Freedom and Identity

John F. Doherty
May 10, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

“There is no doubt,” Joseph Ratzinger has written , “the era we call modern times has been determined from the beginning by the theme of freedom.” Today, says writer Jacques Philippe, “freedom appears very nearly the only value about which people still agree unanimously.”

Most recently, this enthusiasm for freedom, the power of self-determination, has focused on the self as such, or identity. Some, as Yuval Levin notes in A Time to Build , are struggling for political freedom by emphasizing “group identity and structural power relationships among different racial, ethnic, sexual, and socioeconomic camps.” To challenge their perspective, they think, is “to dismiss [the] very being” of oppressed people. For others, Ratzinger notes, “existence itself” has become oppressive: they want “to be free from [their] own human nature,” sometimes by altering their bodies permanently.

Contemporary zeal for self-liberation has drawn public attention to a perennial question: In what is the human person’s “very being”—our freedom and identity—grounded?

“Very being” is the theme of metaphysics, the subject in which philosophy steps into religion; for perfect being just is God. Unsurprisingly, many identity activists display a religious spirit, as Levin notes. They use the “framework of Puritan theology,” with its “rich vocabulary of defilement, taboo, and purification” and its zeal for “orthodoxy backed by powerful moral imperatives.” Their aim, “as they understand it themselves,” and despite the violence of some of them, “is not to crush dissent or dominate society,” but to seek justice, “to proclaim liberty to captives” like the prophet Isaiah . The identity movement answers a hunger for God in our secularized “age starved for liturgy (let alone for theology).” Therefore, we must not only promote civility and free speech, but also speak to people’s “deep and legitimate hunger for the good and true.”

Levin calls us to convert others’ minds to truth by proposing better arguments. But people starved for God also need the deeper conversion of the will, or heart. We must redirect our good and natural loves for freedom and identity beyond politics to their highest, spiritual objects. Jacques Philippe’s book Interior Freedom can show us how.

We must redirect our good and natural loves for freedom and identity beyond politics to their highest, spiritual objects. Jacques Philippe’s book “Interior Freedom” can show us how.

Finding Freedom Even under Oppression

The “aspiration for freedom,” Philippe says, “contains something very true and noble,” even though it may not always appear so.

Throughout history, many have struggled admirably for freedom from oppressions like slavery, legalized racism, and their social aftermath. But for others, defending “the freedom of the individual is less a recognition of an ethical law than a declaration of individualism—nobody can prevent me from doing what I feel like!” In other cases, as Levin suggests, people say they want one sort of freedom but really want another. Some might speak the language of “resistance and rejection, but ultimately [yearn] for inclusion, equal justice, and belonging.” Others might seek unlimited freedom to follow their sexual feelings, when they really want to heal wounds from sexual abuse they suffered, or to find the love they lacked growing up in their families. Others might follow new forms of racism, but what they really want is to escape drug addiction or unemployment.

In all cases, freedom-seekers are trying to recover a solid grounding for their lives—for their “very being.” But many are deeply confused.

The confusion at the root of all others, Philippe says, concerns the nature of freedom itself: “to make it into something external, depending on circumstances;” to focus on “the restrictions imposed on us by society, the obligations of all kinds that other people lay upon us, this or that physical or health limitation, and so on.”

The truth is, freedom is “primarily internal.” The truly free person can survive—and even grow freer—under the most oppressive external circumstances. One might think of the heroic Holocaust victims whose experiences Viktor Frankl relates in Man’s Search for Meaning . Philippe himself presents the example of a Dutch Jewish woman, Esther “Etty” Hillesum, who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp. Etty practiced neither Judaism nor Christianity, but under their influence, she developed a deep appreciation of the inner life of the person. “If you have a rich interior life,” she once wrote, “I would have to say, there probably isn’t all that much difference between the inside and outside of a [prison] camp.”

She explained more in a diary entry after the Nazis’ occupation of her country:

This morning I cycled along . . . enjoying the broad sweep of the sky at the edge of the city, breathing in the fresh, unrationed air. And everywhere signs barring Jews from the paths and the open country. But above the one narrow path still left to us stretches the sky, intact. They can’t do anything to us, they really can’t. They can harass us, they can rob us of our material goods, of our freedom of movement, but we ourselves forfeit our greatest assets by our misguided compliance. By our feelings of being persecuted, humiliated, oppressed. By our own hatred. By our swagger, which hides our fear. We may of course be sad and depressed by what has been done to us; that is only human and understandable. However, our greatest injury is one we inflict upon ourselves.

That “greatest injury” is to seek freedom “in . . . possessions and power,” Philippe says. That is the world’s notion of freedom, the one the Nazis tried to get Etty to accept to break her spirit. To be bitter for lacking such external freedom, she believed, was to play right into their hands—a “misguided compliance.” The world, Philippe continues, “forgets that the only people who are truly free are those who have nothing left to lose. Despoiled of everything, detached from everything, they are ‘free from all men’ and all things. It can be truly said that their death is already behind them.”

