Free and Autonomous

We can be free and autonomous people because God makes us free and autonomous

We only become fully and truly ourselves by taking free and autonomous decisions. A parrot cannot think its own thoughts. A robot does what it is programmed to do. Mature human beings make up their own minds, and assert their own self-worth by taking responsibility for their own decisions.

The question is: does God stand in the way of such mature human freedom?

A friend of mine, a fifty years old bachelor, whom I will call Richard, faced a rather vexing problem that involved his ageing mother. When Richard’s father had died and his mother began to need daily care, Richard obtained a place for her in a first class nursing home.

Richard used to visit his mother once a week, an event which became extremely important to her. Richard was her only child. As the years passed, she grew ever more emotionally attached to him. Richard was genuinely pleased that he could make her happy in this way. On account of it he even put up with the minor irritations she caused him: by fussing about him, by attempts to interfere in his private life, by occasionally smothering him with well meant maternal advice.

The problem arose when Richard, who was a senior partner in a law firm, was headhunted for an exciting new job that would entail a transfer from London to Glasgow. It would mean being far away from his mother, fewer visits, leaving her heartbroken and lonely. He genuinely did not know what to do. Was she not more important than his job? But would he get a similar chance again?

“The Bible says:`Love your father and your mother'”, Richard said to me. “In a way I’ve always lived up to that. But now I don’t feel free. When I was a teenager I had to fight my mother to get my own independence. Now I still feel bound to her – in a more subtle manner. Why can’t I be just myself, absolutely free?!”

The question of inner human freedom was the key question of life for the existential thinker, Jean-Paul Sartre. We only become a truly free person, Sartre maintained, by taking our own free, authentic decisions. And these decisions should not be dictated by an outside moral order, by a scheme telling us what is good or bad. We make things good or bad by our decisions. Total liberty for any person means that the person acknowledges himself or herself as the absolutely creative source and goal of the sense of life.

Sartre saw belief in God as one of the chief obstacles to genuine human freedom. If we are created, he said, someone else, the Creator, determines our nature and our purpose. If a smith makes a spade, that spade is an object whose aim and function are fixed beforehand. If God were to create a human being, he would fix that human being according to a conception in his divine understanding. The human being would have to conform to God’s idea of herself or himself, and thus be an object and not genuinely free.

Even if God were to exist, Sartre affirmed, and if we are created, we would need to rebel against God. To become truly free, we would have to assert ourselves against God in radical independence (see: J-P.SARTRE, Existentialism and Humanism, London 1948; Being and Nothingness, New York 1966.).

Is God our rival?

Sartre has presented his ideas in many of his plays. In his masterpiece The Flies, Sartre tells the story of Orestes, the abandoned child of Agamemnon, the King of Argos. When Orestes returns to Argos as a young man, he finds that Aegistheus has killed his father Agamemnon, married his mother and usurped the throne of Argos. Moreover, he finds that the population is held in submission by a feeling of collective guilt, exemplified by the flies which plague people everywhere. flies

When Orestes decides to avenge his father by killing the usurper, the king of the gods Zeus is worried. Zeus is worried because Orestes is a truly free man. He feels no remorse. He will do exactly what he wants to do. In a conversation with Aegistheus, Zeus reveals the deepest source of his anxiety:

Zeus: “I don’t mind if people commit crimes . . . . In fact, it serves my purpose. If they feel guilty, they will be subject to me all the more . . . . But this Orestes is different. He does not feel any pangs of conscience. He is preparing to kill you efficiently, with great coolness and detachment. He will kill you like a young chicken, and then leave you, with bloody hands and a clear conscience . . . . “

Aegistheus: “Can’t you stop him? Can’t you do something about it?”

Zeus: “No, I can’t . . . . I must tell you a terrible secret which gods and kings are careful to keep under cover. Human beings are really free. They are free, Aegistheus! They can do what they like, but they don’t realise it. They don’t know it. Once they do, our power is broken. We’re lost!” (see: J.P.SARTRE, The Flies, New York 1947, Act 2,2; scene 5).

Since Sartre denies any over-arching frame of meaning, he sees every human attempt at authentic freedom as ultimately doomed to failure. We are utterly alone in our decisions. Reality is fleeting, contingent and unpredictable. By taking our absolutely free choices, we are emulating being equal to God, but this desire is actually unrealisable and leads to frustration (see: J.P.SARTRE, Being and Nothingness, New York 1966, pp. 724- 725.). In The Flies Orestes says to Zeus: “What have I to do with you, or you with me? We shall glide past each other like ships in a river, without touching.” But Orestes does not leave as a happy man. He leaves the city in a hurry and alone, because people want to kill him. The flies that plagued Argos follow him, buzzing and stinging with frenzy . . . .

