TC Verbum No 5 July 2006

By Carver T. Yu

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The Challenge of the Liberal Humanist Concept of Freedom

China Graduate School of Theology, Hong Kong

For both the Christian and liberal humanist traditions, freedom is the core of our being human. However it is the concept of freedom that divides the two in the most fundamental way, revealing also a radical difference in the understanding of authentic humanity. The liberal humanist concept of freedom poses a forceful challenge to the Christian understanding of life as it should be. In this conflict, Christian tradition seems to be fighting a losing battle. Christian theologians have no choice but to confront the fundamental anthropological assumptions of liberal humanists.

Isaiah Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ and John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice can be considered as the two most powerful essays in shaping the idea of freedom in our culture. Berlin defines freedom as negative liberty, i.e., freedom from constraints imposed on the individual whether by society or private persons, even for the sake of realizing the common good, which is preconceived by society as a whole. Berlin presented his essay as his inaugural address in 1958 for his professorship at Oxford when the world had barely recovered from the Second World War only to be confronted with the menace of communist totalitarianism. His idea of freedom was most probably formulated with the terror of totalitarian states in mind. To avoid any possible encroachment of the state or collective ideology, the idea of the common good has to be shunned. Liberty conceived in such a way confines itself to liberty as sufficient condition for something, and that something is in principle left undefined or indeterminate. It is a liberty with no definite moral discrimination, a liberty of indifference.

But can the absence of external interference be the sufficient condition for liberty? What about inner inhibitions preventing ‘free’ agents from materializing the choice of their will? What about the false consciousness already embedded in the ‘free’ agents, leading them to relinquish freedom for bread? Without self-understanding, a ‘free’ agent can hardly be truly free. But any suggestion of self-understanding for self-realization indicates a preconceived idea of authentic selfhood or authentic humanity.

Rawls follows Berlin’s line of defense, but brings back the Romantic ideal of selfhood with radical autonomy. Freedom is defined as freedom for free agents to exercise their rights to define the good for themselves within the boundary of justice, which also means the categorical defense of such freedom for all. Freedom here can no longer be accused as empty—it is no longer merely ‘freedom from’, it is also ‘freedom for’; it is freedom for realizing the ends, not pre-given but chosen out of the individual’s autonomy at the core of their being. ‘The self is prior to the ends which are affirmed by it.’

What is the self? That may be a wrong question, for the self cannot be presumed to have a ‘what’ that defines itself as a self. The self with its autonomous will is the ‘given’—and in such a way as to define the ‘what’ of itself. The good cannot therefore have existence prior to the choice of the autonomous will. The autonomous self is therefore the Alpha and the Omega of all values.

Rawls gives absolute primacy to justice among all moral values. In doing so, one’s right as a moral category is taken to be prior to the good and independent of it. Given its independent status, one’s right constrains the good and sets its bounds. To have rights is ‘to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of it.’ In fact, so strong is society’s obligation that one’s claim of rights assumes the character of absolutism. The priority of right is of course derived from the concept of radical autonomy. The basis of moral laws is to be found in the autonomous subject, which is made the ground for all maxims of action. In a postmodern world where each subject constructs her own world with laws of her own, moral relativism is almost inevitable.

What would Christian theologians have to say about such a concept of freedom and the form of society being legitimated? A theological critique of the liberal humanist concept of freedom is badly needed, and at the same time, a positive concept of freedom from the Christian perspective is perhaps even more urgent.