Spiritual freedom and the light in Ukraine

A spoken version of this talk is online here and at my podcast feed, Talks and Thoughts.

Witnessing so many Ukrainians responding courageously to the Russian invasion is moving and impressive. A man fleeing with his children, knowing Russian military tactics are based on razing conurbations. A woman leaving her children at the border to return to the falling city because she must care for her dying mother. Expats going home to fight against a militarily vastly superior oppressor.

There is violence and suffering and death. And yet, in the midst of the tragedy, there can be detected the distinct presence of hope. Points of light outshine the darkness. What is the source of this faith and powerful resilience?

I think it is the value of freedom, which is being highlighted so acutely. People are lamenting the loss of freedoms. They’re fighting for it. Their dear testimony is a reminder of what is so easily taken for granted when you’re born in a country used to freedom.

But the situation also raises the question of just what this freedom is? The issue forces its way to the surface not only because of the violence and sense of threat, but because of the possibility that, in western Europe, we are being asked to defend freedom – in the first instance, morally, and by absorbing the price hikes that will come with sanctions; and also because defending freedom menaces us with the spectre of war, too.

What sacrifice would I make in the name of freedom? What fear and damage might I be prepared to suffer? Such direct questions insist on a clear notion of the freedom that can ask much of us, perhaps all.

The well-known distinction made by the philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, provides a starting point for reflection. He is famous for writing about the difference between two types of freedom, “freedom from” and “freedom for”.

Freedom from captures the basic liberal notion of being free from hindrance. It is the liberty to pursue life as you see fit, in a manner as unconstrained by state or ideology as possible. Freedom from has shaped the modern West. It is good.

But this notion of self-determination is vulnerable because it tends to treat people as isolated selves, whose freedoms will collide. In order to settle the trade-offs, systems of laws and rights emerge, which simultaneously tend to exacerbate a sense of difference between people. Culture wars are one result.

Berlin’s second type of freedom, freedom for, then comes into play. It conveys a thicker sense of liberty by asking what ends and aspirations freedom has? What is freedom for?

Common answers to that question are the freedom to be with whom you love, or the freedom to live a way of life that is yours, or the freedom to critique or champion, think and enjoy. If freedom from is about preserving life, freedom for gives life content and meaning.
However, freedom for can run into trouble as well, not least in a consumer age, when it readily devolves to freedom of choice. That, again, precipitates disputes and leaves freedom feeling vulnerable and thin.

The lightness of such accounts of freedom becomes undeniable particularly when you think about what freedoms you would die for. Is the freedom to consume worth the ultimate sacrifice – not least because that would in itself take away your ability to enjoy freedom for and freedom from? You would no longer be around to know it.

And yet, people are prepared to die for freedom. We see that in Ukraine so clearly. The question is why?

A third type of freedom has an answer. It is “freedom to”. This liberty is the freedom to align yourself with what is good, beautiful and true – qualities that transcend your own life but within which it can be embedded. Such freedom may be exercised in little moments as well as big – indeed, it is a good idea to practice this type of liberty in the little moments, so as to establish its vitality within you: the freedom to ask what is right, the freedom to recognise another, the freedom to learn to trust love over hate.

Remarkably, this third kind of freedom cannot be taken away from you. Fierce oppression may attempt to undermine your faith in it. But because it is held within, and does not depend upon external circumstances or gratification, it is robust, even eternal. Death itself cannot remove this freedom, which is why the lives of martyrs live on and saintly acts enliven others’ hearts.

The most profound sense of freedom is, therefore, rightly called spiritual. Socrates, for one, lived by it when he died at the hands of the Athenian state by drinking hemlock. He was sure that the freedom of his soul mattered more than the longevity of his body – not only to him, but also to his fellow citizens when they turned against him. His sacrifice would keep the flame of truth alight.

Which highlights something else: freedom to can be daunting because we may not know whether we would hold fast to it until the extreme moment. It may ask everything of us and, because of that, it can induce what the psychotherapist, Erich Fromm, called “the fear of freedom”. Fromm was writing in the aftermath of the Second World War and realised that tyrants can manipulate the fear of freedom by seducing people with promises of security, guaranteed at the point of gun.

The fear of freedom. Freedom from. Freedom for. Freedom to. Where does this analysis leave us?

I sense it reveals that the source of the light that can be detected in the darkness descended on Ukraine is the refusal of false promises. The hope that survives the tragedy stems from the reality of undying freedom. The good in the soul of Ukraine, which has already survived centuries of onslaught, is palpably present.

People are aligning themselves with what’s good and true once more. The beauty might inspire us, as we pray and hope and stay with the suffering and horror.