Tag Archives: freedom

Social Conflict, Original Sin, and the Libertarian Ideal

I’ve been in a reflective mood lately, quietly observing the commotion taking place around me as if I were a visitor from another planet moving unnoticed through the frenzied crowds. I’ve watched the news, read the morning newspaper, and lurked on social media as if I were sifting through ancient documents hoping to make sense of bygone era. The question that guides my search is this: What is the passion that animates contemporary society, the unexamined, deep-down belief shared by nearly all people? What is the ideal that gives meaning to modern social movements and counter-movements and drives people into the streets or into voting booths?

The Freedom Ideal

I’ve concluded that the bedrock belief that excites modern people into action is this: True Freedom is the right and power to will and do as one pleases. For modern people, herein lies true human dignity. Any restraint on this right and power limits freedom and hence slights dignity. And since we desire and act for our happiness, any restraint on our freedom also limits our happiness. I think analysis would reveal that this belief drives all modern social change and resistance to social change. As an ethical ideal, it goes almost unchallenged in our culture. Rhetorical appeals to freedom resonate powerfully in the modern soul. And any rhetoric that seems to restrict freedom will be rejected as reactionary and evil.

The Grand Arbiter

Of course, everyone realizes that civilization would be impossible without limits on freedom. One person’s desires and actions inevitably conflict with those of others. This conflict gives rise to another type of rhetoric, the rhetoric of civilization. The rhetoric of civilization calls for limits on freedom for the sake of freedom. Notice that even the rhetoric of civilization appeals to the modern ideal of freedom. So, I think I am correct to contend that for the modern person the ideal of freedom is basic and civilization is a means to that end.

Hence the major function of the modern state—supposedly a neutral and impersonal arbiter—is to harmonize the completing desires and actions of those who live within it. Each person, as a center of unlimited freedom, is by definition a competitor of every other person. Other people are limits or means to my freedom, dignity, and happiness. And everyone looks to the state to resolve conflict.

But of course the state is not a neutral and impersonal arbiter. It’s not a justice machine that always finds the perfect balance between freedom and freedom. The ideal of civilization is always embodied in a particular government and governments are staffed by politicians. And modern politicians get elected by promising to expand or protect freedom. That is to say, modern political rhetoric appeals either to the ideal of freedom or the ideal of civilization as means of persuasion. On the one hand, everyone wants maximum freedom for themselves and responds positively to promises of expanded liberty. But, when people come to think their freedom is being restricted by the actions of others, they respond appreciatively to the rhetoric of civilization.

Social Conflict

The conflicts we are experiencing today in society among various parties and interest groups are nothing but manifestations of the false and unworkable belief at the root of modern culture: True Freedom is the right and power to will and do as one pleases. Each party jockeys for the political influence necessary to draw the line between freedom and freedom favorably to their own desires. And each uses as occasion demands the rhetoric of freedom or the rhetoric of civilization to persuade public opinion. We can see clearly why it is unworkable. But why is it false and how did our civilization come to accept a false and unworkable ideal?

Original Sin

The doctrine of original sin was one of the first orthodox Christian doctrines rejected by architects of the 17th century Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau summarized the Enlightenment attitude when he proclaimed, “Let us lay it down as an incontrovertible rule that the first impulses of nature are always right; there is no original sin in the human heart….”(Emile or On Education, 1762). It’s not difficult to see why the Enlightenment had to reject the doctrine of original sin. It contradicted its understanding of freedom as the right and power to will and do as one pleases.

What, then, is the Christian doctrine of original sin? I cannot explain the whole story at this time but here is what it says about human capacity: Human beings are born into this world desiring, seeking, willing, and determined to pursue what they perceive as their private interest in ignorance and defiance of the truly good and right. You can see why the Christian doctrine of original sin offends modern sensibilities. It implies that even if human beings possessed the right and power to do as they please—which they do not—they still would not possess true freedom. According to the New Testament, you are not free in the truest sense unless you are free from the sinful impulse to will only your private interests. The doctrine of original sin asserts that our free will needs freeing from wrong desires and for the truly good and right. And we can acquire this freedom only as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Now let me bring this essay to a sharply pointed conclusion. For 300 years our culture has been animated by a false definition of freedom taken as the highest ideal of human life. From a Christian point of view, the modern definition of freedom is false because it claims falsely to be the true and highest form of freedom. But Christianity asserts that there is a higher freedom, freedom from the innate impulse to pursue one’s selfish interests as the highest motive for action. And here is the sharpest point of the sword: judged by the Christian understanding of freedom, the modern ideal of freedom—the right and power to will and do as one pleases—comes very close to the definition of original sin! Ironically, in its denial of the doctrine of original sin, the Enlightenment made the fact of original sin its ideal and animating principle. As the Apostle Paul, Augustine, and many other theologians observed, sin is often punished with more sin.

