Will, lawlessness and freedom in religion

Will, lawlessness and freedom in religion

Is freedom a God’s mercy or a trap set by the devil?

Rev. Józef Tischner

1. Freedom and lawlessness

Among the many neglect of contemporary upbringing and teaching, one should point to the will and omissions in its formation. Teaching programs, efforts of parents and teachers are often directed only towards exercising intellect and memory, and do not involve formation of will. However, the complete omission of this task and the lack of concern for "our wanting" are often the cause of human troubles in life and lead to the falsification of the very idea of freedom. It seems then that developing an instrumental reason is sufficient in a person's life. It is also enough for a person to acquire practical knowledge about the world, and what pertains to desires, wants, and choices does not have to be formed. Meanwhile, the will, devoid of efforts to form, is very easily strengthened in lawlessness, in which mere acts of desire (I want) seem at the same time acts of choice. It’s very easy to recognize such false freedom. True human freedom implies (demands) the freedom of another human being, and does not contradict it. In that sense it’s contagious! Lawlessness the other way round: a person seems to be the more free in it, as the other is deprived of it. True freedom requires caring for rules, norms, principles and values, because free action isn’t just any activity, but proper action. For freedom is realized in doing what is right. Lawlessness the other way round, it is a into-subject activity, and such freedom in the private sphere entails the anarchy of life in the public sphere. And since such anarchy cannot last long (no community will survive this), lawlessness in the private sphere will sooner or later lead to authoritarianism and tyranny in the public sphere. In this sense, it destroys the social structure and community. We always deal with unformed will when one start to understand it as doing whatever they want. It means that a person with an unformed will recognizes that their "I want" means the same as freedom.

2. Freeing the will

It should be remembered that in the in medieval thought was emphasized that man is a rational and free being. Freedom is related to rationality (thought, truth), but there is also no rationality without freedom. This means that none of these dimensions of the human person is capable of functioning properly independently of one another: reason becomes sluggish without will, will without reason collapses. Without forming the will, it just succumbs to - as St. Thomas emphasized - attraction to something pleasant (Thomas Aquinas, 1962, p. 6). Accordingly, the care of rationality was recommended, as was the need to form the will. It was therefore impossible not to strive for rationality if one thought of true freedom, but it was also impossible to override the will if one wanted to improve the intellectual sphere of person. All this changed with the Enlightenment glorification of reason and forgetting to educate the will. Rationality was then recognized as an autonomous dimension of human existence, and it could develop without caring for the will. But also the will, or "our wanting," has acquired absolute autonomy to do what it wants according to the circumstances. Educating the intellect did not have to involve educating the will any more. If Voltaire asked for example: Isn't an act of will always a consequence of the last ideas we have received? (Voltaire, 1956, p. 29), then the same question includes the premise of making the will dependent only on the current stimuli/circumstances. That means, any attempt to form it, to rationalize "I want" has lost its sense, since it is always guided by "the last ideas". Therefore, it seemed as if one could have rationality without a well-formed will. But also the other way around: one can actually be free and enjoy its powers without rationality. If one looks at the individual development of person, there is no doubt that this state of lawlessness, or - as Thomas Mann put it - man taking off to fly (Mann, 1985, p. 81), belongs to the original experience of freedom and the seemingly happiest moments of man. The child discovers the will as lawlessness, as an action directed towards themself, unrelated to rationality, as "I want", and they does it with great joy. What is needed is the educational formation of such a will, for true freedom to be born. For in the tradition of our culture it was clear that it was impossible to have a false concept of rationaity along with a true concept of freedom. If falsehood, error, ambiguity appeared on the side of reason, then at the same time the will has gone astray. This principle also worked the other way around. That means, if the will was lawlessness, it would also lead to some kind of violation of rationality. When asked by the intellect: what should I do, the lawless will, that is, that is, not subjected to upbringing, replies: do what is conducive to your well-being and leave behind what brings you suffering or nuisance. The basis of such will is selfishness, and rationality is only used as a means to get the most out of it. What are the effects of this erroneous separation of intellect and will, but also omissions in the formation of human will? How are these problems manifested in religion and religious freedom today? Let's look at only two elements.

