Arts and Culture

Free Will Can Be Risky Business

by Father Robert Lauder

Second in a series

TEACHING PHILOSOPHY at St. John’s University, I place a strong emphasis on the meaning of human freedom. The first reason that I do this is that I believe that human freedom is one of the great gifts that God has given to us. I also do it because I want the students to have as clear an idea as possible of just what freedom means.

From experience in teaching, I have learned how easy it is to misunderstand the great gift of freedom, how easy it is to slip into the error of thinking that freedom means a person is free to do whatever he or she wishes and that all choices are equally valuable and correct. Related to that erroneous view is another erroneous view, namely that vows and life commitments make a person less free. I believe that vows and life commitments provide a unique opportunity for a person to become more free.

In “Poverty of Spirit,” Joannes Metz points out that freedom is not pure arbitrariness nor mere whim. There is a kind of law or necessity built into freedom. To think that we can give freedom any meaning we wish or to use freedom thoughtlessly or recklessly can lead to disasters.

Freedom involves risk and one of the risks is to misunderstand what this gift from God entails. Commenting that the proper use of freedom is the way that we develop and grow as persons, Metz writes:
“However, this process of freely becoming a man has its own inherent temptation. By its very nature this process is a trial; imbedded in it is the danger of going awry. Man, entrusted with the task of making himself man, faces danger at every side. He is always a potential rebel. He can secretly betray the humanity entrusted to him, and he has done precisely this from the very beginning (the first human beings refused to embrace the Being entrusted to them). He can try to run away from himself, from the burdens and the difficulties of his lot, even going so far as to take his own life… In short he can fail to obey this truth, thus aborting his work of becoming a human being.

“On the other hand, man may withstand this temptation and lovingly accept the truth of his Being. For the moment we shall call this attitude ‘love of self.’”

Built into being human and free is a risk, a danger and a challenge. I find it interesting that in discussing freedom Metz refers to the possibility of suicide. The fact that a person can freely take his or her own life reveals that human beings have a responsibility for who they become. Some contemporary philosophers, who believe that reality is absurd, claim that the basic philosophical question is “In an absurd, world why not kill yourself?”

The fact that a person can commit suicide in a strange way can show us just how much power God has given to us. By our freedom we can, to some extent, frustrate God’s plans for us and others. I know that using suicide to emphasize the gift of freedom is a negative way of appreciating freedom, but if we can to some extent frustrate God’s plans, then we can also play a unique role in bringing God’s plans to fruition.

I almost jumped off my chair when I read that Metz decided to call the acceptance of who we are “love of self.” As I have mentioned in this column several times, I am amazed by the number of people I meet who do not love themselves. I don’t know why they don’t. Is someone to blame? Were their parents unloving? Did their religion or education foster self- hatred? I don’t know. But I do know that it is very important that we love ourselves. Lack of self-love can influence all our relationships negatively.

It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that when people think of poverty of spirit, they spontaneously conjure up poor self-images to contrast themselves with the goodness of God. Of course, humility is essential to poverty of spirit.

But another way of praising God is to realize the gifts of goodness and beauty that God has bestowed on us and shared with us by creating and redeeming us. Self-love, accompanied by gratitude to God, seems to me to be essential to poverty of spirit. Seeing ourselves as we really are, with our good features as well as our warts, and loving what we see, is one way of giving glory to God.