Questions about the meaning of liberty and freedom have been with us for centuries. Even now, we are confronted by contradictions and constraints.
In the coming months we will ponder the challenges of transcending our limitations – and keeping a positive attitude in difficult circumstances.
As we proceed, I will refer the implications of religious faith to individual judgment. Certainly belief in an all-knowing God imposes constraints on our decisions and behavior. It can also liberate the heart and mind in entirely transcendent ways.
Here we will focus instead on the spirit of freedom as it can be experienced by thoughtful people of every stripe, religious and non-religious alike, as we engage and prevail over the obstacles and strictures that present themselves in our personal, social, and material lives.
Of particular significance in our present circumstances, our relationship with nature looms large. Many Americans have a great love for the extraordinary beauty of this land. And, our future depends on it. This is our home and source of sustenance, yet we sometimes seem to forget our dependence on it.
Two hundred years ago scientists, philosophers, and politicians all expected that nature would ultimately come under human control. Human beings certainly do have a unique capacity to manipulate nature. But, as science has begun to understand the complexity of natural systems, it has become clear that the balanced order of nature must be 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 it is 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, I understand 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, can fail to impose a strain on the capacity of nature to provide the clean air and water we all depend on.
I believe this question is worth thinking about. Yet, any suggestion that absolute freedom has collided with limits in the real world seems to cause a violently negative reaction.
What is this about?
If freedom appears 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.
There are many aspects of our lives that impose on our freedom. Physical reality is just one.
Today we find ourselves colliding with limitations on many levels, personal, social, economic: the loss of privacy and economic freedom, violence on our streets, aging infrastructure, conflicts over land and water rights, 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? Politicians? Corporate executives? Are these not people who are supposed to understand what they are doing?
Whether it is the limits to nature that are in question or a deteriorating 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 crises that appear to be approaching from every direction. It is a time for each of us to begin adjusting to new conditions, new questions, and new ways of thinking. We owe it to our children to keep our wits about us.
We are Americans. We are capable, imaginative, constructive. Coming to understand freedom in a way that transcends human limitations has become very important.
We each have the capacity to think for ourselves. We must commit ourselves to the independent investigation of truth, and not allow ourselves to be overly influenced by others.
The future and the responsibility are ours to claim.
Next post: The Loss of Ultimate Purpose
Note to regular readers: I have been rewriting the draft introduction for the book and would appreciate your feedback. You can find it on this page. Please watch for the next post on or about January 27.