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Bound to be Free: The paradox of freedom by Graham Tomlin

23 March 2018

Stephen Cherry reads an argument about concepts of freedom

THIS is a book born of a very contemporary form of frustration: let’s call it “hashtag failure”. Pondering this predicament, Graham Tomlin came to the conclusion that there was an important question to be asked about what people were affirming when they tweeted #jesuischarlie, and why he wasn’t content to do the same.

Tomlin does more than sketch the intellectual background to the form of freedom which has captured the imagination of the post-Enlightenment Western world. Finding it wanting, he proposes a Christian understanding in which freedom is not a right that lies behind our capacity to choose, but a gift that allows us to be free in community.

At one point, Tomlin tells us that he doesn’t like shopping. This made me wonder whether the depressing anxiety that can fall on us when trying to make a choice while alone in a supermarket aisle is driving some of the analysis here. In any case, by making a connection between the way in which we understand freedom and the epidemic of loneliness which is reported today, he offers a chilling vision of the entropic end for which we are destined if we are motivated simply to liberate and empower the self-contained self rather than to mature and soften it.

Tomlin has provided a worthy service by blowing the whistle on what is all too easily called “freedom”. There is, indeed, a proper Christian critique of it, and an alternative vision and dynamic that can take us, together, in a very different direction. The keys to this are the theology of grace and the practice of service.

This book is inspiring enough, and its subject is important enough, to suggest a sequel: a more detailed look at how different faiths imagine and encourage freedom. Buddhism, for instance, with its relentless undermining of the self; Judaism, with its emphasis on community; and Islam, with the huge importance that it places on unity — all these have different things to offer to the urgent task of creating an intellectual architecture that can facilitate the free flourishing of all.

One thing that they may have in common with each other, and with Tomlin, is rooted in a distinction clarified by Isaiah Berlin. Freedom is not something that just happens when constraints are removed, but it might be something that emerges when we have convincing and healthy answers to the question what we are for.

The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge.

Bound to be Free: The paradox of freedom
Graham Tomlin
Bloomsbury £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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