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I am traveling to New Orleans this week to celebrate Mardi Gras, dine on Creole cuisine, visit plantations and bayous, and otherwise enjoy this unique center of culture in the American South. Mardi Gras celebrations are often associated with excess, gluttony, debauchery and sin, and the while I think this is a somewhat misleading cliché, Fat Tuesday is the eve before the long fast of Lent that heralds Good Friday and Easter. While the modern Mardi Gras in New Orleans has taken on a broader meaning that reaches beyond its Catholic roots, this aspect of the celebration intrigues me. The whole notion of a gluttonous and sinful build up to a pious denial of pleasure is a tricky one. Without the existence of sin what meaning could an act of pious penance have? Even if a person were to remain absolutely chaste from cradle to grave, how could they deliberate to act piously if the liberty to sin were not an available option? Mardi Gras moderates the liberty to sin by focusing the greatest excesses to a finite amount of time, at least if one honors Ash Wednesday with the same enthusiasm as they do Fat Tuesday.
As an American, the concepts of freedom and liberty are an inherent part of my identity. I take them for granted most of the time, and like many Americans I become indigent when I feel as if my autonomy is being restricted in the face of my desires. But what does it really mean to be free? I am free to break the laws, but if I were caught I would face consequences, and in some situations the penalty could be a restriction of my future liberties. Even in the land of the free, there are prohibitions on the entire range of free actions that are possible, suggesting Americans are bound within in a scheme of ordered liberty. The great Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero said, “liberty consists in the power of doing that which is permitted by the law,” a sentiment that encapsulates the dilemma of defining concrete liberties in absolute terms.
If breaking the law is an action which stands outside liberty, then what of sin? Do I have a liberty to sin, or do impious acts stand outside of liberty as well? Might it not be that liberty is doing only what is permitted by man’s law and God’s law, if in fact you believe in the latter? The liberty to sin might be a senseless notion. After all, liberty can be lost through violation of the human law, so if there exists a hell that one will be sent to as an assured result of unrepentant moral wrongs, then the inevitable fate of the forsaken sinner is a dire loss of liberty for eternity. Different Christian sects have constructed different theologies in regards to one’s path to heaven, primarily debating whether salvation could emerge from good works or by the grace of God alone. Grace alone would imply a determination to things that does not allow for true liberty at all. However, the notion of good works presents a world with liberty, but only where it is used for benevolent acts, since we are not at liberty to sin without the potential consequent loss of liberty.
A central issue in the philosophy of religion regarding Christian theology is the Problem of Evil. If God is omniscient then he is aware of evil everywhere and anytime, and if God is omnipotent then he has to the power to stop evil everywhere and anytime, and if God is morally perfect then he would stop evil from happening everywhere and anytime. Yet, since evil does exist, this inconsistent triad seems to demonstrate a paradox within the central tenets of theism. My experience is that most Christians deal with the existence of evil through belief in the presence of Satan, or by invoking the mysterious ways of God. The philosopher Richard Swinburne addresses the challenge of evil a bit differently in his book Is There a God?, and his response is to construct a theodicy, a story that provides a plausible explanation for why God would allow evil to exist even though he has the power to stop it. The core of Swinburne’s theodicy is the ‘free-will defence’.
The free-will defense claims that it is a great good that humans have a certain sort of free will which I shall call free and responsible choice, but that, if they do, then necessarily there will be the natural possibility of moral evil… A God who gives humans such free will necessarily brings about the possibility, and puts outside his own control whether or not that evil occurs. It is not logically possible-that is, it would be self-contradictory to suppose-that God could give us such free will and yet ensure that we always use it in the right way. (Swinburne 98)
Swinburne demonstrates that the liberty to sin is an inherent part of free will, a “great good” that ends up defining all evil as necessary evil, in that without evil, free will could not truly exist. Biblical scriptures lend support to Swinburne’s theodicy. Consider this passage from Galations:
For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. - Galations 5:13 (King James Bible)
The above maxim indicates that we are called to liberty, but that we should use it in service only. The liberty to sin is possible within this framework, but it is not recommended since it comes with an opportunity cost, a trade-off between the individual’s self-service at the expense of loving support for the community.
A doctrine that I have not mentioned yet, but which has dramatic relevance for the liberty to sin and the celebration of Mardi Gras, is the belief that Jesus Christ died on the cross, and rose from the dead, for the sins of mankind, and that forgiveness for sins is never out of reach. Just as the great good of free will cannot exist without necessarily allowing evil, the great good of forgiveness cannot exist without the liberty to sin. In fact, an act of sin must actually occur for a corresponding absolution to actually occur. Celebrating Mardi Gras creates an opportunity for future penance.
I will be taking my liberties while celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans this week, enjoying the pleasures of the flesh, eating, drinking, and generally being merry. I don’t know that I will be committing any sins per se. However, for the sake of whatever excesses I end up indulging in while at Mardi Gras, I intend to take my duties of moderation and temperance seriously, and I will fast when I return back home.
Jared Roy Endicott
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Swinburne, Richard. Is There a God?. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.