Progress for democracy lies in enhancing the actual freedom, initiative, and spontaneity of the individual, not only in certain private and spiritual matters, but above all in the activity fundamental to every man’s existence, his work. [i] 


Erich Fromm

In part I, I explored freedom as a social activity. Describing it as radical freedom, I suggested that freedom isn’t so much what I can do, but what I can do for others. Continuing along that theme, I’ll look at freedom through the lenses of theology and political psychology.

Erich Fromm (1900-1980), the preeminent twentieth century social psychologist and psychoanalyst, in his analysis on fascism, describes freedom as a potentially destructive pull between two opposite spheres: the individual and the social. Freedom becomes a negative force whenever one pole is emphasized at the expense of the other. A complete surrender of our freedom to the social (e.g. authority, government, institution) sacrifices individuality for security, thus leading to totalitarianism. However, freedom without a social component leads to isolation, terror, and fear. In either case one sacrifices responsibility.

Erich_Fromm_1974 (1)
Erich Fromm, 1974. Müller-May / Rainer Funk / CC BY-SA 3.0 (DE)

For Fromm, the answer to this problem (social vs. individual) is spontaneous activity, which he describes as the activity “of the total integrated personality [ii].” He writes,

Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of his self; for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world—with man, nature, and himself. Love is the foremost component of such spontaneity; not love as the dissolution of the self in another person, not love as the possession of another person, but love as spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self. [iii]

Thus, spontaneity is our ability to reach out and incorporate the experiences, culture, and narratives of others. Spontaneity affirms the world—our social environment—without sacrificing our individuality. The basis of such spontaneity originates in our willingness to embrace others as essential and vital to our own wellbeing. Consequently, spontaneity is the ultimate balance between individual and communal responsibility. It’s the realization that others are necessary for the continued development of my own mental and emotional well-being. I can’t be myself without others, nor can I be myself when absorbed by the community. The balance—individual/communal—is one vital to the active and creative spirit. Fromm states, “In all spontaneous activity this individual embraces the world. Not only does his individual self remain intact; it becomes stronger and more solidified. For the self is as strong as it is active [iv]. Reaching out—affirming the other—is the ultimate expression of our individuality, spirit, and freedom. However, such an action is only possible if it is done in love. I cannot act for the well-being or others without the motivating force of love. Moreover, the same goes for our individuality. I cannot act in the best interest of others if I have no love for myself. As such, love for both others and ourselves is the key for acting responsibly. According to Fromm, our best defense against Fascism lies in our responsibility toward ourselves and others. Without one or the other, we’re easily swayed into sacrificing our freedom—and the responsibility that goes with it.

Fromm advocates for a positive freedom—freedom from authority to realize one’s individuality, and the freedom to act spontaneously for others. Positive freedom “is identical with the full realization of the individual’s potentialities, together with his ability to live actively and spontaneously” [v]. The free society is one that acts in the best interests of others by expanding the means and opportunity for a equal, just, and happy society for all. Such a society (comprised of fully-realized free individuals) acts not from the pressures of external forces (state, church, law, ideology, metaphysical ideal, and so on) but because it’s the right thing to do. Consequently, freedom becomes an individual and social responsibility. To be free is to act for others, being willing and able to address those areas where freedom is lacking. Fromm calls this the “victory of freedom.” It is the freedom of possibility, one in which life needs no other justification other than growth and happiness. In his words,

The victory of freedom is possible only if democracy develops into a society in which the individual, his growth and happiness, is the aim and purpose of culture, in which life does not need any justification in success or anything else, and in which the individual is not subordinated to or manipulated by any power outside of himself, be it the State or the economic machine. . . [v]

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) echoes this sentiment of Fromm. Freedom, according to Tillich, has an interdependent relationship with destiny. Explaining destiny, Tillich states, “Destiny points to this situation in which man finds himself, facing the world to which, at the same time, he belongs” [vi]. For Tillich, destiny isn’t an impersonal force that determines our future. Rather, destiny speaks to the dynamic relationship our freedom has with our environment—community, church, nation, world. Freedom isn’t an absolute, it’s tied to the people and places in which we are immersed. In fact, our freedom functions in correlation with the freedom of others. As such, each of us face a certain degree of determinism. We’re not free to do whatever we want. We’re constrained by our environment, not just by our actions, but also by opportunity. Simply put, some are not as free as others—e.g. career, economics, healthcare, etc.

