Freedom, nihilism and religion

Freedom, nihilism and religion

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves…”

Rom 8:15

1. Concern about freedom

When we consider the colloquial meaning of the word „freedom”, we most often (always, maybe?) encounter its apology. We are dealing here with making a universalistic claim against it, and omitting to consider what freedom is it about. Freedom presents itself as a desirable value for all people, of all places and all times. However, it’s in its area that a person can easily fall into the trap of their own selfishness and loneliness, and make it another instrument of their own deification, if they are not prepared to limit it with reason. This danger concerns all areas of human existence, including religion. And it’s not only about the insecurity, helplessness and threat, often experienced in a situation of a sense of freedom (Sartre presented it brilliantly in „The Flies”), and so often emphasized by existentialism. It’s also about a situation of arbitrariness, or lawlessness, in which, instead of „I should”, one’s wantonness is revealed. But it’s also about loneliness, which is often regarded as the price that a person pays for freedom, especially freedom understood as lawlessness. There is no doubt that freedom can save a person, but it can destroy them as well. It’s such a strong word because it always stimulates action, but it does not define its direction. Therefore, in order to understand its dimensions, one must ask, what freedom do in the whole of human existence? What actually happens on the part of a person who is free, prides themself on their freedom, and wants it for themself and others alike? And where are the causes of threats and dangers in it? But also: how to limit them so that it’s not just a liberation from various types of evil and exclusions (which is most often in our life), but also a path to various types of good (what it should become).

2. New possibilities

First, it must be said that a person constitutes themself as a free being, and the possibilities that open up before us are always limited. We cannot experience, see and obtain everything, but also give everything to others. Freedom clearly broadens the horizon of such possibilities: one can do more when is free. „We are the more free – writes Max Scheler – the greater the number of possibilities between which we can choose each time”. This doesn’t, however, mean, that the possibilities determine its original meaning. It’s the freedom rather that defines these possibilities. For nowhere else, as in it, we find that our existence is in statu viatoris (in the state of being-on-the-way) and not in statu comprehensoris (in the state of being-fulfilled). However, if in our existence we are not yet fulfilled, realized, finished, if we are still in a state of „not yet being fulfilled”, then without freedom the striving for it can never be realized. It means: we can’t not be free, if we are in statu viatoris, and the metaphysics of freedom precedes (and should precede) specific situations and our choices. Karl Jaspers proved that we see our freedom in action, in the realization of certain possibilities, but it cannot be understood in them. That is, those faced with more choices do not understand freedom any better than those with fewer choices. The former may then falsely recognize that freedom is precisely to have as many of them as possible. There is an assumption hidden in this expanding our capabilities and defining our freedom precisely through them. It is assumed that the independence of a person/individual, the ability to direct their choices, critical self-assessment of these choices, etc., is always related to good and is the result of clear reflection. This means that we expand the world of our possibilities, give up our compulsions, and at the same time assume that we will choose well, rationally, properly, without prejudice from among these many possibilities. Whereas – and we know it well enough in contemporary culture – we are easily influenced people, dependent on other people’s opinions, devoid of critical self-esteem, succumbing to fashions, moods and limitations. As we live, we always encounter limitations in our freedom of choice, caused by conditions of various nature that are to induce us to some kind of action, or – as V. Klemperer said – „to keep us in state of inability to think”. And this is the first threat of freedom, which consists in some kind of false recognition of the situation made by person and failing to recognize that – due to many factors: personal, political, cultural, religious… – they do not see many of their own addictions and enslavements. Paradoxically, it’s in freedom that a person can decide that the doesn’t want to see anything and doesn’t want to know anything, hiding from themself those facts that hinder a comfortable life. Arbitrary use/exercise of freedom is a common human experience. It is a false awarness of freedom, which ignores the conditions and circumstances of the choices and focuses only on making them as many as possible. Not noticing these limitations, one begins to think that the way to save one’s own freedom is to fight against what constitutes a rule, principle, authority, and what creates the principles of choice, and focuses on having as many options as possible to choose from.

