Religion and the yearning for freedom

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Healthy religious belief and practice can truly set us free

Freedom is a cry that echoes down the canyons of human history. One of the best metaphors for this echo in the human heart comes from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “New Colossus,” which is inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

All of us yearn to breathe free about something. Many children bear the academic year with the dream of breathing the freedom of summer vacation. Teenagers live in anticipation of the freedom of their driver’s licenses. And someone in a dead-end job lives in hope of the release brought by another job offer. We want freedom in our personal lives, and we want it in our collective existence as well, and we want it so powerfully that we can almost breathe it. The quest for liberty is one of our strongest human instincts.

The most important freedom

Of all the freedoms essential to a flourishing life, religious freedom is arguably the most important. There is a raging debate on this point throughout the Western world, with religion often seeming to lose the argument. The importance of religious freedom contradicts the thoughts of many, such as the so-called “new atheists,” who believe religion can only oppress human freedom and subjugate it to the narrow demands of clerical or authoritarian rule. They would argue that what is great in the human spirit withers before the altar of religious belief and practice. 

I would argue that healthy religion liberates us like no other source. It can free us from the internal demons that haunt us, and from the impediments to self-actualization that prevent us from growing into our fullness of character and personality. More importantly, it frees us from the fear of suffering and death.

The liberty brought by healthy religion produces humans who are confident and courageous, and yet compassionate and humble; serious and willing to walk into confrontation, and yet joyful and committed to peace; grounded in the here and now, and yet also citizens of the “not yet” and the future.

Anyone seeking to change the world needs a working theory of freedom — why we yearn for it, what are its objects, why we are attracted to them, and what part of ourselves remains incomplete when freedom is denied us. They also need a special skill-set for practically applying their theory to the real-life dynamics of humans seeking liberty. This includes maturing through three “prepositions” of liberty — evolving through “freedom from” and “freedom to,” to arrive at “freedom for.”

Freedom to surrender our lives

“Freedom from” is a liberty that releases us from things that hinder us — the restrictions of youth or a job, the real or perceived repression or oppression of others, or the injustice of a policy or practice.

“Freedom to” is the kind of liberty that allows us to pursue what we want or desire. We can smoke, drink, drive, buy a house or other consumer good, travel or stay home, go to school or drop out, begin a relationship or end one.

For those educated and formed by healthy religious traditions, however, the most important freedom is ultimately “freedom for.” You don’t need much experience to realize that “freedom from” and “freedom to” can lead as much to destruction as to construction. But a healthy, integrative religion excels at strengthening our capacity to surrender our lives for something much bigger than casting off the limitations of our oppressors or pursuing our wants and desires.

“Freedom for” empowers us to sacrifice our lives for a greater cause and to do so with joy and peace, bearing any cost, carrying any burden, and embracing any suffering in pursuit of a righteous goal. We can take on suffering in order to lessen the suffering of others, in the ultimate Christic act of solidarity.

One of the great blessings of this moment in history is that an increasing number of people are recognizing religion as a liberating force and are coming to realize that healthy religious belief and practice, when lived reflectively and within communities of vibrant faith, can truly set us free.

Pope Francis: ‘Authentic religion is a source of peace’

Speaking in Albania Sept. 21, Pope Francis told leaders of different religious communities that “religious freedom is not a right which can be guaranteed solely by existing legislation, although laws are necessary.”

“Rather religious freedom is a shared space … an atmosphere of respect and cooperation that must be built with everyone’s participation, even those who have no religious convictions,” he said.

“Authentic religion is a source of peace and not of violence!” the pope added. “No one must use the name of God to commit violence! To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.”

Mark Markuly is the dean of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Northwest Catholic - Nov. 2014