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Faith & Reason: Torvill and Dean's road to human freedom

Freedom is more than choosing between 20 types of toothpaste. It only truly comes with the maturity which grows from years of discipline and application. But others must then trust us to exercise it without demanding slavish obedience
AFTER 20 years of mesmerising spectacle, they have slipped discreetly into retirement. To a generation of admirers, the skating of Torvill and Dean epitomised both beauty and freedom. The beauty was uncomplicated and unmistakable. It is worth pondering, however, on the type of freedom that they exemplified, which was more complex. For that may help us to illuminate the place more generally of freedom in human life.

The gold-winning interpretation of Ravel's Bolero, apparently so effortless, was, of course, the fruit of years of hard work. First, the skaters had to be taught the basic movements, and to train their minds and muscles, through repetitive routines, to perform them. Next, they had to grow up emotionally, and learn to desire for themselves what their teachers had long wanted for them. Otherwise, they could never have dedicated their teens to disciplined practice. Finally, they had to move beyond their mentors and develop their own vision of the art of skating. By now they looked as if they could do whatever they liked on the ice; for their limbs would respond perfectly to their imaginations. Their training had liberated them to obey their vision, and to do so in a manner their talent deserved.

Human freedom is similar, and the education of athletes and artists can help us to understand it. To be free as a human being is to be able to live well, to live in a way that expresses the purpose of our human lives. Such freedom does not come easily: first, we need to learn the rules from parents and teachers, initially through child-like obedience and repeated practice. Adolescence, becoming an adult, is not just a stage of rebellion; rather it is the time when we come to understand for ourselves the point of living well, and take over the responsibility for our own development. That is where true education begins.

Full freedom arrives with the third stage, maturity. By now our moral and emotional muscles are well trained, and we understand how to live well, and why we should try to. When we want to express our human nature creatively, in acts of generosity or courage, for example, our minds and hearts and bodies will respond to our wishes. In this way we are free to live the moral equivalent of a skater's life. Our human skills are our virtues, which allow us to become the sort of human beings we would like to be. We express our individual humanity, as skaters express their individual talents, in a million unique ways. At the same time, we share, as skaters share, some common picture of how to succeed. It is as hard to achieve a flawless performance in life as it is on the ice-rink - but it is more fun to skate moderately well than simply fall over.

Maturity gives us the freedom to obey our human ideals, just as the skill of Torvill and Dean gave them the freedom to obey their artistic vision. That is the only way to make sense of New Testament teachings about freedom. St Paul, in Romans, describes Christians as the servants of God. A few pages later he talks of "the glorious freedom of the children of God". Are we servants, then, or are we free? The answer is that our freedom consists in service; for our human maturity, if we achieve it, gives us the freedom to obey and express the moral and spiritual vision that we inherit and make our own.

Our society makes two mistakes about freedom. The first is that freedom means nothing but choosing. I am free when I can choose whatever I like, for no reason except that I want it. Freedom is the choice of 20 types of toothpaste. Freedom is being able to go wherever I want, or drink as much as I like. Why? Because I want to, full stop. Who has the right to interfere? Freedom, on this view, is in conflict with obedience.

The second mistake we make is to forget that we need freedom at all. If a teacher, a nurse, or a grocer are to do their job well, they need to be educated. But after that, they need to be given the freedom that is essential for maturity. They need to be trusted to express their vocation creatively and responsibly. Instead, we have developed stifling systems of inspection. Take education, where teachers are increasingly required to teach exactly what they are told, in exactly the way they are told to. Many of the most imaginative and committed have succumbed in response to stress, and left the profession. For there is nothing so demoralising as not being trusted to do your job well.

The two mistakes we make in public life are mirrored in our attitude to personal well-being. We think we are free, and happy, when we do the choosing ourselves. Yet Jesus told his disciples, "You did not choose me, but I chose you" (John xv, 16). On the other hand, we try to force people into "excellence", as if laws or inspections can make them good. But the "glorious freedom of the children of God" is not imposed from outside: it comes from the Holy Spirit, who dwells within. Like the freedom of the ice-dancer, it too has its own beauty, the mesmerising beauty of mature human love.

Margaret Atkins is a lecturer in theology at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds