In recent posts I have posed questions about the meaning of freedom that have remained with us since the beginning of the American story. We have seemed determined to seek absolute freedom despite practical limitations implied by both religious commitment and, later, by physical reality. Indeed, when we reflect on this we find ourselves confronted by a variety of constraints imposed on our freedom, not just by institutions or governments but by the natural circumstances of our lives.
In the coming weeks we will consider our ability to stay positive and to find inner freedom regardless of our circumstances, but with one exception: We will leave the implications of religious faith to individual judgment. Belief in an omnipotent God imposes constraints on both thinking and behavior, while freeing heart and mind in entirely transcendent ways.
Here we will focus rather on the spirit of freedom, for religious and non-religious readers alike, as we engage (and potentially prevail over) the limitations in our personal, social, and physical lives.
Our relationship with nature is of particular interest. This planet is our home, yet we sometimes seem to doubt our responsibility for it.
For several hundred years philosophers and scientists have expected that nature could and would come entirely under human control. And human beings certainly do have a unique capacity to manipulate nature. But, as science has begun to understand the complexity and balance of natural systems, it has become clear that nature must be sustained for human survival.
Setting aside the issue of climate change for a moment, the idea that nature might have limits when sufficiently disrupted seems to make sense. I cannot imagine how seven billion human beings, along with a massive agricultural and industrial footprint, would not impose a strain on nature to provide the clean water and breathable air that we all depend on for life.
I suggest this is worth thinking about.
Yet, the idea that the goal of absolute freedom has collided with limits in the natural world seems to cause a violently negative reaction. What is this about?
If belief in the possibility of absolute freedom is suddenly threatened by none other than the revelations of science, this would be no small matter. And so a disagreement that might appear to simply raise questions as to material fact has instead descended into bitter accusations of conspiracy, treason and dishonor.
Am I wrong to think that this reaction is about more than climate change? The emotional climate suggests that freedom itself must be at risk. We are confronted today by many growing threats to freedom: the loss of privacy, violence on our streets, rising food prices, aging infrastructure, conflicts over land and water rights, exponential population growth, the potential scarcity of natural resources, irresponsibly managed and insolvent financial institutions, and massively indebted governments. Shall I go on?
It gets to be crazy-making, you know?
And so emotion coalesces into a rage focused on those who appear to have effectively driven us off a cliff. Who is responsible for all this, we ask. Bankers? Scientists? Politicians? Are these not people who are supposed to know what they are doing?
Whether it is the limits to nature that are in question or the shock of a faltering economic order, clearly the cherished expectations of ultimate human prosperity appear no longer assured.
The prospects for peace do not look so great either.
Humankind has arrived at a moment of historic significance. We are confronted by numerous interrelated crises of major proportions. Suddenly things seem to be coming apart. Something is not right.
It is a time for each of us to become open to new conditions, questions, and ways of thinking. We owe it to ourselves to keep our wits about us. Understanding freedom in a way that transcends human limitations has become very important.
We must commit ourselves to the independent investigation of truth, and not allow ourselves to be led mindlessly by others. We each have the capacity to learn, to be open to ideas, to think for ourselves.
The future and the responsibility are ours to claim.
I look forward to seeing your comments.