Accepting One’s True Identity

The greatest enemy of our freedom, which we all must confront, whether we live under a totalitarian regime or in a free society, is our deep-seated tendency to create and cling to a simplistic, false notion of our identity.

“One of man’s deepest needs is the need for identity. We need to know who we are; we need to exist in our own eyes and other people’s,” observes Philippe. But we are also “born with a deep wound, experienced as a lack of being. We seek to compensate by constructing a self different from our real self,” based not on what we are but on what we have: our abilities, our looks, what others think of us, or even our moral excellence. “This artificial self requires large amounts of energy to maintain; . . . being fragile, it needs protecting. Woe to anyone who contradicts it, threatens it, questions it, or inhibits its expansion.”

This morbid focus on our own good “leads to spiritual pride: consciously or not, we consider ourselves the source of that good.” We “pass judgment on those who do not accomplish as much as we do.” We get “impatient with those who prevent us from carrying out a given project.” Our “[f]ailures are unendurable, because instead of being seen as normal, even beneficial, they are perceived as an attack on our being.”

True freedom is humility: to shed this “constructed self.” Humility is not humiliation; it is not to consider myself worthless, or to expect nothing but bad things from life, as though that were all I deserved. “Humility is truth.” It is to recognize “that all the good we are able to do,” and our life itself, “is a free gift” that depends less on our effort than on a Being of infinite goodness and strength—God. Humility, “spiritual poverty, . . . locates our identity securely in the one place where it will be safe from all harm. If our treasure is in God, no one can take it from us.”

True freedom is humility.

Philippe speaks as a Christian, but universal human experience confirms his perspective. Even without a revelation, I can see that I am radically dependent. My human nature came from my parents; and it is hard to think how any limited, not-strictly-necessary beings like us should be, unless we were made and constantly kept in being by the one necessary, complete Being who is by nature —our Father in existence.

And God made human beings especially his children. Animals are alive, too, but they know and desire nothing beyond their particular good: they are oblivious to any greater ends to which nature impels them. I, however, perceive and long for truth and happiness beyond what natural life offers. I can choose how to pursue happiness, or even seek the happiness of others. And my “I” extends beyond time, outlasting the changes of my body. I share in eternity—God’s own unbounded, unfading way of life.

Like any good parent, God calls us to use our identity well—to reject the misery of evil and to choose the good. But also like a parent, “Our Father in heaven does not love us because of the good we do.” He simply “loves us for ourselves.” True, he formed us according to a law of nature that is subject to his wise justice. But being complete in himself, he did not have to make us. He did so with perfect generosity— not from need or duty, but from mercy , the same mercy by which he can remake us if we sin—provided we seek forgiveness.

“Human beings are . . . children of God.” That is the true bedrock of their identity, a foundation that can endure any outward bondage.

“This doesn’t mean objective situations don’t sometimes exist that need to be changed,” Philippe cautions, “or oppressive circumstances”—illness, poverty, war—“that need to be remedied before the heart can experience real interior freedom.” But let’s be honest: for very many of us, “quite often we . . . blame our surroundings, while the real problem is elsewhere: our lack of freedom stems from a lack of love”—from our refusal to be generous like our Creator: to put others before ourselves, forgive them if necessary, and escape the tyrannical cycle of grudges and retaliation. “People who haven’t learned how to love will always feel like victims; they will feel restricted wherever they are. But people who love never feel restricted.”

Christians like Philippe are predisposed to admit these points. After all, they believe that God became one of us, freed us from sin and its terrors by his death and resurrection, and invites us to enter that new, resurrected life by bearing our own sufferings well. But other religions share many of Philippe’s convictions about freedom and identity, as do people of no particular creed, like Etty Hillesum. Anyone with an open mind will profit from reading Interior Freedom .

Long live freedom! But no freedom will satisfy us unless we have freedom within: unless little by little, you and I let go of our egos, worries, and comfort-seeking and approach each moment from the perspective of eternity.

Freedom through Friendship

Long live freedom! But no freedom will satisfy us unless we have freedom within: unless little by little, you and I let go of our egos, worries, and comfort-seeking and approach each moment from the perspective of eternity.

Freedom is to live continually face-to-face, as a friend , with the Being who is the fullness of Life. He is always with us, whether we be in the peace of our home, isolated and confined in prison, or at death’s door. If we anchor our identity in him, he can give us serenity, courage, and light even in what seem to be the darkest times.

Then we can be light to our neighbors who may still be looking for freedom and identity in the wrong places. Through our friendship, they can sense God alive in the world; and God can heal their despair and bring them, too, to experience fully the freedom of being his children .