Podcast episode 017: Political freedom and Christian freedom
We are accustomed in modern Western societies to various freedoms: the freedom to associate, to have opinions and express them openly, to own and dispose of our own property, to act politically and to vote for those who would govern us, to pursue our own interests and intentions—and to do all these things without unjust restraint or coercion or oppression from the state.
We take much of this for granted. But according to Os Guinness, as a matter of history and political philosophy, the foundations of this sort of free society are profoundly Christian, and as our society progressively abandons or repudiates these foundations, so also it undermines our freedom.
In this special edition of the CCL podcast, we bring you an edited version of the challenging talk Dr Guinness gave at our May 30 event on the nature of true freedom—both Christian and political.
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Os Guinness: With any society, there are always three parts to establishing freedom: winning it, ordering it and sustaining it.
Winning freedom’s easy. Ordering freedom’s actually a little harder. The real challenge is number three: sustaining it. Because freedom never ever lasts forever. And sustaining it, of course, is our challenge. Is Australia as free as it used to be? Is England as free as it used to be? Clearly in many areas no! The challenge is to sustain freedom, and that third task needs to be thought through.
Tony Payne: That’s Os Guinness speaking at our Centre for Christian Living event on May 30th on the subject of Christian freedom. And at that event, Dr Guinness spoke not only about what freedom really is and what the Christian vision of freedom really is, but how that understanding is, in fact, the basis for much that we take for granted in our Western societies—in our Western culture. And that’s our topic on the Centre for Christian Living podcast today: just what is the biblical vision of freedom, and how does it relate to the issues of freedom that we confront in our society today?
TP: Hello, I’m Tony Payne and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Our goal at the CCL is to bring biblical ethics to bear on everyday issues, and today we’re looking at the issue of freedom—and in particular, the freedom that we hold dear and that is part of our taken-for-granted lives in Western cultures like Australia’s.
In this special edition of the CCL podcast, we’re going to bring you an edited version of Os Guinness’s talk at the CCL event on May 30 th, and including some of the questions that came through in question time.
Os Guinness, if you’re not sure who he is, is one of the leading Christian writers, apologists and social analysts of the past 40 years. And many of us have got to know Os Guinness through his books: he’s written or edited more than 30, including The Call; Time for Truth, his book on doubt, which I read in the 80s and, like many, was greatly helped by;Unspeakable; A Free People’s Suicide; and his latest book, which is called Fool’s Talk: The Recovery of Christian Persuasion, and that was published just a couple of years ago by InterVarsity Press.
But writing is just one part of what has been an extraordinarily varied life for Dr Guinness. His great-great-grandfather was Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer of great fame. He was educated in England at the University of London and Oxford, he’s been a freelance reporter with the BBC, he’s lived in the US since the mid-80s and has been keenly involved there in a variety of institutions and think tanks like the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies and the Brookings Institution, and more recently, the EastWest Institute in New York. He’s also currently a senior fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, and still lives in the US with his wife Jenny.
But Dr Guinness was born in China, where his parents were medical missionaries, and that’s where his discussion of freedom in our culture begins.
OG: I was born in China. I was actually born in one of the dynastic capitals, and then after World War II, lived in another one. But the part that I remember growing up was in what was then Nanking, now Nanjing. It had been brutalised by the rape of Nanking in 1937-38, it had suffered terrible depredations in the war, and it was threatened by the looming army of Lin Bao and the Communist troops. But you could still see the greatness of Nanking, because in 1500, it was the capital of the Ming Dynasty, which is the most powerful prosperous nation on earth. They sent a fleet—ships four times the size of Columbus’s—to East Africa 75 years before Columbus set sail. And you could see they sent a million men to build what we know as the Forbidden City—the—in Beijing. No one in their right mind in 1500 would have considered that what they saw as a cultural backwater off the western land mass of Asia would rival them, let alone eclipse them and dominate them. But of course, that’s what happened. And for 500 years, they smarted under the influence of, first, Europe, and then the West.
But when they regained their power, there were a whole number of discussions across China as to what happened. And in one of the famous ones in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, they raised the question, “What happened? How could China have been dominated by Europe and then the West?” No, they said, it wasn’t guns. It wasn’t even the economy, although that was part of the reason. It wasn’t so much the rule of law, although that was part of the reason. And at the end of the day, they concluded it was Western religion. In other words, the Christian faith.