Like Fromm, Tillich considers freedom to be tied to two conflicting poles: individual freedom and destiny. Despite the conditioned nature of our freedom, Tillich considers destiny to be a necessary condition. The unity of the human individual exists and functions within this tension between freedom and destiny. Freedom, without destiny—i.e. others—loses its meaning. Tillich writes,

To lose one’s destiny is to lose the meaning of one’s being. Destiny is not a meaningless fate. It is necessity united with meaning. The threat of a possible meaningless is a social as well as an individual reality. There are periods in social life, as well as in personal life, during which this threat is especially acute. Our present situation is characterized by a profound and desperate feeling of meaninglessness. Individuals and groups have lost any faith they may have had in their destiny as well as any love of it. . . . The loss of a meaningful destiny involves the loss of freedom also. [vii]

There is no such thing as freedom alone. Our freedom is conditioned (positively and negatively) by our environment. Where we live, the things that matter to us, and the work that we do is in some way tied to our destiny, our environment. And yet, how we live, which things matter to us, and the work we choose to do is a matter of freedom. Consequently, destiny imparts meaning upon our freedom. Our ability to care, to make our world better results from destiny. Losing our destiny runs the risk of a host of abuses. Individually speaking this means losing oneself within a meaningless life. Socially this is the disastrous loss of community—existential isolation (loss of destiny) affects us both individually and socially.

Tillich describes freedom as a manifestation of the total self. Meaning that “every part and every function which constitutes man a personal self participates in his freedom” [viii]. Freedom, as far as Tillich is concerned, isn’t just one part of our being. Freedom comprises every aspect of being. Each of us, at least ontologically, is free. Such freedom is experienced through what Tillich describes as deliberation, decision, and responsibility [ix]. Deliberation and decision relate to our ability to evaluate several options, ultimately choosing one option over others. Obviously, our freedom involves choosing one path at the expense of others. The opening of one door implies the closing of others. Logically, we might consider this the end of freedom. We evaluate our options and make a decision. Interestingly however, Tillich adds a third experience of freedom—responsibility. Our freedom implies responsibility. We do not act in a vacuum. The choices that we make not only affect ourselves, they affect others as well. Thus, we are held accountable to the choices that we make in our freedom. According to Tillich,

The word ‘responsibility’ points to the obligation of the person who has freedom to respond if he is questioned about his decisions. He cannot ask anyone else to answer for him. He alone must respond, for his acts are determined neither by something outside him nor by any part of him but by the centered totality of his being. Each of us is responsible for what has happened through the center of his self, the seat and organ of his freedom. [x]

I believe this suggests something fundamentally important about freedom. Freedom suggests that we’re accountable for our actions. That is, we cannot act in our freedom without those actions having an effect on those around us. Consequently, what Tillich suggests is the interconnectedness between the individual and his or her environment. We cannot act independently from our environment, nor can we act without our decisions having an impact on our environment. As such, we are responsible for our actions, including the implications those actions have on our environment, community, nation, and world. Accordingly, destiny doesn’t just shape our freedom, the decisions we make also continue to shape our destiny. We stand within the tension between freedom and destiny. Though shaped by destiny (environment) our actions also shape the future of that destiny. Moreover, we can revolt against our destiny and the deterministic fate it holds over us. To have this alternative, to rebel against the status quo, reflects what it means to be free [xi]. To not act, to accept things as they are, is also a choice we make in our freedom.

What Tillich forces us to consider is the complex nature in which we live our freedom. Determined, but never fully so, we’re never left off the hook for our actions. To be free is to be responsible. To act or not to act, we’re ultimately left room to be spontaneous (returning again to Fromm). Freedom carries with it the willingness and necessity to risk ourselves for others. Freedom isn’t ours alone, but something that we share within a matrix of spheres—social, cultural, political, and religious. We can either choose to accept injustice or fight against it. We can live within inequality or rebel against it.  Our freedom is a finite freedom. It carries with it the expectation of learning from past mistakes, the willingness to make adjustments, and the desire to be transformed. Tillich describes it as the “actualizing of finite freedom” [xii]. There are perhaps several ways of interpreting this, but I connect this to what Tillich describes as “being a creature.” He states that to be a creature means “both to be rooted in the creative ground of the divine life and to actualize one’s self through freedom. Creation is fulfilled in the creaturely self-realization which is simultaneously freedom and destiny” [xiii]. Our freedom is a gift, within it contains our greatest attributes: independence, self-awareness, creativity, and so on. And yet, those gifts—inherited from the Fall—carry the burden of expectation. Our creative spirit isn’t ours alone. Our independent and creative spirit is forever dependent on its creative ground—God. This gift (our freedom) carries the expectation of responsibility. How will I use my gift of freedom? Will I use it selfishly for myself alone or for others?

