Faith and Reason: The lightness of a half real liberty: In a further article in our series on the Loss of Virtue, the Rev Nigel Biggar, Chaplain of Oriel College, Oxford, argues that freedom from all obligations is a barrier to human fulfilment
Saturday 17 April 1993
We in the liberal West instinctively presume that freedom from constraints is a good. This presumption is evident in our language, where words such as 'limitation', 'restriction', 'tie' and even 'obligation' almost invariably carry negative connotations.
In some respects, of course, freedom from constraints does liberate us. It sets us free for spontaneous adventure. It allows us to wander abroad, to explore foreign parts, to broaden our horizons, and to enrich the fabric of our lives with novelty and variety. Such freedom is an important ingredient of what makes human life worth living.
But when it becomes the only kind of freedom that we recognise - and in our culture that is very nearly so - then it threatens to become a kind of prison. For if freedom for breadth is the only freedom we value and cultivate, then our freedom for depth will wither. Being creatures and not gods, we cannot have both without limit. If we would be free to go deep, then we must be willing to suffer restriction upon our movements on the surface.
This is not just a matter of the allocation of limited time and energies. It is also a matter of the choosing and building of the self, the development of a particular character, the fostering of some skills and strengths at the expense of others. For the habits and skills of the globe-trotter are not - and never could be - the habits and skills necessary for building a home and a community. And the habits and skills of the sexual nomad can only be cultivated instead of those needed to plumb the depths of one particular relationship.
Where I speak of the choice between breadth and depth, Milan Kundera (in The Unbearable Lightness of Being) speaks of the choice between lightness and heaviness. 'But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?' he asks. 'The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfilment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?'
To be free from commitments, from the restrictions that obligations to others place upon us, is actually to be bereft of a vital means of human fulfilment. Moreover, the more we are in the habit of such freedom, the more unable we become to exchange it for something else. We lose the freedom to choose commitment. We become trapped on the surface, condemned always to wander, never to come home. There comes a time when the habitual dilettante simply cannot turn himself into a connoisseur. Thus, freedom can grow into a kind of slavery that stunts the growth of our humanity, and robs us of the ultimate satisfaction of being able to love deeply.
The power to liberate human beings does not belong to every kind of freedom as such. That power belongs specifically to the freedom to behave according to human nature. It is liberation from the frustration and exhaustion and desperation of trying to manage powers that we are not equipped to handle - liberation from the predicament of the Sorcerer's Apprentice.
For human beings to be free as human beings is for us to live the kind of life that is proper to us, the kind of life for which we are built. Human freedom is the gladness we experience when we act in accordance with the order of our being.
This natural order is basically twofold: creaturely and social. To be free as a human being is, in the first place, to acknowledge that we are creatures, limited in opportunities and powers, possessed only of a little time in which to do a few things. It is to refuse the tendency to deify ourselves by acknowledging that another is God.
This can be done both implicitly and explicitly. Implicitly it is done in the manner in which we run our secular lives: by not planning as if we had all the time in the world, by not imagining that we can realise all our potential, by valuing the abilities and opportunities we do have without resenting those we lack, by being content to do the few things that are given us to do, by accepting the moral limits placed upon us by our history and, above all, by embracing the obligations that we have inherited and acquired. What we do implicitly in the manner of our lives, we do explicitly by engaging in expressly religious acts. To acknowledge God in prayer and worship is to acknowledge oneself as a creature.
That is the first way in which we live according to the order of human being, and it is therefore the first condition of substantial and human freedom.
The second condition is that we love our neighbour. Note that it is our neighbour whom we are to love - the one nearby. That is to say, we are to love in the only way that creatures genuinely can: by caring for those who are given to cross our finite path. Being creatures, and not gods, we cannot love everyone; but we can love our neighbours.
This specification of the proper object of human love does not mean that we must restrict our love to members of our tribe, whether domestic, social, professional, religious, or national. Nor does it mean that we have no responsibility for those who are geographically remote from us.
What it does mean, however, is that we may not avert our eyes from the battered body on the side of the road that we rush down in pursuit of our daily business - or even of some Grand Humanitarian Cause. The charity of creatures really does begin at home, or somewhere close by, even if it eventually expands beyond its domestic matrix.
On one occasion, when he was in ironic mood, Jesus invited the weary and oppressed to find rest by shouldering his yoke. This yoke comprises obedience to the two-fold commandment which summarises conduct according to the order of human being: love God and love your neighbour. The freedom to take up this burden is the freedom that liberates. For this is one weight that, giving substance to human life, causes human hearts to rise up for joy.
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