But Jewish scholars jumped into the discussion, then, commenting on it, “That was accurate, but not precise.” ’Cause anyone thinking could realise that the Christian faith, the church, had dominated Europe since 380, when the emperor Theodocius declared Rome Christian, but it had never dominated the world. What was it in the 16th century that was so powerful? And the Jewish scholars point out it was actually the movement which had rediscovered Judaism in the Old Testament—namely, the Reformation. The Reformation. And in many ways, the Reformation provides the master story—or rather, exodus through the Reformation—the master story of Western freedom.
Now, I realise tonight that Australia, like Canada, like England and Britain at large, and, in fact, all our English-speaking countries except the United States, is only half-shaped by the Reformation. Whereas the United States is decisively shaped by the Reformation. But remembering that strong difference, I want to show how the Reformation did that.
Now, last year, of course, was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I’m sure you did much better here in Sydney with the leadership of Moore College, but in parts of America where I was, there was almost no celebration, and what celebration there was, was a celebration only of the impact on the church; the rediscovery of the gospel—of justification by faith; the restoration of the authority of the Scripture, and so on. Whereas there was no corresponding discussion and celebration of the impact of the Reformation on modern culture. ’Cause historians would argue that the Reformation is the single strongest set of ideas that has made the modern world—although in many ways that the Reformers might not recognise.
Think for a minute of the notion of covenantal politics: you go to Politics 101, almost inevitably, you’re introduced to the Greeks. And both the Greeks and the Romans saw things in terms of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy. We all know that. And each of these forms of government had an ideal form and a corrupt form—monarchy corrupted to tyranny; aristocracy corrupted [into] oligarchy; and democracy corrupted into mob rule. And even the Greeks said, “The wheel turns; none of them stays the same forever.” It’s not that you choose it and that’s your system forever; no, they are corrupted over time and they change, which people forget—including democracy.
Well, 50 years or so ago, there was a new classification put out by a Jewish scholar called Daniel Elazar. He didn’t look at governments like the Greeks did, but he looked at the founding of societies, and seen that way, there were a different three: you have organic societies, which are linked by blood and kinship. Take a Scottish clan or an African tribe. Many of those in history, but fewer in the modern world. The second type of society—by far the most common—hierarchical: linked by power, force, conquest, kingdoms, very often, empires, always hierarchical. And then the third type of society: covenantal—created by a free, binding agreement of the people, which, the three main ones were the Jews, very obviously—Mount Sinai; the Swiss, and their Articles of Confederation in 1291; and the Americans, and the American Constitution is actually a nationalised secularised form of the Sinai covenant.
What was it that was distinctive about Sinai that made that difference through the Reformation? Well, obviously, there were other covenants apart from the biblical ones. The Hittites had their Suzerainty Treaties. Celtic societies were oath societies. Alexander the Great had his Corinthian League, trying to bind together all the Hellenic peoples. But Sinai is distinctive. Now, of course, there are other covenants in the Bible: take, say, the covenant with Noah and humanity, or the covenant with Abraham and his family. But Sinai is quite distinctive, and there were three things about it that the Reformation picked up, which put its stamp through the Reformation on history.
Now, Sinai has other distinctives. It was a covenant in which the Lord is a partner. It is a covenant in which all the people were involved. We think of Greece and Athens: only 20 per cent of the men in Athens were citizens who could vote—not the 80 per cent, not the women, not the children and not the strangers. But the Sinai covenant: the men, the women, the children and, as Moses says, those who were born there and those who were as yet unborn—an intergenerational project. And unlike almost all the other covenants, it covered the whole of life: you can see most of the other covenants are relatively narrow between a suzerain king and a vassal king. That was it. But this covers the whole of the people: farming, sex, worship—all sorts of things.
