Free Indeed: The Peculiar Gift of Christian Liberty

By Awet Andemicael ’10 M.A.R., ’22 Ph.D.

“So if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed”—John 8:36

Of all the values held dear in the United States, none stands above freedom. Liberty is enshrined in our founding documents and depicted in our iconic monuments. American religiosity and spirituality are no less infused by the assertion of freedom—freedom to believe and practice what we wish, as we wish. Freedom of religion is one of the greatest legal and socio-political achievements of the American experiment in democracy, and given the fraught history of humankind and the current traumas of global conflict, such freedom is not to be esteemed lightly.

We all have been loved into existence by the God who created us, and the unconditional love we have received becomes, in us, the love we offer others, whomever they may be. 

Yet, as a Christian and an American citizen, I sometimes find myself straining between different paradigms of freedom. Our conventional idea of freedom is freedom from—liberation from restrictions on our thoughts and actions. Being unfettered can sound like a good thing in itself; reducing restrictions seems automatically to imply an increase in happiness. But is “freedom from” sufficient for our fulfillment? Could there be more to human life than minimizing limitations on our range of choices?

A Richer Paradigm

Contributing to the 2021 book Theology, Music, and Modernity: Struggles for Freedom,[1] I joined colleagues from the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale, Duke Divinity School, and other institutions, under the auspices of the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, to explore how the world of music might bring fresh perspectives to a theological reading of modernity. As the book’s subtitle suggests, freedom was one of our central themes, as we sought meaningful alternatives to the modern western emphasis on freedom from. As I reflect on how much that project expanded my own thinking about freedom, I realize that only rarely do we consider the richer paradigm of creaturely freedom that the love of God in Christ Jesus offers us. In Christ, we find “freedom from” paired with “freedom for,” and this fullness of creaturely freedom is precisely what so many of us need in our fractured and fearsome world. [2] 

What do I mean by “creaturely freedom”? This is the liberty that comes with our identity as beings created by God. There is a wealth of significance in the phrase “created by God.” Beloved, cherished, crafted in beauty. Entrusted with agency, divinely sustained, yet also finite, limited, subject to forces beyond our control. 

Freedom from “Freedom From” 

A reader might ask: how can we be truly free, in any meaningful sense, if we are not in control of our surroundings? Is it not necessary to dominate the cosmos in order to be free within it? How else can we keep threats at bay, except to overcome them with brute strength or sheer force of will? 

It would certainly be difficult to flourish without at least some freedom from constraints. If circumstances or the actions of others rob us of all substantial agency or power to act, then the pursuit of freedom for any purpose beyond mere survival becomes, at best, an unsustainable struggle, or, at worst, an unattainable dream. Yet, the pursuit of a one-sided freedom from, without the leavening of freedom for, can lead us to valorize the lack of restraints as an end in itself, rather a means to a life of meaning, purpose, and joy. If our ultimate goal is to wield control for the sake of control so we can become masters of our own destiny and saviors of the universe, then we are easily tempted to mistake ourselves for the source of our own being—our own god.

But the love of God in Christ Jesus frees us from the hunger for control, and this freedom is a great gift. It offers us perspective. It also poses a challenge to our famed American “can-do” spirit. When we encounter a problem, we often—and laudably—feel compelled to solve it. Yet sometimes, our efforts are driven by mixed motivations. We leap with unjustified self-assurance to speedy conclusions, before we listen. We move with haste to resolve the dissonance that makes us uncomfortable, yet we are not so quick to adopt humble postures of learning. Even our genuine concern for the suffering of others vies with our subtle compulsion to affirm ourselves as saviors. The last thing we want to do is dwell in the discomfort of dissonance. We are afraid to allow ourselves to experience the “constructive suffering” to which so many of us are individually and collectively called—the kind of discomfort that points to our own need for transformation. We are ready to change the world; are we willing to face the possibility that we ourselves might need to be changed?

Once we have experienced freedom from the hunger to control, and adopted freedom to dwell in constructive discomfort, something remarkable can happen: we receive courage to live fully into our vocation as beloved creatures of God. We are empowered to face the complicated truth of ourselves with humility and clarity.