 

Two Roads to Happiness—One Broad, the Other Narrow

It may seem that I have strayed from my theme for this year, which is “love not the world” (1 John 2:15-17). So it may appear, but it’s never been far from my mind. Living a Christian life can be summed up as loving God in every word, thought, and deed and refusing to love the world. You cannot live the Christian life unless you keep ever before you the difference between these two loves. This task is not easy, because “the world” is the dominant way human beings order their lives. That’s why it’s called “the world.” It’s the majority, which enters the “wide gate” and travels the “broad road” (Matthew 7:13). It’s the way of the rulers and powers of this world (Ephesians 2:1-3). It’s the easy way, the downhill road.  You just follow your lusts, do what everyone else does, approve of what they approve, dislike what they dislike, and love what they love. But to be a Christian, to love the Father, you must break loose from the world and squeeze through the “small gate” and travel with Jesus and the “few” on the “narrow road” (Matthew 7:14).

We deceive ourselves if we think that Jesus’ warning about the “broad road” and John’s assessment of his society and culture do not apply to our age. To the contrary, we live in “the world,” and despite superficial differences, our society follows the ways of the world just as thoroughly as first-century society did. And we are just as tempted to love the world as our first-century brothers and sisters were.

Perhaps the most deceptive value that orders society today is freedom. Even cries for justice and equality can be reduced to demands for freedom. Equality largely means “equal freedom,” and justice means primarily equality, which again means equal freedom. But freedom itself remains largely undefined, because everyone thinks they know what it means. They assume without thinking that freedom means the absence of any power or condition that inhibits an individual’s achievement of happiness understood as a subjective feeling. Hidden in this definition is the idea that happiness can never be achieved as long as one endures any condition that is not desired. The worst thing you can do to anyone is deprive them of their freedom, which is the same as making them unhappy. And to make someone unhappy is to deprive them of their reason for living, which is psychological murder.

Why is this understanding of freedom a problem? What makes it worldly? And what makes it deceptive? If we defined freedom simply as “the absence of any power or condition that inhibits an individual’s achievement of happiness,” we could fit the Christian understanding of freedom within it. For the Christian faith, there are powers and conditions that block our way to ultimate happiness, and God is the only power that can free us from those hindrances. And possessing and being possessed by God is the only condition under which human beings can find true joy. But modern society’s view of happiness and how it must be achieved differs dramatically from the Christian understanding. As I pointed out above, contemporary culture thinks happiness can be attained by breaking free from every limit that prevents us from following our desires. Both freedom and happiness are achieved by our own power, freedom by self-assertion and happiness by self-indulgence. As you can see clearly, modern worldly people put the human self in God’s place. In the Christian view, God is the basis of both freedom and happiness. But the way of the world seeks freedom and happiness through its own power. Hence the contemporary world, just like the first-century world, finds its power for freedom and its way to happiness in “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Nothing has changed.

Evil is No Thing!

Last week’s post concluded that however much our experience of evil might challenge belief in an omnipotent, perfectly good and omniscient God, it does not disprove or even challenge the existence of a divine reality as such. There are many views of the divine and its mode of interaction with the world that are perfectly consistent with the existence of evil. The importance of this insight can hardly be overstated, and I will explore its significance in a future post. For now we need to explore the nature of evil in a bit more detail.

Evil as Conflict

In a recent post entitled “When is “Evil” Truly Evil?” I argued that describing an event as “evil” makes sense only if the event transgresses a cosmic plan for the way things are supposed to go. Evil is too strong and emotional a word to be used as a way to say “this is not what I wanted” or “I don’t like this.” In that essay I wanted to show that the concept of evil is evacuated of significance unless the thing we call evil is also “wrong.” Hence the concept of evil entails the concept of wrong.

