Ah, Liberty. Lady Liberty. Sweet Land of Liberty.
Never has a word been sung so much but kept so ill-defined. Under cover of ambiguity the word is exploited, and much shenanigan is done.
Liberty is usually defined for the moment: and, more often than not, for convenience. A speeder wants to be free from the approaching flashing red light. A pregnant careerist wants liberated from a bump that will turn into a game-changer. A gun-collector wants rid of restraints that frustrate his armory-building. A consumer wants tax relief to reduce his bills so he can buy more stuff. A corporation wants laissez-faire, you know, wink, so "it can employ more workers."
Orthodoxy does not understand this sort of liberty: or maybe it does understand, but it usually links this definition with the category of things to be avoided, even things that need to be repented of and renounced. The "freedom to do" seems to be the only freedom that matters these days. Such a freedom digresses (and devolves) from the old-fashioned "freedom to be," or "freedom to become."
It used to be that the highest form of freedom was more than "being able to not sin." It was, rather, "being unable to sin." This, obviously, is intelligible only in a culture where one wanted to realize one's essence, to grow into the fullness of what one is and ought to become. Any restraint hindering this "fruition" is bondage, the opposite of liberty. As David Bentley Hart remarked in his sharp little book, Atheist Delusions:
... true human freedom is emancipation from whatever constrains us from living the life of rational virtue, or from experiencing the full fruition of our nature; and among the things that constrain us are our own untutored passions, our willful surrender to momentary impulses, our own foolish or wicked choices (p. 24).
Times have changed. Freedom has been moved from essence to "will" – as in, "I will be satisfied," or "I will what I want, and don't stand in my way."
No kenosis nonsense here (irony fully intended).
It should not be necessary to say that Orthodoxy is still stuck on the obsolete, non-progressive meaning of liberty. But necessity demands that it be said, for there is a lot of "accidental" Orthodoxy that is besotted with freedom of the will, the freedom to do, the freedom of unrestricted choices. This is the only way I can understand some of the recent arbitrariness of administration, and some of the inward creep of commercial doctrine, and some of the taste of the faithful for modern haute cuisine like first trimester infanticide, extramarital (and gender non-specific) tickling frenzies, embryo harvesting, cohabitation, and membership in the National Council of Churches.
But still, Orthodoxy (in her inerrant state) understands freedom as "freedom to be," and does not understand the fuss about choice. The choice of commodities should never have been given the dignity of "freedom," but it is, and it is the only way freedom is understood nowadays. The choice of whether to kill an intrauterine kid should never have been enshrined under the rubric of liberty: but it is, and is now enshrined in law. Choice is accidental, and is potentially perilous to freedom.
The "freedom to do" tends toward nihilism, the belief in nothing. It is impossible to believe in choice, and because people do, their thinking and language founders – simply because belief that is contrary to nature is belief that shrivels the soul.
That is why membership in the progress cult – a membership that embraces both sides of the political spectrum, from foraging (and forging) Acorns to a-historical (and hysterical) Townhalls, from the Heritage Foundation to the Ford Foundation – ruins the very possibility of belief and detracts from real religion. Despite their fundamentalist affectations, right-wing Christians are just as "secular" in their religious leanings as their left-wing counterparts: no one is going to tell them what to believe, out of history and memory and mystical vision … no one is going to tell them that liturgy will save them, just as no one is going to tell them that they should not purchase a widescreen TV, the newest smartphone, the latest grease-festered sandwich at the drive-through, or a mortgage they cannot hope to repay.
But this is not "liberty," my fellow Berry-ites protest: this is libertinism. And of course they're right.
I protest right back that there is a lot of libertinism in libertarianism, surely a big waving flag in the front porch anarchist march. Bill Kauffman, in his mostly agreeable Look Homeward America, describes with gorgeous sonorities the attractions of regionalist poets and painters, writers like Berry and even heroines like Dorothy Day. But then, in the same book, he pats the heads of gun-right squadrons in the hills and winks at secession movements (movements which I think are more of the bowel variety than anything sincere).
I too am an anarchist when it comes to protesting the march of Leviathan. Hobbes' dream is a nightmare to me, as Leviathan to Orthodoxy is nothing other than the Beast. But I will not fire a shot nor man the barricades, nor will I paste a bumper sticker that purports to be a "Prayer for Obama" – to wit (or nitwit): May his days be few; may another take his office. (Such evangelical fervor for imprecation makes me despair.)
I am not an anarchist who cannot abide order. Orthodoxy commends order, even the order of a state that persecutes Christianity. And this very possibility seems utterly unacceptable to a libertarian.
A Christian can survive under someone like Nero, even Diocletian.
A libertarian agrarian, like a contrary farmer, oddly enough, could not.
To be continued