuts out God’s access to its border in some of his children.

But such negative considerations are not enough. Each man should increasingly be given the positive opportunity to travel. The countries and the world should make possible the larger circles of education in human life that travel may provide. As resources in an economy of abundance become ever more ample, as means of travel grow ever better, and as time for creative leisure becomes more and more of a usable commodity, needing wise spending, freedom to travel generally ought to become at least as common as a creative vacation is now for an increasing number of people. Without forcing people to travel, which also would be a form of robbing them of their physical freedom, every chance ought to be provided, and people given the strongest possible incentive for it. Freedom for travel can be a vital, positive extension in the physical realm of the freedom from want and the freedom from war. It is a symbol, and more, of the fuller physical freedom.

The problem with advocating physical freedom is that where it has been given it has often become the substitute for faith. The strongest argument against the Welfare State is that where it has been best developed, religion has also withered and nearly died. Consider the case of Sweden where outstanding social progress seems almost to have destroyed religious interest. Can it be that religion is, after all, the opiate of the people, a vent for deep dissatisfactions? Does religion die when man possesses the physical land? Is Karl Marx right after all? Or is such disaffection due to false religion, the religion of fear, of invidious comparison? Is religion a psychological aid to the aggression of the strong? Is Paul Tillich right, in the Theology of Culture, that religion as a separate activity is due to man’s refusal to accept himself and his culture at its own dimension of depth? True religion, we believe, is acceptance of reality, and reality is the ultimate dimension of life. False religion, however, dies with man’s fulfillment, but reality is rooted and grounded in personal relations among men and within the Father of men. Such religion eventuates in worship and gratitude, when things are right, and in concern and outgoing aid, when things are wrong. Such faith is the precondition of the full experience and exercise of freedom, even in the physical realm.


Man’s mental freedom is his God-given, inalienable right. Man needs physical freedom, to he sure, but without mind, man is not man. No amount of physical freedom from want, for instance, can ever take the place of man’s freedom of mind. Both kinds of freedom are intrinsic elements in the full human life. Negatively man should be free from mental duress. All brainwashing and "social engineering" -- the manipulation of the many by the few -- are illicit manipulations of human beings and are sin against humanity. Such practices treat human beings as objects or, at the highest, as animals. The avoidance of social engineering is, nevertheless, not easy. In a day of mass communications, a few have power over what people know, feel, and even do. Negatively, man has the right at least to the assumption that each human being needs to be and to become himself. All external interference with the processes that go into the decision of self-being is false manipulation of persons as objects.

Positively, each individual and each group ought to be encouraged to be itself. Nonconformity ought to be a social goal, as long as such nonconformity is constructive and creative. Diversity of expression is the glory of God’s creation and the indication of genuineness of being and of productive security. Such freedom to be oneself comes from faith, for man’s authentic self is neither primarily other-directed nor inner-directed but God-directed. The lonely crowd and the lonely self both need fulfillment of their basic aloneness in the eternal Companion whose compassion and creative richness never fail. Most people suffer because they have never been properly introduced to God.

Freedom of mind comes with the freedom to be oneself, not only to seek but to find oneself. Freedom of mind needs also freedom of thought. The general set of society, of course, determines to a large extent freedom of thought, but what is especially important is the way the pattern of education, both informally and formally, either opens or closes thought. Authoritarian institutions breed external acceptance of faith or the acceptance of faith as an obligation to the institution. Free thought in such a situation becomes dangerous, sometimes in terms of penalties actually imposed on nonconformity, often in terms of the inner pain that results when the individual tries to think for himself.

Our Roman Catholic friends are deeply disturbed by their failure to produce scholars commensurate with their numbers. The reason for the failure is surely lack of freedom of thought. Before a sweeping generalization is made at this point, however, it must be remembered that Nazism did produce, and now Communism is producing, first-rate scholarship and educational results. Can this fact be due to the creative novelty resulting from the overthrow of traditional faiths, and the stimulus provided by the challenge of the radically new, or are they within their collective concerns less afraid of truth than a traditionalistic institution like the Roman Catholic church?

