Freedom is a cry that echoes down the canyons of human history. One of the best metaphors for this echo in the human heart comes from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, New Colossus, which is inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, and your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
All of us yearn to breathe free about something. Many children bear the academic year with the dream of breathing the freedom of summer vacation. Teenagers live in anticipation of the freedom of their driver’s license, and someone in a dead end job lives in hope of the release brought by another job offer. My brother, Kirk, had Stage 4 throat cancer several years ago and yearned to breathe free of his illness during the worst of the chemo and radiation treatments, even with the final liberation through death. We want freedom in our personal life, and we want it in our collective existence as well, and we want it so powerfully that we can almost breathe it.
The United States takes a pause to breathe in its political freedom every July 4, with this year marking the 238th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This document articulates a “mutual pledge” by a rabidly divided and unlikely group of people to join together and commit their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to the common cause of liberation from the British. Given the viscous ways King George dealt with insurrection, the pledge gives witness to the risks humans will take for freedom.
Liberty is such a big deal because the human quest for it is one of our strongest instincts. We hunger for many kinds of freedom: the intellectual freedom to ask critical questions of an issue or a person in authority, the political freedom to support or resist a particular party or candidate, the financial freedom to not worry about the essential things money can buy, or the psychological freedom to live comfortably with the emotions, thoughts, and memories churning within our inner world. Resonating alongside Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, one of the founders of Israel, Moshe Dayan, once put it this way: freedom is “the oxygen of the soul.” The more we inhale, the stronger our soul becomes and the more we burn for liberty.
Since we are a school of theology, I like to emphasize that of all the freedoms essential to a flourishing life, religious freedom is arguably the most important. There is a raging debate on this point throughout the western world, with religion often seeming to lose the argument. The importance of religious freedom contradicts the thoughts of many, such as the so-called “new atheists” Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, who believe religion can only oppress human freedom and subjugate it to the narrow demands of clerical or authoritarian rule. They would argue that what is great in the human spirit withers before the altar of religious belief and practice.
I would argue that healthy or good religion liberates us like no other source. It can free us from the internal demons that haunt us, and the impediments to self-actualization that prevent us from growing into our fullness of character and personality. More importantly, it frees us from the fear of suffering and death. The person freed by good, healthy religion internalizes a famous saying by Nelson Mandela: “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires (for freedom).” The liberty brought by religion empowers us to overcome the fear of the valley of death, and to walk into the valley of death with a holy indifference. During his cancer treatment, my brother walked into the valley so many times that it no longer scared him at all and he would have welcomed death almost as much as healing, something that annoyed his wife (and sometimes others who loved him) to no end.
Collectively, the liberty brought by healthy religion produces humans who are confident and courageous, and yet compassionate and humble; serious and willing to walk into confrontation, and yet joyful and committed to peace, grounded in the here and now, and yet also a citizen of the “not-yet” and the future. The human heart, mind and soul are tempered to become a proactive agent of change, regardless of circumstances, with a balanced, non-reactive, and focused sense of self and goal. This is the potential fruit of healthy, good religion.
Anyone seeking to change the world needs a working theory of this “oxygen for the soul”–why we yearn for freedom, what are its objects, why we are attracted to these objects of liberty, and what part of ourselves remains incomplete when freedom is denied us. Those interested in helping to build a better world also need a special skill-set for practically applying their theory to the real life dynamics of humans seeking liberty. This includes maturing through three “prepositions” of liberty–evolving through freedom “from” and freedom “to,” to arrive at freedom “for.”
“Freedom from” is a liberty that releases us from things that hinder us – the restrictions of youth or a job, the real or perceived repression or oppression of others, or the injustice of a policy or practice. This is the freedom we celebrate on that fateful day in July of 1776, when a motley group of colonists met to sign a pledge to stand up against Britain. “Freedom to” is the kind of liberty that allows us to pursue what we want or desire. We can smoke, drink, drive, buy a house or other consumer good, travel or stay home, go to school or drop out, begin a relationship or end one. The Founders summarized this “freedom to” in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and American jurisprudence has tried to preserve our individual right to define what those concepts mean for each of us in the widest possible way.
For those educated and formed by healthy religious traditions, however, the most important freedom is ultimately “freedom for.” You don’t need much experience in watching how people handle their freedom to realize that “freedom from” and “freedom to” can lead as much to destruction as construction in a life, a community and a nation. A healthy, integrative religion excels at strengthening our capacity to surrender our lives for something much bigger than casting off the limitations of our oppressors or pursuing our wants and desires. “Freedom for” empowers us to sacrifice our lives for a greater cause and to do so with joy and peace, bearing any cost, carrying any burden, and embracing any suffering in pursuit of a righteous goal. We can take on suffering in order to lessen the suffering of others, in the ultimate Christic act of solidarity. Most of America’s Founders, like most of the founders of any nation, have had some form of religion in their court. It gave them the power to place their quest for freedom in service to a higher calling and mission.
You don’t have to adhere to a religious tradition to change the world in a positive way. But, healthy religion is so powerful and has been so influential in human history precisely because it liberates us like no other kind of freedom.
Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry has built its curriculum around not only the exploration of freedom, but also its integration into our learning. Students are free to question here, to explore the vast complexity of the human heart and mind, and the various ways of looking at God through the ages. The goal is integration of academic learning, personal and spiritual development, and skills for changing the world through building environments of deep, but respectful, freedom. The profound weight of responsibility that comes with this freedom is also a fundamental dimension of the curriculum.
One of the great blessings of this moment in history is that an increasing number of people are recognizing religion as a liberating force. And, more people know that healthy religious belief and practice, when lived reflectively and within communities of vibrant faith, can truly set us free.