Freedom, Promise, and a Truly Free Society – Some reflections on Jürgen Moltmann

Leave it to a German who survived World War 2 to have helpful things to say in the present political climate in the United States.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Living God and the Fullness of Life (WJK, 2015).

Moltmann discusses freedom from a theological perspective, and rejects the notion that freedom is domination. Rather, “freedom exists in relationships” (112), and not in relationships of domination. “I am free and feel free when I am respected and recognized by other people, and when I, for my part, respect and accept others. Then the other person is not a restriction of my freedom,” as something like a classically liberal political theory might put it, “but an extension of it. In mutual participation in the life of other people, individuals become free beyond the boundaries of their individuality.” Of course, in Western culture today we find it very difficult to understand individuality as something to be transcended rather than reinforced, reified, and idolized. Still this transcendence of individuality through participation in the life of others “is the social side of freedom. We call it solidarity” (113, bold mine). And, if you ask me, solidarity is precisely what we lack today. Here’s a bigger chunk:

What is a person? The free human being is the being that can promise, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, and who also keeps his or her promises, as every child knows. By promising, I pin myself down in my ambiguities. Through the promises I keep I become trustworthy for other people. Through one’s promises a person acquires continuity in the flux of the times. One who forges one’s promises forges oneself; the person who keeps one’s promises remains faithful to oneself…

Free human beings live in…networks of promises made and kept, agreements, and trust. The political paradigm of a free society is the covenant that is laid down in a state’s constitution, and the social contract that orders the community or polity. The paradigm of rule is auctoritas facit legem (“authority makes the law”) while the paradigm of the free society is pacta sun servanda (“agreements must be kept”). A free society is not an accumulation of independent individuals; it is a community of persons in solidarity…

The life of the united community consists of the bringing together of what would otherwise be divided. In shared freedom, the alienation between people is ended and the separation of human civilization from nature is surmounted. . . . So we shall replace the old rules of domination through new forms of community in society and with nature. (114)

At least three lines of reflection suggest themselves to me on the basis of this passage from Moltmann:

  • True freedom is not found in unlimited options. True freedom is found in self-determination to be the particular person that you are. Consequently, Western society’s domination by late capitalism stands in the way of freedom even while using the propaganda of freedom and providing a simulacrum of freedom (think Facebook). But all of this is ephemeral and aimed at generating income by giving people the illusion of choice, or an overwhelming breadth of superficial choice, while at the same time denying them true self-determination.
  • We are currently living through something like the United States’s midlife identity crisis. We tell ourselves that we have made all kinds of promises to one another in our society. For instance, we have these words engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
    Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
    Compare that sentiment to how the prospect of accepting Syrian refugees has been handled. (Then compare that to the response of Canada, with whom – while it was still part of the British Empire – we fought a war that was supposedly about “liberty” and “freedom.”) Or take the line from the Declaration of Independence that speaks about all people being created equal and possessing inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course, we’ve been hedging our bets on that one from the beginning: “all” means all white male landowners. Will the United States follow its best lights and keep these promises, or will it stay mired in the bigotry, nativism, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny (did I miss any?) of its past?
  • Moltmann talks a lot about unity and togetherness and participation in shared life. We hear a lot of similar sentiments these days. When questions of institutional racism come up, folks – especially self-described Christians – line up to remind us that we should treat each other with respect (i.e., don’t mouth off to the police and you won’t get shot?), build interpersonal friendships across racial lines, etc. And these sort of folks might think that Moltmann agrees with them. In a certain sense he does. He wants people to treat each other with respect and build friendships across dividing lines, etc. But he also speaks of “solidarity,” and solidarity is not just a warm-fuzzy word. Solidarity means attacking those aspects of society that predispose us against treating one another with respect, and it means destroying those aspects of society that allow some people to dominate others (whether culturally, socially, economically, violently, etc.). Saying “we should all just get along” won’t cut it if you’re measuring by the standard of solidarity. Domination-systems must be challenged and destroyed because we all can’t get along until they are removed.



Juan C. Torres said…
Thank you very much for blogging on Moltmann, Travis. Not long ago I read an old, out of print collection of his sermons titled ::The Gospel of Liberation::. Like this post, it was a challenging and illuminating read.

One of the main things I appreciate about Moltmann's thought is his critical use of liberation theology, as well as his critical development of Barth's theology.

As a society we very much misunderstand the nature of freedom. We seem to be unable to realize that it cannot coexist with fear and xenophobia. The thought that our freedom can potentially be extended in relationships is worth of our deeper reflection.

Thanks once again, and I hope to see more Moltmann stuff here in the future (and perhaps even some Pannenberg;).
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! There are a lot of things about Moltmann that I appreciate, and hopefully I'll get a chance to dig back into him sometime in the not too distant future. But as for DET more generally, Derek tends to post on Moltmann and Pannenberg whenever he's active. I hope that he'll have a chance to contribute something before too long.
I was hopeful in terms of the reference to an identity crisis. My thought hinges around the inability of many to look at the history of the West in general and America in particular and embrace the obvious progress and the obvious imperfections. We must do that with ourselves. We seem unable to do that with the West. Consequently, in contrast to your example, we feel perfectly comfortable embracing groups that hate the West as much as we do. Thus, we can either turn away from or ignore Islamic fundamentalism/militancy/jihadism/radicalism in the name of our supposed understanding of the reason for their aggression. In reality, we cannot even get that right, for their aggression arises out of their disgust with the freedom that Moltmann discusses and that I am sure you embrace. They are the ones using their freedom to impose their brand of Islam at home and seeking to do so abroad. In part, an identity crisis arises because we cannot embrace the imperfections and gifts of our parents as they have worked themselves out in our personal lives. Our parents go back in part to the Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, with all the sins and gifts they bring.
Where do you find people "perfectly comfortable embracing groups that hate the West as much as we do"? Being welcoming to Muslims and wanting to care for refugees hardly qualifies. The sort of thing you're suggesting is rolling out that sort of mat to the fundamentalist terrorists, and I don't see anyone doing that (although perhaps it should be done). But I don't think "their aggression arises out of their disgust with the freedom that Moltmann discusses and that I am sure you embrace." I think it arises out of their disgust with how the West usually thinks about freedom, which Moltmann and I are unhappy with as well.

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