But they weren’t the distinctives which made the difference politically. It was three other things. First, at Sinai, you had freely chosen consent. Have you ever looked in Exodus and seen that three times, it says, “All that the Lord says we will do”? It is not a theocracy. The first man to call it a theocracy—actually a Jew trying to explain it to the Romans—but the Rabbis did not see it as a theocracy. It was technically a nomocracy: the rule of law, but freely chosen consent. And that politically is the origin of the consent of the governed. As the Rabbi says, “Even when the Lord of the universe offers something, he invites the people to buy into it and sign onto it”. Freely chosen consent.
Secondly, it was a morally binding pledge. A contract is legal and usually narrow. You don’t want to be bound totally, but you think of the difference, say, between a marriage vow—“’Til death to us part” and “better and worse” and “richer and poorer” and all that—it’s an incredibly comprehensive vow, and so’s the Sinai covenant. A morally binding pledge that goes way beyond the narrow limits of a legal contract.
But it’s the third element that’s very crucial: the mutual responsibility of all for all. Now, of course, we know it as the origin of the great saying, “You love your neighbour as yourself”. You think of The Three Musketeers: “All for one; one for all.” But thousands of years before that in France, every Jew responsible for every Jew, as they said: a solidarity of responsibility. One Rabbi said there wasn’t one covenant; there was 600,000 covenants as each person made a covenant to the Lord and each other. Another Rabbi quickly answered, “No, that’s wrong; there were 600,000 times 600,000 as each person made their covenant to the Lord and to each other in a strongly binding sense. Mutual responsibility.
And of course, it included the stranger. Now you look at Aristotle, again, by contrast: in the Greek system, at its highest, “You care [I’m quoting Aristotle] for people like us.” The family looked after the family; the clan, the clan; the nation only for its own sword; and for the Greeks, those non-Greeks, as we know, were the barbarians with their “Ba ba ba”—the strange language they had or whatever. Not for the Jews: “Love your neighbour as yourself” is said once. More than 30 times, you have the care for the stranger. The stranger may not be in our image in terms of language or race or whatever. But every stranger is in God’s image, and therefore is part of that mutual responsibility.
Now that was very powerful down through history, and you can see that that was picked up by Calvin and by Zwingli and by Knox and by Cromwell. Cromwell says the only direct parallel to what he was trying to do in the English civil war was the Exodus. Now, of course, we all know he failed. When he died, his son was inadequate and the king came back. In other words, covenantalism in England was the lost cause. That’s how historians refer to it. But what was the lost cause in England jumped the Atlantic and became the winning cause. And those who left Cambridge and East Anglia and so on and went to America, covenantalism was at the heart. The Mayflower Compact was a covenant. The Sermon on the Arbella, which led to the foundation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was all about covenant. And covenant was not only in their churches, it was in their marriages, it was the heart of their townships, and the first American state—Massachusetts, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—John Adams, who wrote its constitution, says that it was a covenant. And then 100 years later, of course, what was a covenant and then a constitution, and the two words were almost synonymous, became the US Constitution: “We the people”. And the American Constitution is quite literally a nationalised somewhat secularised form of the Sinai covenant.
TP: Now, you may be wondering, dear listener, when Os Guinness is going to talk specifically about freedom. Be patient: we’re nearly there. But the picture that Dr Guinness is building up is a very important one for us to understand. And that is that what we take for granted in our Western democracies is actually the result of a biblical view of covenantal politics—one in which a group of people give their free consent to join together in a morally binding pledge to form a society that is based on mutual responsibility.
Now, the freedoms that come in such a society—the freedom of speech, the freedom to practice religion, the freedom of self-determination—of being free to own and dispose of one’s own property—these are all based on the essentially covenantal nature of such a society. In other words, it’s based on a biblical view of what it means to live freely in the world—what it means to act or to execute your will without coercion or unjust restraint in a society of others who are seeking to do the same. Because freedom—that is, true freedom—is not just freedom from coercion or oppression or restraint, it’s a freedom to participate in a society of mutual responsibility. It’s the freedom to do what is good and right.
Here’s Dr Guinness from later on in question time clarifying this very point.
OG: Lord Acton is the great historian of freedom, puts it: “Freedom is not the permission to do what you like; it’s the power to do what you ought.” Isaiah Berlin—I was at Oxford with Isaiah Berlin—I was—I was a student; he was a professor. He’s famous for his analysis of freedom—has two aspects: negative and positive. Negative freedom is freedom from: if anyone is ever under the control of someone or something else—could be a colonial power, it could be a bully of a kid in the playground, or it could be drugs or alcohol—anyone is under the control of anything else is not free. Freedom has to begin with negative freedom—freedom from.
