Self-will is in reality a subordination to the schemes and systems of a given time, and, despite appearances, it is slavery; the will of God is truth, and entering into it is thus breaking out into freedom.
Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 118
Reflection – This is one of those classic Ratzingerian passages, and indeed passages of general Christian discourse, that can seem to non-believers like some kind of Orwellian word game. Self-will is slavery! Obedience is freedom! 2+2=5! We have always been at war with
This can certainly seem like what he, and the Church, is doing here. Just playing with words and concepts to get people doing what we want them to do… namely, obey the Church in its presentation of what we claim to be God’s will. I suppose in this understanding we derive some thrill of power from this or monetary gain or plot for world domination or something.
OK, so that’s my little inner skeptic talking. He’s a very little skeptic, indeed—I give the poor mite just enough food and water to keep him alive, so he can tell me how big skeptics might think about all this.
Now of course Ratzinger doesn’t just utter this above sentence in a vacuum in the book; it is part of a longer and very developed argument. And, the blog being what it is, I will probably get around to the rest of his argument on the point soon enough.
It is all a question of what is our deepest self, anyhow, and how do we get to the level of our deepest self to live out of it, which is what is really meant by the word freedom.
On the immediate superficial level of life, we are a bundle of desires and dreams, ideas and possibilities. But a little clear reflection on this shows us that a great deal of our immediate desires, dreams, ideas, and possibilities are in fact derived from one of two places: basic animal instinct and physical drives; socially constructed norms and ideals. And these are inter-related, of course
We have basic desires for food, warmth, sexual gratification, and the means to satisfy these desires are mediated to us by the norms and models given to us by our society. And this is generally true of all of us, insofar as we remain on the superficial level of our being. At the end of the March for Life yesterday, I was very hungry and cold, and my sole desire at that point (I must admit) was for a bacon cheeseburger and fries. The hunger and cold were basic physical realities; the bacon cheeseburger was a social construct. A delicious, juicy, social construct… with mushrooms… and a pickle… and bacon… mmm…
OK, enough philosophizing about last night’s supper. Now I’m all hungry again. I think basic reflection shows the truth of what Ratzinger is saying. The bare expression of exclusive self-will is in fact an illusory or at best very shallow form of freedom, because on that superficial level of our being we all find ourselves to be largely products of our society and its norms and quite limited in our self-expression by those norms.
This is where God comes in to liberate us. Because there is, truly, more to us than that superficial, socially constructed level of immediate consciousness. His will, expressed to us first in the moral law He has given us through the mediation of Scripture and Church, and then deepened in our life through the whole dynamism of prayer and dialogue, listening and contemplation, takes us deep below the surface level of desire to the place where our real selves, our true selves are in encounter with the true God, and with Truth itself.
Freedom is a dialogue, an encounter, a dance of my real self with Reality, my true individual personhood with the person of Christ. My own desires and devices may dance in and out of this encounter, this dialogue—it was indeed a nice bacon cheeseburger last night—but they are not the boss, not running the show.
As long and devices and desires are running the show, our freedom is an illusory parody of liberty; when we live out of the dialogue, the encounter, the bowing before God in obedience and the receiving of Wisdom, Light, and Life from his hands, then we are in true freedom, the true exodus of our being from slavery to self-will into the promised land of love, of a life lived in justice and mercy and total gift of self to God and the world. And that is what Christians mean by freedom.