Freedom With Direction

With the dawn of Artificial Intelligence (AI), we  are undoubtedly “gifted” with tools for personal freedom. AI can render independent recommendations as the society around us delegates more decisions to the machine. Since AI is used commercially today, with deep-learning systems fed by personal data and nudging human behaviours, we increasingly feel

like pawns governed by algorithms, giving counsel which we believe is “for our own good”. This is happening all around us; we blindly follow algorithmic recommendations—suggestions pop up for our purchases, maps guide us to nearby ‘rated’ restaurants—almost as if someone is reading our mind.

Political and social philosophers talk about two types of freedom—negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints, which means that you are free and no one stops you from doing whatever you want. Positive freedom, on the other hand, is where freedom means the presence of control on the part of an individual. In the latter case, to be free, you must be self-determined, which is to say that you must be able to control your destiny in your own interest. The first view of freedom is simply about how many doors are open to you; in the second view, it is more about going through the right doors for the right reasons. What people prefer is “negative” freedom—the absence of constraints and interference. All of us love the freedom that gives us the maximum ability to choose the life we want to live with minimum controls. This reminds me of Christians in Corinth: “I have the right to do anything…” (1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23).

Biblical freedom is freedom with direction, from Passover to Pentecost. There is a Jewish ritual known as “The Counting of the Omer”. The Hebrew scripture instructs to number off every day of the 49 days that separate Passover, a festival of freedom, to celebrate the receiving of the Torah, the Pentecost. “Omer” is a sheaf of grain, and the “counting of the Omer” happens during the seven weeks that separate these festivals. Jewish tradition considers the counting of the “Omer” to represent a journey between the Exodus (Passover) and the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai seven weeks later (Pentecost). It is, in other words, a reminder of the journey from liberation to the constitution or the make-up of freedom. Passover permits a person to develop and move freely, with no interference by anyone in his activities. But this freedom became real only when it was given direction–when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai.

While writing to the Christians in Galatia, Paul says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free”(Gal. 5:1), which is explained as a relationship between salvation and ethics. The phrase ‘Christ has set us free’ is associated with the salvation of Jesus’ followers (the Passover), while ‘for freedom ’pertains to the ethical lifestyle of Jesus’ followers (the Pentecost). Thus, we have been set free from the servitude of chaos-inducing self-interestedness to allow the self-giving Christ to become embodied in the self-giving way of life in us.

As we read this issue, let us be reminded that the story of Jesus Christ, as it comes to life in our lives, is a story of freedom, but it is ‘positive’ freedom constrained by the Cross and directed by the Holy Spirit and deeply at odds with our selfish interests in ‘freedom’ without constrains.

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