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Why personal freedom is a dissatisfying fantasy

17 July 2015

Current ideas of individual autonomy fail to admit the importance of social involvement, argues Hugh Rayment-Pickard

IF YOU Google “freedom”, you’ll find acres of images of solitary individuals: individuals standing on hill tops, silhouetted against open vistas; individuals leaping into the air, reaching with both arms for the sky; individuals kneeling in empty chapels, their hands gripped in prayer. This is our cultural fantasy of freedom: joyful isolation — an absolute solitude, with not another living creature in sight.

There’s a recent Volkswagen car advert that shows a put-upon father sullenly trailing around with his wife and children, until at last he can motor off on his own with an empty car and a satisfied smile on his face. The message is obvious: other people are a form of slavery from which Volkswagen can provide release.

It is never very clear what we are supposed to do with this freedom, if we were ever to achieve it. The VW Dad drives away with no destination — leaving his family behind is apparently an accomplishment all of its own. The Marlboro man sits alone on his horse for all eternity, contemplating the sunset. Our popular fantasy of freedom is pointless, a liberty that cannot be put to any use.

This is because the ideal is essentially negative, defined by the absence of personal responsibilities and entanglements. Like the God of negative theology, our idea of freedom has no positive content; we can only say what it is not. All we know is this: to be free means that we are no longer our brother’s keeper, nor he ours.

This fantasy of freedom is sold to us everywhere: from the coffee that you drink while your camper van is parked by the beach to a fragrance that liberates your spirited personality to run amok through the streets of Paris. A recent advert for the “Freedom” range of skin products shows a goose breaking away from the flock in order to rocket into space, before disappearing into the sunset, alone, on a motorbike.

We generate this fantasy of freedom by taking the idea of human autonomy to the nth degree. We imagine an ultimate form of self-determination where there are no expectations of us, no laws or duties, and no one around to tell us what to do. And this takes us to a state of total isolation, utter loneliness, which — if we could ever achieve it — would surely be a form of hell.


TO SOME extent, the Church has colluded with this individualistic dream of freedom, idealising celibates and hermits, and suggesting that a higher spirituality is available to the solitary than is possible for the person immersed in society. The idea of a “personal saviour” encourages us to think that we can bypass other people by establishing an individual hotline to God.

Our ideas of heaven have not helped, either. In heaven, we have no commitments to others, and are no longer required to work through relationships; in death, all the difficult social stuff is blasted away. It is interesting that we usually think of heaven as a place without moral responsibility. God now decides everything; so we can switch off and disappear into mindless oblivion. God takes care of the problem of other people.

The 19th-century German philosopher Georg Hegel points us towards a different and more rational vision of freedom. Hegel argued that we must work with others to create societies within which freedom is possible. Freedom is never just my freedom because, for Hegel, it is only through commitments to others that freedom is possible. The solitary human being cannot be free, not least because the very idea is an illusion. Every human is inextricably linked with every other through our common history.

Hegel’s significance for Christian theology is recognised only occasionally. But Hegel was a serious religious thinker, seeing the whole of history as a process culminating in a new political order in which God is totally immersed. The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth was one who could see the theological importance of Hegel, asking why Hegel never became for Protestantism what Aquinas is for Catholicism.

Martin Luther King was another: Dr King said that Hegel was his favourite philosopher, because Hegel understood the vital part played by social structures such as the family, civil society, and the state. For Dr King, the freedom of black people in the United States was not just a dream, but a political vision that one day in history there would be concrete changes in the legal and social structures that could make freedom possible. It is telling that the dominant images of the civil-rights movement are not of indi-viduals, but of crowds.

Hegel points us towards an interpretation of what freedom means in Jesus’s teaching about the Kingdom of God. Our modern ideal of personal freedom is completely alien to Jesus’s idea of the Kingdom, in which our involvements with other people — personal, civic, economic, political — are the whole point. Nothing symbolises this communitarian vision so much as the meals — the Last Supper and others — that abound in the Gospels.


FANTASISING about an impossible and pointless individual freedom can lead only to spiritual misery, leaving us dissatisfied (like the VW Dad) with our social existence, and making us restless for a fantasy of independence that we think will deliver us happiness. This is what Hegel called “the Unhappy Consciousness”: when we seek an escape from the interaction with other human beings by fixing our hopes on abstract and other-worldly illusions.

The point, then, of the Kingdom is to guide us away from these fantasies, and towards the real social and political structures in the world around us. And this highlights something important: that the Church’s focus should be more on the creation and maintenance of civic structures, more on social engagement, than on personal morality and individual spirituality.


The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is the author of The Myths of Time (DLT).

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