Aug 11, 2020
Charles Hughes Huff
If you waltz into a Baskin Robbins, you can choose from 31 different flavors of ice cream. Ben and Jerry's currently offers 54 choices, though not at every location. When I was a child, these options seemed like a promise of bliss—who couldn't attain perfect human happiness from this delectable range of tasty goodness?—but also like a trap. What if I make the wrong choice? Even more importantly, what if my friend gets something better? Walking around the San Antonio Zoo holding a Blue Moon cone, with its chemical erasure of ice cream's natural creaminess, while Timothy contentedly downed a perfect mint chocolate chip, I watched tigers stare moodily at the wall and understood them completely.
The modern world with its personal freedom and endless choices famously leads to such ennui chronicled vividly by people like Jean-Paul Satré, who wrote a novel called Nausea about this type of experience. Christian ethicists point to a solution: freedom is not merely freedom from something, landing you into meaningless choices and an interminable FOMO, but freedom to or for something—to excellence, faith, the end or telos of a human life, to becoming human in a way that leads to true happiness, the blessedness promised by Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount, the bliss of beatific vision. The path to this type of freedom is obedience.
Obedience will raise an eyebrow in a liberal (free) society, but those who have embraced it know the ocean spray of its adventure. There is something quite exhilarating about being told, “Here is the path.” It may be unpleasant, it may cost you, it may not be what you would choose in whatever state you happen to be in on a Tuesday morning, but it leads to the ocean: jump in. Obedience can give purpose. It can relieve the worried soul from endless decisions.
But obedience has its downsides. It is often a tool of the misguided or worse, of cults and ideological warriors and scorched-earth fundamentalism. The exhilaration of obedience can be felt in the military, in criminal gangs, in the Church, in cults, in happy marriages and in abusive relationships, in resistance to fear and tyranny and in the closing of the mind to cogent objections and different possibilities. We know about authoritarianism, the bad use of authority, and its discontents. When people excuse horrifying deeds due to their obedience, even in obedience to what most would consider legitimate political authority, we don't buy it as a good moral argument.
The obedience Christians talk about, then, is a particular sort of obedience, an obedience to God, not to cult leaders, tyrants, or sinful human systems. In Sacred Scripture and tradition it is portrayed not as passive or simplistic but as something more like a dialogue. This faithfulness leads to a particular type of freedom, not the freedom to choose anything you like, but the freedom to act as you most truly want, in ways that most profoundly lead to a blessed life.
Such an idea of freedom is not opposed to the idea that all persons to a large extent should be free to make personal choices in society. Most people think that material freedom from oppression is an essential good and would agree with someone like John Stuart Mill, who says about politics that “the a priori assumption is in favour of freedom."
If Mill and the liberal tradition argue for political freedom as the basis for a healthy society, philosopher Immanuel Kant understands the freedom of the will as the source of morality. If Kant had met me in a Baskin Robbins in San Antonio, TX, he would have taken me aside and told me I was measuring choices by their outcomes instead of by their principles. "You must have some principle by which you freely choose whatever the consequences may be," he would say. A moral choice would be one in which I choose the least expensive ice cream flavor, or the most ethically sourced, or the healthiest. Free from the bondage of the tongue's pleasure tyranny, I could then truly act as a moral agent.
Kant pictures freedom exactly in this way: a solitary person standing alone in the world of ice cream flavors with a cheat-sheet of principles, FOMO-crushing maxims, laws made for oneself, mathematical solutions to existential dilemmas. Kant's vision relies heavily on an individual's solitary use of reason, and people like Elizabeth Anscombe, a brilliant Catholic philosopher, and Pope Saint John Paul II have critiqued him for putting the weight of moral obligation on individual human reason, the mind, and for denying the importance of the body and even of relationships. "But Kant," PSJP2 would say, "Blue Moon might be the cheapest, but it is revolting to the palate and an offense against the embodied self!" (Amen.)
Like Kant’s philosophy, Ignatian spirituality is a study in the freedom of the human will. Detachment from outcomes—to prefer not health to sickness nor riches to poverty nor honor to dishonor nor longevity to an early death, but only whatever is best for our created purpose—is the primary emphasis of Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, which activate the imagination to master the will in obedience to God. For Ignatius, freedom of the will is not limited by obedience but is a preparation for it.
In Moral and Social Teachings, a course offered at St. Bernard's this fall, we will talk about what it means to be free and to obey God. We will read a modern Swiss theologian, Servais-Théodore Pinckaers, with a particular interest in his discussion of the freedom of the human person. We'll talk about how and by what principles Catholics pursue God, their own telos, and justice for all in a violent world. We will do our best to find initial answers to these questions that satisfy us all. I hope it will be the mint chocolate chip ice cream of courses, my friends. I hope you will freely choose to join us—or at least obey your course requirements with joy.
Dr. Charles Hughes Huff is Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, NY. Hughes Huff earned his PhD in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East at the University of Chicago in 2019. He studies how ancient authors portray social practices in narratives and use technical and metaphorical language to make ritual authoritative. He is also interested in how scholars rely on modern ethical stances to evaluate ancient Middle Eastern social practices, particularly punishments. Hughes Huff is an experienced teacher, and he cares deeply about pedagogy. He has taught courses in Bible, the reception of Bible in popular culture, ethics and moral theology, social justice, and philosophy. Outside the classroom, he enjoys wine and cycling, but not at the same time.