Determinism and Freedom

(Homily for Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A)

I enjoy watching programs about animals. The fun, of course, is not so much in the animals, but our longstanding habit of projecting human emotions and foibles on the unsuspecting creatures.* However, some programs will slide from fun to philosophy. That happens when they start telling viewers to get over the illusion that we are different in kind from other animals. They will allow that we may be somewhat more complex than porpoises or chimpanzees, but insist that, when all is said and done, nothing more than irrational urges drive us, just as they drive them. The odd part is that the same programs exhort us to do things no mere animal will do, for example, to care about other species and to take action to protect the ones that are endangered.

Such is the paradox of man: We sense both determinism and freedom at work in our lives.** At times we feel like twigs moved here and there by a giant river. But almost simultaneously we know we are capable of going against the current – in a way no other creature on this planet can. That capacity is called freedom.

Although it often seems painfully restricted, freedom holds the key to our future. Ezekiel, the great prophet of personal responsibility, focuses on it: “When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.” (18:26) Likewise the person who turns from destructive behavior, will live.

None of us knows what factors limit another’s freedom. For that reason Jesus tells not to judge. Even so, we must point out that the choice is radical. A person not only can choose God, but reject him by committing mortal sin. As Pope John Paul stated:

“With the whole tradition of the Church, we call mortal sin the act by which man freely and consciously rejects God, his law, the covenant of love that God offers, preferring to turn in on himself or to some created and finite reality, something contrary to the divine will (conversio ad creaturam). This can occur in a direct and formal way, in the sins of idolatry, apostasy and atheism; or in an equivalent way, as in every act of disobedience to God's commandments in a grave matter”. (Veritatis Splendor***, #70)

In his parable of the two sons, Jesus makes it clear that words will not save us. A choice is required. The second son confessed his obedience, but did not follow through. Even though the first son insulted his father, he was saved. Why? He “changed his mind” and went into the vineyard. Once again we see the crucial issue: Are you working in the vineyard? In Jesus’ Church.

Archbishop Hunthausen gave a lovely testimony to this. Last week he celebrated a Mass for his fortieth anniversary as bishop. He told us how in his retirement he spends more time with his nephews and nieces. A niece's little daughter was at a family gathering. Growing impatient, as children do, she told her mom she wished she were home. Her mom said to relax; they would be going home soon. The girl replied: “I don’t want to go home. I want to be home.”

As the Archbishop shared his own desire to be home, we felt a deep emotion. He awoke a painful longing. And we know that by doing the Father’s will, working in his vineyard, we are not only on our way home, but, in a true sense, we are already there.

************

*The tradition extends from Aesop with his sly fox and patient tortoise to Seattle's Gary Larsen with his hilarious Far Side cartoons. "The Chickens are Restless."

**Thus, materialists like H.G. Wells, Marx and Freud, when they really cared about something, forgot their determinist philosophy and urged people to make a choice, to take some course of action. Carl Sagan could rapsodize about the grandeur of a mindless cosmos, remind us how tiny we are in comparison to it, then ask us to make sacrifices to "save" the tiny patch we live on, even though the planet gives no indication of caring whether we rescue it.

The ancient Greeks dramatized the tension between determinism and freedom. Oedipus could not escape his pre-determined fate, yet his own choices brought it about. Odysseus had a happy destiny, but at different points he could have turned from realizing it.

***In the encyclical the pope identifies the twin errors regarding human freedom: 1) That it is only an illusion. 2) That we are so free we can create our own moral law:

Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one's conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one's moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and "being at peace with oneself", so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment. (#32)

From Archives (Twenty-Sixth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2017: Mercifully Fair
2014: Trust No Matter What Week 1
2011: Our Final State
2008: Two Paths
2005: Unspeakable Love
2002: Determinism and Freedom
1999: Are God's Ways Unfair?

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)

Take the Plunge Bible Study (audio resources)

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Other Priests' Homilies, Well Worth Listening:
Fr. Frank Schuster
Fr. Brad Hagelin
Fr. Jim Northrop
Fr. Michael White
Fr Pat Freitag (and deacons of St. Monica)

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