Eighth in a series
IN ANY PHILOSOPHY course I teach at St. John’s University, I stress the importance of human freedom. I want students to understand as deeply as they can the mystery of human freedom. Perhaps more than anything else, I want them to grasp that by their choices, especially their most important choices, those that have moral and religious implications, they hold their lives in their hands. By our choices, we are co-creating ourselves with God. To the extent that our choices for ourselves are in line with the choices God has for us, we mature and grow in holiness.
Father John Haughey, S.J. in his book “Should Anyone Say Forever?” (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1975, pp. 166) stresses the importance of our choices:
“Our choices more than any other act or operation of our faculties individuate and define us. To borrow our imagery from the book of Genesis, we might say that just as the Spirit hovered over the formless void in the beginning of the universe, so also in the beginning of the individual’s own history his spirit can be imagined as hovering over the formless void of the self. Just as each determination of the Spirit gave the universe its shape, so also by each act of personal choice the spirit of the individual begins to form the void of the self, ordering the chaos and shaping his person. Notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary, an individual does not become a person by growing upward physically, outward spacially, or inward reflectively.” (p. 22)
What leads to growth toward selfhood are free human choices. I am the person I have chosen to be and each person reading this column is the person he or she has chosen to be. There have been many realities that have influenced us but I believe that ultimately our freedom is the strongest influence.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who is generally recognized as the “Father of Existentialism,” emphasized the importance of freedom in his philosophy of the human person. Identifying three ways that people live, or three stages on life’s way, Kierkegaard calls them: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious.
The great Danish thinker claimed the every person was on one of these three stages. There might be elements of all three in a person’s life but, according to Kierkegaard, every individual was predominantly on one of the three.
The most superficial way of living is the aesthetic. My understanding of the aesthetic stage is that on this stage an individual does what he or she feels like doing. There is no depth, no commitment other that commitment to one’s own emotions and passions. Of course, in terms of human growth and development this stage is a disaster. In fact the logical outcome on this stage would be suicide because we would be looking for fulfillment where it cannot be found.
The ethical stage is higher and better than the aesthetic because it emphasizes law, duty and morality. The highest and best stage is the religious and it calls us to the deepest freedom.
Kierkegaard claimed that four characteristics of the religious way of living were that it was: inward, subjective, involved a leap of faith and that it was absurd. By inward, Kierkegaard meant deep. By subjective, he did not mean that it was arbitrary, but rather, that it was personal. Rather than achieving this level of living through reasoning, it required a free leap of faith.
Absurd, as Kierkegaard used it, did not indicate that this way of living was without meaning, but rather that it was mysterious.
In philosophy classes at St. John’s University, I try to convince students that every truth has a price tag on it. Reaching any truth involves a commitment. My understanding of Kierkegaard’s thought is that by making an act of religious faith, a person achieves a deeper level of freedom.
I believe that any interpersonal love commitment between two people liberates them and enables them to reach truths about themselves that they could not reach without the commitment. If this is so, then a commitment to God out of love must be tremendously freeing.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his 24-part lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.