But that’s only half of freedom. Positive freedom is freedom for—freedom to be. Now, to know what you’re free for and free to be, you’ve got to know the truth of who you are. So, positive freedom requires and assumes truth. You know, GK Chesterton’s famous illustration: if—say you’re an animal rights liberator: you want to go to your local zoo and free all the animals that are wild. First two cages, you see in one a tiger with a huge concrete hump strapped to its back, and it’s lumbering around painfully. In the next cage, you see a camel that’s been painted with thick black and orange rubberised stripes. You want to free them. When you free them both from their cages, they’re wild animals. But you free the tiger from the hump and the camel from the stripes; you don’t for a minute think of freeing the tiger from the stripes. That’s what makes it a tiger: “the tigerishness of the tiger”, as Frances Schaeffer used to say. And you free the camel from the stripes, not the hump. That’s what makes it a ca—in other words, there’s our Lord: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
So, yes, positive freedom and negative freedom—most young people in the Western world have negative freedom only. “Get the government off my back”—whether it’s sexual freedom or financial freedom, they don’t think of positive freedom, but without that, you just have licence, which runs to chaos and lack of freedom. Freedom requires truth.
TP: This is the kind of freedom—a freedom to act rightly not only for myself, but in relation to others, for the sake of others—that a covenantal approach to politics involves. That’s Dr Guinness’s point. And that’s what he goes on to discuss next: what are the advantages and disadvantages—the pluses and minuses—of this kind of covenantal political society?
OG: The greatest strength of covenantalism you can see in history, it brings together faith and freedom. You can see this very clearly in Alexis de Tocqueville, who is the French commentator on America. He was a Catholic and a Frenchmen, and he knew his own revolution, and you know what happened in the French Revolution: you had a hierarchical church—church and state, throne and altar—they were both in collusion with each other, they were both corrupt, they were both oppressive, and the revolution threw off both and created a very strict separation of church and state, which the French call “laïcité”. And you know the cry of the revolution: “We will never be free until the last king is strangled with—the last—the guts of the last priest!” Little gory, but you get the point.
Now, it’s not funny in the sense that I say this with sadness as a European. The major reason why Europe has created the most secular continents in human history—the major reason is the massive revulsion against oppressive state churches. The Reformation understood that, and Tocqueville understood that. And he sees that covenantalism—freely chosen consent, etc. etc.—had brought together faith and freedom in a new way so that, as he said, “In my country [France], those who loved religion fought liberty and those who loved liberty fought religion.” Sadly that’s where we are in many of our countries today. Well, he says, “What I see here in this new covenantal way of doing things is the spirit of religion [in his words] and the spirit of liberty go hand in hand.”
The great Irish statesman Edmund Burke made the same point before the British House of Commons. He was British, but he defended the American colonists, who, of course, were English too. But he said, “You shouldn’t”—talking to his fellow Englishmen in Westminster, he said, “You shouldn’t have been surprised by their desire for freedom. Why,” he said, “they were the Protestants of Protestantism. They were the dissenters of dissent. And that notion of a covenantalism gave them a desire for freedom, which led to the American Revolution.”
That’s the strength. What’s the weakness? The great weakness of covenantalism, whether in a church or a marriage or a nation, is that humans don’t keep their promises. In other words, the covenant is a promise between the Lord and his people, and we know well from the prophets they betrayed their promise. They behaved like whores, lusting after other gods. So we can see not long between Exodus and Judges, no king in Israel and everyone doing what was right in their own eyes. And you think that is the challenge of freedom. Course of marriage too. Machiavelli mocks this: “The Prince doesn’t bother with promises. What was his word yesterday may not be his word today or tomorrow; whatever is his interest right now is all that matters.” Promises mean nothing. Or you have great atheists like David Hume, who lives in Scotland, the land of the covenanters. And you may know that the English word “whig”—people in history in favour of freedom—comes from the Scottish word for covenanters: they were originally “whiggamors”. But Dave Hume as an atheist says, “This is ridiculous, because humans simply can’t keep promises, so why bother with them?”
Now you can see how important that is in our own day. There’s an incredible amount written about trust in, say, politics. Trust in journalism. Trust in business. Trust in marriages. Trust in families—broken down. There’s no trust in much of our modern societies. Cynicism, suspicion, the hermeneutics of mistrust and so on. Trust is broken. Why? We’re not keeping our promises. I don’t just mean big marriage vows; every day we’re making a promise, many of them little: “See you at eleven o’clock!” You know, we make all sorts of intentions which are promises to the future. If we keep our word and we carry through on what we say, then we become trustworthy: we’re predictable to other people and we can be trustworthy. Our word is our bond and so on, and you can see how the social capital of trust is built up. But that’s the problem with covenantalism: the Lord keeps his; we don’t.
But there’s a third part of it people look at, and that is the greatest requirement of covenantalism, which is it has to be passed down from every generation to every new generation. Again, I’ve said several times this week in Australia, what did Moses say the night of the Passover? Hundreds of years of slavery. Tonight they’re going free. Does he talk about freedom? No. Does he talk about the Promised Land of milk and honey and all that they long for? No. Does he brace them for the howling wilderness? No. He talks about what? Children. You think of the Jewish Seder: the youngest child called on to ask the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” It’s that transmission—passing on—and you can see both with faith and with freedom, always one generation from losing it all.
And that’s the challenge of covenantalism: it depends on people’s word, their promises and the trust that’s built up, and it needs to be transmitted and handed on. And you can see in many of our societies, whether it’s parents to children or the lack of, say, public education of civic affairs, or the disappearance of any sense of history. I was saying in Canberra, one of the professors came up and said in his classes, people in the current generation didn’t even know who Stalin was. Oh my goodness! Where are we with our sense of history? And you have great historians like Neil Ferguson who point out the crisis of history in history departments. And so on, and so on, and so on. Covenantalism requires transmission, and there’s an enormous breakdown of transmission in our modern societies.
Now, as I said, that may be America and today it’s broken down. The rest of the English-speaking world—with one exception: Ireland (sadly the land of my fathers, was not shaped by the Reformation in Ireland). But England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, Australia and other countries were shaped by the Reformation, but only partly. They didn’t take it to that fullest extent. And yet, today, while America’s deeply divided, and you can see the deepest—America’s more divided than any moment since their civil war—and the deepest division in America, it is between those who still see American freedom coming from the American revolution, decisively biblical, and those who are following ideas, and whether they’re aware of it or not, like multiculturalism, political correctness, social constructionism, the sexual revolution—whether they’re aware of it or not, it goes back to the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, and is very different. In America, you can see that divide very starkly.
Now, in England and, I guess, in Australia; I don’t know your country well enough, you can see that liberal Left, with ideas going back to the French Revolution, increasingly powerful. But of course, much of the English-speaking world apart from America and Ireland actually is closer to sort of organic ways: “It’s always been done this way”—half-shaped by the English revolution and the revolution—and half-shaped by various things that have come down through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and so on. But things which today need to be articulated very carefully, because those who are trying to undermine it are incredibly articulate about what they have in mind. So we need to think through freedom as never before.
TP: Now, at this point in the talk, Dr Guinness is just about to move on to talk about freedom in general—about how freedom is won and ordered and sustained. But before he does that, I’d just like to give you a quick reminder about two things. The first is that our next Centre for Christian public event is coming up on August 20th. It’s called “Spirit-inspired Christian living”—that’s the title. The speaker is Phillip Jensen. And it should be a great evening.
It’s going to be addressing the topic of what the Spirit really wants Christians to do, or what the Spirit enables Christians to do. There have been a number of answers to those questions in Christian history: at one extreme, typically, as a more humanistic answer to the question that basically has very little place for the Spirit, but at the other side of things, there’s a more mystical approach to the question that really expects the Spirit to kind of magically solve all our problems. Finding the correct answer there and the right way through—that is, what does the Spirit-inspired Scriptures tell us to expect about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives? That’s the theme that Phillip Jensen will be addressing in the talk on August 20th. It’s at Moore College and for all the details and to order your tickets or to sign up for the livestream, as usual, go to https://ccl.moore.edu.au.
