Volume 12 Number 1
Discovering Inner Freedom
01 February 1999

Philip Boobbyer, a lecturer in modern European history at the University of Kent, puts cleaning one's slate in a wider philosophical context.

A sense of inner freedom is often the exception rather than the norm in life. Yet could it be permanent?

Life can be like a car with dirt in its engine, that is not running at full capacity. Even apparently successful people have holdbacks which no one else sees, and which cast a shadow. Sometimes it is worse, and destructive forces actually take over and become the essential features of a person's identity. What is the answer to these things? Where does one learn to be free of mixed motives or a divided will, or of the feeling of being trapped by circumstances? Surely, things do not have to stay the same.

Our world has lost its belief in moral and spiritual laws. The philosopher, Alisdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, noted that modern thought is suspicious of the idea that man is created with an essential nature or 'self'. It is no longer thought that people are born with essential purposes. Instead, we are seen purely as products of our environment. Consequently, morality, since there is no definite nature for it to refer to, loses its relevance.

Such thinking, although not accepted everywhere, is pervasive. I sometimes notice that students, while believing that events like the Holocaust were absolutely wrong, hold at the same time a pluralist assumption that everyone has their own truth and thus that there are no absolute values.

Yet everywhere, the experience of individuals and nations suggests that there are moral laws in the world: lies, promiscuity, greed and violence all have definite consequences. Lord Acton suggested that 'the inflexible integrity of the moral code is the secret of history'. Moral laws stare us in the face. And that suggests we should return to the idea that there is a human nature, and that we are born with essential tasks to fulfil.

What power, then, is great enough to deal with human nature? This is where a religiously-inspired worldview can come in. Such a perspective is founded on the idea that man is made in the image of God. It is in the service of God that people are most themselves and most free. As the Pope observed in his recent encyclical, Faith and Reason: 'Freedom is not realized in decisions made against God.'

How, then, to experience the reality of God's power? Faith is directed at what God does for us. 'Commit your life to God; trust in him and he will act,' says the Psalmist. We cannot change ourselves. This is at the heart of St Paul's description of Christ's mission: his Cross frees us from the burden of reconciling ourselves to God in our own strength. Our part is simply to accept the gift and consistently put ourselves in situations where his grace can act. In his Spirit our characters become kinder, purer and truer. Thus there begins a companionship with God.

Here, then, a decision to let go of control and entrust one's life to God opens the door to an inwardly-free life.

To know God's presence is not a matter of chance. It seems, for example, that obedience to God's laws is a condition for hearing his voice. It makes the heart clean. Christ says: 'The pure in heart shall see God.' The Sufi thinker Rumi declares: 'The mirror of the heart will not reflect truth if it is covered with layers of dust.' Frank Buchman, the founder of Moral Re-Armament, suggests that there is a process of cause and effect in the spiritual life and in man's relationship with the world: 'When man listens, God speaks; when man obeys, God acts; when men change, nations change.' Here, although we ourselves cannot perform the transforming work of God's grace, we can seek to dismantle the barriers to its activity.

This clearly applies in the area of human relationships, where an attitude of bitterness affects ourselves as well as others. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber, in his I and Thou, suggests that our very identity only emerges as we recognize other people: 'Through the "Thou", a man becomes "I".' We thus cannot for our own sakes afford hostility towards another person. The Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, writing about the labour camps in her memoir, Grey is the Colour of Hope, stated: 'If you allow hatred to take root... it will ultimately corrode and warp your soul.'

Right relationships with people are related to a right relationship with God. Christ observed that love for one's neighbour is very similar to love for God. Buber writes, 'Every particular "Thou" is a glimpse through to the eternal "Thou".' Thus, one might say, bitterness towards one's neighbour involves enmity with God.

