Yesterday in chapel we sang the old hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” I was struck particularly by this stanza:
Breathe, O, breathe thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast;
Let us all in thee inherit;
Let us find the promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.
What I was struck by is the gloriously topsy-turvy definition of liberty in the City of God as opposed to liberty in the City of Man. In the City of Man, liberty is that which we have when free from external constraints. Or, to put it differently, in the earthly city one is free simply if one is free toward objects of desire. In history, this sort of freedom has often been politically secured--take, for example, the liberties of citizens in the Roman Republic and early Empire; or the liberties of citizens of the United States. In each of these nations, liberty as freedom-toward-objects is secured by a powerful state actor. The privileges and rights of Roman citizens were immense, were secured by the power of the Roman state (namely, the legions), and violating them carried heavy penalties. For a time, even the emperors had to respect the liberties of the people--lest they find the legions turning against them. In the same way, in the United States (a republic consciously modeled on Rome), liberty is secured by the rule of law and by powerful court systems and police forces. Violating personal liberties carries heavy penalties.
But liberty politically secured is always liberty precariously secured. In Rome, the historical liberties of citizens were destroyed by the Caracallan reforms and by the slow-motion meltdown that was the Third Century Crisis. In the United States, the courts grow year by year in their power, and police forces seek to acquire ever-more-powerful military surplus equipment. An increasingly militarized and omnicompetent state apparatus oversees the lives of American citizens. Whether it happens next decade or in the next several centuries, history suggests that one day, American liberty will be destroyed by the institutions designed to protect it, as was Roman liberty before. There is no permanent right side of history for American liberal democracy any more than there was a permanent right side of history for Roman imperial hegemony.
This is why liberty in the City of God is so gloriously upside-down. Citizens of the eternal city ask not to be free toward all the objects of their desire. Rather, they ask to “find the promised rest” which consists precisely in losing the love of sinning--that is, losing the love of the objects of their desire--and having their hearts set at liberty to love God himself with utter security. Liberty in this sense is genuine liberty as St. Augustine defined it: the liberty to love without fear of losing, or to love securely, as he says, “the only genuine freedom is that possessed by those who are happy and cleave to the eternal law,” and, “The soul enjoys nothing with freedom unless it enjoys it securely.” The citizens of the earthly city play at this sort of freedom when they try to secure it for themselves by political means. But in securing it, they always also eventually destroy it. By contrast, citizens of the eternal city cry out for the liberty of heart that cannot be destroyed, because it looks to the one “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” object: the blessed vision of the Triune God in all of his glory.
So, Christian: If you are tempted to love overmuch the frail liberty of the earthly city, consider the sturdier, more enduring liberty of the heavenly city. Retune your heart and redirect your affections by singing along with the old hymn and joining its prayer: “Take away the love of sinning/ Alpha and Omega be/ End of faith, as its beginning/ set our hearts at liberty.” No political means can offer truly secure liberty, and if your heart is fixed on that liberty which beholds God himself, then no political means can deprive you of it.