I think this is the advice Sartre would give Richard: “Grow up. Don’t feel bound to the ten commandments imposed by a fictitious God. Don’t feel guilty about leaving your mother. If you want to leave her, do so. Assert your freedom by responsibly determining your own life instead of having other people, or a fictitious God, do so for you!” (Compare the parallel of Matthieu who leaves his pregnant girl friend in SARTRE’s novel, Age of Reason, London 1947.).

What to think of all this?

I believe that Sartre’s concern about human freedom and autonomy has to be taken seriously. We do become adults by taking our own, free decisions. When we grow up, we usually have to liberate ourselves from parents, or parental substitutes, who try to determine our life for us. We become ourselves by consciously facing the choices that lie before us and by choosing what we ourselves want to do and want to be.

Is God an obstacle in this process? Yes, he can be. Many people look on God the way Sartre did: as a Super Parent who has already laid down what is good for us and what is not, long before we were born. Such a God stunts our maturity and our freedom. Sartre has a valid point in saying that we need to rebel against such a Parent God to establish our true independence.

Created in the image of Freedom

The truth of the matter is, however, that this is not the right picture of God. God is the Creative Reality, but not a toolmaker in a two-tier world. God supports our personal freedom precisely because, through evolution, he/she/it supported the development by which we received our own power of reason and our sense of autonomy. In other words, God creates us as free people, responsible for our own decisions.

The Bible is emphatic about this. Human beings are said to have been created in God’s image (Genesis 1,16-28), precisely because they possess this divine-like freedom of will and independence of action. To see God as minimising or curtailing that basic freedom is missing the whole point of the special dignity of human beings. What we do then, in reality, is to project onto God the immaturity of parents who stop their children from becoming adults.

The truth lies in the opposite direction. It is only because we believe in a God who is the source of freedom and autonomy, that our human freedom becomes meaningful. If we are just reasoning animals who have evolved in a mechanistic universe, our freedom is very limited, and ultimately doomed to failure. It is then just an exercise in self assertion, without lasting value. Sartre’s pessimism is then completely justified. “Things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them there is nothing . . . . I have learnt that I always lose. Only bastards think they win.” But if God exists and if he/she/it enables us to be free, our actions have value in themselves.

Then it makes sense to choose what is true, honourable, just and loving. Then it is worth making sacrifices for other people. Not in the sense of `laying up a reward in heaven’, but in the sense that truth, honour, justice and love have meaning in the universe.

God is the all-encompassing personal Freedom that makes human freedom possible. When we make a free choice, God creates that freedom in us. Even if we choose the wrong thing, God still supports us in the act of choosing. In this sense God is like the air that surrounds us and that we breathe; or like the water in which fish swim and from which they draw their oxygen. God enables us to be autonomous and free in the same way as air enables birds to be alive and to fly.

God’s `partners’, not slaves

According to our Christian belief, God never coerces us into a response. He offers his friendship to us: in the Old Testament through the covenant, in the New Testament through our becoming God’s adopted children in Jesus Christ. We are invited to respond to his offer freely. No one else can give this response on our behalf. Even if we were baptised as children, our parents and godparents only gave a preliminary response. We ourselves have to ratify the commitment later, for it to become an adult relationship with God.

Now to return to Richard’s problem. Yes, God wants him to be really free. The commandment: “Honour your father and your mother” is not to be looked upon as a decision imposed on Richard by God; rather as a value found in human relationships which Richard would surely have realised even without its mention in the decalogue. God has not made up his mind as to which option Richard should take. Since Richard’s situation is unique, like every human situation, God leaves it to Richard to weigh up the pros and the cons of accepting the new job.

Whatever decision Richard takes affects Richard himself as a person. If he decides that the job has greater priority – perhaps, he can do much more good in Glasgow? or it opens many new doors? – well and good. Richard might then take action to keep the link with his mother as close as possible. Perhaps, she too could move to Glasgow? Or perhaps, he could have a special phone-for-the-elderly installed in her room, so that he can talk to her once every two or three days.

On the other hand, Richard might decide to give preference to his mother’s needs, and stay close to London.

Richard felt enormously relieved to know that he was truly free and that God wanted him to take the decision as a responsible, free person. After a period of discernment, he declined the new job in order to remain close to his mother. She died three years afterwards.

Richard said it had been one of the most difficult choices in his life, but he was happy with what he had done. He felt it had been as important to him as it had been to his mother.



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of conscience