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False Freedom and the Slavery of Autonomy

You are the generation most afraid of real community because it inevitably limits freedom and choice. Get over your fear.
— 
Tim Keller on Twitter, July 29, 2013

I hate going to restaurants with large menus. As dish after dish stares up at me, with tempting descriptions following one after another, the thought of choosing only one paralyzes me. I usually narrow my choice down to one of two options, and then, when the server finally arrives, I glance down and impulsively order something else that just caught my eye. Or, if it's a restaurant I know, I just end up playing it safe with my regular meal. I'm scared of committing myself to a food choice, making the wrong one, and losing out on all the other good meals I might have enjoyed that night.

My restaurant anxieties are, I think, a small, admittedly ridiculous microcosm of the problem with choice-making among my generation (millennials) in general. It's not that we make bad choices (though sometimes we do); it's that we are bad at choosing. Why? We have a screwy view of the relationship between freedom of choice and happiness. Americans value freedom and choice in general, but being the iPod generation who grew up with thousands of choices at our fingertips (it takes me four minutes to choose an album for a five-minute drive), the problem's metastasized for us.

Taking too long to choose a song is annoying but not really that big a deal. The problem comes with the larger issues in life, especially relationships. Being a millennial myself and working with them every week, I see this problem all the time. Inability to choose inevitably leads to inability to have the real community we were created for.

Freedom, Choices, and Fears

If I were smarter, I'd probably provide some intellectual history and talk about the transition from the classical views of community, freedom, and happiness with Aristotle or Augustine, to the shift we see in the modern period in Kant and Mill (autonomy, utilitarianism, modern individualism) and eventually trace this trend to the radically bastardized forms we find today. But I'm not Charles Taylor, so I won't.

Instead, I'll just note that we've arrived at a point culturally where unconstrained freedom and choice are considered “hypergoods,” goods valued in and of themselves regardless of their use or non-use. This forms the underlying, largely unexpressed background to our more everyday fears and desires that keep us from choosing community. It's the setting in which our (non)-actions become intelligible and defensible to those around us and ourselves.

Though there are likely more, at least four street-level reasons stand out to me for why we're scared to limit our freedom and choice by committing to actual community.

1. Fear of missing out.

I didn't know it, but my friend Katie told me that #fomo (fear of missing out) is a thing. And it makes sense. We're a generation of experience junkies who are terrified of missing out on anything. The thought of not being in that Instagram pic at X cool experience is painful. For many of us, our deepest need is to taste and try everything and travel everywhere, which can end up meaning we've settled nowhere and don't really know anyone. We're ready to go any place for action by perpetually never having any place to be. Just try and get a college kid to sign up for something more than a day in advance and you'll see what I mean.

2. Fear of settling. 

Collin Hansen has pointed out we've been told our whole lives not to “settle” for anything, especially not in relationships. I see guys and girls in their 30s still feeling out their “options,” not risking the commitment because they just can't “settle.” (Not that every single in their 30s is doing this, or that singleness per se is bad.) Whether it's a job, dating, or picking a church—or not picking a church because we're worried we won't find the right person to date—we're paralyzed about actually committing to someone or some place because we might be settling for less.

3. Fear of being hurt.

It's not all the fault of narcissism and selfishness. In some ways our generation has more reasons than any before it to distrust and fear commitments and communities. The U.S. divorce rate testifies to the emotional wreckage many of us walked through as children as we watched our (or our friend's) parents' marriages destroyed. Corporations and public institutions we trusted have betrayed that trust. To commit to community, then, is to commit to risk being hurt yet again.

4. Fear of accountability. 

We're community-phobic because we're accountability-phobic. We're anti-authoritarian to a degree that inhibits us from seeing the value and necessity of loving correction and accountability for how we use our freedom. We avoid community because we're scared for anyone to know us well enough to call us out on anything. So we simply don't commit. We date casually, switch jobs constantly, and find the idea of actual membership in a church overwhelming. And this is “freedom” and “happiness.”

Particular Choices and True Freedom

The problem with this whole approach, though, is there comes a point when not choosing becomes a choice (Kierkegaard, Either/Or). Not choosing anyone means choosing no one. Not choosing anywhere means choosing nowhere. Ironically, the inability to make a choice is not freedom but slavery to autonomy.

In the Bible, we see that true freedom has a covenantal flavor. God, by definition, is free, unconstrained, and unbound. All of our freedom derives from his. And God demonstrates his freedom—the freedom of sovereign love—in making a choice, a covenant, binding himself to a people in condescending love. Analogically, we find our greatest freedom in making an actual choice instead of just keeping our options open. Freedom is found in choosing the particular, not choice in general.

Tim Keller gets at this point in The Reason for God. Discussing the issue of freedom and boundaries, he points out that freedom isn't just unconstrained choices without boundaries, but rather finding the kinds of boundaries that liberate us to be fully alive (pp. 47-50). When you choose, you can actually get in on something. But if you constantly keep your options open, you're not actually free to enjoy or know anything. Some meals at that fabulous restaurant need reservations months in advance. Getting to that must-see concert demands time, energy, effort, and blocking out that day on the calendar for no other purpose. Finishing a book requires not starting 100 others at the same time.

We see this point at work in love, too. While some guys might find the freedom of dating girl after girl appealing, we find the joy of deep freedom in finally landing. When you choose someone to love, yes, you have to sacrifice other choices, other options, other ways the world might have been. But you're finally free to give yourself to her, fully and completely. You're free to spend time getting to know her instead of briefly and casually perusing the surface-level presentations of the millions of other women out there. You can be fully open and fully known, instead of just browsing through relationships. That's the difference between joy and mere amusement.

Of course, this choice does involve risk. Keller reminds us of that famous passage in C. S. Lewis's The Four Loves on the risk of love:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.

That's where many of us are headed because of our fear of the vulnerability that comes with joining and loving a community. We'll end up damned to an empty freedom filled with little hobbies, Instagram photos full of nice trips, and updates of great experiences without any deep or lasting relationships with any of the people in them.

Risking True Community

At some point, we must risk the choice of community. We must trust that the God who determined the time and place of our birth and life (Acts 17:26) is also the one who chose to become a particular man in a particular place—a man who risked love, suffered the rejection we fear in our place, and saved us from our misguided attempts at self-damnation to bring us into community with the triune God himself. Only then will we overcome our fears of loving particular people in particular places and experience the deep joy of love, of knowing and being known, of community.

If you're wondering where to begin this bold step of entering community, but don't know where to start, I'd suggest your local church, the body of which Christ is the head (Col. 1:18). A church that believes and preaches the gospel will depend on grace and be ready to give it. Christians there will be humble and therefore vulnerable, honest with their own failings and safe to deal with yours. More importantly, the church is called according to God's purposes and sustained by his promises—God's own covenant people kept by his sure Word.

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