3. Dark side of freedom

Freedom is the way of human existence. Without it, there’s simply no human or – to put it bluntly – without freedom you can’t be human. „As an autonomous entity (Selbstsein) – writes Jaspers – I can’t bear the mere possibility of enslavement”. That is why freedom can never be proved theoretically, but can only be witnessed in concrete action. Freedom is a choice, it means, „that I can”, and it expresses the search, but it’s not necessarily known what we are looking for. It transforms our existence, the whole world takes on a new form through it, but it doesn’t define nor organize these possibilities. It is a dream of a state in which – as Hegel said – „one is no longer at somebody’s else place” but is „in utterly their own place”. The response to recognizing one’s own addictions and enslavements is often a protest, rebellion, a desire to break free and „throw off the shackles”. It is a dream of such a state that – as Hegel used to say – „not to be with anyone else anymore” and to be „only absolutely at home”. Protest and resistance to everything that enslaves us results metaphysically from the fact, that freedom belongs to our being. And by resisting enslavement, we are concerned about our existence. However, in all of this, it’s also easy to see the dark (negative) side of human freedom, which in our history has often caused fear. Apart from changing ourselves and the world, it also reveals our ability to neantisation (nothingification). It manifests itself first in weakening confidence and trust, generating the necessity to be suspicious of the positivity of life, meaning and existence. A person becomes in it an eternal rebel and destroyer of everything that could in any way be associated with the recognition of the need for certain behaviors and choices. It then seems that all necessity, prohibition or injunction is against freedom. In the search for such absolute freedom, the principle of life often becomes the question: From what else could I free myself? And this is not a trivial question for our existence. When contemporary culture is observed, it’s easy to notice that it has become the essence of life for many who seek the slightest manifestations of external control of their lives only to immediately remove these elements and discard them. It seems that it’s freedom that tells us to be suspicious of ourselves, other person, institution, religion… Rebellions in the name of freedom are not rare events in our history, along with saying „no” to authority, tradition, law, religion, moral principles, values. Everywhere there, and in many other areas, one seeks and discovers the state of enslavement and the necessity of liberation. The act of resistance to everything that closes and limits seems to be an act of freedom, removing all rights and values, and creating an axiologically indifferent, nihilistic even, reality. „Regicides”, „deicides”, „destroyers of values” do it most often in the name of human freedom. This state, however, falsifies freedom itself and strengthens one’s suspicion of the construction of reality so much that it puts everything on the threshold of nothingness. It seems here, that a free person can no longer bet on anything else and on no one else but themself (self), and freedom itself consists only in the constant „saying no”.

4. Bonds of freedom

Nihilism seems to be the goal and result of freedom understood in this way, in which a person limits it only to liberating themself and constantly exercises themself in saying „no”. However, given that freedom is the way of human existence, this effect must be objectionable. If the result of freedom is the neantisation of existence, depriving the world, person and culture of what is most precious and loneliness of person, then identifying freedom ONLY with „liberating oneself” must be wrong. Taking all this into consideration, a question should be asked how one can (and should) defend themself against the arbitrariness of freedom and also protect themself from the dangerous neantisation of themself and the world as a result of its recognition?

Whenever one considers freedom in isolation from the metaphysical structure of person and focuses only on liberating it, a false image of it is obtained. Freedom is, of course, an affirmation of person, but it’s not at all an affirmation of the self. Human life isn’t about obeying orders, following codes and regulations, being a slave, but neither is it about enjoying unlimited lawlessness. Contrary to this narrowing identification of freedom with liberation, it is necessary to reach for its original meaning, which is not only about „having freedom”, but mainly about „being free”. And it’s only in it that its real dimension appears, as it defines our existence and protects us from the neantisation of reality. This new dimension appears when a person (self) doesn’t seek obsessive confirmation of their freedom by constantly liberating themself from something”, but when they bring it to another person, they want their freedom and care for it. Desiring the freedom of another human being is not only about their liberation. It’s more about being themself and possibility of being themself. Concern for their freedom is first concern for them as a human being, and then for what prevents them from being themself. Therefore it turns out, that freedom is not about the „freedom of the self” or the liberation of the self, but it’s more deeply embedded in a person than their self. One could even say that by caring for the freedom of another person, selfishness of self and lawlessness are questioned. Such action also reveals a freedom that doesn’t isolate and doesn’t make one lonely in constant acts of liberation, but rather connects and reveals the communal dimension of our existence. Such freedom is not only to contribute to the liberation of the self from something, but is to restore the proper sense of human existence. One can’t understand freedom when it’s offered to oneself, but only when one offers it and strives for the freedom of another human being. In this sense, the absence of coercion is not the only and most important measure of human freedom. For it may be so that without any coercion, „freeing themself from everything”, person will not be free at all, but the opposite: they will become the greatest slave of their egoism. Such a measure is thowever the possibility (or the impossibility) of fulfilling a human being. Person is free (and not only „have freedom”) if they experience it through the freedom of others, and not through their own lawlessness. „If I’m free – wrote John Paul II – it means that I can use my freedom in a good or wrong way. If I use it in a good way, it also makes me good myself, and the good I do has a positive effect on my surroundings. If I use it in a wrong way, the consequence of this is the rooting and spreading of wrongness in me and in my surroundings”. In this sense, one could say that freedom is not at all a liberation and expansion of the area of freedom, but a task or a vocation of person. Even more: focusing on liberating itself can lead to loss of it. „For where truth and love are missing, the process of liberation results in the death of a freedom which will have lost all support”. And this is what is often lacking in contemporary person, who counts on liberation and seeks „from what else to be free” but truth and love are not in it.

