One of the nice things about teaching at a Lutheran college is the opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue between faith and reason.  This afternoon, I have the privilege of giving a response to a talk given by one of my esteemed colleagues, the Reverend Kapp Johnson, a faculty member of California Lutheran University’s schools of Business and Religion.  His talk will explore Martin Luther’s conception of freedom.  Since I am a blogger, I must blog about it, so blog I will.

Rev. Johnson seeks to make a distinction between our modern conception of freedom and the Christian view of liberty as expressed by Martin Luther. He uses a passage from Robert Bellah’s classic Habits of the Heart to highlight the problem with modernity’s conception of liberty:

Within modern individualism, the self becomes the central, if not the only reality.  Moral discussions become detached from any social or cultural foundations which could give them broader relevance.  The self and its feelings become the only moral criteria.

Many have developed this communitarian critique of modernity.  All sociology graduate students (and lucky Political Science grade students) get their healthy dose of Durkheim and his notion of anomie.  An individual based conception of freedom inevitably leads to a society with competing conceptions of justice and the good life which creates an intellectual and spiritual morass.

I thank the Rev. Johnson for introducing me to a very interesting set of propositions Martin Luther makes in a 1520 essay called The Freedom of a Christian.  In this essay, he sets out a pair of contradictory premises:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.


A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

Rev. Johnson interprets Luther (I think correctly) to mean that freedom is not so much an external phenomenon but rather a result of one’s inner spiritual nature.  Freedom for Luther is submission to Christ through faith.  This freedom allows for a  “joyous exchange” of the “sinner’s “sins, death, and damnation” for Christ’s “grace, life and salvation.”  This freedom then allows the believer to become a “dutiful servant” which, to quote Rev. Johnson from his prepared remarks “thrusts the Christian back into human life.”

Luther argues that obedience to god frees us from the mine field of our impulses and desires and focuses us directly on “the approal of God.”  Our engagement with the world, is then not motivated by any instrumental ends (i.e. getting to heaven) but rather results from the “freedom” found in faith:

The works themselves do no justify [the Christian] before God, but [the Christian] does the works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God and considers nothing except the approval of God, whom he would most scrupulously obey in all things.

Coming from the perspective of a social scientist, I have a few discussion points that I plan on bringing up later today:

1) I’d be wary of setting up a strawman.  If the distinction is between Christain faith and complete nihlism, then the playing field is tilted towards the former.  If the distinction is between Christain faith and non-Christain faith, then the terrain is more level.

2) Rev. Johnson makes an elegant case for one variety of what Isaiah Berlin refered to in a famous essay Two Concepts of Liberty as “positive freedom” or freedom to fullly realize one’s self.  However in Berlin’s essay, he ultimately comes down on the side of negative liberty, or freedom from state interference, as the best means of organizing a society because humankind cannot arrive at a consensus over which form of positive freedom to institute.

3)  The hallmark of post-modernity is a levelling of the distinction between sacred and profane.  Durkheim argues that what holds society together in the modern world is a shared agreement on the primacy of the individual and an agreement on rules to preserve its autonomy(rationality).  One could argue that system was not bad and that the problem is the re-emergence of religion and multiculturalism to challenge modernity’s conception of freedom.  See my post about the distinction beteween the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights.

4) Even if I granted that Luther’s view of Christian freedom was preferable to an individualist/modernity based view of freedom, on what basis could we claim that it’s preferable to any other religiously grounded freedom claim.  Why isn’t Siddhartha’s call to “renounce the self” any more or less valid than the Christian claim?