The more one is in one’s right mind—the more, that is, that one is conscious of God as the Goodness that fulfills all beings, and the more one recognizes that one’s own nature can have its true completion and joy nowhere but in him, and the more one is unfettered by distorting misperceptions, deranged passions, and the encumbrances of past mistakes—the more inevitable is one’s surrender to God. Liberated from all ignorance, emancipated from all the adverse conditions of this life, the rational soul could freely will only its own union with God, and thereby its own supreme beatitude. We are, as it were, doomed to happiness, so long as our natures follow their healthiest impulses unhindered; we cannot not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end, a transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proximate ends we might be moved to pursue. This is no constraint upon the freedom of the will, coherently conceived; it is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good: a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him. A rational nature seeks a rational end: Truth, which is God himself. The irresistibility of God for any soul that has been truly set free is no more a constraint placed upon its liberty than is the irresistible attraction of a flowing spring of fresh water in a desert place to a man who is dying of thirst; to choose not to drink in that circumstance would be not an act of freedom on his part, but only a manifestation of delusions that enslave him and force him to inflict violence upon himself, contrary to his nature. A woman who chooses to run into a burning building not to save another’s life, but only because she can imagine no greater joy than burning to death, may be exercising a kind of “liberty,” but in the end she is captive to a far profounder poverty of rational freedom.
So, yes, we can act irrationally, but that is no more than a trivial deliberative power; it is not yet true liberty. Only because there is such a thing as a real rational terminus for intentional action, which is objectively distinguishable from irrational ends, is there such a thing as real freedom. This is, in fact, an ancient Christian orthodoxy, common to the teachings of the church fathers and great mediaeval theologians; and, were it not true, the whole edifice of the Christian conception of existence and of creation and of God and of the unity of the ontological and moral dimensions of reality would entirely collapse. Even the suicide is merely fleeing pain and seeking a peace that the world cannot give, though he or she might be able in the crucial moment of decision to imagine this peace only under the illusory form of oblivion; his or her fault is one only of perception, in a moment of severe confusion and sadness, and certainly not some ultimate rejection of God. One cannot even choose nothingness, at least not as nothingness; to will nonexistence positively, one must first conceive it as a positive end, and so one can at most choose it as the “good” cessation of this world, and therefore as just another mask of that which is supremely desirable in itself. In the end, even when we reject the good, we always do so out of a longing for the Good. We may not explicitly conceive of our actions in this way, but there is no question that this is what we are doing. We act always toward an end that we desire, whether morally, affectively, or pathologically; and, so long as we are rational agents, that end is the place where the “good” and the “desirable” are essentially synonymous terms. And our ability to will anything at all, in its deepest wellsprings, is sustained by this aboriginal orientation within us toward that one transcendental Good that alone can complete us, and that prompts reason to move the will toward an object of longing. Needless to say, we can induce moral ignorance in ourselves through our own wicked actions and motives; but, conversely, those wicked actions and motives are themselves possible only on account of some degree of prior ignorance on our part. This circles admits of no breaks; it has no beginning or end, no point of entry or exit. When, therefore, we try to account for the human rejection of God, we can never trace the wanderings of the will back to some primordial moment of perfect liberty, some epistemically pristine instant when a perverse impulse spontaneously arose within an isolated, wholly sane individual will, or within a mind perfectly cognizant of the whole truth of things; we will never find that place where some purely uncompelled apostasy on the part of a particular soul, possessed of a perfect rational knowledge of reality, severed us from God. Such a movement of volition would have had no object to prompt it, and so could never have been a real rational choice. Thus it is, for instance, that the Eastern church fathers, when interpreting the story of Eden, generally tended to ascribe the cause of the fall to the childlike ignorance of unformed souls, not yet mature enough to resist false notions (and this, lest we forget, accords exactly with the Eden story in Genesis, which tells the story of two persons so guileless and ignorant that they did not even know they were naked until a talking snake had shown them the way to the fruit of knowledge). Hence, absolute culpability—eternal culpability—lies forever beyond the capacities of any finite being. So does an eternal free defiance of the Good. We are not blameless, certainly; but, then again, that very fact proves that we have never been entirely free not to be blameless—and so neither can we ever be entirely to blame.