Today I want to point out another quality of evil, not so much a moral quality (wrongness) as a physical quality. Whatever else one might say about evil, everyone can see that it involves disorder, disharmony or conflict. In a moral evil such as theft or murder the perpetrator abandons adherence to the moral law and enters into conflict with other people’s interests or rights. Vices such as greed, envy and lust arise from inner disorder and generate outer conflict. Such diseases as cancer, heart failure and diabetes begin when the natural integrity and harmony of the body fails and degeneration sets in. I use the word “conflict” to stand for the family of physical qualities mapped by the terms disorder, disharmony, disintegration, antagonism, conflict and other like terms.

What is the origin of conflict? Conflict makes sense only where there is more than one thing. Why is there more than one thing? In the end, there are only two ways to think about the origin of our universe. Either it derives from one eternal reality or it derives from more than one eternal reality. In worldviews that teach that there is only one eternal reality—for example monotheism—evil cannot be eternal because evil becomes possible only when the one eternal reality produces the many things of the world. In worldviews that appeal to more than one eternal reality—for example polytheism—the possibility for evil is eternal because division itself is eternal. Many of the differences between the ways the world’s religions and philosophies (East and West) approach evil can be explained by which one of these two presuppositions they hold to be true.

In continuity with Judaism, Christianity teaches that there is only one eternal God who is the creator of the world and its diverse creatures. God freely created the world with all its diversity by his word. In the early centuries of the church, Christian theologians faced a challenge from religious philosophies that asserted the existence of two eternal realities, one good and the other evil. These philosophies taught that the existence and apparent power of evil can be explained only by the existence of an eternal evil power that stands in eternal conflict with the good power. Otherwise, they argued, we would have to think of God as the origin of evil as well as good.

Evil is Not a Thing

In response to such philosophies Christian thinkers argued that evil is not an independent thing that can act on its own. Evil is disorder, misrelation or defective activity (failure) among real things. Evil is the condition of disorder itself, not a thing that instigates conflict against other things. And disorder is not an existing thing, like an atom, an animal or a human being. It can have no effect apart from the activity of things that exist. Real things can be ordered or disordered, but disorder cannot exist by itself. Augustine says, “I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, toward inferior things, rejecting its own inner life” (Confessions 7.16). Basil the Great also rejects the idea that evil is a real thing that can exist on its own:

Do not consider God the cause for the existence of evil, nor imagine evil as having its own existence. For evil is the absence of good…For it is neither uncreated…nor is it created, for if all things are from God, how can evil be from good. For nothing that is vile comes from the beautiful, nor does evil come from virtue” (God is Not the Author of Evil, 8; quoted in Dumitru Staniloae, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2).

Basil’s and Augustine’s rejection of the eternal and independent reality of evil solved one problem but created another. If God is the sole eternal creator of this diverse world why is there disorder and conflict? The mere presence of diversity does not cause disharmony and conflict; different things can be related harmoniously to achieve a greater whole. But how does a diverse world maintain its unity and harmony? No one thing within the world possesses the power to unify the whole world. If a brick were to impose its order on the house, it could at best transform the house into a brick; and that imposition would be an instance of violence and destruction. The Creator alone possesses the power, right and wisdom to unify the world of diverse things without doing violence to any of them. So, what disrupts the harmonious order? Two possibilities come to mind, chance or freedom.

Chance and Freedom as the Origins of Evil

Events that have their origin in chance or freedom are thought to break from the chain of events that preceded them and begin a new chain of events. Hence they can create order from disorder or destroy an existing order. Chance can be conceived in two ways. First, chance can be thought of as a spontaneous coming into being from nothing. Such an event has no origin and no explanation. It is absurd. Second, chance can be considered an event that occurs when two preexisting chains of events intersect in a way unpredictable from within either chain. A bird is flying overhead as I am taking my morning walk…I don’t need to describe what happens next. There is no vantage point from which the first form of chance could be predicted, but for the second there is such a possibility. Someone outside these chains of events in a position to see both could predict the time and place of their intersection.

From an external point of view freedom looks much like chance. Events originating in freedom look somewhat spontaneous and they often disrupt the expected flow of surrounding events. Chance events often cause suffering, death and destruction and so can events originating in freedom. But we experience freedom from within ourselves as rational deliberation and choice. Hence we know we are responsible for our deliberate actions, and we believe that other people are responsible for theirs. We may curse chance, but we don’t hold it responsible for what it causes. We attribute the suffering, death and destruction we experience at the hands of natural processes to chance. But most of the evil we experience at the hands of human beings we attribute to freedom.

Next Week: Why doesn’t God impose and maintain perfect harmony among the diverse things and free beings in the world? Why does God allow (or permit) evil? Is the free will defense the best answer to the argument from evil?

God, Matter, and Other Minds: Is Christianity True? (Part 10)

In the past two posts we examined a background belief that must be true if atheism is true, that is, that matter is the ultimate reality that explains the existence and nature of everything else. We evaluated this materialist option from two different experiential starting points, our experience of the intelligibility and materiality of the external world and our experience of our own minds as active, free, and creative. In this tenth part of our series (“Is Christianity True?”), we will consider materialism from a third experiential starting point: our experience other minds, other intelligent human persons.

Amazingly, we can understand and think ideas that come from other human minds. We find ourselves not only able to read the passive information written into nature and able to write information into the physical world, we also encounter other minds like ours, active and free and able to communicate information from their minds to ours through language. Although there is no way to prove that a human body with whom we are speaking really possesses a mind like ours, we believe it so strongly that we think it absurd to doubt it. We recognize in others what we experience as self-evident in ourselves. What does our experience of other minds, that is, other intelligent human persons, add to our experience of the intelligibility of the physical world and of ourselves as active minds?

1. The existence of other minds confirms our internal experience of ourselves as active, free, and creative minds. Our experience of freedom, which seems so real experienced from inside, is confirmed as really real in encounter with other people who act and express that same freedom. Our mental encounter with other minds differs from decoding the structures embedded in the physical world. In our efforts to understand the intelligible order in the physical world we experience the order as passive and ourselves as active. But when we meet other minds we find that they are also active and creative. In encounters with other people we experience being understood by the thing that we are attempting to understand. We meet a new kind of reality, a person. Other minds/persons actively resist and protest any effort to reduce them to their ideas, sense impressions, or material constituents. We also resist and protest depersonalization. And, in encountering other persons we become aware of our own irreducible personhood more intensely than we can in encountering the passive intelligible order in the physical world.

2. The existence of other human minds and our ability to communicate with each other adds a new dimension to our experience of the intelligibility within the world. Our minds meet and transfer information through the medium of the external world in which we find an intelligible order that can be understood alike by many minds. In verbal language we encode information in the medium of air as sound impulses. Receiving information from another person through language gives us confidence that we know what the other is thinking, and we know it by rethinking the thought communicated.

Our experience of other minds as free actors and creators of information and as co-readers of the information encoded in the physical world reinforces our conviction that the order that structures the physical world is indeed intelligible and derives from an active mind. We experience minds other than our own creating information understandable by us and still other minds.

3. Encountering other intelligent persons introduces a moral dimension to our experience of mind, a sense of the inestimable worth of others. I will deal in greater detail with the moral dimension of human experience later. Here I will point out that encountering other intelligent persons introduces the idea that the universe is ordered not only in increasing levels of complexity but also in increasing levels of value, which in turn gives birth to the idea of a teleological order that moves toward producing greater and greater perfection.

Does our experience of other minds/persons add anything to the case made in the previous two posts for choosing the option that affirms the irreducible and primordial nature of mind, intelligibility, life, and spirit and rejecting materialism? Yes, I think it does. (1) In the previous post I argued that our experience of our own active minds gives plausibility to active mind as the explanation for the intelligible order in the world. Encountering other free and creative persons strengthens our conviction that our minds are irreducible to matter. Hence our experience of active minds/persons other than our own reinforces the idea that a primordial active mind orders the world. (2) Our experience of other minds/persons opens up a moral and teleological dimension to our experience of the world. These dimensions cannot be perceived simply by using our reason to read the information embedded in the physical world or experiencing ourselves as creators of information. If the worth we perceive in other persons is a real property, independent of our subjective feelings, this worth must be the product of a valuing and purposive mind at least equally primordial with matter.

Next week, we will summarize the case for moving through the first decision point on the road from non-belief to Christian belief in the direction of belief. Though we cannot remove all possible doubt, we will take the road marked “Mind is at Least Equally Primordial with Matter” and leave untraveled the road marked “Matter is the Ultimate Reality that Explains Everything Else.” Now we are faced with the second decision point: is the mind that orders the world one or many, personal or impersonal?

