Freedom and Limitation

Questions about the meaning of freedom have always been with us. But, we often seem determined to seek absolute freedom despite all practical limitations. In the coming weeks we will consider our ability to find inner freedom and keep a positive attitude despite constraining circumstances.

In considering the limitations we experience in life, I will refer the implications of religious faith to individual judgment. Belief in an all-knowing God imposes constraints on our decisions and behavior, while freeing the heart and mind in entirely transcendent ways.

Here we will focus instead 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 interaction with nature is of particular significance because our future depends on it. This planet is our home, yet we sometimes seem to doubt our responsibility for it.

For several hundred years scientists, philosophers, and politicians have expected that nature could and would come entirely under human control. Human beings do have a unique capacity to manipulate nature. But, as science has begun to understand the balance and complexity of natural systems, it has become clear that nature must be respected and sustained to ensure the survival of life on earth.

Setting aside the controversy surrounding climate change for the moment, the idea that nature has limits when sufficiently disrupted seems to make sense.

When I was a child there were two billion people alive on this planet. Now, having recently reached retirement age, the number is seven billion and growing rapidly. This has taken place in a single lifetime. My lifetime.

I cannot see how seven billion human beings, along with a massive agricultural and industrial footprint, could fail to impose a strain on the capacity of nature to provide the clean water and breathable air that we all depend on.

I believe this question is worth thinking about. Yet, the suggestion that absolute freedom has collided with limits in the natural world seems to cause a violently negative reaction.

What is this about?

If freedom is seen to be threatened by science, this would be no small matter. And so a disagreement that appeared at first 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 under attack.

We are confronted today by many growing threats to freedom: religious and political extremism, rising food prices, the loss of privacy, violence on our streets, aging infrastructure, conflicts over land and water rights, exponential population growth, insolvent financial institutions, and massively indebted governments.

Shall I go on? It gets to be crazy-making, you know?

Emotion coalesces into a rage focused on those who may 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 social and economic order, clearly the cherished expectations of ultimate human prosperity are no longer assured.

The prospects for peace do not look so great either.

We are confronted by numerous crises of major proportions. It is a time for each of us to become open to new conditions, new questions, and new ways of thinking. We owe it to ourselves to keep our wits about us.

Americans are capable, imaginative, constructive. 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 think for ourselves.

The future and the responsibility are ours to claim.


Next week: Loss of Ultimate Purpose