Preaching Text: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28)
“Is a belief in absolute truth the enemy of freedom?” asks Tim Keller in his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Most people, he contends, think it is. And this presents a problem for Christianity.
After all, Christianity throughout its long history has determined some beliefs to be “heresy” and some practices “immoral.” It has drawn doctrinal and moral boundaries.
Because of this many would argue that the church is a threat to civic freedom, dividing rather than uniting. The church is viewed as narrow, stifling creativity and personal growth. It is, as one of Keller’s acquaintances put it, a “straitjacket.”
Then again, what is freedom? Absolute freedom, Keller points out, denies any purpose to life. If there was a purpose to it, we’d be obliged to conform to it and fulfill it. But that would be “limiting.”
True freedom, we are told, involves creating our own meaning and purpose. In failing to do so we lose our “authentic self.”
But Christianity requires specific beliefs. Contemporary thought argues instead that communities should be completely “inclusive,” open to all beliefs.
Showing how impossible this is, Keller employs the hypothetical example of a member of the Gay, Lesbian, Transgender Center who announces one day that homosexuality is a sin.
At the same time, a member of the Alliance Against Same-Sex Marriage discovers that his son is gay and comes to believe that he should be allowed to marry.
“The first of these communities,” writes Keller, “has the reputation for being inclusive and the second for being exclusive, but, in practice, both of them operate in almost the same way.”
Each, that is, assumes boundaries. Neither is being narrow, “they’re just being communities.” Having boundaries is only natural; every group, bar none, has them. The real question is whether the community is open and caring or narrow and oppressive.
“Which community,” Keller asks, “has beliefs that lead its members to treat persons in other communities with love and respect – to serve them and meet their needs? Which community’s beliefs lead it to demonize and attack those who violate their boundaries rather than treating them with kindness, humility, and winsomeness?”
“We should criticize Christians when they are condemning and ungracious to unbelievers,” he adds. “But we should not criticize churches when they maintain standards for membership in accord with their beliefs. Every community must do the same.”
But criticize secular culture does! Modern thought says that to be enlightened requires we trust our own powers of thinking rather than deferring to any kind of authority or tradition. After all, the freedom to determine our own moral standards is what makes us fully human.
Keller demurs. “Freedom cannot be defined by the absence of constraint.” In fact, “confinement and constraint actually produces liberation.”
Keller offers an example. Suppose you’re born with musical aptitude. In order to make the most of it you will need to “practice, practice, practice.” Such practice, however, will limit your freedom (you could be doing something else).
“You’ve deliberately lost your freedom,” he writes, “to engage in some things in order to release yourself to a richer kind of freedom to accomplish other things.”
He’s quick to point out that not all restriction, discipline, and constraint is necessarily liberating. The pursuit of a high paying job, for instance, without the talent or interest will “stifle and dehumanize us.”
Thus “discipline and constraint…liberate us only when they fit with the reality of our nature and capacities.” A fish absorbs oxygen from water rather than air. The constraint of water, thus, liberates the fish. But put that same fish on the grass, and such a constraint will be deadly.
“In many areas of life,” Keller continues, “freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions.”
“If we only grow intellectually, vocationally, and physically through judicious constraints – why would it not also be true for spiritual and moral growth?”
“Instead of insisting on freedom to create spiritual reality,” he asks, “shouldn’t we be seeking to discover it and disciplining ourselves to live according to it?”
After all, he says, “the popular concept that we determine our own morality is based on the belief that the spiritual realm is nothing at all like the rest of the world.”
Every time critics tell him that only they get to define what’s right and wrong for themselves, Keller will ask: “Is there anyone in the world right now doing things you believe they should stop doing no matter what they personally believe about the correctness of their behavior?”
Therefore, there must be some moral reality that’s “there” that’s not defined by us, a standard that exists regardless of what I feel or think!
Finally, Keller lifts up one of the more obvious of life’s paradoxes. “Love,” he writes, “is the most liberating freedom-loss of all.” When love finds us, in other words, we “lose independence to attain greater intimacy.”
“To experience the joy and freedom of love,” stating the obvious, “you must give up your personal autonomy.” After all, love relationships limit our personal options. They require “mutual, unselfish service and a mutual loss of independence.”
“Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is in finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us.”
From the outside, such a loving, sacrificial love relationship might cause a friend to say, “She’s leading him around by the nose.” But from the inside, “it feels like heaven.”
In the end, Keller says, “the love of Christ constrains.” But it constrains in a way that liberates and offers untold freedom, the freedom to be the person whom God created you to be. Amen.