Freedom: today's greatest challenge

Fr Edgar Busuttil SJ

'Today, in the West, we live in an ambiguous and contradictory world of our own making. On the one hand the scope of people's freedom of choice is ever widening... On the other hand there are factors which restrict human freedom seriously... It is therefore not surprising that western society is in the middle of an identity crisis.'

Fr. Edgar Busuttil SJ is presently the Director of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Malta. He was the first Director of the Paulo Freire Institute in Zejtun. For several years he worked as a research assistant in Bioethics at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Malta. He studied Chemistry and Biology at the Unviersity of Malta, Philosophy in Ireland and Theology in Rome where he specialised in Bioethics. 

Freedom: Today's greatest challenge. 
During the Renaissance there was a tendency in the West to distrust authority, to reject tradition and to base behaviour exclusively on rational thinking. It was thought that humanity was at the dawn of a new age and that the human person would finally be emancipated from fear and become the master of his life. The ideal during the Enlightenment was thought to be a secularized world in which God is gradually pushed aside and man placed in the forefront.

Contemporary society has since lost this self-confidence. It has realized that the premises of the Enlightenment are founded on an illusion. The human person at the center of the universe has not led to the paradise expected. Michel Foucault has pointed out that after the human person has taken God's place at the centre of everything, man cannot live under the illusion that humanity can play the role any better than God had played it.

Today, in the West, we live in an ambiguous and contradictory world of our own making. On the one hand the scope of people's freedom of choice is ever widening: Democracy and the possibilities of participation are spreading to ever more countries; the products of technology are enabling people to have a wide range of choices and providing ever more people with new possibilities. On the other hand there are factors which restrict human freedom seriously. The world is governed by massive social structures which tend to make the individual powerless and anonymous, preventing people from developing a constructively critical attitude. These structures often disrespect the cultures of minorities. It is therefore not surprising that western society is in the middle of an identity crisis. 

Two main forms of anthropologies reflect this identity crisis: 'scientific' anthropologies tend to explain the human being deterministically, leaving little room for that in man which cannot be explained empirically, including human freedom. On the other hand, several 'philosophical' anthropologies base everything on human freedom which they absolutize, without taking into account man's limits.

Although very different from one another, these two contemporary anthropological approaches lead to a similar result: The human person is reduced to what Jean Paul Sartre has termed “useless passion"- his existence leading to nothingness and death. It is not surprising that in the atmosphere of existential emptiness it is easy to view human beings as expendable for the “good” of the immediate needs of the majority. 

Christian anthropology gives value to each human individual – 

“...Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. ... even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this...” (Blaise Pascal) 

Pascal's paradox of the greatness and wretchedness of man resonates even more strongly today.

A Christian anthropology views human beings as creatures who are created in the image and likeness of God and who are endowed with intelligence and free will. At the same time, are also limited: they are not gods and they are not at the centre of the universe – a loving God is.  

Jesus' witness to God as Father sheds light on the way he understood the dignity of human beings. If God is a merciful Father to each human being, doing all to liberate him from evil and death, and if He is a Father who takes great interest in what happens to each person and listens to those who ask him for help, then human beings must be very precious in his eyes. Indeed, from Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom it is clear that human dignity is ultimately based on their filial relationship with God. 

Each individual has "absolute" value and dignity. This is not to say that s/he has no limits. Each human being is a finite creature. "Absolute" here means "unconditional". The human person, by virtue of his nature and dignity, demands an unconditional respect. This dignity may never be sacrificed for the sake of another end, whatever this end might be. This pre-established dignity of human beings as persons is but the foundation for their definitive dignity. Human individuals grow and become themselves with time and beyond time.

Though every choice made a person chooses him/herself. Through one’s free will one can choose to become who s/he really is or one can choose to become who s/he is not. So freedom in a broad sense is the ability to choose what we want, but choices against the good lead to slavery, and so even if they may be the result of free will, they are an abuse of the gift of freedom. True freedom is the freedom to do good, because doing good makes us the masters of ourselves. In this life, however, this gift of true freedom, like all gifts, can be abused by choosing not to do good, and the choice to abuse it is a free choice because it is chosen by the will.

We in the West tend to take freedom for granted. When we see what is happening in the Arab world this may help us to reflect on how precious a value it is. However do we really know what freedom is and consists of? If we don’t then there is the danger of running after a chimera, rather than something which is truly meaningful and, therefore, worth pursuing.

Edgar Busuttil, SJ.

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