Some of us have learned to deflect responsibility for our actions and our privileges, focusing on how we have been mistreated or what has been denied to us. Even when our grievances have a legitimate basis, we overlook the ways in which we, ourselves, have benefitted from systems that unfairly disadvantage others. We do not know how to dwell in the discomfort of those admissions, so our gaze skates over the substance of the matter, going straight to the scenario that affirms our implicit advantage, the rearrangement that restores us to our comfort zone. We do not realize that the discomfort we avoid brings good news: with the recognition of our need for forgiveness and transformation comes the capacity to experience forgiveness and renewal in Christ.

Others of us have been socialized to bear the weight of other people’s discomfort with our putative otherness and take upon ourselves the responsibility to put other people at ease in our presence. This is a tragic reality. Some of us face the necessity of honing this task into a survival skill, learning how to render ourselves palatable or innocuous to others so we can access and navigate spaces not intended for us. Yet any success we achieve in playing a game rigged against us does not ameliorate the essential injustice and diabolically unredemptive suffering of being forcibly cast as scapegoat for other people’s sin. Justice demands that we who are structurally disempowered and marginalized receive freedom from these burdens imposed on us. Our broken and power-hungry world denies this justice much of the time, and most of us cannot feasibly evade these power plays completely. But we may find occasional opportunities to resist damaging narratives by practicing our freedom for dwelling graciously, generously, comfortably, with other people’s discomfort. Sometimes those moments come when we can feasibly mark and maintain healthy boundaries of resistance without relinquishing our safety. It takes the sweet grace of courage to dwell in that freedom, receiving the person but refusing the weight without rancor or resentment. And when we are empowered by that freedom, it opens us all up to divine acts of healing and restoration, even as it allows others the opportunity to be transformed by graced encounter with their own culpability.

Loved into Existence

At the heart of the experience of accepting God’s unconditional and unshakeable love is the bone-deep acceptance of what it means to be created, and to receive and accept that createdness as our foundational identity. Where we do not recognize the unconditional love of God, where we have not known the enduring faithfulness of God, it seems like our only options are to generate our own value, protect that value with our own effort, and turn every interaction into a weapon in the warfare of existential self-defense. We invent and reinvent ourselves, seeking independence from the one who created us and continues to hold us in love. We feel driven to become our own Maker, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

In contrast, the freedom that comes from God’s love and faithfulness liberates us to recognize the joyful truth of our belovedness as creatures, as well as our agency to co-create, shape, and inhabit our contingent identities in diverse ways.  

With this freedom comes liberation from the impulse to try compulsively to make ourselves lovable. For this is the great secret of our existence—that we are already lovable since God’s love has rendered us so. We all have been loved into existence by the God who created us, and the unconditional love we have received becomes, in us, the love we offer others, whomever they may be.  

The Flow of Divine Delight

God calls us—frees us— to love one another, love our neighbor, love our enemy. Christian love does not lend itself to cost-benefit analysis. Weighing the worthiness of potential recipients of our love is not an option. Neither is loving those different from us  in a merely abstract, general way. We are called to love others and ourselves in our messy particularity, not primarily with declarations of warm feelings but in concrete actions. This love requires and brings about actual change within us to accommodate the love-in-action into which God draws us, as we transform our personal relationships and even society itself: the enemy whom we love cannot remain an enemy, but becomes my neighbor, your friend, their sibling—our beloved.

What would the world look like, and what would Christian life and witness be like, if we allowed ourselves to be the beloved creatures of God we actually are? To trust in the trustworthiness of God and accept our identity as creatures both as a humbling and a liberating reality? To recognize that being a creature is not a passive relinquishing of power but an empowering truth that animates us as active agents of love-in-action in a broken and sometimes perilous world? What if we took to heart the kind of agape love to which God calls us—and allowed ourselves to experience the full freedom of being so utterly loved? To give it forth freely, to ourselves or others, by participating in the flow of divine delight? To love as we have been loved?

