The story Alice in Wonderland displays a place in which one can escape the traditional world and enter into a realm where anything and everything goes. In Wonderland, a person appears to be free in the sense they can do whatever they want and explore endless unique experiences. This “free” world in Wonderland starts out fun and exciting, but after a while, it turns chaotic, and eventually becomes dark and disturbed. The Alice in Wonderland story illuminates how an idea that appeals to your emotions, can start off with excitement but when the truth is exposed shows that it was nothing more than a death trap.
There is an overarching idea in today’s culture that in order to define yourself you need to break away from restrictions and be “free” to do whatever your desires crave. The Rolling Stones echoed this motif in their song I’m free, as they declared, “I’m free to do what I want any old time.”
In this “free” setting, once you break away from any rules and barriers, you are in the driver seat to experience self-fulfillment and obtain your true identity. Therefore, our modern culture associates freedom with breaking away from boarders and restrictions so one can reach happiness. However, much like Alice in Wonderland, this idea may sound pleasing to your senses, but eventually, it brings you confusion and chaos. In this article, I will zoom in on this all too predictable notion that to be free and to obtain happiness means you need to break away from established rules – especially those proposed by the Church.
As is typically the case with most emotional phrases of the pop culture, this slogan “to be free” begins to crumble when it’s examined under a critical lens. The first assumption when someone chants “we need to be free” is that they don’t want any restrictions put in front of them. In other words, a person is best defined when they have no limitations, rules, or restrictions. However, basic logic reveals that to define yourself you need barriers and restrictions. One of the first rules in Plato’s laws of logic is called the law of identity. The law of identity is very simple. The law states that a thing is what it is and what it is not at the same time. For example, the law of identity states that a tree is a tree. The next part of the law is to acknowledge that a thing is not what it is not. So, the law of identity subsequently states that a tree is not a house, rock, door, etc. To know what a tree is you need to know what it is not. And the list of what an object is not will be much longer than the list of what the object is. To know what a thing is and what it is not, that thing needs limitations or restrictions in its very definition of what it is. If a thing did not have limitations, we wouldn’t be able to comprehend what it was. Therefore, without boundaries and restrictions, there is no definition. And without definition, chaos would enter- thus, destroying any and all meaning of that entity.
G.K. Chesterton has us imagine a rapid river that moves with purpose. The reason the river is attractive and well defined is because of its sturdy borders in the river bank. Conversely, a pond that has weak borders becomes lazy and holds no movement, thus is not well defined. Therefore, for an object to have any meaning and direction it needs restrictions and borders.
The state of Illinois is defined by its borders – by its restrictions. If Illinois didn’t have these restrictions, it would have no identity. It would be lost adrift with no concreteness in which to distinguish itself. A basketball court is identified by its borders and restrictions. The same holds true for a car, painting, guitar and basically everything you can imagine. The law of identity also applies to people. In order for you to define who you are you need to say who you are not. When someone says his name is James, he simultaneously is saying his name is not Eric, Bob, Phil, Mike, Dan, etc. To declare anything, you need to restrict its opposite. When I said “I do” to my wife, I simultaneously said “I don’t” to every other woman on the face of this earth.
Notice with the law of identity saying “no” and putting up barriers is a good thing because by doing so you are correctly defining what that object is. Without the negative, you don’t get the positive. Jesus himself confirmed this way of thinking when he stated, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” (Matthew 5:37). Notice Jesus didn’t say let your no be yes. In other words, Jesus is declaring that saying “no” and putting up restrictions is beneficial because it necessarily points to what that thing is; its end and purpose.
To define yourself without restrictions is impossible as definition requires restrictions just like the definition of a triangle requires only three sides – not four, five, or six sides. Now we can see how defining yourself without restrictions is self-defeating. It would be like saying you can’t speak while speaking. So, if you want to tear down the three sides of a triangle, you no longer have a triangle. The triangle is thus alone and adrift into nothingness without its borders and rules. Without restrictions of what a thing is not, it is impossible to identify that thing from anything.
Often, artists – whether musicians, sculptures, performers tend to view themselves as being “free” in that they have no restrictions. However, their artwork requires restrictions. If a musician didn’t have restrictions in his music, it would be a random, unrecognizable mess – akin to children banging on the piano in a haphazard fashion. If a sculpture didn’t have boundaries in his sculpture, it would be unrecognizable. It would be lost in a sea of emptiness with no distinction of what it is.
