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The Trivium: Toward a Theology of Freedom

1 October 2008

Sister Miriam Joseph, C. S. C., Ph. D., The Trivium:  The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric (Philadelphia:  Paul Dry Books, Inc., 2002).  Edited by Marguerite McGlinn.  292 pp.

Merely eight pages into The Trivium, I am entranced.

The theme of my studies and reflections (and, sometimes, prayer) over the past couple of years has been a tacit search for coherence.  I did not impose that theme on my studies; it came to me in different ways, as epiphany and as serendipity.  That is to say, of course, grace, as Dr. Willard might use the term:  through a remarkable sequence of remarkable confluences, God has done for me what I could not possibly have done on my own.  Why he has done it is another matter, a delightful mystery that engages my imagination from time to time.  But for whatever telos – to whatever end, or means to an end – my activities of mind and spirit have led me to a field lush with fruit and flower.  It might not be too much to say that it is an ecosystem, a vast system endowed with unimaginable complexity and deeply reassuring simplicity; with indescribable beauty that emerges from a regime of deterministic, self-reinforcing (Darwinian?) violence.  Astonishingly, it is all coherent, and yet I cannot understand why I would have supposed it to be otherwise; to quote Dr. Patrick, “all truth is God’s truth.”  If God is coherent, then his truth also.

I find today the simplest rendering of “reality” that I have yet to see anywhere.  Sister Joseph declares, “the function of the trivium is the training of the mind for the study of matter and spirit, which together constitute the sum of reality”.


Three pages prior, Sister Joseph had asserted that “the liberal arts…teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth.”

  The “liberal” arts, to Sister Joseph, are the “freeing” arts, the arts that enable a person to achieve the divine objective to which Jesus referred in John 8:32.  And so in the margin I have written this question:  is there a “theology of freedom,” and if so, in what does it consist?


Now we come to the crux.  Dr. Willard and Dr. Hauerwas complicated my life some time ago by calling into question the nobility, the essential rightness, of the pursuit of freedom as an overarching political end.  In doing so, Willard and Hauerwas laid the axe at the root of what it means to be an American patriot.  If there is a single, animating value uniquely incorporated into our nation’s DNA, it is the principle of individual liberty, or freedom.  Together with life and the pursuit of happiness, liberty crowns the triune, seminal philosophy that gave us this glorious experiment known as the United States.  But the extent to which American identity has devolved into its current incoherence is evidence, or ought to be viewed as evidence, that either (a) freedom is not as fundamental as we had supposed or (b) what we mean by freedom has been deeply corrupted so that the idea no longer conveys the transcendent truth that it originally conveyed.  

If God is coherent, and if his object is human freedom, then it follows that an accurate account of God’s freedom is indispensable to the human project.


As Jesus used the term, “liberty” must have content that distinguishes it.  It must be a particular kind of freedom.  Such an odd, ironic word:  its semantic range must be confined for it to have useful meaning.  If its content is not somehow bounded, the state it describes is morally and ethically absurd, and there is no basis for subjugating freedom considerations to other, competing norms.  The result, clearly, is anarchy (moral and otherwise), which is aptly described in many New Testament texts – with strident disapproval.


It is not my intent here to develop a fresh theology of freedom.  That would be a massive project requiring tools, training, and intellect that I do not have.  Rather, I want to offer a pithy formula of Christian freedom that uses only three ontological variables – reality, mind (spirit), and matter (body) – juxtaposing an equally brief formula of enslavement using the same three variables.

Reality is the sum of matter and mind.

Enslavement is the subjugation of spirit by body:  matter over mind.

Liberty is the subjugation of body by spirit:  mind over matter.


Freedom, by that formula, is not the animal kingdom’s natural state, though we tend to speak anthropomorphically, for example, of “free-range” beef.  We mean, of course, that the cattle are not enclosed, or if they are enclosed, that their enclosure consists of fences far from the animals’ conscious experience.  In that case we are speaking not of morality, but of simple, ecological fact, devoid of any moral content.  

The distinction between – no, the antithetical relationship of – human liberty and mere ecological liberty is worth pondering:  where humans think and act as if they have no fences, they have exchanged liberty for something more akin to enslavement.  And that, it seems to me, is the biblical concept of liberty.  More on that, though, in another post on Romans 7.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael permalink
    2 October 2008 10:33 am

    Enslavement = subjugation of spirit by body. Freedom = subjugation of body by spirit. I love that. We live in a culture that caters to every itch that “matter” may need to scratch, elevating this flawed ideal of freedom – what you call “ecological liberty” – as our highest, most noble ideal…a freedom to scratch. The effect is a culture of depravity – of muted and enslaved minds. How many times do you hear this defense when someone or some group receives press for propagating a mindless and/or harmful message: “The single greatest thing about our country is that you have the freedom to be an idiot (or, fill in the blank).” Most recently, I heard this said about Josh Howard of the Mavs. It makes me cringe every time. Of course I wouldn’t want to live in a society that would bring charges against someone for “being an idiot.” But this notion that the “freedom” to be an idiot is what makes us great is prime example of the foolishness of the “wisdom” of the world. I think you nailed it when you wrote, “But the extent to which American identity has devolved into its current incoherence is evidence that…what we mean by freedom has been deeply corrupted so that the idea no longer conveys the transcendent truth that it originally conveyed.” I still think the founding fathers were speaking of ecological liberty more than human liberty as you’ve defined them, but I am praying for a revolution of human liberty in the present age.

    I’m a part of a fellowship of 100+ men that has come together seeking freedom from all kinds of bondages that were the result of exploring the “unconfined” freedom you define. Our approach? We have given up on our hopeless approach of fighting our flesh (matter) in our flesh, and we are seeking the reforming spirit of the Great Liberator. In this fellowship, we have confined ourselves in a commitment to a discipline of setting aside a significant block of time each day this Fall just to sit in His presence. We’ve also committed to fasting, Scripture meditation and memorization, and prayer. The Spirit of God is doing amazing things that many men in our fellowship might have previously thought impossible by crucifying our flesh. How counter-cultural is that? Finding “human liberty” through surrendering our “ecological liberty.”

  2. queueball permalink*
    2 October 2008 11:54 am

    Michael, that is grand stuff. I came to this theory by a slightly different route, but the result is the same. Many, many times I excused myself from responsibility for all manner of moral shortcomings by pleading, “I’m trying my hardest, but I can’t [do whatever it is that I know I ought to do].” What is that, except an admission that matter is exerting its control over mind? In a word, it is bondage.

    What a great thing your men’s fellowship is undertaking. The ancients figured this out a long time ago, and yet we continue to believe either that we will be different (and more capable) or that the ancients were killjoys and fuddy-duddies. Y’all have staked your claim in some ancient wisdom, and I look forward to hearing more of what you find along that way.

    One (deutero-)Pauline idea gives me pause, Michael, so I’ll have to confront it at some point, and it is the idea in Colossians 2. I am persuaded that self-discipline is worth a great deal more than that passage is willing to concede.

    Thanks again for stopping by and contributing.


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