In chapter 4 of Dialectic of Freedom, Multiplicities, Pluralities, and a Common World, Maxine Greene explores the varied understandings of freedom among immigrants to America, beginning with African Americans, ‘the first to come.’ While all of the Newcomers to America brought their own understandings of freedom, Green argued that the articulation of this understanding came most eloquently from African Americans. Being ‘unable to gather around themselves the memories, rituals, and traditions of abandoned homes or homelands as others could,’ African Americans ‘had continually to create and recreate their own traditions out of the languages available in this country’ (p.87-88). As a result, they spoke a message that challenged the common American sense of freedom ‘from the heart of American culture and through the learned idioms of its longings’ (p.87).

In this chapter Greene continued to work with the definition of freedom as ‘the freedom to alter situations by reinterpreting them, and by so doing, seeing oneself as a person in a new perspective’ (p.90). The freedom that is ‘personally achieved when individuals make decisions they believe to be fully their own. They are decisions, more often than not, based on shared principles or shared conceptions of what is good and right; but they remain decisions personally achieved’ (p.101). What particularly emerges from Greene’s discussion of the experience of African Americans is that the pursuit of freedom cannot be an individual task. Not only do individual persons need to challenge the taken-for-granted in their world, the same is true for the persons surrounding them. Greene wrote about the the ‘reciprocity’ required ‘between individuals in the quest of freedom and the persons surrounding them’ (p.92). Racially segregated schooling provided no such reciprocity for African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Greene illustrated the impact of social setting on the pursuit of freedom through Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son (1940). Bigger Thomas, a 20 year-old black man living in Chicago in the 1930s, commits two brutal murders, is tried, and sentenced to death. Greene noted that Bigger acknowledges his responsibility for his actions, even recognising them as “the first full act of his life… the most meaningful, exciting and stirring thing that ever happened to him. He accepted it because it made him free, gave him the possibility of choice, of action, the opportunity to act and to feel that his actions carried weight.” And yet, though Bigger sees some freedom in his action, his Marxist lawyer laid the blame for Bigger’s actions on the “total natural world in which he live[d].” The lawyer told the court “the central fact to be understood here is not who wronged this boy, but what kind of a vision of the world did he have before his eyes, and where did he get such a vision as to make him, without premeditation, snatch the life of another person so quickly and instinctively that, even though there was an element of accident in it he was willing after the crime to say: Yes, I did it. I had to.” Greene concluded, ‘People like Bigger…have the same capacity to live and act as anyone else, but they are not permitted opportunities to express their capacities. Some starve from lack of self-realization; others murder because of it’ (p.97).

From other reviews I’ve read of Native Son I understand that Wright lays on the marxist philosophy pretty thick in the final section of the book—Bigger may have admitted responsibility, but it’s really society that’s to blame. Whether or not that’s a fair assessment of the book will need to wait until I ever get around to reading Native Son. As I see it however, Greene expressed a less dichotomous opinion: Bigger, like all persons, is responsible for coming to his own self-realisation, but such self-realisation needs the supporting framework of a social space committed to freedom in order to flourish.

The latter part of this chapter explored in more depth the necessary conditions for creating such social spaces. True freedom, according to Greene, requires social spaces that enable persons to ‘reach out for freedom as a palpable good, to engage with and resist the compelling and conditioning forces, to open fields where the options can multiply, where unanticipated possibilities open each day.’ These spaces are such that persons are free to ‘appear before one another as who they are and what they can do’ (p.115).

Greene identified ‘plurality’ as the ‘backbone’ of a public realm that promotes freedom and ‘the basic condition of both action and speech’ (p.116). This plurality consists of equality and distinction: ‘Without equality [of regard], there could be no public space… Without distinctiveness or uniqueness, people would have no need for speech or action to make themselves understood’ (p.116).

