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Freedom, virtue and redemption: what have we been saved from?

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“We have a sense that, actually, we do not have to be redeemed by Christianity but, rather, from Christianity,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI in an outstanding essay first published in English last year with the title Salvation: More Than a Cliché? “There is an insistent feeling that, in truth, Christianity hinders our freedom and that the land of freedom can appear only when the Christian terms and conditions have been torn up.” The question that the Pontiff Emeritus asks is this: if Christ came to save us, what has he saved us from? “Sin” is the obvious answer, but in pursuing this idea Benedict leads us to the point I just cited. Would it not have been better, he asks, to be redeemed from guilt? Does our salvation do no more than sentence us to atonement, dependence, and the constant struggle to measure up to an external standard of virtue? How can we say we’re really free? Answering these could fill a library, of course, but they’re not questions we should avoid.

Though they may not formulate it thus, I think it’s undeniable that such ideas affect many in our post-Christian culture. And they’re not limited to the irreligious – even many churches seemingly want to “progress” beyond traditional moral standards and sacred symbolism, promoting a spirit of “freedom” and non-judgmental-ness that “welcomes” everyone. We no longer want to feel enslaved, as it were. And though the application may be modern, the idea itself is nothing new; in fact, it’s the oldest in the book. Does God limit our freedom when he says we can’t eat from every tree? It sounds familiar.

From this perspective, man is truly free when – and only when – his existence is radically capable of shaping itself, of deciding for itself and for its own sake what it wishes to be and what principles it wishes to follow. “You will be like gods.” No thinker, it seems, has articulated this more clearly than French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, and Benedict’s essay speaks of him at some length. In Sartre’s words, “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.”

Benedict formulates the problem this way:

“If that is how it is, then redemption can be brought about only by smashing dependencies, by doing and not by waiting or receiving. Christian faith and logically consistent paganism along the lines of Marx and Sartre thus have in common the fact that they revolve around the theme of redemption, but in exactly opposite directions. It immediately becomes evident that the real difference does not lie in the question of whether redemption is thought of as being earthly or heavenly, spiritual or secular, otherworldly or this-worldly….They are only imprecise consequences of the real alternative: Does redemption occur through liberation from all dependence, or is its sole path the complete dependence of love, which then would also be true freedom? Only from this perspective is the true difference made clear in practical decisions.”

The mention of Marx points to one concrete consequence of these notions of radical freedom. Marx wrote, for instance, that “my life necessarily has a reason outside of itself unless it is my own creation.” Unless I create myself, I am not free. Religion is “the opium of the masses” because it supposedly keeps them in dependence. Marx’s solution is the proletarian revolution and a classless society, a utopian ideal that may sound great on paper but is fundamentally out of touch with who and what man is.

This is just one indication of how a solid anthropology is essential – Marx’s fundamental error is not economic but anthropological, and this basic error leads to a host of others. Two of Acton’s core principles are worth spelling out here:

“The human person, created in the image of God, is individually unique, rational, the subject of moral agency, and a co-creator. Accordingly, he possesses intrinsic value and dignity, implying certain rights and duties both for himself and other persons. These truths about the dignity of the human person are known through revelation, but they are also discernible through reason.”

And:

“Although human beings in their created nature are good, in their current state, they are fallen and corrupted by sin. The reality of sin makes the state necessary to restrain evil. The ubiquity of sin, however, requires that the state be limited in its power and jurisdiction. The persistent reality of sin requires that we be skeptical of all utopian ‘solutions’ to social ills such as poverty and injustice.”

These principles – that man has an intrinsic nature, which is nevertheless wounded by sin – illuminate the irony of striving for “radical freedom”: man will always seek salvation somewhere. When he creates his own meaning, with no higher plane to draw it from, he becomes trapped in a circle from which there is no escape. That’s why any utopian promises of heaven on earth (Marx, for instance…) will always fall short. No system – political, economic, social or otherwise – will give man all that he needs. That’s not to say that no system is better than any other, obviously, but rather that none of them will fully compensate for a flawed anthropology.

The moral demands of the Gospel are not someone else’s whims imposed from without; they are rooted in our God-given nature, and to prove it God himself became man. When Sartre or Nietzsche or Marx or anyone else say that man becomes himself by constructing himself, they forget that the blueprint for this “construction” has already been provided. I quite recommend reading Benedict’s full essay, but in a nutshell what he explains is that man’s “ultimate freedom,” a freedom from all restraints that supposedly allows man to construct himself, is ultimately an existence free of meaning. And without meaning it doesn’t matter, in the end, how subjectively “free” you are. Freedom and virtue go together, and this connection is not artificial but goes to the very root of both.

(Homepage photo credit: public domain.)

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Joshua Gregor Joshua Gregor is International Relations Assistant at the Acton Institute. Before coming to Acton he received a BA in philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome and an MA in linguistics from Indiana University.

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