However, a question still remains. What does it mean to be responsible? In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (1906-1945) thought, he affirms responsibility as an act in freedom. He writes,

To act out of concrete responsibility means to act in freedom—to decide, to act, and to answer for the consequences of this particular action myself without the support of other people or principles. Responsibility presupposes ultimate freedom in assessing a given situation, in choosing, and in acting. Responsible action is neither determined from the outset nor defined once and for all; instead, it is born in the given situation. [xiv]

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1987-074-16,_Dietrich_Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer, date unknown. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-074-16 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Bonhoeffer frames responsibility as an act of freedom within a given situation. Consequently, responsibility requires an acute judgement and awareness of the specific problems of one’s historical situation. To act responsibly means to act in the moment, not blindly applying an absolute (even an absolute good) from above, but using one’s freedom to enter into the situation. Responsibility, according to Bonhoeffer, is neither passive nor abstract. Instead, responsible action is the freedom to extend, to give of oneself to the situation at hand. Freedom doesn’t run from responsibility, it runs toward it. Thus, freedom and responsibility are bound within a complex and intertwined dynamic. We cannot be free of responsibility, nor can we be responsible without freedom. Bonhoeffer states,

Responsibility and freedom are mutually corresponding concepts. Responsibility presupposes freedom substantively—not chronologically—just as freedom can exist only in the exercise of responsibility. Responsibility is human freedom that exists only by being bound to God and neighbor. [xv]

Responsibility, according to Bonhoeffer, connects us to God and our neighbor. It is an act bound to the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves. It consists of action “nourished not by an ideology but by reality, which is why one can only act within the boundaries of that reality” [xvi]. Indeed, responsible acts are real acts. That is it means to shed the ideologies and coercive forces that compel us to act for ourselves rather than others. Thus, Bonhoeffer describes responsibility as conforming to Christ. We best exercise our freedom, and the responsibility it entails, when Christ is our model of freedom and responsibility. He states,

To act responsibly means to include in the formation of action human reality as it has been taken on by God in Christ. . . . No one has the responsibility of turning the world into the kingdom of God, but only of taking the next necessary step that corresponds to God’s becoming human in Christ. [xvii]

Our freedom doesn’t require us to “turn the world upside down” but to do what is right and necessary within our given context. Responsible action, enacted and carried out by freedom, “has to proceed step-by-step, ask what is possible, and entrust the ultimate step, and thus the ultimate responsibility, to another hand [xviii].” Here Bonhoeffer makes a subtle but key move. Responsibility isn’t ours alone. It’s not an action dependent on our individual will. Instead, responsibility is a social endeavor. We work to change the given situation together, rather than relying on our own might. Thus, freedom and responsibility work best when they’re socially enacted. Meaning that the work we do is work that should be done in correlation with our neighbors, community, and church. Consequently, meaningful social change must include a desire to embrace the social. Of course, such work begins with individuals willing to risk themselves for the possibility of social change. And yet, it can’t end with the individual alone. Our freedom and responsibility must include others. It must include others so that we can make that step-by-step change described by Bonhoeffer. Furthermore, socially minded freedom and responsibility ensures that our work doesn’t end with us. It continues on in the lives of others.

Today, I believe that we’ve lost the sense of responsibility and community that comes with living in a free society. We’ve lost what it means to be free. We lack that spontaneous outpouring of the self for others. Instead, we selfishly cling to “freedom” defending it as an individual right rather than one we all share in collectively. What Fromm, Tillich, and Bonhoeffer all affirm is the necessity of the social. Freedom shared, extended and expanded for all, is the best defense against the national and fascist ideologies we currently face both home and abroad. Freedom will always run the risk between the two poles of the individual and the social; freedom and destiny. And yet, what they show is that it’s necessary to live in the tension between both. Democracy best functions when our individual freedoms affirm, support, and work to extend the freedoms of others. And yet, doing so requires our work as individuals. It requires the hard efforts of those able to live as socially responsible individuals in community. True freedom isn’t guaranteed by the state or the individual. It’s guaranteed by the community living and working together as individuals in relationship.

Freedom as social responsibility is radical freedom. Freedom that is radically free is one that understands that the social isn’t optional. We can’t be free if we don’t care about others. Freedom that disregards migrants and immigrants, that celebrates in the extension of wealth to the few, that promotes racist and nationalistic ideology above love, isn’t freedom at all. It doesn’t model the radical freedom that Christianity is supposed to uphold. It fails to actualize the gift of freedom that God has bestowed upon us. To conclude, I think Bonhoeffer best expresses what it means to live in freedom. He writes,

Those who act on the basis of ideology consider themselves justified by their idea. Those who act responsibly place their action into the hands of God and live by God’s grace and judgement. . . . those who act in the freedom of their own responsibility see their action as both flowing into and springing from God’s guidance. [xix]


[i] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, Kindle Edition (Open Road Media), 270.

[ii] Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 257. 

[iii] Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 259.

[iv] Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 260.

[v] Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 269.

[vi] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology: Volume I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 182-83.

[vii] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 201.

[viii] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 183.

[ix] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 184.

[x] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 184 (Italics mine)

[xi] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 185.

[xii] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 258.

[xiii] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 256.

[xiv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 221.

[xv] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 283.

[xvi] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 225.

[xvii] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 224-225.

[xviii] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 225. (Italics mine)

[xix] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 226.

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