Perhaps, indeed, the most important element in creative freedom of thought is not the manner of organization but rather the kind of truth that is furthered by any society. Perhaps supreme weakness comes from either the kind of authoritarian faith that knows all the answers and controls them in every realm and the kind of liberal faith that never can come to definite conclusions with regard to dependable truth. The most successful schools are the ones that come from a religious background that is still operative in general but that is freely seeking truth in particular. A fundamentalist turned constructively liberal generally has both the drive and the courage to be open, both to seek and to find truth. Freedom of thought lies, it seems, within a broad framework of faith that lacks a general fund of specific answers. Freedom needs a dependable context of faith without a completed content of answers. Social freedom in the realm of thought comes from a faith in God as truth and concern which makes important both the acceptance of such objective reality and the dedicated search rightly to interpret it and to embody in one’s life the proper answers.

Freedom of thought in one sense cannot be controlled. This is the reason the closed societies fear the men of faith who individualize truth. But freedom of speech can be better controlled and is therefore often the crucial test for the freedom of thought. Speech is a privilege and a responsibility and ought not to be abused, but, short of speech that leads to physical interference with other people, free speech in its proper place and manner should not be prohibited. Naturally, freedom of speech involves the freedom from speech in certain places. A Christian, no matter how sincere, has no right, unbidden, to enter a synagogue to preach Christ. God has allowed man proper privacy, even real freedom from speech, and man must respect both. Freedom of speech, then, means the right to public address in proper places. Hyde Park in London, open to all, is a symbol of free speech. Every city and town, every village and county, should have a public platform for all responsible speech, no matter how unpopular, nonconformist, and exceptional.

But such opportunity is only the negative side of free speech. Everywhere, free speech should be encouraged by providing for the requisite conditions and atmosphere. Free speech should be extolled as a social virtue. Society should develop the art of creative conversation in all media of communication. Conformity is the product of the herd, the mass mind. Conformity is not democratic but demonic. Individuation and individualization of truth come only from a highly developed society that can keep position and person apart and that can weigh new ideas dispassionately while being firmly committed to the possibility of knowing significant truth. The knowing of truth depends, more than we realize, on the doing of truth, and the doing of the truth depends on people’s being the truth. Only free souls can think free thoughts. Only people who think freely dare to speak freely and to listen freely.

Freedom of speech is a fruit of freedom of life. Social strength is known by its fruit: vigorous, creative speech, free in the giving and in the receiving, within the community of commitment for the common good. Such a community of freedom is the community of integrity, for only the truth can make us free. The deepest truth of life, however, comes through faith in God, the eternal guardian of integrity and love. The fullest freedom of mind comes from faith in God, the ultimate context of man’s truest thinking. Social freedom needs the fullest possible right faith to undergird it, for faith determines life. No society has ever grown strong by living the minimum hypothesis, but by living the maximum right faith. Minimum hypothesis has its function on one side of the method of establishing knowledge. Alfred North Whitehead rightly advised us to seek simplicity and to distrust it! Maximum faith is the only road to freedom of life that can cherish the liberated and quickening mind.


Physical freedom is part and parcel of human freedom, as is mental freedom. Social freedom is less personal in nature although it involves, of course, individuals. We are now concerned with social patterns, organizations, laws, sanctions, and attitudes. If the distinction is made between objective and subjective society in terms respectively of civilization and of culture, we are fully concerned with both. If the subjective side is called good, and the objective, right, we are after the fullest possible synthesis of both. With this standard of dynamic synthesis in mind, the three social freedoms we are selecting as of primary importance for us now are freedom from racial discrimination, freedom from nationalism, and freedom from religious intolerance. Humanity has a God-given right to be free from racial, national, and religious bias.

When God made the world, he beautified it with difference in color. He enriched the world with the creation of race. Whatever be the anthropological development of racial differentiation, back of nature and history stands their God. Immature, fearful, and invidious man dreads what is different. He fears the unknown and the unlike. Difference both attracts and repels. Such ambivalence of feeling is registered in the unconscious and becomes there a reservoir of irrational fear and hate. When the sex drive becomes involved in this, across lines of both race and sex, and when economic and social frustrations are added, a depth chasm results that mere rational or moral exhortation cannot bridge.