In short, without limitations and rules, a thing becomes nothing.
In fact, the whole definition of the pop culture that to be “free” you need to remove restrictions is using restrictions in this very definition of freedom. Recall that when you define anything you need to restrict what it is not. When the pop culture defines freedom, they are using restrictions. Ironically, the pop culture is using restrictions to tells us to not to use restrictions. The logic of the pop culture is as bizarre as that scene when Winnie the Pooh answers a knock at the door by saying, “No one is home!” It is completely self-defeating.
Now that we’ve shown that the culture’s idea of freedom self-implodes, let’s ask the more important question – what is the real definition of freedom? The great teachers from Plato to Jesus didn’t see freedom as an idea to break away so “I can do what I want to do.” Rather, they saw freedom as a bonding to something so “I can be the person I was designed to be.” Therefore, you can’t just chant “freedom” as if it’s self-evident without referencing what you are breaking free from and what are attaching yourself to in order to find your end.
Whether people know it or not, they are listening to some entity on how to think, how to act, and what their purpose is. Ultimately, a person has two choices on who to listen to – God or the pop culture (pop culture represents many “selves”) on what their end is. To know who to listen to one must know where they came from.
Plato equated freedom to a thing’s purpose. That is, a thing is most free when it is used for the very purpose in which it was designed for. For example, a fish is most free when it is in the water rather than out of the water. Why is this? Because a fish was designed to be in the water. Therefore, in the water environment is where a fish thrives. We’ll also notice that a thing’s freedom comes from the entity that created that thing as the designer best understands the fulfillment of that thing or person. For someone to understand what makes them the most free, they would have to consult the very entity that created them – God. Yet, the modern culture takes freedom in the opposite direction. Society wants to break away from God to be free. However, to break away from God, your very source of life, would be like cutting off the very branch you are sitting on.
Now that we know where freedom comes from, we next need to see where it goes to. The culture primarily looks at freedom as some sort of creating power that allows the individual to “do anything in their expressive way.” However, this is simply a clever way of saying freedom allows me to be a god. All this shows is that chanting “freedom” is a cunning way someone can follow the old religion of self-worship. In this setting, the self becomes the complete author of the person. But, how is it possible that the self can free the self? This assertion falls into the trap of a classic logical contradiction. Furthermore, if freedom comes from the entity that created the person, we need to ask – did that person create himself? No, the self didn’t create the self as self-creation is a circular impossibility.
The other fact we need to confront is that the self is highly corrupt. The Christian assumption declares that our thoughts that guide our desires and thinking is fundamentally flawed (a.k.a., sin). Even modern psychology confirms this. In her book, A Mind of Its Own, psychologist Cordelia Fine systematically proves that people’s internal thought process is really guided by selfish, and dubious motives. Deep down we know that our thoughts are messed up. How do we know this? Imagine people could know your real thoughts – and the motivation behind your thoughts. Most people would be very uncomfortable with this scenario. They’d be uncomfortable because they know how ugly their internal thoughts are. This poses the question if our thoughts are defective and corrupt, why would we let them be our guide to what makes us free? To let the self by your author is not only a logical contradiction, it is incredibly dumb. You would let a flawed source be your ultimate guide on how to live? This would be like betting your life savings on the advice of an inept financial advisor.
We can now see that the modern culture takes the idea how one should be free from its natural, good source (God) and moves it to a lousy source (the self). To break freedom away from its divine source and bond it to the flawed self is highly problematic. If one lives by this motto, sadly, they will attach themselves to a bland self-centered absorption of themselves. Self-worship always ends up going down a grisly path.
The final nail in the coffin on society’s idea of “freedom” is that it actually does the opposite of what it is claiming to do. It claims that it can bring people happiness. However, this idea can’t be further from the truth. If the teaching moves freedom from God to the self, a person does not become free. They become, in fact, enslaved to the flawed thoughts of the self. Here, the word “no” is replaced by the word “yes.” But, if you can’t say no, you’re going to be taken over by your warped desires in which the negative is always affirmed. Saying the word “no” and putting up restrictions saves people from the tyranny of their own thoughts. For example, if you can’t say no to alcohol, you’re in trouble. Moreover, an alcoholic who can’t say no to a drink is not free from his corrupt desires. Sadly, he is a slave to his desires. He doesn’t control his thoughts. Rather, his thoughts control him. At this point, he has become a hypnotized soul. He is in a zombie-like trance and is completely controlled by his distorted thoughts. Do we again see how the inability to say “no” and put restrictions on negative things (our flawed desires) doesn’t make someone free – it makes them an enslaved mess.