And the second quick thing to remind you about, of course, is to spread the word about this podcast: if you’re enjoying this Centre for Christian Living podcast, go to iTunes and subscribe and rate the podcast there, and share your thoughts on—on what it’s like and join the other reviews there. We’ve got some very nice reviews on iTunes. It’d be great if you could add your voice to that list of reviews. And share the word with your friends. Tell them about this episode or any of the other episodes that you’ve enjoyed. Don’t keep the Centre for Christian Living podcast to yourself.
But back to the question of freedom and the freedom that our society is built on, and how it might be sustained in our culture.
OG: With any political society—these are very simple points, but you need think of simple things to build up your own system—with any society, there are always three parts to establishing freedom: winning it, ordering it and sustaining it. Now, the Americans won their freedom through revolution. The English won their freedom—not through revolution, but through things like Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, various things over the years, which built up to what we would call the ancient liberties of the English, which were very important—not quite as articulate and intentional and clear as, say, the American Revolution, but very very important, and they’ve come down to Australia. So it’s in your blood.
Winning freedom’s easy. Ordering freedom’s actually a little harder. The real challenge is number three: sustaining it. Because freedom never ever lasts forever. And sustaining it, of course, is our challenge. Is Australia as free as it used to be? Is England as free as it used to be? Clearly in many areas no! The challenge is to sustain freedom, and that third task needs to be thought through. The challenge is how do you hope to sustain freedom? That’s the challenge. You can win it, you can order it, but how do you hope to sustain freedom so that freedom truly can last forever? Can it?
Very few people have had a crack at it. Lot of people think that by law—constitution, regulations—you can do it. No you can’t. The great French theorist Montesquieu argued that law provides the structures—and that’s
important to freedom: law, constitution, regulations—but you need the spirit of freedom just as well as the structures of freedom—what his disciple Tocqueville called “the habits of the heart”. It’s got to come down from parents to their children—from teachers to their students—so it’s second nature. The love of freedom and knowing how to live with freedom is a habit of the heart. The spirit of freedom. And if that goes, you’re sunk.
The best proposal to overcome this challenge of sustaining is actually the American Founders: they didn’t give it a name to it. I call it the Golden Triangle of Freedom. But if you read their writings, there were three things they stressed constantly. They’re worth understanding to see if they apply more widely. Free—they had—think of a triangle with three legs: freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith of some sort; faith of any sort requires freedom. And if you think of the recycling triangle, goes round and round and round, faith—sorry—freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom, which requires virtue. And you could go on. Each of those legs was strongly stressed by the American Founders, and each of the three’s been abandoned by America today. And American freedom, quite simply, is not sustainable.
Now, we can look at them with superiority. How do Australians hope that they’re going to sustain freedom over the generations? Do you think you can undercut the Christian roots of so much in Australia and the flowers will live forever? Yours is increasingly a cut flower civilisation. And cut flowers don’t last like perennials in the ground. There’s a relentless logic to some of these things that needs to be considered very seriously, and we who care for freedom and care for justice and care for dignity need to explore these things to understand them so that when we go out into the public square, we can argue for things which are faithful to the Scriptures, but also profoundly important for human society. And the search today is for human communities that have dignity and freedom and justice and shalom and peace and stability, and we’re agents of that in God’s world.
Now, I don’t want to go on much longer than that. But let me just finish with this thought: Tocqueville, whom I mentioned earlier, all his life was comparing the American Revolution, which he admired, but with a good deal of criticism, and the Americans liked the admiration and they forget the criticism very often. He was the one who warned, for example, of the tyranny of the majority, and other things. Anyway. He admired the American Revolution certainly more than the French Revolution. He compared—he was a disappointed lover of his own country’s revolution. At the end of his life, he made this famous remark: “With a revolution, as with a novel, the hardest part to invent is the ending.”