Therefore, wherever there is distinction of color to any considerable extent, there is irrational fear and hatred, at least in society in general. The sharper the color contrast, the deeper the chasm in some proportion to the numbers and social background of the races involved. The case of modern Britain’s acute race problem wherever colored population pours in, after that country’s long years of pride over racial tolerance, is most instructive. Maturity of civilization, history of relations, and class contacts also play important roles.

Freedom from racial discrimination is therefore a rationally unsolvable problem. It cannot be cured either by education or by legislation alone. But proper laws giving equal opportunities and pubic access to all races can at least provide a legal framework for solution. Where such laws are lacking or where contrary legislation exists, the race problem is, of course, inflamed. Law has an integral, irreplaceable function in social relations and is a pre-requisite for freedom from racial discrimination.

But the deeper freedom, by far, depends on social acceptance on the part of all races. Such acceptance, we have said, goes contrary to the ordinary patterns and attitudes of social relations that are generated by ordinary human nature. Idealistic preaching and teaching will not do the job, nor will enforced indoctrination. Fears and hatreds lie too deep to be cured by any power of social motivation except love. Love at its fullest meaning involves the universal acceptance of man as man, within his stature as a common child of God. Faith is the affirmation of love, of love in truth and deed, in personal relations as well as in word.

God as the creator of all races for the enrichment of humanity waits on our acceptance of his Spirit below and above our conscious problems. Well does Nicolai von Hartmann say that consciousness separates; spirit unites. Man’s deepest togetherness is within the ocean of his common humanity, the Source and Sustainer of which is God the Father of our spirits. Thus, freedom from racial bias, whether through the law for the common good or through the love of the common good, depends ultimately on faith. Freedom roots in faith. Only when the fruit of the Spirit is lived love, implemented concern, love in attitude and action, in just law and common acceptance, can the fruit of faith be freedom in racial fulfillment.

Freedom from nationalism in the modern world is not easy. Nationalism is rampant in some parts of society and of the world, and where it is not, all too often no adequate loyalty has taken its place. We human beings find our at-homeness in the world in terms of the familiar. Person, family, and local habitat become dear to us but also hem us in. When loyalty to nation surpasses these, therefore, a real victory has been won. Until recently there has been no concrete, larger loyalty to lure us beyond nationalism. There is, however, no way to freedom from nationalism that does not lie through nationalism. This stage as a larger loyalty is a stage necessary for us to pass through. When this is successfully surpassed, loyalty and affection for the nation can remain deep and enriching just as loyalty to family and locality can remain when nationalism is fruitfully attained.

In the modern world where nationalism does not reign, national loyalty has all too often been repudiated in the depth-affection of people. Modern man now needs decisively to grow into a citizen of the world for whom every local loyalty only enriches and intensifies his dedication to mankind. On the other hand, no country has the right to assume the place of God. To consider that national safety or good is man’s final duty is to revolt against God. The nation which assumes that it has full and final right over people’s lives blasphemes against God. The state cannot substitute for God. The state is itself under God’s judgment. It rules rightfully only as long as it represents the will of God for the common good.

Our generation has witnessed the nations growing obsolete even as the largest political units of law and order under God. "One world" is now our only sane choice. The form of law and of rule of this one world has to be worked out with effective patience and unbelievable urgency. Regional, representative government, preserving regional autonomy in appropriate areas and activities of human concern, might create the world-wide authority to police the world defensively and to provide the economic and political framework for the marshaling and utilizing of world-wide resources for the common good. The steps to such world-wide order must surely be taken in faith in terms of realistic negotiation, increasing disarmament of nations, and a stepped-up vesting of effective authority and force in supernational authority.

