Arts and Culture

God’s Love Liberates Us

by Father Robert Lauder

A PHILOSOPHICAL AND theological problem, or should I say mystery, has been on my mind lately. I have been reflecting on this problem for several reasons. One is that it involves at least two important mysteries – the mystery of God and the mystery of human freedom. Another reason is that how we think of the interaction between God’s presence in our lives and our freedom can significantly influence how we live as Christians.

So the mystery interests me both philosophically, because I teach philosophy to college students, and theologically, because I am interested in Catholic theology. It also interests me because how a person thinks about it can greatly influence how that person lives as a Christian.

Though it can seem to have little to do with our day-to-day lives, the mystery deals with what is most important in our lives.

The mystery centers around the power of God and the freedom of the human person. Stated in philosophical terms, the mystery is how can God be the cause of all being, including every part of a human person, even the person’s will, and yet the person remains free.

If God is the cause of a person’s will and of the actions that a person performs, if every inch of a person is being created by God at every moment, then it would seem that human persons are merely robots or puppets.

Overwhelming Grace

Stated theologically, the mystery is how does the power of grace, of God’s redeeming and sanctifying presence in a person’s life, not take away the person’s freedom. Wouldn’t grace so overwhelm a person that the person would lose all ability to choose freely?

My observation is that some people have gone to two extremes in their attempts to live as Christians. Each extreme involves a heresy.

One extreme has been identified as the heresy of quietism. This heresy states that we do not have to do anything, that God will do everything. We can be totally passive, and we will be saved by God even if we do not choose to cooperate with God’s grace, with God’s loving presence. Of course, this view is false.

The other extreme is that we save ourselves. As it were, we pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps and direct ourselves toward heaven.

The truth about our relationship to God’s powerful and loving presence in our lives is between the two extreme erroneous views.

The mysterious dimension of our interaction with God, the dimension that no matter how we try we will never understand completely, was brought home to me recently while I was giving a day of recollection. I was commenting on the mystery that God is the cause of our being, and yet we are free. A priest who was listening to me commented that what I was saying about God and our freedom was impossible.

“If God were the cause of our being,” he said, “then we would be robots, puppets. It is impossible that God be the cause of our being because then we would not be free.” Of course, I disagreed with him, but I understood his problem. We were talking about a great mystery.

Freely Cooperating

I cannot completely comprehend the mystery myself. To do that, I would have to understand God completely, and no human being can do that. I do have a way of thinking about God’s powerful presence that doesn’t remove the mystery but helps me to appreciate God’s presence and also the importance of us freely cooperating with God’s presence.

God is not present in our lives as a physical cause. If that were God’s way of being present, then we would not be free. Indeed, we would be puppets or robots. When I push a desk around my room, the desk does not decide to move. My physical strength forces the desk to move.

God does not cause in that way. God is a love-cause. God’s love brings us into existence and keeps us in existence. God’s love moves our wills, but love does not force or compel. Love frees the one who is loved. To my way of thinking, this means that the more we allow God to influence us and affect us, the more free we become. God’s presence does not smother us or turn us into things. Rather, the opposite happens. God causes us to be more ourselves. God’s love enables us to thrive, to grow, to become more free. God’s love liberates us.

As we experience God’s love we come to see that we should freely and lovingly respond to it. I believe that the holiest people are the freest people. Our life should become an ongoing love affair with God.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.