Posted by: Dan | August 4, 2007

Baudrillard and Christian Universalism: Freedom, Choice, Liberation, Martyrdom

No object is proposed to the consumer as a single variety… what our industrial society always offer us 'a priori', as a kind of collective grace and as a mark of a formal freedom, is choice. This availability of the object is the foundation of 'personalization': only if the buyer is offered a whole range of choices can he transcend the strict necessity of his purchase and commit himself personally to something beyond it. Indeed, we no longer even have the option of not choosing… Our freedom to choose causes us to participate in a cultural system willy-nilly. It follows that the choice in question is a specious one: to experience it as freedom is simply to be less sensible of the fact that it is imposed upon us as such, and that through it society as a whole is likewise imposed upon us… Clearly 'personalization', far from being a mere advertising ploy, is actually a basic ideological concept of a society which 'personalizes' objects and beliefs in order to integrate persons more effectively.

~ Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, 151-52.

There is much that I find worthwhile in this quotation from Baudrillard but, given some of the ongoing discussion about Christian universalism, I was especially struck by what Baudrillard had to say about choice. Let me explain the connection.

D. W. Congdon has continually contributed to the discussion of Christian universalism on his blog and Ann Chapin, a commentator on a recent post (cf. http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2007/07/paul-among-evangelicals-1-problem.html), asked what I (and others, apparently) believe to be a central question to this discussion. This was her question:

“Is part of the problem equating the experience of choice with real freedom?”

This question is, of course, raised in light of the general Christian view that our salvation is somehow connected to our own choices. Thus, those who hold to this view accuse Christian universalists of negating human freedom. In this way “real freedom” is equated with the “experience of choice.”

This, then, is where a cross-reference to the above quotation from Baudrillard begins to make things much more interesting. Essentially, what Baudrillard suggests is this: if we equate freedom with choice, then we lose our ability to recognise that which actually enslaves us, and our choice-making both confirms and deepens our bondage, regardless of what we choose.

This perspective on freedom and choice also sheds light on another traditional Christian assertion — the assertion that true freedom is found in obedience to God. However, before we assert this too hastily, we must ask ourselves the following question: if freedom is not to be equated with choice, how can it be equated with obedience? After all, many who are forced to obey, would understand that obedience as slavery — as just another form of bondage. And they would usually be correct in that understanding. After all, the notion of “freedom in obedience” has been continually applied by dictators, and totalitarian powers (remember, “arbeit macht frei” hung over the gates of a number of Nazi concentration camps).

We are thus confronted with the following question: if freedom is not found in choice, when, or how, is freedom found in obedience?

The key to answering this question is recognising that freedom comes to us as a gift given in two movements. As far as I can tell, the bible presents a picture of a world, and a people, who are in bondage. Although people can choose this, that, or the other thing (and they do choose pretty much all of the above during the course of the biblical narrative), it is clear that humanity is not free — it is enslaved to sin and death, and to all the spiritual and material forces that are in the service of these two great powers. However, there is good news: the hold of these powers is forever shattered by the Christ-event and the dawning of the new age. In the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the bondage of humanity — and of creation — is shattered, and, in the out-pouring of the eschatological Spirit, freedom is given as God's free gift to humanity. As Paul says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal 5), and again, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you” (Ro 8). This is the first movement in God's giving of the gift of freedom and it is the movement in which we now live. Here we see that freedom is understood as liberation, not choice.

We are, however, still awaiting the second movement. Because we live in the “now-and-not-yet” of the kingdom of God, because we embrace an inaugurated but not yet consummated eschatology, the freedom that we experience now is only a partial freedom. Although we have been liberated from bondage to sin and death, we still suffer at their hands (and at the hands of their spiritual and material associates). Thus, Paul also says “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Ro 8, again). The first movement is only the “firstfruits”; the second movement is the consummation. The second movement is the final act of liberation that will be accomplished when Christ returns and puts a final and total end to sin, death, and their lackeys; and it is the coming of God to heal all wounds, to dry all tears, to make all things new, and to become “all in all” (1 Cor 15).

Consequently, we can now see that Christian universalism does not negate human freedom; rather, it recognises that all freedom is a gift from God; it recognises human freedom as liberation from bondage to sin and death, and believes that God will one day finalise this liberation by completely destroying the powers of sin and of death, thereby setting us all free.

In this way, we also come to see how freedom is found in obedience. Obedience is simply living as those who have been so liberated. Obedience is remembering the first movement in God's giving of the gift of freedom and proleptically anticipating the second movement. Obedience is standing firm and refusing to “be burdened again by a yoke of slavery”( Gal 5, again). This is why the martyrs — those who are chained, tortured, and killed — are the greatest signs of freedom in the world; wholly deprived of choice, they become holy witnesses to the gift of liberation found in Christ.

In conclusion, it is worth remembering Baudrillard's argument one more time. If a focus on choice simply masks that which keeps us in bondage, one cannot help but wonder if there is some sort of bondage at work in the argument of those Christians who wish to equate freedom with choice. I suspect that there is. By linking freedom to choice, freedom moves from the theological to the anthropological — freedom, from this perspective, is simply part of who we already are, and who we always were, as humans. Such a way of thinking inevitably makes us the agents of our own salvation. However, because we cannot save ourselves, such a way of thinking ends up leading us back into bondage. Thankfully the God who has saved us and who will save us, liberates us from all forms of bondage, even forms currently imposed by poor theology!

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