Restitution, where it is possible, has a real impact on the spiritual life and can transform relationships. It breaks the power of what has gone wrong, and can sometimes undo the consequences. In the Gospel, the change in Zacchaeus becomes effective for himself and others when he decides to pay back his dishonest gains fourfold. Clearly, inner liberation can be costly. Furthermore, where lives, relationships or institutions have been constructed around the wrong values, to set them right means to affect others. Yet it is surely vital to build only on honest foundations. There are, of course, things that are not easily put right. Here a prayerful examination of conscience can lead to a sense of what, if anything, should be done. Time in quiet to seek God's will is essential in such circumstances.

Cardinal Newman called 'conscience' the 'voice of God in the nature and heart of man'. Some of the Russian dissidents used to say that no matter what the circumstances, it was possible to have a clean conscience. Yet conscience is also a delicate instrument. The totalitarian states have shown that it can be manipulated or deadened. CS Lewis in Surprised by Joy refers to the 'false conscience', which he compares to St Paul's idea of the law. This is the voice of self-effort, which offers an artificial line of repentance. For this reason, conscience must be examined in the light of the Spirit and the scriptures. Then to obey it leads to real liberation.

The past is left behind. The Russian writer Tatiana Goricheva observed that 'repentance and confession of sins made possible what was impossible before. The past disappeared.' What has happened, of course, cannot be changed, but its destructive power can be broken, and its lingering burden erased. The slate is wiped clean. This can be a marvellous and joyful experience. The Spirit makes possible what is humanly impossible. Difficult memories become a positive resource, and the past can start to work for good.

Thus an honest look at one's life unravels many knots. The idea that 'the truth will set you free' seems to have universal resonance. Indeed, Rumi says, 'Every heart contains a blueprint of truth.' The Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn challenged his contemporaries in the 1970s to 'live not by the lie'. Some understood this in a religious way; yet non-believers too could identify with the idea. Whatever one's worldview, truth-telling is liberating.

Some argue that private and public life can be separated: it is possible to do a job well, even if one's personal life is a mess. Although there is some truth in this idea, it carries with it a flawed understanding of human behaviour. Human reason does not act in isolation from the state of the individual. The habits of mind we form in private affect the way we relate to the world. If we are cynical, we see humanity through cynical lenses. The human being is one. Roles change; habits of mind remain the same.

Thus to find inner freedom, and change these habits, means to discover a new perspective on life. The world appears in the light of our God-given nature, rather than our compulsions. And, since we are social beings, our change has a real, if sometimes invisible influence, on the situations around us. This influence can be the beginning of a calling, a mission.

Societies and institutions as well as individuals develop destructive identities, and thus there is a challenge for groups also to become free of fear, pride and compulsive behaviour. At an international level, spiritual struggles certainly go on, even if they are not always recognized. When a people will not be honest about its past, it cannot move forward. Russia, South Africa, Cambodia, Chile and Northern Ireland--these are examples of nations or provinces currently trying to settle accounts with the past. Perhaps peoples as well as persons can find new direction when there is, in Solzhenitsyn's words, 'repentance and self-limitation in the life of nations'.

Such processes surely start with individuals who do not fear the crowd's opinion, and who have begun to face their own part in these wider patters of behaviour. The Russian memoirist Nadezhda Mandelstam observed that much evil happened under Soviet rule because fearful people abdicated responsibility and came to justify what happened as inevitable. Yet, she says, people really can change things when they have mastered their cowardice. Furthermore, she suggests, there is an alternative, positive kind of fear which has a healing quality: its distinctive feature is a sense of shame and it offers man a chance to regain inner freedom. In this context she writes: 'A man possessed of inner freedom, memory and a sense of fear is the blade of grass or wood chip that can alter the course of the swift-flowing stream.'

Inner freedom is thus more than a personal matter. An inwardly-free person in a certain sense affects the world. The theologian, BH Streeter, in The God who Speaks, stated, 'Religion will not again be potent in the life of Europe until the belief is revitalized that God has a purpose and plan, not only for the world but for every individual in it.' A religious understanding of human nature suggests that, in discovering inner freedom, a person starts to participate in the wider project that God's will be done on earth.
Philip Boobbyer

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