Materialism’s Sacrificium Intellectus or Atheism’s Leap of Faith

Last week we pursued the hypothesis of materialism from the starting point of our experience of the world through the senses. We experience the external world as structured in intelligible ways we can understand through common sense and natural science. But we also experience it as external, as brute facts offering only resistance to penetration by mind or body. But as we examined physical objects we discovered that we can break them apart to experience their internal order as intelligible. We ended up unable to discover pure matter by way of the senses. Every object we thought might be pure matter ended up being internally structured and therefore at least partially intelligible, that is, partly an idea. Matter, we concluded, is the abstract idea of an unintelligible, unordered, and yet real, stuff we can never experience apart from its connection with intelligible structure.

Today I want us to begin our examination of materialism at another point. We experience ourselves as creators and causes, as initiators of movement and change. We possess a first person consciousness of ourselves as actors, as free. We are able freely to create information and through our bodies shape the material world according to this information. In other words, we experience ourselves not only as passive readers of information encoded in physical objects, human made or natural, but also as active minds and wills and creative powers.

Of course, some materialists deny that we really are active minds that can initiate change and create information. We are merely part of the material process of cause and effect. But those materialists who deny freedom always base their denial on their theory, as one of its implications. They never deny that it seems to our own consciousness that we are free and creative. In my view, denying what seems self-evident to consciousness because of one’s commitment to materialist theory strains credulity and calls into question the denier’s commitment to rationality. What can you say to someone who denies what we and they cannot help but believing? I view this denial as on the level with someone who denies the existence of the external world. For our experience of freedom is as primitive and irreducible as the experience we gain from the senses. You cannot verify one by the other or reduce one to the other.

Materialists, too, must begin with trust. They must trust the senses to tell them the truth about the existence and nature of matter. Such primitive experiences cannot be verified by more basic experiences, for there are none. But in order to be a rationally responsible adherent of any theory about the external world, including materialism, you have to believe you have a mind capable of taking the data from the senses and constructing a true theory. It seems to me, then, that affirming the truth of materialism requires also affirming the irreducible reality of free and creative minds; these two affirmations are clearly incompatible.

What does it mean to say that mind and intelligibility are real? Most people have no trouble believing something is real when they can experience it with one of the five senses. More precisely, we believe things are real if there are any possible circumstances under which they can be experienced, even if those means are not yet available to us. Even more generally, we consider something real if it possesses causal power, that is, if there are any possible circumstances under which it can effect change in something else or be changed or resist being changed by something else. We cannot know a “thing” that possesses no causal power, and we do not consider it real. When we think of it this way, we can see that our minds, our ideas, and the ideas that structure nature are real. We experience their causal power. Our minds create information, which can, then, in combination with physical power, create new things in the external world. New ideas arising from our own creativity or from other minds or from natural objects inform our minds, that is, they cause change in our minds. Hence, if to be real means to possess causal power, our minds, their ideas and the ideas that give the world its intelligibility are certainly real…just as real as stuff that creates change in our senses.

I think I am on solid ground, then, when I assume that our experience of ourselves as free causes of movement and change and free creators of new information tells us the truth. Not only do we experience in our own being a mind capable of abstracting and thinking the information that structures the external world, we experience directly our minds as active and creative. Just as I experience my feelings of pain or pleasure or fear as self-evident and undeniable, I also experience myself as a free cause with the same certainty. We make a difference between the automatic unconscious processes that go on in within our bodies and our deliberate choices and acts. We know the difference between being knocked to the ground by the impact of a physical object and our deliberate act of sitting down. There is a qualitative difference between the two.

In the previous post I showed that we cannot imagine a rational way to account for the intelligible order’s genesis from pure, amorphous, undifferentiated matter. For the reasons I mentioned in that earlier post, chance can’t do the job. Other than active mind the only option is the sheer absurdity of asserting that it happened, somehow, anyway. But why choose the absurdity of spontaneous generation when we experience our own minds as free causes able to initiate change and create information and place it into a physical medium? We know this can happen because we actually do it! Hence we have a simple and rational explanation for the intelligible structure that permeates nature: Active mind is at least equally primordial with matter. We do not need to resort to an arbitrary leap of faith made necessary by commitment to the metaphysical theory of reductive materialism.

Now we have a second rational reason to reject the materialist option and its sacrificium intellectus. We can take the road that affirms the irreducible and primordial nature of mind, intelligibility, life, and spirit.

Next Week: What do we make of our experience of other minds? Are other minds real? How and where do minds meet?