The chapter ends with the question that has been sitting quietly behind all this idealistic theory: how do we go about this? ‘How, in a society like ours, a society of contesting interests and submerged voices, an individualist society, a society still lacking an “in-between,” can we educate for freedom? And, in educating for freedom, how can we create a maintain a common world?’ (p.116). This is the question I am asking of spiritual formation in the church, though perhaps I approach it from the opposite direction: How, in a church like ours, a church of definite convictions and well-established conventions of speech, thought, and behaviour, a church with submerged voices, a communal society, a society perhaps lacking a space for individual voices, let alone dissenting ones, can we pursue spiritual formation that promotes true freedom? And, in this pursuit of freedom, how can we resist the individualising forces that fill the cultural air we breathe, and maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? We will need to wait until Chapter 5 (‘Education, Art, and Mastery: Toward the Spheres of Freedom’) for Greene to how these goals will be achieved, particularly through exercising students imaginations as they interact with works of art.

Overall, the dialectic Greene wrestles with is essentially another example of the age-old tension between the one and the many. I am intrigued by the way Greene’s quest for freedom through ‘equality and distinction’ in a ‘social space’ echoes Christian trinitarian theology. The Christian doctrine of one God, in three distinct persons, united in mutual love resolves the dichotomy of the one and the many without collapsing into either end of the dilemma. Neither unity nor distinction has priority, but each contributes to and magnifies the other. God’s unity is not simply an indivisibility of being, but a unity of love, of mutual grace, among three distinct persons; and the distinctiveness of any one of the three is apparent only in relation to the other two persons. As Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, ‘I cannot think on the One without quickly being encircled by the splendour of the Three; nor can I discern the Three without being straightaway carried back to the One.’

The church is intended by God to be a social space that displays this kind of trinitarian-unity-in-diversity. The church is intended to be a social space that promotes human freedom. When Paul imagines the unity of the church he sees the variety of gifts in relation to the unity of God: ‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work (1 Cor 12:4-6). Colin Gunton has described the church as ‘a finite echo or bodying forth of the divine personal dynamics.’ That is, in the free relations Christian believers have with each other we reflect the very being and communion of the Trinity. Here we have a biblical imagination that can shape us to be the sort of community that truly enables us to ‘appear before one another as who [we] are and what [we] can do.’

I’m reminded of various ideas from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that pick up on how union with Christ promotes a social space that enables people to appear before one another as who they are and what they can do. In Chapter one of Life Together (SCM, 1954), Bonhoeffer wrote about Christ bringing peace between Christian people because we recognise that our unity is only in and through Christ. Without Christ, Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘the way [to our brother or sister] is blocked by our own ego’ (p.12). Bonhoeffer explained this idea more fully in Chapter four where he noted the ‘invisible, often unconscious, life-and-death contest’ in Christian communities when (following the example of the disciples in Luke 9:46), we begin to reason among ourselves which of us is the greatest (p.69). Bonhoeffer wrote that ‘from the first moment when a man meets another person he is looking for a strategic position he can assume and hold over against that person’ (p.69). Rather than being ‘who they are’, a person will posture and position him or herself to ‘find the spot where he can stand and defend himself’ (p.70). This, Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘is the struggle of the natural man for self-justification.’ Seen in this light, such self-justification is the enemy of a social space that would promote freedom. Instead, justification by grace frees us from self-justification: ‘Self-justification and judging others go together, just as justification by grace and serving others go together’ (p.70). Since we have been accepted in Christ we have no need to establish a ground on which we might make ourselves acceptable to others. The grace of the Gospel, Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you’ (p.86). Since we have been forgiven fully in Christ we have no need for our masks, no need to ‘dissemble’ before our brother. Without the need to pretend to be what we are not or to put on a show of false piety we are free to confess our sins to one another. It is in ‘the confession of sin made in the presence of a Christian brother’ Bonhoeffer argued, that ‘the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned,’ and we reach the ‘breakthrough to community’ (p.87-88).

It seems therefore that we have the resources in Scripture to shape a Christian imagination that would create the sort of social space for freedom that Greene was looking for. The question remains as to how that vision for the church offered us in Christ and the Scriptures might actually transform our practice.

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