Saturday, October 4, 2008

Freedom: With God or without God? (1971)

The Rodda Project: Concepts of freedom in contexts of God

Albert Rodda was a lifelong Methodist who was married to a lifelong Roman Catholic. Both Albert and Clarice practiced their religions faithfully, although on close parallel paths, creating a stable mixed marriage at a time when mixed marriages were regarded more askance than they are now. Senator Rodda was thoughtful about his religion, but not doctrinaire. These remarks on human freedom relative to God were presented at the Oak Park Methodist Church in Sacramento.


To be Free: With God or Without

Oak Park Methodist Church

August 22, 1971

Senator Albert S. Rodda

Is man free, and if so, in what way is he free?

Many responses have been made to this question. This morning, I will consider three.

First, let us review the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher.

Nietzsche made the oft-quoted statement that “God is dead!” He meant that since God was no longer a force in man’s life, God was dead—killed by man! With God dead, man was emancipated—free— free to be himself or to find his own “being.” The question which must be asked is: How did Nietzsche expect that man would use his freedom—his emancipation from God?

Nietzsche saw liberated man as one driven by a “Will to Power,” and it was through power that man would achieve his true self or his being, by becoming a superman!

This conclusion offers a frightening prospect for man. Since man has conquered nature and can unleash to his purposes the destructive energy of which reality is made, the Nietzschian view of man is disturbing. Even in the middle of the 19th Century, Nietzsche, in reflecting on the consequences of his thought, was driven to anguish and terror. Today the prospects for man, so conceived, are even more dreadful.

One can only conclude that if God is dead and man is free and freedom is expressed in a will to power, man must restore God to life; otherwise, chaos will be man's fate and the Biblical Revelation will be fulfilled!

The behavior of man in the 20th Century, as one reflects on the human condition, is not reassuring. It seems to provide more evidence to prove that Nietzsche was right than that he was wrong and the serious contemplation of the new superman described by Nietzsche evokes despair and hopelessness!

The freedom of man is viewed differently, however, by Jean-Paul Sartre; although he, too, proclaims the existence of a Godless Universe. with God dead, Sartre argues that human life is meaningless and absurd!

His is the atheistic existentialist view. There is no God; man is free; there are no values; man is absurd!

A brilliant contemporary thinker, who fought as a partisan in the French Resistance during the Nazi's occupation of France, Sartre writes bitterly of evil. He encountered evil in the Nazi occupation of France.

The evil in Hitlerism was its justification of any behavior, however depraved, as long as it resulted in power. The Nazi interpretation and application of Nietzsche's “Will to Power” led to Dachau and Auschwitz. Sartre witnessed the presence of the Nazi in France; he saw Hitler as evil; he became convinced that evil exists in the world. He concluded that evil cannot be redeemed!

But, concluded Sartre, man, who lives in a Godless world of evil and of absurdity, possesses at least his freedom! It, however, is only a limited freedom—the freedom to say “no!” This is the ultimate freedom through which man fulfills himself or achieves his Being as a Man! The freedom to say “no!”

Sartre sees the essence of life as negative—the freedom to confront evil and to say “no”; man may say: “I will not accept an evil that cannot be redeemed.”

Strangely, this Sartrean view—of a universe, empty of God and pervaded with evil—produced a conviction in Sartre which ultimately developed a close kinship with the “Will to Power” of Frederick Nietzsche. To Sartre the practical meaning of life was the struggle to overcome Evil; in this struggle man fulfilled himself; outside the struggle there was no true being or opportunity for human fulfillment.

The logic of this reasoning can be disturbing, however, since the freedom to say “no” may lead to a Nietzschean “Will to Power.” He who must say “no” might say “no” against his own nature. William Barrett in The Irrational Man reasons that the freedom to say “no” to evil in a context of life void of God and values might be a “rootless freedom”—a “demonical freedom!”

Sartre is a genuine humanitarian—a liberal revolutionary and a man of action; he can be trusted with the exercise of the freedom to resist evil—to say “no!” But the same freedom which he affirms could be experienced by a man of evil will. One can visualize the consequence. Absent a God and eternal ethical values—what is the assurance that freedom will not be abused? Sartre's view of man may merge into nothing more than a Nietzschean “Will to Power!” which produces a race of evil supermen!

Something better is required to respond to the needs of man! The consequences inherent in the proposition that God is dead, killed by man, and that man is free, are not reassuring.

Frankly, the atheism of these men is so stark and the consequences are so disturbing that its contemplation must turn one toward religion and God. This leap to God brings to mind the thinking of Soren Kierkegaard, an early 19th Century Dane, who viewed the mystery of human existence quite differently.

In contrast to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard chose to be a Christian. God, in his view, was not dead and throughout his life he constantly struggled to affirm his personal faith with all of his passion and being. His sole objective in life became that of realizing the “truth of Christ in his own life.”

His primary objective, as a writer, was to define what is meant to be a Christian. His primary purpose, in his personal life, was to “be a Christian.” For Kierkegaard, it was the only way of being a man or of becoming fulfilled.

Desirous of contributing to the betterment of mankind, he speculated as follows:
“So there I sat and smoked my cigar until I lapsed into thought. Among other thoughts I remember these:

“You are going on,” I said to myself, “to become an old man, without being anything, and without really undertaking to do anything.