3. Religion - from coercion to obligation

First, it should be emphasized that the Enlightenment separation of reason and will and confusing will with lawlessness became an important impulse to interpret religion as an oppressive reality that limits human freedom and prevents independent human development. Such an interpretation was possible not because religion in fact does it, enslaving man, restricting, coercing, etc., but because the will itself, as a result of this separation, became a spontaneous creativity and lost its rational orientation. In such a situation, everything that somehow limits “wrong will” becomes oppressive. The more it becomes lawlessness and defends itself against limitations and rational formation, the more religion reveals its oppressive character in the face of such understood will. Besides, it isn’t only religion that is perceived as oppressive. Anything pertaining to objective rules, values, obligations, etc. interferes with lawlessness. In breach of all of this, subjective lawlessness is opposed to what is represented by the order, principles, and values that govern life. Thus, it can be emphasized that if the will is only lawlessness, then religion always seems oppressive. Pointedly this direction can be seen in the thought of Sartre, who by pointing out that we are lawless, we are alone, we are the realization of our will (Sartre, 2001, p. 132), also unequivocally emphasizes that religion removes and takes away this freedom. It does this, admittedly, for the happiness of person - as Sartre says - but it also falsifies free existence. It isn’t difficult to pinpoint the cause of such protests against enslaving religion, when the will has become lawlessness. In such false will (lawlessness) the distinction between "you should" and "you must" is lost. In both cases, the cause of the action is to some extent external to the agent, but freedom is lost only when a person does something as a result of compulsion (you must!), and not when an obligation is involved (it's supposed to be!). Only in the first case can one perceive coercion, oppression, domination, dependence, etc. It is different with obligation, which isn’t compulsion against the will. It may be independent of one’s desires, their goals, but it does not act as a coercion for will constraining. Karol Wojtyła emphasized that its (obligations) character is related to the fact that it results from man's response to values. (Wojtyła, 1986, p. 31). Values evoke a sense of obligation. As such, an obligation cannot enslave a person, take away freedom, but only instruct it or bring it up/educate. It is such a special state that is realized by departing from self and lawless will, and leads to the discovery of claims against this self, which should be/have to be implemented. Therefore, not only obligation doesn’t take away human freedom, but it also comes from freedom itself. Religions, of course, often refer to obligation, not coercion, indicating to person that their will isn’t (and shouldn’t be) lawless, as it is directed by reason and values. However, this shouldn’t be seen as enslaving a person. Obedience to God doesn’t remove freedom, but restores its rational character and teaches to recognize lawlessness. In religion itself we find out that one’s freedom is the greater, the better they recognizes their duties and can limit lawlessness. Is born and grows not from lawlessness, but from the realization of truth and good.

4. Lawlessness and freedom in religious life

With the separation of reason and freedom, and the cultural glorification of lawlessness, not only is religion misread as a tool of coercion, not only is duty confused with coercion and enslavement, but the place of freedom in religious life is also falsified. Rev. Romano Guardini emphasized even that nowhere is human lawlessness more fatal than in religious life. (Guardini, 1969, p. 273). Therefore, as the second element of the dangerous results of such a separation, we should point to the use of unformed will (lawlessness) to shape man's religious life. The point here is first that the image of God, religious life, or religiosity in general, are subjected by person to their own will and decision. Lawlessness in this sphere means that instead of being a listener, instead of following the words of St. Paul: I no longer live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20) in religious life, a person begins to live as if theirs own initiative were enough to achieve the goal. In other words: they begins to believe in self-salvation. Therefore it’s not about religion being included in our acts of choice, about the right (freedom) to profess a particular religion and the inclusion of its matters in the general means of human choice. Rather, the point is that the believer doesnt allow themself to be carried away by religious hope, but attributes to themself the saving power. So what happens in religion and what it leads to, becomes attributed to lawlessness which expands to omnipotence. Lawlessness in the area of religion can also often be seen in atheistic positions, in which they are not the result of an attempt at reason, but a desire that God should not exist. Such pseudo-atheism in many modern people results precisely from the unformed human will. And is mainly about making a child's dream come true, and religious freedom become anarchist religiosity, in which not only is a private matter, both in an individual and public dimension, but is also connected with belief in anything, under the guise of "free religiosity".

5. Ways of healing

It can be said that without a properly formed will, which, just like rationality, requires great efforts and endeavors, freedom always appears as "I want", "I desire". However, as long as person is everything for themself, is not yet completely free. The error of lawlessness affects an entire human life, including religious life. The most obvious consequence of confusing will with lawlessness in private life is egocentrism, in public life it’s the disintegration of communities, and in religious life the privatization of religion and loss of its community dimension. Taking all this into account, the question should be asked: in what direction one should go to regain the proper dimensions of freedom and to weaken lawlessness? It seems one should first realize that the mere act of wanting is not an act of freedom and choice. For it’s an act that most often grows from feelings and emotions, pleasure and distress. However, we choose, that is, we carry out an act of freedom, in categories of good and evil, truth and falsehood, not in categories of pleasure and distress. In the act of simple desire, the will most often follows sensual goals, while when fulfilling the act of freedom, it is guided by rationality. Therefore, the second task in this matter is concern for human rationality. As we already have pointed out, the will acts properly and doesn’t fall into lawlessness if is guided by reason and not succumb to passions. This correlation was very much accentuated in the Middle Ages. And today, while one have to defend themself against the dangers of lawlessness, this should be strongly emphasized. Our freedom doesn’t depend only on will and doesn’t result from it alone. It is a combined creation of reason and will. That is why human rationality and the rational (not emotional) dimension of religion are so important. It isn’t only about the choice itself, but also its content.

Professor doctor habilitated Marek Szulakiewicz

Nicolaus Copernicus University


Guardini R., Wolność, łaska, los, J. Bronowicz (trans.), Kraków 1969.

Mann T., Doktor Faustus, M. Kurecka, W. Wirpsza (trans.), Warszawa 1985.

Sartre J. P., Egzystencjalizm jest humanizmem, J. Krajewski (trans.), in: idem, Problem bytu i nicości. Egzystencjalizm jest humanizmem, Warszawa 2001.

Thomas Aquinas, Suma teologiczna. Męstwo (II–II, q. 123–140), vol. 21, S. Bełch (trans.), London 1962.

Wojtyła K., Wykłady lubelskie. Człowiek i moralność, T. Styczeń, J. Gałkowski, A. Rodziński, A. Szostek (eds.), Lublin 1986.

Voltaire, Elementy filozofii Newtona, H. Konczewska (trans.), Warszawa 1956.

Autor: Mateusz Ruta
Date: 10 August 2021
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