Arts and Culture

The Gift and Challenge of Freedom

by Father Robert Lauder

Third in a Series


AT ST. JOHN’S University in any philosophy course that I teach that involves some serious reflection on the mystery of person, I emphasize the freedom of the human person. One reason I do this is that I believe freedom is one of the great gifts that God has given us. I also do it because I am trying to encourage the students to reflect on their own freedom and to see more clearly and deeply that freedom implies responsibility, that free actions have consequences.

Though I would agree that there are many realities in our lives that greatly influence us and that some of them might diminish our freedom – for example our parents, our siblings, our friends, the schools we attended, the teachers we had, the books we read, the films we viewed, our psychological and emotional history and many other factors – I believe that ultimately each of us is the person he or she has chosen to be. Of course, I cannot prove that, but I think that ultimately we make important choices that contribute greatly to who we are. I see the human journey as an adventure that involves the freedom of God and the freedom of the human person. In freely loving each of us, God has a wonderful plan that invites us into a love relationship with God, a relationship that begins on Earth but will continue for eternity. However, because of our freedom, we can freely negate God’s plan.

No thinkers in the history of philosophy have emphasized freedom as much as the existentialists. Atheistic existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus stress that we are exercising our freedom in a world in which there is no ultimate meaning. Both thinkers present a vision of reality that concludes that reality is ultimately absurd. These two thinkers insist that there are no ultimate answers. An obvious question that arises if life is ultimately absurd is why not commit suicide.

Sartre was not a happy atheist. He pointed that we keep asking questions, but there are no answers. He noted that there is no God loving us unconditionally, that reality is basically indifferent toward us. He believed that everything in us is pointing toward a God, but we must be honest and admit that there is no God. Camus said that he did not want to die, and he did not want anyone he loved to die. He knew that he would die and that everyone he loved would die, and this led him to conclude that life was absurd.

I would agree completely with Sartre and Camus that reality is absurd if I thought there was no God and no life beyond the grave. I think a proper response in an absurd world would be suicide. I disagree with Sartre and Camus that in a world that is ultimately absurd persons can create meaningful lives.

The Roman Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel also emphasized freedom, but he reached conclusions almost directly opposite to those reached by Sartre and Camus. The mystery of being is at the heart of Marcel’s philosophy. By being, he means that which is of value, that which is ultimately important. The mystery of being is larger than we are, though we participate in it and can become aware of our participation and affirm or deny what is greater than ourselves. In his excellent little book Gabriel Marcel (South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway Inc., pp. 128), Seymour Cain, commenting on Marcel’s view of reality, writes the following:

“There is something in me which is not identical with my life, something which I grasp or open myself to at the moment of recollection, but it is not to myself, in the limited sense, that I withdraw in recollection, but to my being with being. It is very hard to describe this act in traditional philosophical language…

“The possibility of suicide, despair, and betrayal is involved in the very structure of our universe, of which dissolution and death are constituent elements. These negative aspects, however, can be transcended through fidelity, hope, and love.” (p. 58)

I agree with Cain that Marcel’s language is difficult, but I think it is an accurate interpretation of Marcel’s thought to say to that through fidelity, hope and love we can enter deeply into the mystery of being and become aware of God’s loving presence. In Marcel’s vision of human existence, human freedom is awesome. We can say “No” to the loving presence of God in our lives. This would be to say “No” to the deepest level of ourselves, to negate our most basic vocation, the vocation to love God and our neighbor.

We are called to say “Yes,” which is what God has said to us.[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.

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