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What is freedom, and what is freedom for? On March 25, I flew to Phoenix to find out. I was attending a First Things Intellectual Retreat, a weekend of lectures and small-group seminars on the topic of freedom. “Today, our societies are awash in grand promises of freedom,” R. R. Reno observed in his opening lecture. “Old limits are derided as oppressive. Transgression is celebrated, and we are urged to be everything and anything we want. But the same elite that promotes this outlook possesses no deep insights into the nature of freedom.”

The deep insights would have to come from us—from the participants in the retreat, from the texts we would discuss, and from the Wyoming Catholic College professors who would lead the sessions. According to Reno, we no longer know what freedom truly is, or what it is for, because “we’ve lost sight of the true sources of freedom, which come not from permission but from commitment.” True freedom is anchored freedom. We are truly free when we acknowledge the commitments, limits, authorities, and obligations that give us a “place to stand” in a world of flux. The texts that we read for the retreat provided a roadmap to the firm ground of freedom. 

In one session, we discussed how freedom depends on strong community. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville examines how freedom is forged in a culture of mutual support through civic associations. He observes that though America is a nation ostensibly dedicated to the individual pursuit of happiness, Americans nonetheless have an impressive level of social solidarity. He attributes such solidarity—and the underlying societal benevolence it supports—to the vibrant American culture of civic association:

The free institutions that the inhabitants of the United States possess and the political rights of which they make so much use recall to each citizen constantly and in a thousand ways that he lives in society. At every moment they bring his mind back toward the idea that the duty as well as the interest of men is to render themselves useful to those like them; and as he does not see any particular reason to hate them, since he is never either their slave or their master, his heart readily leans to the side of benevolence.

Freedom of association creates the kind of horizontal solidarity that at once checks unbridled individualism and combats utopian visions of “equality.” As Tocqueville notes, “equality places men beside one another without a common bond to hold them”; facile notions of equality enable the societal “indifference” upon which despotism feeds and relies. After the seminar, I encountered one of my fellow retreat attendees, a priest, in the hotel lobby. I asked him how he interpreted the Tocqueville text. “We’re free when we’re together,” he told me. Healthy freedom is found in the community of associations.

Milton’s Paradise Lost showed us the false promise of freedom as liberation from all limits—the so-called freedom of recognizing no authority higher than yourself. The Devil promises Eve that by eating the forbidden fruit, her fear of death, as embodied by God’s one prohibition, will be vanquished: “Ye Eate thereof, your Eyes that seem so cleere, / Yet are but dim, shall perfetly be then / Op’nd and cleerd, and ye shall be as Gods, / Knowing both Good and Evil as they know.” 

This is the transhumanist dream: to “be as Gods,” and in the process replace God—thus redefining for ourselves what it means to be human and, in the process, deforming humanity. Both transgenderism and transhumanism derive from the technology-enabled illusion that “ye shall be as Gods.”

During our final session, we discussed Josef Pieper's Only the Lover Sings as well as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath. We examined how a day of rest can be freeing. How does the Lord’s Sabbath, whether in the Jewish or Christian tradition, make us free? What kind of freedom is Sabbath freedom?

The Sabbath, as understood in theological terms, is about more than mere leisure. As alluded to in Hebrews chapter 4, the Sabbath, by encouraging a comparison between God's work and man’s work, dignifies the human person. A day set aside to rest from earthly labor and worship the creator helps us recognize how creation is imbued with beauty, meaning, and purpose beyond any utilitarian calculation. The Sabbath frees us from slavery to the realm of commerce and commodification.

“The Sabbath forces recognition of humans as more than just wage earners,” said Jeremy Holmes, one of our Wyoming Catholic College tutors. “Freedom is an anchoring,” he added. “A place that extracts you from the world of doing and making.” According to Heschel, the Sabbath is a temple of time that opens the window to eternal rest in heaven. For me, this discussion of the Sabbath was the perfect note on which to end the retreat—a reminder that at the heart of our understanding of freedom must be the recognition that our freedom is given to us by God.

Kurt Hofer is contributing editor at the European Conservative.

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