I was a junior in high school when the Roseanne episode featuring a lesbian kiss aired on network television, and I can remember well the controversy that surrounded that episode. Recent conversations surrounding the presence of a nine-year-old character named Mark on the Roseanne reboot -- a boy who, if not positively "gender fluid," at least exhibits the potential to arrive there -- have made me feel like I'm back in the eleventh grade (much to my immense discomfort). It seems that gender dysphoria represents the next (though probably not final) frontier in the entertainment industry's fairly blatant agenda to normalize whatever trendy effort to attack the givens and boundaries of creaturely existence (and so ultimately the Creator) is currently making the societal rounds.
Moral outrage at the latest crazy-making constitutes one potential response from evangelical Christians. Perhaps equipping ourselves with intelligent thoughts about freedom constitutes a better one. So much of the crazy-making, after all, advances beneath the banner of personal "freedom"--"freedom" conceived fundamentally if not exhaustively as the absence of any restraints upon my choices. So quickly, indeed, does the cause advance, that Barack Obama's grammatically and philosophically questionable comment that all Americans are now "more free" immediately following the Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 now seems, three years on, somewhat passé. Establishing and perpetuating a gender (or race, or age) for myself on the basis of man's unalienable right of "self-identification," that intangible but all-powerful trump card in present-day discourse, now seems a far more provocative exercise of freedom than merely marrying someone of my own biological gender.
I'm convinced that a (perverted) concept of "freedom" lies at the heart of our present-day society's apparent determination to dive headlong into the pit of pure insanity. If we and our children and our children's children hope to maintain our own good sense in such context, or perhaps even serve as catchers in the rye-field on the edge of said pit, we need to (re)align our own concept of freedom with a biblical and theological understanding of the same rather than the concept of freedom that pervades western societies. Resources for re-conceiving freedom might be found, I think, both in a good theology proper and in a biblical anthropology/eschatology.
With respect to theology proper, for instance, it might do us some good to remember that God is simultaneously freer and more restrained than any being in our experience. The freedom and restraint that mutually characterize God find expression in numerous texts of Scripture; for example, Numbers 23:19, which reads: "God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoke, and will he not fulfill it?" God's freedom is not generally questioned. God is the "ruler of all things" who possesses all "strength and power" (1 Chron. 29:12); thus, to put it simply, he does as he pleases. Talk of God being restrained may raise more eyebrows. But Scripture makes it absolutely clear that God cannot do anything at odds with his own character. This truth is reflected in Numbers 23:19, where the possibility of God not performing something he has promised to do is summarily dismissed. The author of Hebrews puts it even more bluntly: "it is impossible for God to lie" (Hebrews 6:18).
God's choices are not, of course, restrained by external forces. They are restrained, rather, by his own character. Indeed, God always acts "in character," so to speak, in a way that human beings do not. If, then, God exemplifies true freedom, we should conclude that true freedom consists in always acting according to one's nature, not in the freedom to make choices that may or may not be at odds with one's nature. Are we "freer" than God by virtue of our ability to either lie or tell the truth in any given set of circumstances? Surely not. God, it seems, is freer than us by virtue of actually being more restrained; by virtue, that is, of always acting in perfect harmony with who he is.
A consideration of man (in the generic sense) in what theologians have historically referred to as man's "fourfold state" likewise points to a notion of freedom that moves towards, rather than away from, restraint. Theologians typically assert that Adam and Eve possessed greater freedom in the state of integrity than we do either in the state of sin or the state of redemption. They likewise typically acknowledge that human beings will possess even greater freedom -- ultimate freedom -- in the state of glory. But human beings will simultaneously know greater restraint in the eschatological age. In the age to come, man will be, to steal Augustine's terms, non posse peccare (unable to sin). Thus he will become not only freer than he presently is by virtue of the fall, when he is non posse non peccare (unable not to sin), but also freer than he was/is in the states of creation or redemption, when he was/is (to varying degrees) posse peccare et posse non peccare (able to sin or not sin). In other words, ultimate freedom for human beings corresponds with ultimate restraint. In eternity, all our actions will conform to our nature. Superlative freedom and a superlative degree of divine similitude will be realized hand-in-hand. We will be most free when we are most like God, entirely unable to make choices that are at odds with our nature.
In sum, both God and man, properly considered, should prompt us to define freedom not as the absence of any restraints upon choices, but as the presence of proper restraint -- namely, one's nature -- upon choices. To put the matter more crudely, a fish is most free when it swims, not when it exercises some (hypothetical) capacity of choice to be a bird and fly. Redefining freedom along the theological and anthropological lines suggested above will immediately give the lie to much that passes for "freedom" in our day. Is gender reassignment, for instance, truly an exercise of "freedom," or an exercise in slavery?
It might also, however, challenge our own concept of freedom (or exercise of the same) at points that could make evangelical Christians uncomfortable. Can we rightly point the finger at those who advocate the kind of crazy-making noted above if we ourselves, when it is convenient to us, champion the (perverse) notion of freedom that informs such crazy-making?
Perhaps, in the end, gender fluidity and/or the next craze in self-identification will prove an opportunity for evangelical Christians to identity and forfeit a false god -- a false notion of freedom -- that has for far too long found safe haven in our ranks.