The task of educating people and peoples for such citizenry of the world is staggering not only informationally but emotionally. For it we need a world-wide frame of faith, of thought, and of duties, born of and engendering in turn a universal faith. As full freedom from racial bias comes only from faith lived in the love of God, who accepts all for creative fulfillment without invidious discrimination, so freedom from nationalism comes at its fullest only from the religion large enough and good enough to serve all men, a religion strong enough for one world. We need a world-wide discourse for communication, a world-wide ethos for effective law, and a world-wide faith for the spontaneous motivation of the inclusive and creative good.

If we are to find this freedom in and by religion, man’s central evaluative response to reality, we must find freedom from religions. Religions are man’s response to what he considers and lets reign as ultimate. Religions, therefore, are mostly man’s work, and reflect man’s state of being. There is no help in religions. Some are better than others, but all religions are touched by human frailty and sin. Religion, beyond all religions, is man’s positive response to God’s revelation of himself as ultimate concern and his universal will for the creative fulfillment of the world. Unless God is creatively and fulfillingly for the whole world as well as for all and for each, he is too small for human need. He is then only a manufactured product of man’s partial loyalties and of his larger fears and overagainstness.

Only the God of universal truth and concern is large enough to be real. What he is beyond that, man cannot know. We know as men, finite and within history. Further than that we can only trust God’s faithfulness beyond our knowing as a small child trusts his mother beyond his understanding. Christ is God’s declaration within human frailty of his universal love for all beyond human discriminations, and his faithfulness beyond human time and life. Fulfillment waits on God’s future for us far beyond our every expectation. The history of human growth basically has been the history of the growth of man’s understanding of God. Freedom in religion comes only from freedom from the religions of the world. Symbols and contents of religion both tell how to be transformed within the free faith in God’s universal faithfulness.

Concretely, such freedom means that no religious affiliation -- except possibly with some demonic groups openly defying the common good in terms of demonstrable social destruction, like the Ku Klux Klan -- should debar anyone from any public opportunities, politically and socially; no creedal confession should shut out anyone from the normal processes of public life. Jews the world over should have every chance at public participation and should be fully accepted socially on all public occasions. Roman Catholics have only recently been given their freedom in Sweden; Protestants still wait for their freedom in Spain and Colombia. Obviously, public responsibility that is held by believers of any faith which is grounded in Reality beyond nation involves and invites double loyalties. There is no escape from faith; nor in faith is there escape from the choosing of priorities and the arrangement of loyalties. If faith is no more real and large than the nation, that faith is not large enough for the nations. Therefore all competent men of faith must from now on have the problems of divided or subordinate loyalties until mankind becomes effectively one world.

This negative problem, however, can be solved if religions yield to Religion, if all churches give way to the true Church of universal humanity. This Religion will include such local loyalties as are implicit in the common good. Man needs to find Religion for one world which offers the foundation for faith in the God who works ever to promote all that is constructively and indigenously human. What such faith will involve institutionally, ritually, and socially must be discovered within the creative, flexible will of God for cooperative humanity. Such faith waits on the future, but as it becomes more widely and effectively accepted, it will fulfill, not destroy, the highest in all religions. It cannot be far from Christ’s stress on complete integrity and universal concern. Only such faith will kindle and keep aflame the holy light of universal and full freedom.

Thus our section on Faith and Freedom comes to its close. Freedom is essential to satisfactory living. It is indispensable to human life. Faith, again, is inescapable. Life, as lived, cannot be proved. We choose our way of living, and choice is faith. Faith determines life. When life is depressing or fails us, faith very likely is at fault. Only faith in God, the ground of freedom, can fulfill life, both personally and socially.

Freedom itself is not enough. Freedom is for fulfillment of life. Freedom of choice is for freedom of life. When faith is in God who cares for all and who shares of his life and love that all may live for the common good, freedom of choice is fulfilled by freedom of life. The fruits of such freedom are not only personal fulfillment but also the social freedoms apart from which no true and lasting satisfaction can be attained.

Fortunate are those who in a world of confusion and despair find the fountains of freedom in the world of faith. To find such freedom through faith and to help find such faith for freedom offers life’s hardest task and richest investment. Those alone are truly free who, living, praying and working, have found such faith.

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