The guests remained seated around the dinner table, and the conversation drifted to the news of the day – the crime, the grime, and the “senseless” violence, from domestic abuse and street crime, escalating to full blown social decay, civil strife, and war. With the exception of my father, all were devoutly religious, so my father challenged his guests with a question: “Why would God – an all-loving God – allow us to express such behavior, and permit such atrocities to occur?” After some hesitation, one guest replied, “His will is not always for us to know.” Another concurred: “Sometimes,” he said, “God works in mysterious ways.” And although everyone nodded in agreement, clearly no one felt conviction or took comfort in their words. It is a troubling question, and a timeless one that strikes doubt in the hearts of believers everywhere.
It seems ironic that people who live in a democracy – who will defend with their lives the principles of “independence,” “self-determination,” and the exercise of “individual will” – would feel bewildered, almost dismayed, to think that a Creator might instill in us these very values and grant us such self-control. We hold them as sacred in a secular sense but not in a religious one. We end up living with two diametrically opposed, deep-seated beliefs, each guiding us along two philosophically different paths, and we show symptoms of a spiritual split personality, unable to reconcile one with the other.
Why would a Creator allow us the freedom to play out the very worst in ourselves as well as the best? Why not simply compel us to do good? After all, the lower species of animals cannot express the depths of hatred and cruelty that we are capable of expressing. But, in this sense, they’re not free because neither can they experience a level of compassion or love that extends beyond their instinctual drive. They are compelled to live out their lives in a predictable and easily recognizable fashion. For humans, though, “freedom of choice” is manifest in every point of thought and action.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, philosopher and statesman Emanuel Swedenborg observed the fundamental role that free will plays in achieving spiritual and social growth: He wrote “Man has freedom in order that he may be affected by truth and good – or, love them – and that thus they may become his own. In a word, whatever does not enter in freedom into man does not remain, because it is not of his love or will, and the things that are not of a man’s love or will are not of his spirit.”
This is what I believe gives democracy a spiritual quality. Dictators can coerce, but people must eventually compel themselves, and in this compulsion is their highest freedom. This freedom to act, even on our worst impulses, is a condition necessary for our personal and social growth. We are each endowed with a conscience, and possess the ability to not only discern right from wrong but to choose one over the other, at will.
Powerful beliefs and democracy are cut from the same cloth. The debate over the separation of Church and State in a democracy poses a bit of a dilemma because democracy is itself a spiritual force. Although separation of “Church” and State is essential, “Spirituality” and State should be as inseparable as body and soul. Church and State – absent spirituality – ushers in repressive and brutal government rule, from the Inquisition in 14th century Spain to present-day Iran. That is why I am skeptical when religious groups in this country organize themselves into political alliances. They attempt to infuse our government with their brand of religious fervor and doctrine. But their efforts, from mandating prayer in school to prohibiting abortion – without an equally passionate desire to provide economic and emotional security for mothers and newborns – trivialize the immensity of the spiritual experience and the role that democracy plays in fostering it. And when the Majority assures us that its agenda allows room for “toleration” of other peoples points of view, I become even more suspect of its motives.
Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim – a survivor of the Nazi death camps – regarded history as “a written record of the growing consciousness of freedom,” in that history reveals a gradual awakening of the notion of freedom and the ability of people to assume ever greater responsibility for balancing the interests of their own lives with those of others. The desire for freedom is innate in us. It is a hunger every bit as necessary to sustain human life as physical sustenance, and is part of the evolutionary thrust that propels us forward.
The emotional, physical, and intellectual poverty that does exist in the U.S. doesn’t point to flaws inherent our democratic system. It does, however, speak volumes about our unwillingness to take advantage of our freedom to lift ourselves and each other up. After all, toward what end democracy? For many people in the world, freedom is still an unrealized goal. But not so here. In a democracy, we use our freedom to achieve our goals. Freedom serves as our departure point.
Where does this road to freedom lead, and why are we compelled to follow it? If, as Bettelheim observed, we are gradually emerging from the darkness of our minds to catch the first glimmer of what it means to be free, then perhaps we will continue to evolve beyond our present understanding of “freedom” in order to more closely align ourselves with the will of God. And as we continue to evolve, our concept of, and relationship with, a Creator will deepen in proportion to that evolution, as it always has.
“Senseless” violence in the world? I don’t think so. God might work in mysterious ways, but his will is for us to know. Endowed with a conscience, which is the seat of wisdom, we are invited to partake in creation: our own.