“On the other hand, wherever you look about you, in literature and in life, you see the celebrated names and figures, the precious and much heralded men who are coming into prominence and are much talked about, the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier. And what are you doing?”

Here my soliloquy was interrupted, for my cigar was smoked out and a new one had to be lit. So I smoked again, and then suddenly this thought flashed through my mind:

“You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must, with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as the others, undertake to make something harder.”

This notion pleased me immensely... For when all combine in every way to make everything easier, there remains only one possible danger, namely, that the ease becomes so great that it becomes altogether too great; then there is only one want left, though it is not yet a felt want, when people will want difficulty.

Out of love for mankind, and out of despair at my embarrassing situation, seeing that I had accomplished nothing and was unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, and moved by genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I conceived it as my task to create difficulties.
Pursuant to his determination to make a contribution by creating difficulties, Kierkegaard wrote penetratingly about human behavior, which he categorized into three types: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.

The aesthetic life was one devoted to the enjoyment of the pleasure of the moment and to the avoidance of the unpleasant. The child is the perfect and complete aesthete, existing always in the immediacy and simplicity of the moment. Some adults retain this childlike mode of behavior and never mature. They respond to life simply and live for the moment. In the end their lives sink into despair, as the flowers that delight their lives fade.

Materialists and hedonists share this existence, as do purely abstract thinkers and speculators, who are absorbed in developing systems of philosophy and theology.

The former are consumers of things and events; the latter are analysts and abstractionists. Both are only spectators—observers of life who are detached from genuine life experience.

The aesthetic quality of living is shared by all, but some never advance beyond it—remaining childlike and uninvolved.

When one becomes involved in a choice between values, one advances to the ethical life. By the courageous act of reaching a decision, one begins to live ethically, and with a potential for living authentically!

Since ethics involves abstract reasoning about good and bad, and right and wrong, it can remain outside of life—it can be and often is merely the description of philosophical or theological systems and nothing more.

A philosopher or a theologian can succeed in constructing a complete and logical system of values and yet carry on life in a childish manner, living for the moment. Kierkegaard held that an ethical system without decision or commitment was sheer paper currency without backing. For him, the meaningful life was in living beyond the ethical. It was the religious life, the life that is involved in the uniqueness of the individual—you and I— our singleness in the world. It goes beyond mere abstraction. It is a life that is real in the sense that it transcends the easy and mechanical observance of a morality, simply because it is socially desirable—or socially approved or traditional.

The genuinely religious man must on occasion, in “fear and trembling,” break with the ordinary moral code. If we recall, Nietzsche affirmed the right of the superman to break any moral rule in order to achieve power. Kierkegaard, however, differed dramatically. The individual, he argued, must break with the ethical, but not for the reason of a callous, arrogant seeking for power.

Kierkegaard justified the religious act of moral transgression on the grounds of only one principle. The one justification, which was the core to his Christian faith, was that the individual is higher than the universal principle or the collective morality. The abstract principle cannot, he reasoned, comprehend the uniqueness of the one—the individual, in his concreteness. There are occasions, therefore, when the individual must act alone—in a kind of solitary “suspension of the ethical.”

The average person faces the necessity of making the difficult choice only occasionally and since/whatever the decision, some evil will result, most individuals avoid the necessity of choosing, or of deciding for themselves. They embrace a principle—a moral code—and by applying it rigorously and with inflexibility, escape the real moment of truth in their lives. The rigorous observance of the ethics of the day or of the crowd may provide a convenient cop-out, for no moral blueprint covers all of life's circumstances. There are times when we must choose in “fear and trembling” from within ourselves, not from outside ourselves. Those are the occasions when we stand alone.

The Bible states that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

The “fear and trembling” of modern man in choosing is the beginning of self and of self-actualization. And eventually all human beings must cope with the despair which embraces life when ultimately they confront the absurdity of existence.

Kierkegaard believed that at the moment of confrontation of the absurdity of life any response other than the religious was inadequate at best and at worst demonical.

A subjective thinker, Kierkegaard saw truth as inward! The true religion he argued was not simply a system of theology, which possessed the logic of a geometric theorem. To him, religion meant “to be religious.”

Religion must penetrate and permeate our existence, or it is nothing.

A theologian may know theology, but if in his heart God may have never lived or may have died, he cannot be regarded as religious.

An illiterate peasant, unable to state a simple religious creed, may be deeply religious. If he “is in the truth,” people will clearly recognize it simply because of his way of life—his living! A religious person is not a “sorter of creeds”—he is a whole man. His living is the truth—it is the way of the spirit. Kierkegaard reasoned, therefore, that the true Christian follows the law of his being, which is the “way of Christ.”

He argued that without Christ the Christian religion is empty and evil.

Christianity, he vigorously insisted, must concern the individual himself—not pure doctrine, creed, and theological abstraction.

Kierkegaard's thought remains a challenge to secular society, to institutionalized religion, and to the atheistic existential charge that life is absurd!

Christians, through faith in Christ, through living the Christian life in the context of the scriptures, can transform their own lives and influence the lives of those about him.

The difficulty that Kierkegaard created was the challenge of the Christian to be a true Christian—a religious man! There can be no greater difficulty; it goes beyond living for the moment or living according to the code of the day.

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to work humbly with your God?”

When two Christians meet, a field of spirituality must come into existence; it if does not, one must ask: Are they truly Christians?

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