“Jesus Means Freedom”*: God and the Modern Self #14

We are getting close to the end of our series! Today I want to explain why the freedom Jesus promises is so much better than that promised by the modern self. In a culture where most people view freedom as the power to do as you please and become whatever you want, the claim that trusting and obeying God leads to freedom will certainly meet with skepticism. Even many believers think we have to give up some freedom in order to do the right thing always and take on the image of Christ. I want to show that this is not true. The way of Christ is freedom and leads to ever greater freedom. Jesus means freedom!

First, let’s recall that in installment #7 of this series we discovered that the modern self offers a purely external freedom and ignores the inner limits on freedom. In response, we emphasized the decisive importance of those inner limits. We do not know ourselves or the possible consequences of our actions well enough to insure that simply doing what we want or making choices autonomously will lead to happiness. But securing our happiness is the very reason we want freedom! We think we know how to make ourselves happy better than anyone else does, and on the whole that may be true. Experience shows, however, that we don’t know either.

Second, recall that every view of freedom must take into account four factors: self, other, power and exemption. The modern self’s view of freedom leaves out of consideration the most serious “other” that limits our freedom and takes no notice of the only power that remove that “other.” In the teaching of Jesus and the rest of New Testament, the thing we most need is liberation from that inner “other” that consists of sin, blindness, ignorance, guilt, corruption, fear and falsehood. This inner “other” keeps us from embracing fully our true identity as images of God, as children of God. We don’t have power to do the right thing always and become “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Even if we had unlimited power and opportunity to do as we please we could not attain what would lead to our ultimate happiness, unless we also possessed power over the inner “other”.

Jesus promised power to overcome the inner “other”. Only the Creator knows the creature better than it knows itself. Indeed, God knows us infinitely better than we know ourselves. He made us! He knows what is wrong with us and how to correct it. God knows what we are, why we are here and what will make us supremely happy. God’s creative power unleashed in Jesus and the Holy Spirit enters our inmost selves and imparts healing, renewing, transforming and empowering power. The alienating “other” is replaced by the Holy Spirit. Supported and liberated by God’s power we gain strength to become what we were created to become: living images of God united to God in love through Christ in the Holy Spirit, sharing in his life, light and joy. And this state, when achieved, is supreme happiness.

As long as we are in this world we cannot foresee all the consequences of our actions, but we know that God does foresee! And God loves us and works all things for our good (Romans 8:28). We need not fear that we will miss our joy because of our inability to foresee the future.

Does this state qualify as freedom? According to Mortimer Adler, the following general definition of freedom covers all specific types: freedom is the ability or power whereby we can make what we do our own action and what we achieve our own property (The Idea of Freedom, vol 1, p. 614). What about the condition I described above in which we live as images of God united to God in love through Christ in the Holy Spirit, sharing in his life, light and joy? Is this state genuine freedom, according to Adler’s definition? Yes, it is. In this state, as God’s child and image, we do only what we truly want to do and we become only what we truly are. We can do what we please because we are pleased by imaging Jesus. And we can become whatever we want because we want to become what God wants for us. And because we were created for God, to love God and become like him, we do and become what leads to our ultimate happiness and joy.

So, do we have to give up some freedom to do the right thing always and to take on the image of Christ? The answer is an unequivocal and joyous “No.” Jesus means freedom! The freedom Jesus brings imparts the thing we most want from freedom: happiness. No regrets. No disappointments. And no limits!

*The title of a book by Ernst Käsemann.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 14 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Freedom of the Children of God”).

Questions for Discussion

 1. What are examples of ways in which believers as well as unbelievers think living a good life involves giving up some freedom?

2. Consider the four factors of freedom: self, other, power and exemption. How does a Christian theory of freedom define each factor? Contrast this understanding with how the modern self defines them.

3. Discuss the claim that we desire freedom because we desire happiness. Compare and contrast the Christian and the modern self’s views of how freedom leads to happiness.

4. Discuss the seemingly paradoxical idea that trusting and obeying God leads to freedom, whereas simply doing as one pleases does not.

Next week: We will finally answer the question of why the Christian view of the human self and of the way we are supposed to relate to God in love and obedience does justice to the idea of human dignity.

