It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the issues raised by today’s readings. The implications are profound, going to the very heart of what, it could be argued, is the most fundamental question facing the world today:
Who are we as a species, and what does it mean to be a human being? Are we, as we have always thought, free: to choose; to make decisions, to make up our own minds? Or, as some scientists today believe, is free will an illusion, a trick played on us by a cosmos in which everything is driven by the unchanging laws of physics which govern everything that exists, including ourselves.
The author of the first reading from the Ecclesiasticus has no doubt that we are free. “If you wish” he says, “you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power. He has set fire and water before you; put your hand out to whatever you prefer. Man has life and death before him; whichever man likes better will be given him.” And its on this basis, the presumption that we have choices, that human society has been based since the beginning. We are held responsible for our actions. We are praised and admired if we choose what is perceived to be good; punished and rejected if what is considered to be bad. The whole criminal justice system is based on this, as is so much of the way we think, as in the idea that we can achieve things if we work hard. In the words of Barack Obama “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”
But not everyone believes that nowadays. And those who don’t are not crackpots, but scientists who believe that all human behaviour can be explained by the laws of physics, especially quantum physics, which, along with practically everyone else in the world, I don’t understand. Everything that exists, they say, is subject to the law of cause and effect. Everything that happens is caused by whatever has gone before. We may think we are making free choices, but in reality everything we do takes place at the level of an intricate network of neurons in the brain which are shaped by what has happened in the past over which we have no control. We no more decide things for ourselves as a volcano decides for itself that it will erupt next Thursday at ten past three. I may think that I chosen to lift my right hand, but, in 1980, an American physiologist called Benjamin Libet, in a much quoted experiment, showed that before I make a conscious decision to do so, electrical activity in my brain has already started the process. I may think I have made a choice to lift my hand, but I have no more chosen to lift my hand than I have chosen to make my heart beat. We do not control our brains. Our brains control us. We may think we have free will, but it’s all an illusion.
Now whether this is true or not from a scientific point of view, I don’t know. But it has huge implications for our understanding of ourselves and who we are as human beings. There have been a number of cases over the years of people whose defence in court has been that their brain made them do it, that they had no control over what they did, and so cannot be held responsible for their actions. And if this is true, the whole basis of human society falls apart. Instead of being free human beings, we are little more than robots, programmed to act in particular ways and unable to deviate from forces beyond our control. And if this happens, then all kinds of things like love, generosity, selflessness as well as greed, cruelty or personal responsibility, the things that make us human, cease to exist. And where does that leave us as a species?
But if it is not true and we are free to be the people we choose to be – even when, face human weakness in all its forms it can be a struggle – the implications of this are also profound. And that is what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel. Far from creatures at the mercy of forces beyond our control, Jesus is trying to tell us that, through a combination of free will and the grace of God working in us, we are capable of great things. We do not need to be slaves to our worst impulses. For centuries, people have killed and slaughtered each other. But it does not always have to be like that. We are capable of more. It is natural to feel anger, but our anger does not have to control us. We can overcome anger and choose to love our enemies and do good to those with whom we are angry. We may feel resentment about things that have happened in the past, but we do not need to be slaves to that resentment. We can put it down, leave it behind and be reconciled with each other if that is what we freely choose to do. There are powerful sexual impulses and desires at work in us which can cause havoc for ourselves and for others. Looking at another person lustfully can blind us to their humanity, leading to us treating them as mere objects who exist only for our own selfish gratification. But, again, it does not have to be like that. We may claim that we couldn’t help it or that he/she made me do it, but that excuse will not stand up. If we really have free will then, in the end, we are responsible for our own actions. We don’t have to be slaves to our own worst instincts. We are created to share the life of God, to love each other as he loves us, and its that which makes us different from the rest of the cosmos. The cosmos is not conscious of itself, It is driven by the laws of physics. But while part of us is, too – the ageing process for example - there is another part of us that’s not, free to choose and destined to be the people we choose to be. There are all kinds of reasons why we may break our word or not tell the truth, but it remains possible for us to live lives of integrity.
This part of us cannot be measured or observed in a laboratory. It is a glimpse of what the second reading called “the things no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him.
Is that not so much better than being a robot?