God’s Laws: The Ground of Human Freedom

3rd Sunday of Lent (Year B) 2021

Ex 20:1-17; Ps 18:8-11. R. Jn 6:68; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25

FIRST READING: A reading from the book of Exodus

God spoke all these words. He said, ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall not utter the name of the Lord your God to misuse it, for the Lord will not leave unpunished the man who utters his name to misuse it.
‘Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. ‘Honour your father and your mother so that you may have a long life in the land that the Lord your God has given to you.
‘You shall not kill.
‘You shall not commit adultery.
‘You shall not steal.
‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his servant, man or woman, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is his.’

Photo from Baliyans.com on Human Freedom Index

ONE of the objections of the proponents of New Atheism and to some extent the modern secular society is that to believe in God is to take away human freedom. They tend to think of divine freedom as supreme arbitrariness or capriciousness over the ultimate choice of salvation and damnation. And because of this notion about God, many people in our modern secularist society tend to see the Church and its teachings merely as a means to take away people’s freedom.

The Ten Commandments that we just heard in the First Reading and the other social and moral teachings of the faith and the Church are often regarded as barriers—even a threat—to human flourishing. With regards to the Ten Commandments, more and more people are just hearing the constant refrain of “Thou Shall Not…” without even considering the point of these seeming prohibitions. Hence, more and more we hear the conviction that it might as well be good to get rid ourselves of God. It echoes Ludwig Feuerbach’s famous quote: “A No to God is A Yes to Humanity.”

However, this negative outlook on laws, especially religious laws like the Ten Commandments, is valid only if we have an incomplete or flawed understanding of freedom. The noted moral theologian and Catholic Dominican priest, Servais Pinckaers says there are two types of freedom. There is the Freedom of Indifference on the one hand and the Freedom for Excellence on the other.

The Freedom of Indifference means to have the ability to accept or reject; it’s autonomous self-direction, self-assertion and self-definition. No one can compel me to do something and everything that surrounds me—you, the environment, institutions like government and the Church—are threats to that autonomy. This kind of thinking, in fact, could be at the heart of the debate regarding the two natures of Christ—fully divine and fully human. How can the human will exist alongside the divine will?

On the other hand, freedom for excellence is not so much as a choice but rather to discipline our desires to achieve the good first possible and then effortless. For example, if one wants to be a great AFL or basketball player or a pianist or a dancer, one spends countless hours first knowing all the rules, then internalise them, then training the body to the point that one becomes freer to play the game or the craft how ever he or she wants it. We see this all the time in our sports heroes. We see this in people of great talents. The rules in actuality help these people achieve their goals. To be great AFL, cricket or basketball players, to be a great pianist, dancer, etc.

The first type of freedom sees only the rules and laws as a threat to freedom. For the latter, it is the very ground and matrix of freedom.

The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt.

God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments not to limit their freedom. The Torah did not compel the Jews to observe the 613 laws because it wants to dominate them. The Church’s moral and social teachings are not there because she wants every believer to be miserable and devoid of happiness. Laws, teachings, exhortations are there so that we can train ourselves spiritually so that becoming holy would be possible first, then effortless just like how the saints live out their faith. Human freedom is not in opposition to God’s freedom. This is because our finite freedom finds itself precisely in relation to the infinite ground of being, which is God. And when we find ourselves—our will—in complete synch with divine will, then we find ourselves radiant, fully human, in complete happiness, holy—the ultimate good.

Our authentic human freedom is in fact a participation in God’s act of being. This is the reason why God’s freedom is fully expressed as love, willing the good of the other as others. If we participate in God’s freedom, in God’s love, then we will find our authentic selves, which St Irenaeus pointed out long ago: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive!”

NB: Credit to the owners of the photos. I always try my best to cite the sources of the photos I get but not always successful. I am very grateful though as they reinforce the message of each post.