Heschel: “Freedom is the liberation from the tyranny of the self-centered ego. It comes about in moments of transcending the self as an act of spiritual ecstasy, of stepping out of the confining framework of routine reflexive concern. Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice.”
The human being is body and soul. The part of us that puts these primary aspects of our existence in opposition to each other and then claims ownership – “I have a body; I have a soul” – is the ego. In my opinion, a major preoccupation of popular religion is with this conceited center of identity. I (ego) deserve to be happy. I (ego) want to live forever. I (ego) need to be right and be rewarded for being good. When religion gets (re)organized around the ego it becomes nervous, defensive, bigoted and sectarian.
Etymologically the term “religion” refers to what ties together and cultivates the relationship of body and soul. In the very word is a presumption: that body and soul are essentially separate and need to be (re)connected. It is in exposing the error of this foundational conviction that our revolution begins.
Ego is not the key player, but merely a social conceit. This center of identity is a product and reflex of tribal membership. It isn’t “added to” our primary nature of body-and-soul, but is an ongoing social construction project. We come to self-consciousness in the context of societal relationships, taking into ourselves the language, preferences, attitudes and beliefs of our tribe. Our social development as egos has the primary objective of making us into agents of our group, extensions of our tribe. I (ego) am also a symptom of my tribe’s chronic dysfunctions and internal contradictions. I (ego) want love and power. I (ego) want to fit in and stand out. I (ego) want security and significance.
So far, all three of my conversation partners – Friedrich Nietzsche, Alan Watts, and Abraham Heschel – acknowledge freedom as a critical feature or attribute of a human being. For Nietzsche, freedom puts us “beyond good and evil,” in a position where we must choose our way through life. As values, “good” and “evil” are really value-assignments, moral judgments that we compose into the myths and worlds we inhabit. We pull these around ourselves for security and meaning, but it’s all made up and tied inescapably to perspective. Nietzsche is perhaps most well-known for his declaration that “God is dead,” meaning that the mythological God is dead, which has come about because our myths have lost their power to entrance us. For Nietzsche, our disillusionment is our liberation.
Watts digs a little deeper, into the psychological origins of ego and its world project. We are living bodies; the claim of having a body is merely a persistent conceit of the ego. As organisms we have evolved with powerful drives and instincts, perhaps deepest among them being the drive to survive, to keep living, which also entails not dying and avoiding death at all costs. The self-consciousness that steadily emerges through the social construction of ego only amplifies our anxiety around the fact of mortality. To dampen our anxiety or distract us sufficiently from it, we escape into the refuge of metaphysical “counter-facts.” A transcendent and all-knowing God lifts us above the limitations of perspective. An immortal soul (really the undying ego) calms our fear of death. A universal order of moral government and higher purpose resolves our sneaking suspicions that maybe life is just a shot in the dark.
Heschel carries this idea a step farther. While our social formation as egos can bury our creative energies in the safe-house of tribal membership, it also serves to liberate us from the compulsions and urgencies of animal life. This freedom is insecure and there is always the temptation to fall back under the control of some other authority – if not our animal impulses, then perhaps cultural fashions or religious orthodoxies. True freedom, for Heschel, implies responsibility. The ego is not set free from the compulsions of animal instinct simply to be made captive to the slightly higher compulsions of our social neuroses. Freedom is not a goal, but the precondition to a higher task.
“Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice.” Sacrifice = sacri (holy) + facere (to make). It’s not primarily about losing something, but is rather about sanctifying the ordinary with extraordinary attention and care. Maybe this is what “commitment” really means …