Arts and Culture

The Spirit and Freedom

I HAVE BEEN reflecting lately on two great mysteries, each from a different perspective: one philosophical and the other theological. The philosophical perspective I use in philosophy classes at St. John’s University; the theological perspective I use in my personal life and in my preaching. I suspect there is something of an overlap in the sense that each type of reflection – to some extent – influences the other even though, for the most part, I may not be aware it.

The philosophical mystery – perhaps the most profound philosophical mystery – is how can we be free? How can we perform free actions, when every bit of our being is created every second by God? There is nothing about me that escapes God’s causality. If that is true, how can any action, which I may think is a free action, really be free? It would seem that God’s creative causality makes us nothing more than puppets or robots. God would seem to be running the show and all our human actions would really be God’s actions.

The second mystery is similar to the first. It deals with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Catholics believe that any good action that a human being performs is possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. Even a simple action like making the sign of the cross, if it is a genuine prayer, is possible only because of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

We cannot completely understand either mystery, but thinking about them and trying to understand them as much and as deeply as we can, may help us to appreciate the gift of freedom and also, God’s love for us.

The way that I think about the philosophical mystery of freedom and God has probably influenced the way I think about the theological mystery of freedom and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. My religious faith has probably greatly, even if indirectly, influenced my philosophical view.

Through a philosophical analysis of the human person I have concluded that loving and being loved is the vocation of every person. I think this truth can be reached philosophically without any direct reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Being loved liberates us, enables us to be more loving. If the love we receive from other human beings can liberate and free us, then we can be even more liberated and freed by God’s love.

Everything that philosophy can tell us about freedom and God is raised to a higher and more wonderful level when we reflect on the Holy Spirit loving and liberating us. Unfortunately, it can happen that when we think of the Holy Spirit moving us, we might find it easy to think of the Spirit as a physical cause. We might find it easy to think of the Spirit as taking away our freedom, dominating us in such a way that we are no longer free. I don’t think that is the best way of imagining how the Holy Spirit influences us.

I suggest that the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is not a presence that forces us or determines us to act in a certain way. Rather, I suggest that the presence of the Holy Spirit makes possible that we become profoundly free. The holiest people, I have come to believe, are also the freest people. Jesus and His mother were amazingly free. Indeed, they were the freest human beings in the history of the human race.

Every reality in the Catholic Church, from sacraments and Scripture to moral teaching, should liberate us. Unfortunately, we often think of the Church’s moral teaching as a burden, an arbitrary set of rules that bind and prevent us from growing as persons. The truth is the exact opposite. Years ago someone claimed that holiness is wholeness. I think that is true.

A eucharistic celebration should be a liberating experience. In praising our Father and in offering the perfect sacrifice of Christ, we allow the Holy Spirit to enter more deeply into our lives. It is not just that celebrating the sacraments will help us not to sin. Celebrating the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, can transform us as persons, helping us become more free, less selfish and self-centered. The Eucharist can help us to fulfill our vocation, the vocation that every person has, namely to become a lover.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).