Furthermore, what if the creaturely freedom we receive from God, and the love it empowers us to offer, were to animate our pursuit of freedom in the world? What if this deeper liberty—freedom from playing god and for being beloved and loving creatures—became the basis for our decisions and actions, not only in individual relationships but in our roles in the political, military, legal, economic, and social spheres? Not as a naïve alternative to specialized knowledge and pragmatic skill in these areas, but as our spiritual motivation, opening ourselves to be co-agents in the Holy Spirit’s work of implementing God’s good purposes in the world? And what if our political paradigms of freedom took on some of the multifaceted richness that our theological paradigms offer? What if we Christians could share this rich notion of freedom as a gift to the world, along with our own commitment to hope and work together for a fuller flourishing for our communities—freedom for the pursuit of fulfillment of joy and not merely freedom from suffering? Freedom for the common good and not merely freedom from individual restriction? 

The spiritual freedom we experience in the love of God, by the grace of Christ and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, is not disconnected from the freedom we seek for ourselves and others in our societies and world. This is not an easy love. This is not a simple freedom. But the liberation Christ offers from our own drive to self-idolatry, with its full range of implications for our lives in the world—that is freedom indeed. If we are willing to take a risk on God’s love; to stake all that we are on God’s faithfulness; to receive the glorious, multifaceted freedom freely offered us at so great a divine cost—then we, our communities, our nation, and our world will never be the same.

Awet Andemicael ’10 M.A.R., ’22 Ph.D., Associate Dean of Marquand Chapel and Assistant Professor (adjunct) of Theology at YDS, is a theologian who engages patristic and contemporary thought and is also a concert and operatic soprano who has sung at festivals and other performance venues across North America, Europe, and Japan. She has served as a consultant on music and theology, worship and liturgy, refugee studies, and interfaith engagement.

1. Theology, Music, and Modernity, edited by Jeremy Begbie, Daniel K.L. Chua, and Markus Rathey, published by Oxford University Press.

2. In modern Western political philosophy, there is a long tradition of understanding freedom as having at least two senses or dimensions—made famous in Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between “negative” and “positive” freedom in “Two Concepts of Liberty,” his 1958 lecture at the University of Oxford, later published in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford, 1969), pp. 118-172. Berlin criticizes “positive” freedom, which he defines in various ways—as self-mastery, the capacity to act, rational self-direction, and collective self-determination. Skeptical of the existence of any single “positive” ideal of freedom that does not reduce human societies to the “a priori barbarities of Procrustes—the vivisection of actual human societies into some fixed pattern”—he concludes that “negative” liberty, i.e., the absence of the coercion or interference of others, offers a more flexible, capacious, “truer and more humane ideal” than “positive” freedom (Berlin, p. 171). Berlin’s classification “stimulated” what he considered “wide and … fruitful controversy” (Berlin, p. ix). Some of the more prominent contributions responding to Berlin’s influential model are Friedrich Hayek’s ­The Constitution of Liberty (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960); Charles Taylor’s “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty,” in The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, edited by Alan Ryan (Oxford, 1979), pp. 175-193; and Gerald C. MacCallum’s “Negative and Positive Freedom,” The Philosophical Review, vol. 76, July 1967, pp. 312-334. For these and other essays, see The Liberty Reader, edited and introduced by David Miller (Routledge, 2006). In Thomas Hill Green’s 1881 “Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract” (Works of Thomas Hill Green, Vol. III: Miscellanies and Memoir, edited by R.L. Nettleship <1888>, pp. 365-86), he articulated a similar notion of “positive” and “negative” freedom, though with a different assessment, more than half a century before Berlin. Green’s account continued a line of thought stretching at least as far back as Hegel’s distinction in Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1821) between the spheres of formal or abstract right, i.e., freedom as non-interference, and the subjective freedom found in the spheres of moral agency and ethical life in community (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, edited by Allen W. Wood, translated by H.B. Nisbet <Cambridge, 1991>). Using Berlin as a touchpoint to situate my treatment of “freedom from/for” within this larger discourse, I will note that Berlin’s “negative freedom” is essentially identical to the “freedom from” I discuss here. Yet the robustly theo-centric “freedom for” or “freedom to” I describe does not fit neatly into Berlin’s “positive freedom” schema. Rather than simply disputing Berlin and his supporters by promoting “freedom for” over “freedom from,” I recognize the necessity of both modes. Moreover, my primary goal is to propose a theological reorientation of our identities as seekers and finders of freedom, and only secondarily to reinterpret the nature and character of the freedom we seek.

Author photo credit/Samara Sorce ’24 M.Div.