And you can see many people started well, with tremendous ideals or considerable achievements. But it’s the course of what they start over time that is the real challenge. So we can look at our Western civilisation and thank God for the Greek contributions, thank God for the Roman contributions, we can thank God for the biblical contributions—the uniqueness of human dignity, the essential place of freedom, the importance of a very different view of justice—all sorts of things. Equality—there’d be no equality apart from equality before God, and French-style equality is an absolute disaster. Yet we can thank God for the roots of many of these things, but they won’t last forever. And if I understand Australia right, you are at a very pivotal moment.
But we shouldn’t be on the back foot. The gospel is good news. It is the best news ever! And in the Scriptures, we have answers to many of these huge challenges. But we’ve got to make them our own. And then, by God’s grace, with courage and with confidence, move out and argue persuasively, all the while living these things within our own communities.
No other faith, religion, philosophy, worldview has a grounding for freedom. Go back to the Mesopotamians or Syria, Babylon—all in the stars. Many of you know much better your Greeks: look at the Greek tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles and so on: fate. Fate. Fate. But equally any of you know the New Atheists: there isn’t a single serious atheist philosopher who can give you the grounds for freedom. Naturalistic science simply can’t. You have books like Sam Harris’s, which say that freedom is a fiction. The literal, in this case, no other grounds except the Scriptures. Sovereign God has made significant humans in his image, and we are the guardians of some of these things, and this is an hour for courage and confidence and moving out—for the Lord’s sake, but also for our neighbours.
TP: Well, we’re drawing near the end of this special edition of the CCL podcast, featuring Os Guinness on Christian freedom. A few final words from me: thank you for listening and don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast on Overcast or Stitcher or iTunes or wherever you like to get your podcasts.
For details about everything else that the CCL does—for audio and video and text, for example, from all our public events, including the full archive of this podcast, you can go to our website at https://ccl.moore.edu.au.
And if you have any questions or comments, or if there’s a particular issue of Christian living you’d like us to address, then please just get in touch: send us an email— email@example.com—and we’ll get onto it.
But to conclude this presentation: the question many of you may have at this point is, “What can I actually do about all this? How can I respond to all this?” Because Dr Guinness has painted a big picture of the social and political movements and background of, really, our Western democratic culture—of the history of our freedoms and the threats to our freedoms. But what can we do as individuals—as churches—to respond to these challenges? Let’s conclude by hearing Dr Guinness’s answer to that question.
OG: I was saying to another group earlier, if you think of globalisation, many of these problems now are globally sized: they are titanic. Is it any surprise in the global era the dominant world emotion is fear? And it’s certainly true in many churches. But of course the most common refrain in Scripture is what? “Have no fear!” Now, we’ve got to respond with a tremendous confidence in the sovereignty of God. Modernity’s not bigger than our Lord; he is sovereign. So we need a biblical view of history and a theology of the sovereignty of God, but think of René Dubos’ famous thing: “Think globally”—what’s the second half? “Act locally”.
Well, the Christian equivalent of that is that we can think and even pray globally. But then we each have to act in the world in which God has put us, which are very small worlds. So I like to think of calling as a target. Think of a target. We live in the black bullseye. At the moment, I’m living in Washington. Privilege to be here. I don’t live here. Presumably most of you live here. We all live somewhere—that’s our bullseye. Then we can do a lot wider: we can email, we can give money, we can travel, we can do all sorts of things that widen the circles of our influence. And surely the furthest things we can do are to pray. You can pray for countries you couldn’t afford to buy a ticket to. Or you can pray for people in countries that wouldn’t allow you in ’cause they’re, say, North Korea.
But at the end of the day, our widest circles of influence are very small. Thank God! “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matt 6:34). Each of us is a finite, tiny little person. Thank the Lord he’s sovereign, and thank the Lord, too, he has many many others who haven’t bowed the knee to Baal. So we’ve all got to do as much as we can within the spheres of our calling, and I’m going to leave your part to you, my brother, and your part to you, my sister. And what you do is not my business. And I’m not going to worry about you. I couldn’t; I have to worry about myself and trust the Lord in my world. But think of that: “Think globally; act locally.” Think and pray globally and then do your utmost for his highest in the limited time.
We all have only 24 hours, so many dollars in our pocket, so many grey cells in our little old brains, and all we’ve got to do is our utmost for his highest in every part where our calling reaches, and no more. And what you do with yours is your business and the Lord’s, not mine. So I can sleep at night.