5. Liberation from religion and freedom in religion

A person who doesn’t see their shackles remains a slave. It’s not surprising that religion brings with it duties, injunctions, prohibitions, and restrictions. All this allows many critics to place it in a row with all those areas on which a person should be willing to give up, if they really deems themself free. It can be assumed that in this sense religion is enslaving in the same way as authority, value, norm, tradition, truth, etc. Liberation from it becomes especially important if freedom is identified only with the processes of liberation from coercions that pertain to the self. For whoever understands freedom only in this way must desire to free themself from everything that enslaves in any way, not excluding, for example, truth, but also religion. Even St. Thomas emphasizes that „freedom itself – as long as it is understood as getting rid of coercion – does not allow for gradation”. It means: all or nothing; we have to wish to be free from all coercion, and only then are we free. Such a coercion becomes the imperative to say „good morning”, as well as, for example, the duties that arise when caring for the family. From all this wants to free themself the one, who understands freedom only as getting rid of coercions. Such behavior is often seen in contemporary culture. The effect of this is – as J. P. Sartre maintain – „…do everything we want, think what seems good to us, answer only to ourselves and constantly question what we think – everyone in general”. Thus, if freedom arises only as a result of liberation from all that limits, sooner or later religion becomes embraced by it, and person begins to concentrate on how to free themself from it.

Religion is completely different if you look at it not in the context of liberation, but of offering freedom to another. The fact that God does not enslave man has already been pictured by Jacques Ellul, stressing that a free God will not want obedient slaves. Love, even though it may contain prohibition, is not related to enslavement, but to freedom. That’s the first context in which freedom appears in religion. It’s a special case of human choice here, alongside many of our other free choices. It’s easy to notice that the situation is reversed: religion not only doesn’t enslave, but even demands us to be free and make our own choice, because God „wants us free”. No one religious has to be like that. For human religiosity is a condition that arises from freedom. „Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). If St. Paul demands freedom as a turning point for religion (Christianity), he is referring neither to lwalessness nor to liberation, and doesn’t indicate at all that in this new reality one can do what they want. The appeal to freedom is related to the metaphysical listening to the Lord and the human response to this call. In these contexts there is a freedom that doesn’t teach to liberate, but makes a person able to discover a neighbor and to change themself. Each religion appears in the form of an call to person: change yourself. And they are more important than the commands or prohibitions it offers. In this call, person is freed from cosmic destiny, determinism and necessity, and they discover that obedience to God’s will is freedom because He can’t enslave. Religion, and Christianity in particular, shows that our life depends on Someone Else and is at this Someone service. Knowing that „we belong to” rebuilds our lives, but also rebuilds our freedom. Such freedom doesn’t turn us from the world, it doesn’t cancel things out, but rather makes it all meaningful.

Ellul J., Anarchia i chrześcijaństwo, J. Gru, A. Dudra (trans.), Kraków 2015.

Encykliki Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II, (Solicitudo rei socialis), Kraków 2003.

Hegel G. W. F., Fenomenologia ducha, Ś. F. Nowicki (trans.), Warszawa 2002

Thomas Aquinas, Suma teologiczna, vol. 5, fr. Pius Bełch (trans.), O.P., London 1979.

Sartre J. P., Drogi wolności, J. Rogoziński (trans.), Kraków 2005.

Scheler M, Wolność, miłość, świętość. Pisma wybrane z filozofii religii, G. Sowiński (trans.), Kraków 2004.

John Paul II, Pamięci tożsamość. Rozmowy na przełomie tysiącleci, Kraków 2005.

Jaspers K., Philosohie. Zweiter Band: Existenzerhellung, Berlin 1932.

Klemperer V., LTI. Notatnik filologa, J. Zychowicz (trans.), Kraków 1983.

Marek Szulakiewicz

Nicolaus Copernicus University

Autor: Mateusz Ruta
Date: 9 November 2021
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