In Dostoevsky’s The Demons, the character, Kirillov, is insanely fascinated with freedom. He cannot bear the fact that he did not choose his own existence. Life is a “given.” In what must be seen as a parable of the radical thought of the 19th century, Kirillov determines to kill himself, the only act of true freedom he can take.
His insight about the necessity of his own existence and its lack of freedom was correct. We did not choose existence for ourselves – it is given to us. I must eat. I must breathe. I must work. I must suffer. These are unavoidable necessities. The nature of created existence is marked by such necessity. It is, of course, possible to embrace our necessity and make peace with it. However, Kirillov’s intuition, that such necessity is at odds with freedom remains true.
Freedom is a major theme within the gospel and the preaching of Christ. His promise concerning the Truth, is that in knowing it “shall make you free.” And He adds, “If the Son shall make you free, you will be truly free.” St. Paul tells us that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (freedom).” Freedom is a key characteristic of the life in Christ.
But how do we live a life of freedom within a necessary existence? What can we say to Kirillov?
The free life of a human being is what the Tradition describes as Personhood. Our personal existence is our existence in freedom and love. Our life as a Person cannot be identified with the summary of memories, experiences, reasonings, feelings, etc. Who I am as “person” is not the same thing as the “story of me.”
It is not correct to think of the Person as creature, a thing. It is not a thing of creation. It is a dynamic existence – that which is as-I-am-towards-the-other. My self as person is not something within itself – it is a movement outside of the self. It is a gift that exists in the act of love. As such, there is no necessity in its existence. It is free because love only exists in freedom.
The Scriptures refer to this existence in a manner that transcends time. The Person is referred to both before our biological existence and as something yet to come.
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jer. 1:5).
It does not yet appear what we shall be. But we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1John 3:2).
That God knows Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb is not at all a statement of a pre-determined existence, or a life without free will. The Jeremiah whom God knows is the Jeremiah who is coming-into-being moment by moment as he freely fulfills the life God has always known.
The life that is mine in Christ is also a Cross that is taken up and freely accepted. It doesn’t yet appear to me who I shall be, but rather I am promised that the person that I am even now fulfilling is like Christ.
On the daily level, I think we generally spend our time trying to reform the “old man.” We try to improve the ego and control the body. But the call of our life in Christ is not towards improvement but towards a new existence (“if any one is in Christ there is a new creation”). The commandments of Christ point us in the direction of that manner of living.
Forgive everyone for everything.
The forgiveness of our enemies (everyone for everything) is an act of pure freedom. It is not a necessity. It is not a road towards moral improvement or the betterment of society. It is releasing the chains that bind us to necessity. Forgiveness means I no longer have to hate. I no longer need live in shame. I am able to love.
Do not be anxious for anything.
The things that we experience anxiously are experienced as necessities. We fear that we will be hurt or suffer because of events beyond our control. We treasure the ego and value our natural existence above all else. “He who seeks to save his life will lose it.” When we lose our “life” (that which we can control), we gain true freedom (that which is pure gift).
Give thanks always for everything.
The offering of thanks does not come as a necessity. If thanks were a necessity it would have no value. God would have “bought” our gratitude. Rather, it is an offering freely given. Because it is freely given and carries no necessity, the giving of thanks can be offered for all things – even those things we dread or despise. For what I dread and despise do not own me. My freedom becomes visible in the act of thanksgiving.
To live as a person in union with Christ is to enter the freedom of an unnecessary existence.
Kirillov’s insane intuition was insane because it was pointed in the wrong direction. His “freedom” was to be bought by denying himself existence. He falsely assumed that suicide would result in non-existence – annihilation. What he did not see that true freedom is only found in the loss of self that comes through love. If we love Christ, we shall be like Him. God is love. We, too, are able to enter into such an existence. “Freely you have received, freely give.”