16 September 2018

On Constraints and Authentic Freedom

Hi Sister, I wondered why you define freedom the way you do. I was thinking about being the persons we are called to be in spite of the constraints of our lives and that doesn't seem like freedom to me. If God calls us to something and we do that, then how does that represent "authentic freedom"? How can having constraints or being constrained represent freedom?]]

These are good questions. Let me explain why it makes theological sense to me, generally speaking --- and perhaps with reference to my own personal story as well if that will illustrate things more clearly. When theologians think about the human situation we think about the condition of sin as a state of being bound by conditions which prevent us from being the persons we are made and called by God to be. Sin is a state of being estranged and alienated from God, from one's deepest Self, and from others; it is a state in which we are not free to love as we are meant to love and may even be hostile as well as resistant to this love. We are constrained by the situation (of sin) and prevented from being the person we are most profoundly and truly meant to be. It is only when we are loved by God in a way which empowers us to achieve who we are potentially, who we are made and called to be, that we begin to know real freedom --- and also, therefore, genuine happiness. Freedom always has to do with being our truest selves; the bondage of sin prevents this. This is the principal reason we speak of sin (hamartia, 'αμαρτια) as falling short. Thus, authentic freedom is something God empowers; it represents freedom from whatever prevents us from living the truth of ourselves and freedom for the fulfillment of our most profound or ultimate human potentiality.

Some constraints then, are disastrous for our humanity, but not all constraints are disastrous or even necessarily destructive. All of us have limits with which we must live: age, health, family, material wealth or poverty, intelligence, education or lack thereof, and so forth. These things serve as constraints, but at the same time they need not prevent us from becoming the persons we are called/meant to be. For instance, we may not have much money, our health may be poor, we may be lousy students or have failed in a string of business ventures; we may have come from a dysfunctional family which made maturing into adulthood a greater task than ordinarily is the case, and we may live in neighborhoods without access to cultural treasure, and be constrained in many other ways besides, but if we come to know the love of God we will be empowered to become our truest selves nonetheless.

In light of this love we will even find that those things which constrain us (and perhaps once constrained us in ways which limited us as persons) become sources of grace instead. With grace we transcend (though do not necessarily lose) the limits that constrain us. In my own life chronic illness once constrained me in ways which seemed to prevent my ability to grow in the various ways I believed I needed and certainly desired to grow. However, in light of God's love for me chronic illness has proven to be a significant way I came to know the truth of Paul's saying, "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is perfected in weakness." Vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience created constraints which also opened me more fully to the love of God. My Rule envisions a life marked by constraints, but one which is above all a life of authentic freedom --- or it could not be my vocation! Last week my parish's daily Mass community heard the Beatitudes during a Mass geared to one class of our school children; the essential message of this text was and is, Blessed (happy!) are you who feel the many constraints (forms of limit and loss) that touch human beings living in space and time, for they actually make it possible for you to come to know the happiness and freedom of God's sovereignty.

When I wrote last week here I spoke about "natural" forms of suffering Douglas John Hall noted in God and Human Suffering: temptation, anxiety, loneliness, and limits. These make transcendence, communion, security, peace, joy, and surprise possible for us. They are constraints which are part of our coming to the fullness or abundant life of humanity. In God these specific forms of suffering becomes sources or means of blessing. Imagine what it would be like to have none of these (or any!) constraints! If one is never lonely, neither can one be aware of a yearning or need for communion; without limits --- if, that is, one has whatever one wants whenever one wants it --- one never comes to know joy or surprise (or patience, or excitement!); if one is not tempted one may never be stretched to turn to God in dependence or otherwise grow in character. Unless one knows anxiety, neither will one ever come to know genuine security in God or the peace and wholeness which is the result of life in and from (Him).

We cannot do away with all constraints, nor should we try. We exist as historical people: we are embodied (and made to be embodied, even in eternity) and we exist in space and time (all of which are constraints and the source of further constraints). But the love of God can empower us to transcend the constraints which condition our lives and discover the seeds of true personhood within or through them. It is this transcendence empowered by God as Love-in-Act which is the very essence of becoming the persons God calls us to be and the essence of that which Christians identify as authentic freedom and beatitude. Moreover, as described in the last paragraph, the absence of constraints can, according to the analysis of Douglas John Hall's work on "natural" or existential forms of suffering, make us incapable of becoming the persons God has made and summons us to be. This is another paradox which is critical to the way we define authentic freedom and the way it is often opposed to license.

I sincerely hope this is helpful! Let me know if it raises more questions or is unclear in some way and I will give it another shot!