Today during my regular early morning ipod-clutching, coffee-sipping review of “the papers”, I discovered another thought-provoking offering from Giles Fraser in The Guardian. For those of you who don’t know anything about Giles, he is a Church of England (Anglican) priest who writes regularly for a number of papers and who fairly recently came to fame in the UK for stepping down from his position at St Paul’s Cathedral because of the way it handled the Occupy protests situated on its precinct in the heart of the City of London. His article, “No, I am not a liberal“, hit exactly upon something I’ve been mulling over this past week, ever since engaging my son-in-law in a short Facebook debate concerning assisted suicide.
“What I take to be the essence of liberalism,” he writes, “is a belief that individual freedom and personal autonomy are the fundamental moral goods.”
Curiously, those values, individual freedom and personal autonomy, are ones I identified in my post Facebook-debate scribblings as exactly the ones which have the potential to bond both people of faith and those with no faith in society’s approach to ethical questions: “On the Christian side of the equation a starting point for shared ethical values might be the absolute liberty, autonomy and responsibility of each individual before God…”
Giles, however, isn’t buying it: “What we need is a much more robust commitment to the common good, to the priority of community. It is intellectual laziness and a form of cheating to think we can always have both.”
Ouch. I know I am intellectually lazy, but to have it spelled out before breakfast…well!
Hang on, Giles. Are you saying that it is impossible to fully enjoy individual freedom and personal autonomy AND subjugate them to the common good? Well, I confess, my own next line acknowledges the tension: “…with one proviso: if in making our choices their consequences do not impinge negatively upon the ultimate well-being of our community, our neighbours.”
“Religion is an affront to liberalism because it dares suggest it’s not all about you,” continues Giles, “For liberals the word community means little more than co-operation for mutual advantage. Here individuals exist fundamentally prior to community….Liberals are doing it for themselves and rely on the invisible hand of self-interest to do the community work for them.”
Let’s fast forward for a minute, then come back. Religious people generally assent to a belief in some form of afterlife. In my own imaginings of what that will be like I envisage very little in the way of laws prescribing how we should live. We won’t need laws because we will have reached a level of existence that allows for perfect freedom and autonomy. This will only be possible when all the things that presently bend us toward inappropriate behaviour – ignorance, fear, selfishness, etc. – are gone. Imagine a world where everyone, always, acts on the basis of perfect knowledge, trust, and love. Imagine a world where every person you meet, in every situation, is free to make their own choices but also always has your best interests at heart. The reason I believe the “liberal” values of individual freedom and personal autonomy are also “Christian” values is because these, from a Christian point of view, are part of the final human experience.
I agree with Giles on this: the sense of social responsibility is too often missing from liberalism. But I disagree that ever-increasing levels of individual freedom and personal autonomy cannot go hand-in-hand with a commitment to the common good, to putting others ahead of ourselves in the choices we make. St. Paul puts it this way: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another.” Galatians 5.13
As Christians, free to make our own choices, Paul reminds us we should “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…” Philippians 2.
Something in me isn’t quite ready to barter away the word “liberal”, but I’ll give the last word to Giles: “For socialists, Christians and other religious denominations, the community precedes the individual in so far as the individual is shaped by and responsible to something wider than itself. As Desmond Tutu once explained, using the African notion of Ubuntu: I am because you are.”