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home : commentary : columns January 17, 2018

What sets us free?

By Brett Robinson | Catholic News Service

November's XXX release of the iPhone X and the Xbox One X lent new meaning to the greeting, Merry Xmas. Far from its Greek roots as an abbreviation for Christ (chi), X became marketing-speak for technological sophistication.

The spate of new gadgets that arrived just in time for Christmas are awfully similar to last year's must-have gadgets. The irony is that our experience of tech novelty often feels more like deja vu than something brand new. And there's a good reason for that.

Technology expresses the recurring human need to be freed from restraint. At every technological turn there is an attempt to transcend some limit. The new iPhone is faster, the new Xbox has better graphics. Electricity frees us to see more at night, antibiotics to fight infection, airplanes to take flight.

These aren't bad things, but they are not final things either. To what end are all these efforts directed?

The more important question might be what, finally, makes us free?

In the Gospel of John, our Lord tells his interrogators that if they continue in his word, they will know the truth and the truth will set them free.

The theologian Lieven Boeve notes that Pope Benedict XVI frequently commented on our need to conform to the pre-ordained order of things and reject absolute self-determination. This is not to say that we are to reject innovation or its fruits. Instead, we are to avoid imposing our subjective version of the truth on nature.

Technology is not to blame here. The root malady is pride, the belief that we are in control and can deliver ourselves rather than relying on the Redeemer.

But absolute self-determination is part of the cultural code. It takes the form of having free access to millions of product choices on Amazon, freely choosing one's friends on a social network or freely choosing to belong to another church if the current one isn't providing enough emotional satisfaction.

In his new book, "Why Liberalism Failed," Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen makes the case that American culture provides the breeding ground for this absolute self-determination. To put it in technological terms, it's a bug in the system that was there from the beginning.

Deneen says there are classical liberals (faith in the market) and progressive liberals (faith in the state), and both positions are inadequate because they tend to diminish local cultures, inherited customs and strong communities in the name of radical individual liberty.

Far from the classical conception of liberty as virtuous self-government, the modern version of liberty is about vigorous self-expression. In other words, the iPhone's ability to spawn a nation of loners who seek affirmation and acceptance in virtual relationships rather than embodied ones is the symptom, not the disease. Being "alone together" is the way radical individualism manifests itself in a highly technological culture.

To heal the community life that has been fractured, it is good to call upon the Divine Physician who comes first in the form of a newborn babe.

Christ begins his earthly life anything but free. He is born completely dependent on Joseph and Mary for his care and protection. Our Lord did not work miracles from the crib (that we know of) to overcome his human frailty. God lived within a womb, a family, a community and a culture of limits.

G.K. Chesterton was fond of saying that it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws or limits, "the essence of every picture is the frame." As we recall the Nativity scene, framed by its rude stable, consider the value of our human limits and thank God that we are not alone.

Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.

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