Promoting a Flourishing Society
 

When I Train I am Free

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

December 22, 2010

I don't usually adopt personal advice from sporting billboards, but McDonald's has been serving free coffee for almost a week now and one vice seemed to lead to the other. Sitting in the drive-through, idling my engine for a free hit of caffeine bliss, I've stared at this local gym message most of this week: "When I train, I am free." And I think the gym actually got it right.

I don't usually adopt personal advice from sporting billboards, but McDonald's has been serving free coffee for almost a week now and one vice seemed to lead to the other. Sitting in the drive-through, idling my engine for a free hit of caffeine bliss, I've stared at this local gym message most of this week: "When I train, I am free." And I think the gym actually got it right.

This issue of Cardus Policy in Public is about institutional religious freedom, specifically, but more generally, the boundaries of conviction and expression in a democratic society. At the heart of this conversation is not simply the question, "What is religion?"—though it is clear we in Canada have anything but consensus on that—but also, what is freedom? The connection between religious conviction and a secular principle like freedom is unsettling for some. Indeed, freedom—as Justin Trottier argues in his Munk Debate contra Ray Pennings—is popularly considered the antithesis of religion.

But freedom seems to be in some trouble. If it's not the high-stakes "Operation Enduring Freedom" or "the future of institutional freedom," it's challenges about academic freedoms, free speech, free markets, free credit, and more. Deep inside this social angst lives a series of contradictory and dual perceptions: on the one hand, we are told we're living in the freest age ever, one of unparalleled choice; on the other, there is a profound sense of resignation and hopelessness in the face of massive forces of market and ideology. Corporations are "too big to fail." We are lifetime prisoners of a system of unparalleled choice.

Political philosophers sometimes call this contradiction positive and negative freedom: freedom for something, and freedom from something. The latter we have developed relatively well, whereas the former we have treated with collective agonisticism. The latter enables self-actualization, but the former tells us why actualization matters. It is the telos of the thing, as Aristotle liked to say. Michal Novak says we have no common telos or "sacred canopy" above the diversity of desires, only an "empty shrine" or "wasteland" where common goals used to stand.

Clinging to negative freedom is still politically fashionable, even though it fell out of favour with thinking persons decades ago. The idea that autonomous human beings can agnostically situate themselves, morally and politically, in places of their own choosing is philosophically short of silly hubris. Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we are never more, often less, than the half-authors of our own stories. Freedom is something received, not merely exercised.

So when I train, I am free--because when I train, I know what I'm after, and I practice a coherent telos. Positive and negative freedom work in tandem, ordered by desire. And training is hard work. A sceptical eye could consider it punishment. It certainly has its unpleasantness, as any first-time runner will find. But we are free exactly because we have desired the end of training and embraced its accompanying disciplines, usually in a community of virtue.

How, then, could the idea of institutional religious freedom be oxymoronic? Actually, if we believe the pundits and practitioners in this issue, there is no freedom without telos, without religion. Without it, we are prisoners of pragmatism and whatever confused pieces of moral inheritance have lodged in our imaginations. We are free from a great deal.

But without freedom for, we have what Will Cavanaugh calls unfreedom: consequentialism soaked up from the fashions of the day, in service of poorly understood and incoherent desires. A rush to consume, to be free, to self-actualize in ways predicated by the best marketers and spinsters. Nietzsche got that right.

So how can we truly be free? One answer is to get serious about things like institutional religious freedom. Supporting and debating the freedoms of religious institutions to believe and practice those beliefs in public ways—ways that unsettle, yes, but also creatively challenge the pragmatic unfreedom of Canadian public life. I don't mean to pretend it's an easy solution. A great many things are licensed in the name of religion, even in Canada. But without a robust principled pluralism facilitating the politics of a deeper democracy, our public life is vacuous and our freedom is cheapened.

Contra cosmopolitans like Quentin Skinner, too much talk of telos—of ontology—is not bad for a pluralistic society. In fact, it may be only in a society where there is much talk of ontology, of the fundamental ends and structures of human life, that genuine pluralism can flourish.