Modern freedom masquerades as removing the “no” – removing the restrictions. This makes about as much sense as a person saying, “Remove the car lane barriers so I can be free to drive.” Obviously, this wouldn’t cause freedom – it would cause a crash.
You are not free when you cannot say “no.” After all, the devil tricked Eve because she couldn’t say no to an arousing temptation. So, part of having freedom is your ability to say “no” and put up barriers – even to messages that come couched with an emotional appeal. Isn’t interesting right after Jesus says “let your no be no,” he then says, “Anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37). In other words, if you can’t say no or put up restrictions, just like Eve couldn’t, all this shows is that you’ve been cunningly duped by the demonic.
Freedom is not an anything goes and nothing counts explanation. Freedom is to become the happy, whole person you were designed to be. As Thomas Aquinas articulated freedom (and liberty) is to know the good through the intellect and to be able to freely choice the good through the will. So, with freedom the will becomes aligned to the intellect in natural law.
The self doesn’t define the truth or create the truth. The self merely discovers the truth. Mankind didn’t create the laws of physics, we just discovered them. We didn’t create the world or the self. Humanity just showed up on the universe scene and all the sophisticated and interconnected laws that govern the universe were already working for us. Therefore, freedom has nothing to do with the ability to create on your own.
As we explore what it is to be free, we now see that for a person to be free, they need to be aligned to the entity that created them – God. The other aspect of what it means to be free is that freedom needs to be attached to the truth. If the Rolling Stones didn’t pick up the freedom-truth connection, at least Bob Dylan did. In his song, Jokerman, Dylan writes, “Freedom, just around the corner from you but with truth so far off, what good would it do?
Therefore, freedom and truth are a packaged deal. Freedom without truth is meaningless. Jesus called himself the truth (see John 14:6, 18:37). Moreover, he plainly said the truth was connected to freedom when he declared, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Notice he didn’t say “breaking away from rules and restrictions will set you free.” He said truth. And to know the truth, you have to be guided by rules – whether physical laws (mathematical laws) or spiritual laws (Sacraments). And, to know the truth you have to say no and restrict what is not true. Therefore, for a person to be free, he needs to be able to say no; to be able to have borders and restrictions. Restrictions and borders are a good thing because they allow us to become clearly defined. Otherwise, we become confused and lost in a cacophony of noise without any definition of who we are. When you know who you are not, you will begin to know who you are.
Today, young people envision that when they break away from Catholicism, they are escaping free of chains and running from a dark cave into a great utopia. It’s the exact opposite. They are running away from true happiness and freedom and crawling into a dark place filled with prison bars. To think you are liberated from breaking away from the rules of the Church is like a person thinking they are liberated from breaking the rules of gravity by jumping off a roof. It’s not going to end well for them. Peter teaches that obedience to the truth purifies the person (see 1 Peter 1:22) So, while the rules are not the be-all-end-all, they exist precisely to guide the person to his or her ultimate fulfillment – the truth.
How sad it is that teenagers and adults alike view Catholicism as the restrictive boring parent and the pop culture as their grand hero when it is the other way around. This would be analogous to a drug addict viewing his doctor as the repressive villain while his real hero is the drug dealer. Sadly, most people are living in opposite world where they view the solution (Catholicism) as the problem and the problem (pop culture) as the solution. To reverse the solution and the problem is to commit internal suicide and not even know it.
While the allure of the pop culture’s motto to be free might entice our senses just like the glamour that Alice first experienced in Wonderland, this initial attraction turns out to be fool’s gold. Ultimately, just like in Alice’s story the charisma of the message in this world, leads to darkness and despair. Young people today desperately need the Church. She can rescue them from the chains and enslavement they found themselves in pop culture land.
If anything, at least this grim picture in the pop culture will make people dump it, so they will now begin to listen to their real source of freedom.
Post Script: In the New Testament, freedom is never represented as personal autonomy. Rather, it is presented as freedom from sin (Romans 6: 18-23, John 8:31-36), freedom from the old covenant law (Romans 7:3, 8:2, 10:4, Galatians 2:4, 4:21-31, 5:1, 13) and freedom from death (Romans 6:21, 8:21). Therefore, rather than just vaguely chant “freedom,” the New Testament specifically identifies what it is breaking away from.