For Freedom, Christ Set Us Free

Jul 5, 2022

Matthew Pietropaoli, Ph.D.

“For freedom, Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). This, like much from St. Paul, is quite the loaded statement, open to numerous interpretations and deeper readings. Yet what might such freedom look like? And how, if at all, does it connect to the sort of freedom celebrated in the United States on Independence Day?

Freedom, as we understand and employ it here in the United States, can easily mean the liberty and opportunity to be and act as one pleases. In this manner, I am free to the extent that no one and nothing can exercise dominance, control, and authority over me; the extent of my freedom is inversely proportional to the limitations placed upon me from external sources. Thus, for example, insofar as, here in the US, the government does not prohibit me from living where I wish, from working where I desire, from marrying whom I want, then in such ways I can consider myself to be free. And insofar as the government (or some other authority) were to attempt to preclude me from choosing my dwelling, my job, my spouse, etc., then it would be a serious and profound limitation on and undermining of my freedom.

Freedom, thus understood, could be thought of as an open and expansive space in which one moves without inhibition or oversight, an undetermined field of possibility we could say. And it is such an open and unencumbered space of liberty that we celebrate each 4th of July, as we honor the freedoms of our life in America. Freedom, here in the USA, is thus external freedom to live, relate, and work as we please.

Fascinatingly, one of the more poignant and moving depictions of freedom I’ve ever read related the experience of a concentration camp survivor. Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote of his own imprisonment at Auschwitz and the daily (and often unspeakable) horrors he faced there. He likewise discussed how, at Auschwitz, he and the other inmates were deprived of almost all the freedoms they’d previously known: they were told what to wear, where to go, what to eat, where to sleep, where to stand, how and where to work, even when to speak or keep silent. They likewise suffered absolute humiliation or degradation at the hands of the Nazis who deemed them subhuman and vile.

Yet Frankl, in this midst of such horror, did not consider himself totally deprived of freedom. Rather, even while the external freedoms of his life were stripped away, he found and exercised within himself a remarkable, profound, and very meaningful interior freedom. One example: forced to work digging trenches in the freezing cold of winter, berated and demeaned by his overseer, Frankl was still able to direct his mind toward the memory and presence of his wife. Nothing and no one could prevent him from experiencing the intimate love he shared and would eternally share with his wife. The external circumstances, in other words, though almost so awful and horrendous to belie belief, were not sufficient to overwhelm Frankl in the inner space of his own mind and heart. Those interior places were still his only, and within them he and he alone could decide freely what to do and how to do so. Such freedom arose from and was carried out according to his own will and choice, despite or even in opposition to the external situation.

What is even more remarkable about Frankl is that the personal recognition and exercise of such interior freedom made an all-important difference. It was by means of this freedom that Frankl could experience the aforesaid love for his wife, or likewise could choose to direct his mental and psychological energy on hope for the future in lieu of the misery of the present, or could decide, amid the intense evil around him, to work for the good of his fellow inmates by offering counsel or empathetic listening or religious prayer. Such efforts proved deeply impactful for both Frankl and those around him, an enactment of hope, care, and even charity which enabled them to maintain their humanity and even dignity despite the Nazi efforts to eradicate both. The freedom felt within mattered profoundly for the life of Frankl and his fellow inmates.

What we may see here, therefore, is that the sort of freedom that really matters, the sort which can make a deep and lasting difference in one’s life, is rooted in and grows from the interior liberty that Frankl exemplified. Phrased otherwise, the freedom we often think of on Independence Day could remain shallow and not so meaningful unless and until it is matched by and stems from the inner freedom know and employed by Frankl.

The wonderful external freedoms we know and are blessed with in the United States are fulfilled and made most purposeful according to how they assist with the meaningful exercise of interior freedom. In the same vein as Frankl, when freedom is used for care, empathy, hopefulness, and love, when it goes toward what is genuinely good and beneficial, then it reaches its proper apex and fruition. Freedom matters to the extent that it is meaningful, and it is meaningful to the extent that reaches out toward making the aforesaid difference.

Hence, in our celebration of freedom this year, we should reflect on interior freedom, so that we can learn to make our external freedom all the more profound and meaningful.

Matthew Pietropaoli received his BA from St. Anselm College and his MA and PhD from the Catholic University of America. His dissertation concerned the thought of German-American philosopher, Hans Jonas. Matthew has taught extensively at the undergraduate level, including courses on ancient philosophy, modern philosophy, ethics, and metaphysics. He was fortunate enough to grow up near the Adirondacks, which instilled a life-long love of the natural world.