Two Views of the Self: God and the Modern Self #13

In the last two installments of this series we looked to Jesus for insight into our true identity. As we can see in the Gospel narratives, Jesus understood his identity in relation to his Father.  And Jesus teaches us to seek our true identity also in our relationship to our Father in Heaven.  Jesus is the Son of God and we too are God’s children. According to the New Testament, if we wish to know who we are and how to live in keeping with our true selves, we must look to the way Jesus lived. When we look at Jesus we see one who trusted and obeyed God no matter where that led him. Does this view of the self do justice to human freedom and dignity? This question will set the agenda for the rest of this series.

Grasping the dominant cultural views of human dignity, freedom and happiness requires inquiry into its understanding of the self. This central concept gives us the subtitle for our series, “the modern self.” The “self” is the modern way of speaking about what used to be called the soul or human nature. The transition to the idea of the self signals the modern shift away from viewing identity as determined by one’s place in society or nature or by God’s creative will. Now the self is an identity we choose and enact for ourselves.

(Example: A popular quote for email signatures or Facebook “likes” articulates the modern self this way: “People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds; it is something one creates.” These words are taken from Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, The Second Sin [1973], p. 46).

Whereas body and soul are not conscious of all the processes and activities going on within them, the self is self-consciousness. The self is me insofar as I am aware of myself and control myself. To speak of the human being exclusively as a self ignores the unconscious, automatic and determined aspects of our existence.

Even though the self is a modern concept and is much narrower than the Christian understanding of the human being, I will risk speaking of a Christian understanding of the self so we can compare it with the modern views. In an earlier installment (#6) I summarize three views of freedom held by western thinkers over the last 2500 years. We noted that each view contained four factors: self, other, power and exemption. Every view of freedom envisions a self that is exempted from an other by a power. Views of freedom are differentiated by the different ways they define these four terms. For example, the circumstantial view of freedom thinks of the self as transparently manifested in a set of immediate desires, and it views the other as external circumstances. It considers the power by which it is exempted from the other as its own individual or collective physical force. And it sees exemption as an open field where it can do as it pleases. Note that in this most common view of freedom, the self is the ego of ordinary awareness. It is the “I” in sentences like, “I want lemon pie for dessert.” It’s not hidden or corrupt or blind.

The New Testament teaching about freedom defines these four terms very differently. (1) As our study of Jesus’ life and teaching demonstrated, Christianity understands the true self as having the nature and identity of a “child of God” and an “image of God”, whose natural activity is obeying, loving and imaging God. In the Christian assessment, the self is not identical to the ego of ordinary awareness. For our immediate or even considered desires are corrupted and distorted by the other, so that Paul, in speaking about the tension between the flesh and the Spirit, can say, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit…They are in conflict with each other, so that you cannot do what you want” (Galatians 5:16. (2) The other is the sin and blindness that block our obedience, divert our love and tarnish our image. This other is not outside of us but within, so close to us that we mistake it for our very self. Paul speaks to this distinction between the true self and the other in many places:

“For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin” (Rom 6:5-7).

“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds” (Eph 4:21-23).

(3) The power that exempts us from thralldom to the other is the grace of God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The other is not external circumstances but a weakened condition of the soul, guilt, blindness and misdirected desire. Hence we cannot get loose by our own or any human power. We need a new creation. Only God can do this.

(4) The field of exemption is the uninhibited exercise of love and obedience to God. It is the wide open range where we can actually image God in all our acts. For Christianity, then, freedom is the graced condition, untroubled by sin, wherein a child and image of God possesses power to conform to the character of God in every aspect of life and to experience perfect unity of will with the Father.

A greater contrast with the modern self could hardly be imagined. The true self is not a pure will that arbitrarily makes laws for itself, asserting its independence from every force and framework by following its own capricious desires. It does not create itself. The true self is the image of God that experiences its identity in relationship to its creator and savior as it grows ever more like Jesus in its affections and actions.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 13 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Emergence of a God-Centered Identity”)

Questions for Discussion

 1. Describe and discuss the significance of the distinction between the modern self and the traditional soul.

2. What are the four aspects of freedom, and why is each aspect necessary to any definition of freedom?

3. How does the “circumstantial” view of freedom define the four aspects of freedom listed in this essay?

4. Contrast the way each of the four aspects of freedom is defined in the New Testament with the way they are defined in the usual secular understanding of freedom.

Next Week: We may still wonder, however, whether this condition is really freedom in a sense that could be recognized by anyone who has not already begun to experience it. Does it really fit a reasonable definition of freedom? Is it desirable above other “freedoms”?