Arts and Culture

More on Freedom

Second in a series

Ever since I began reading existentialist thinkers when I started teaching at a four year college seminary many years ago, the mystery of freedom has fascinated me. It  intensified when I began to read some personalist philosophers. The immediate stimulus to continue to write about freedom has come from a wonderful book by the French Catholic philosopher, Emmanuel Mounier: “Personalism” (University of Notre Dame Press, 1952, pp. 132). Mounier is one of my favorite philosophers. His insights, like those of personalist philosophers Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel, are both profound and beautiful. He wrote:

“But freedom is not branded upon personal being like a condemnation, it is offered as a gift. It can be accepted or refused and the free man is he who can promise or betray…He is no slave to his freedom, no drug-addict of liberty, nor will he contaminate the freedom of others with any taint of servitude whatsoever….

Freedom is a practical need, but also a divine imperative; and must not only be directed against the stubbornness of the material but also allowed its never ending aspirations, even its moments of creative folly. The love of freedom, it is true, should never forget particular liberties. But men who cease to dream of cathedrals will not long know how to build good villas; and those who have lost the passion for freedom become incapable of protecting liberties.”(pp. 58-62)

My guess is that Mounier was thinking of the existentialist atheist, Jean Paul Sartre, who claimed that we were condemned to be free. This view, of course, fits in with Sartre’s view that hell is other people. I prefer to think that we are called to be free. I am convinced with Mounier that freedom is “a divine imperative.” By creating us free, God has started us on the greatest adventure, the human journey that is an adventure in love.

The Holy Spirit is calling us and leading us to a deeper and stronger freedom. It is really unfortunate that so many people think of religion in negative terms. They think of religion as a series of “Don’ts”. They think of religion as telling us what not to do. In their minds, religion works against our freedom. It binds us and prevents us from growing in freedom. The exact opposite is the truth. Everything in Catholicism should promote freedom and should help us to achieve the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

When people exchange vows in the sacrament of marriage, they are promising not to have sexual relations with anyone but their spouse. Of course there is an obvious way in which the marriage vows will limit their freedom. However, the freedom that can be obtained through fidelity to marriage vows seems to me far outweighs any restrictions the vows impose. The possibilities for growth in freedom that are available through a life commitment to another person and to God through being faithful to marriage vows seem to me to be almost infinite. The same can be said about vows that are made by priests and religious and also vows made at baptism. Perhaps to appreciate as deeply as possible the wonderful gift that God has given us by creating us free, we have to look to the mystics and the poets.

Charles Peguy wrote a beautiful poem entitled “Freedom.” In the poem Peguy imagines God saying the following:

“But in my creation which is endued with life, says God, I wanted something better, I wanted something more.

Infinitely better.

Infinitely more.

For I wanted that freedom. I created that very freedom.

There are several degrees to my throne.

When you once have known what it means to be loved freely, submission no longer  has any taste.

All the prostrations in the world are not worth the beautiful upright attitude of a free man  as he kneels.

All the submission, all the dejection in the world are not equal to the soaring up point, the beautiful straight soaring up of one single invocation from a love that is free.”

My response to Peguy’s poem is a resounding “Yes!”


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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