Liberty, the West, and the Judeo-Christian heritage.
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The New Testament THE NEW TESTAMENT takes for granted the whole content of the Old. But it was written in cultural surroundings that, unlike ancient Israel, were familiar with conceptual thought. The Greek in which it was written knows the word for “freedom” (eleutheria). Nevertheless, freedom is there not only where the word is present, but also where it is not. Jesus’s death, which took place on Easter eve, and his resurrection are thought of on the model of the former Easter, Israel’s liberation from Egyptian bondage, hence as a new exodus. When Luke’s Gospel tells us about the Transfiguration on the Mount (9:31), it explains that Jesus spoke with Moses and Elias about his “departure.” The word used is the Greek exodos, in a clear allusion to the first exodus. Jesus’s passion is conceived of as setting man free from a captivity that affects man more deeply than the one the people experienced in Egypt, the captivity of sin.
Sin has been conceived by philosophers and religious people in various ways: as offending God, as trespassing against a rule, as sullying the purity of our soul, as increasing the burden that chains us to the wheel of samsara and condemns us to reincarna tion, etc. The New Testament sees sin first and foremost as a weakening of our own liberty.
Liberty is the goal of the liberation wrought by Christ. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1). The Revised Standard Version has, more literally: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” The ultimate aim of such a liberation is not leaving one master and falling prey to another. It is the full expression of what we naturally are. The ultimate goal of salvation, mankind’s ultimate hope, is conceived as total freedom: “the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
History as the Realm of Liberty A PASSAGE FROM Paul draws the whole picture of the way in which God respects freedom in His dealings with man. It is the grandiose beginning of the Epistle to the Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself” (1:3-5). The originality of the New Testament outlook becomes still more spectacular when we compare this passage with a verse from the Koran: “And (remember) when thy Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their reins, their seed, and made them testify of themselves, (saying): Am I not your Lord? They said: Yea, verily. We testify. (That was) lest ye should say at the Day of Resurrection: Lo! of this we were unaware, or lest you should say: It was our fathers who associated partners with Allah” (VII, 172). The common point is the fact that the scene is supposed to have taken place before the creation of the world, or at least of mankind, in the highest heavens.
The big difference lies in man’s answer. In the Koran, it is given immediately afterward by Adam’s posterity, miraculously put in its entirety in front of God. The whole of mankind has pledged allegiance to its Creator, and accepted, even before mankind’s existence, the fundamental doctrine of the Koran, that God is one, without partners. This has positive and negative consequences. Positively, every son of Adam, i.e., each and every human being, has submitted to God from the outset. Islam (submission) is therefore the original and “natural” religion of mankind, whereas, according to a frequently quoted utterance of Muhammad (hadith), the other religions are foisted upon children by their parents. Islam is the religion into which each child is born. This explains why no formal act of joining the community of believers, such as the Christian baptism, is required.
On the negative side, disobedience cannot be excused. The lack of submission to God’s will is not tough luck, or an error, nor a simple moral failure; it is kind of a treason. It involves falling away from a religion that was implanted in all of us by the Creator. Not only does Islam forbid apostasy, therefore, as an inexcusable offence; it has a tendency to regard the adherents of other faiths as already apostates, guilty of the primary sin against God.
In the Epistle to the Ephesians, a question is implicitly asked: Will mankind accept God’s benediction, and the whole plan of salvation that it implies? But the answer is not given. Of course, God expects that man will react positively and accept the offer. But in the time that stretches before the creation of the world nothing whatsoever takes place, except God’s initiative. What actually happens, including any possible answer of man, does so in history. History is the very answer. But it is an open one; nobody knows whether the answer of mankind will be, in the long run, positive or negative. We can only hope that “all manner of things will be well.” History is the stage on which the drama of liberty is played.
WHAT CULTURES THAT were influenced by the Jewish and Christian religions made of the ideal of liberty that I have been finding in both Testaments is a task for historians. Impartial historians will observe how miserably the ideal and its realization often jarred with one another. On the other hand, they will have to acknowledge that free institutions hardly ever developed in places that were not influenced by Jewish and Christian ideas. Outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has been rare for thinkers to suppose that God endowed us with a nature of our own, that freedom is part of that nature, and that it is through the exercise of freedom, and the errors that inevitably stem from it, that we fulfill God’s plan. The mainstream tradition of Islam has certainly regarded freedom, both personal and political, as valuable—but valuable largely as a means to submission. And when Lord Acton tells us that “liberty is not a means to a higher political end; it is itself the highest political end,” he is echoing voices that can be heard in all the sacred books of our tradition, from the Torah to the Epistles of St. Paul.
Rémi Brague is a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne and at the University of Munich. His books include The Law of God (University of Chicago) and The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought (University of Chicago). This essay is the fourth in a ten-part series being published in successive issues of The American Spectator under the general title “The Future of Individual Liberty: Elevating the Human Condition and Overcoming the Challenges to Free Societies.” The series is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
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H/T to National Review Online