The Constraints of Freedom


“And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of the tree of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17).

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.  That is the sacred principle woven into the very fabric of consumerism.  The trick of advertising is that when you’ve reached the point where you’ve consumed all that’s necessary to sustain life, you need to be convinced that you won’t sleep well, your breath won’t smell right, your dishes won’t sparkle, your relationships will be shallow, your bread will go stale, your image in the neighborhood will be irrevocably tarnished, and your dog won’t love you unless you consume more.

The thing market economies are good at is multiplying choice.  We’ve evolved, for instance, from that primitive era in which we only had three T.V. channels from which to choose.  Now we have dozens of channels, receiving literally hundreds of choices about what we ought to consume and how we ought to spend our time.

Market economies are unquestionably good at multiplying choice.  What they are incapable of, however, is helping you decide when enough is too much, or even when enough is enough.  And apart from your personal taste, they’re unable to provide you with a compelling moral account of why it would be better to make this choice as opposed to that one.  Market economies care less about the choices you make than about ensuring that you’ll always believe that making some kind of choice is unqualifiedly good and that it is the height of human vocation.

But is the multiplication of choices, by definition, good?  Are merely having more options from which to choose automatically morally preferable?  It could be argued that, having three television channels and finding nothing on, it’s conceivably possible to get up and go do something else, something perhaps even more constructive, say, than watching television.  But if there are 500 hundred channels laid out in front of you, it becomes almost impossible to say “There’s nothing on television right now worth watching” because the assumption is that with 500 hundred channels, surely there must be something on.  I only have to look harder for it.  So that, not only am I not spending my time on something arguably more constructive than watching television, I’m not even spending my time watching television.  I’m spending your time, as Jerry Seinfeld once said, looking for “what else” is on television.

In this account of God’s dealings with Adam and Even, God does something to which we are almost innately opposed: God limits our freedom.  God sets up a wall.  But perhaps, we, who are so used to seeing walls as an encroachment upon the pursuit of our unrestrained freedoms, miss the point here.  Apparently, what God is doing here has less to do with keeping Adam, and his soon to be partner Eve, from getting to the greener grass on the other side, than from keeping what is toxic in the green grass on the other side from getting to them.

Thomas Merton, upon becoming a monk, made an interesting observation.  He reported that the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani served as “the four walls of my new freedom.”

What a paradox.  We serve a God who sees what we cannot see, blinded as we are by our obsequious devotion to the consumerist principle of choice, that a new situation isn’t necessarily the answer to our prayers.  We serve a God who knows what we cannot know, given our expectation that we ought to be able to do what we want to do for no other reason than that we want to do it—that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.  In fact, the grass that seems greenest may already be dead and merely painted brightly.  We serve a God who understands what we cannot understand, enthralled as we are by this world’s visions of liberty—that it’s possible to be caught in the vicious grip of the constraints of freedom.

And it’s only when we give ourselves fully into the hands of the one whom we formerly thought meant only to constrain us, that we can begin to see that the walls God builds provide shelter from the stones thrown by a hostile world, that the “chains” God uses to bind the world are the ones that give it its greatest liberation, that the nails used to bind one man to a tree are the keys God uses to set the whole world free.

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