Tag Archives: Liberty

Freedom Means Freedom, Period: God and the Modern Self (Part 6)

Freedom! Liberty! Independence! This is the incessant cry of the modern self. And no concept is more central to its self-definition.  As we saw in previous parts of this series, the modern self resents all external limits placed on its efforts to make itself happy, whether those limits arise from the laws of nature, the desires of other people, or God. It acts as if its essence were pure, arbitrary will structured and limited by no unchangeable forms, subject only to its momentary desires. This view of the self is implicit in what modern people demand, in the way they act and for what they strive.

Very few people actually think about the understanding of the self and freedom their rhetoric presupposes. But bringing these presuppositions out of the background and into the light is essential to understanding our contemporary situation and evaluating it from a position of Christian faith.  And that is our aim in this series.

The concept of freedom is so central to the modern self that you would think that everyone knows what they mean when they demand it. But most people have only the vaguest idea of freedom. Mortimer Adler and his coauthors in a massive two-volume analysis of the concept of freedom (The Idea of Freedom, 1958), distinguish three main and two subordinate concepts of freedom in the history of Western thought. The three main concepts are (1) the circumstantial freedom of self-realization, (2) the natural freedom of self-determination, and (3) the acquired freedom of self-perfection.

In each of these views of freedom there are four factors, a self that wishes to enjoy good things, an other that blocks the self from such enjoyment, a power that exempts the self from limits imposed by the other, and a state of being exempt from the other. As you can see, freedom is primarily a negative concept. A self is exempt from the limits of the other through a power that can remove the other. Different views of freedom can be specified by discovering how they define these four factors: self, other, power and exemption.

The first view of freedom (self-realization) is the most common. According to this view we are free when we are exempt from circumstances that keep us from fulfilling our desires. It focuses on external limits. You are free when you can do what you want. The second view (self-determination) understands freedom as exemption from all internal, hidden limits that prevent self from determining for itself what it does and becomes. It focuses not on the power to act exempt from limits but on the power to decide for itself, exempt from limits. The third view (self-perfection) thinks of freedom as the power to will only the good. The self that wills evil is not free from all limits, for it is blind to its true good. If it were not blind it would have greater freedom. In each of these historic concepts of freedom a self is exempt by a power that removes a limit imposed by the other.

At last, by examining the modern self’s understanding of the four factors of freedom, we can understand in greater depth its view of freedom. (1) The modern self views the other as anything that blocks the self from realizing its immediate desires—God, other people, the structures of nature. The other is the enemy of freedom and dignity, a spiteful force that robs the self of fulfillment and happiness. The modern self rejects the idea that the other is a condition of the self—an inherent natural limit or sin and guilt—so intimate to the self that it cannot see the difference between itself and the other or get itself free by itself.

(2) The power that exempts the self from serfdom to the other is the power of will inherent in the self. The self frees itself. This powerful self exempts itself through internal determination, rhetorical assertion, protest and demands, technology, political action, or bold or transgressive individual action. (3) The essential self is pure, arbitrary will. The self is its own power, willpower. This conclusion is inevitable since the other is defined as any structure not subject to the self and the power for freedom is identical to the self. (4) The state of exemption or realized freedom is a state in which the self can inwardly determine itself and express itself externally as it pleases without limit.

Briefly, let me say a word about dignity. The modern self defines dignity in terms of freedom. Human dignity is rooted in the human power of self-determination or autonomy. Hence any limit on the self’s freedom is an insult to the self’s dignity. The modern view of dignity asserts that because human beings possess the power to determine themselves as they wish, they also have the right to exercise this power as they wish. Limiting the exercise of this power violates the essence of the self and insults its worth.

Now we can see clearly why the modern self envies God and wishes to become God. It defines freedom and dignity in such a way that only by becoming God can it achieve freedom and enjoy dignity; that is to say, only by becoming like the being it imagines (mistakenly) God must be can it perfect itself and achieve happiness.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 6 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Secret Ambitions of the Modern Self”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Explore the concept of the circumstantial freedom of self-realization. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

2. Explore the concept of the natural freedom of self-determination. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

3. Explore the concept of the acquired freedom of self-perfection. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

4. What core concept of freedom do these three views of freedom hold in common and are these three views compatible?

5. What are the four aspects of the concept of freedom, and do they support the idea that freedom is a basically negative concept?

6. Discuss the final conclusions about the modern self’s understanding of freedom embodied in its version of the four aspects of the concept of freedom. It is it an accurate picture of the tendency of the contemporary culture?

7. In light of this post and the previous five, revisit the idea that the modern self sees God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and happiness. What evidence do you see that this tension affects the way modern people live?

8. How knowing the modern self’s view of freedom help us understand the modern crisis of morality?

Note: next week we will assess the claims and aspirations of the modern self in view of an honest and realistic picture of the human condition.


God and the Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 2: Is God the Enemy?)

As Part 1 made clear, the modern way of thinking about human identity places humanity and God in a tense relationship.  If being a real person means being independent, if happiness can be achieved only by following our desires, if authentic identity must be exclusively our own creation and if freedom equals doing what we want, how does God fit into such a life? Isn’t God GOD precisely because he doesn’t “fit in” to this agenda? As the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present Creator and Ruler of the world, doesn’t God demand that we fit into God’s world and play by God’s rules?  God and humanity seem to be on a collision course.

Hence for many of our contemporaries, God looms on the horizon as a threat to human freedom, dignity and happiness. In Parts 2-4, we will consider three common ways we are tempted to deal with this threat: We either (1) defy God or (2) submit to God out of fear or desire for reward or (3) attempt to put God out of our minds. These reactions can be designated, defiance, subservience and indifference. Today let’s think about defiance.

Defiance makes sense only as refusal to do the bidding of a higher authority or a greater power. You can’t defy a weaker power or a lower authority. Defiance provokes our disapproval when the defiant person refuses a just demand by a higher authority. But it evokes our admiration when it defies an unjust power or a tyrannical authority. Perhaps the two archetypical examples of defiance are Prometheus, the mythical character from Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound, and the Satan character in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Prometheus defied the will of Zeus by stealing divine fire and giving it to human beings. Zeus punished Prometheus by fastening him to a mountain and sending an eagle to eat out his liver every day. (It grew back at night!) Prometheus continues to defy Zeus because he is convinced that Zeus is unjust even though he is all-powerful. To those who urge him to submit to Zeus, Prometheus replies:

Go thou and worship; fold thy hands in prayer

And be the dog that licks the foot of power

Prometheus excites our admiration because, though weak, he has justice on his side and Zeus, though strong, is in the wrong. Even in defeat Prometheus refuses to be broken. Hence he has become a symbol of human freedom and dignity, which asserts its rights even in the face of overwhelming power.

In Paradise Lost, Milton allows Satan to express defiance of God even though Milton does not think Satan is in the right. Nevertheless, Satan’s heroic defiance possesses power to stir our admiration…as long as we also accept his view of God:

What though the field be lost?

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome?

That Glory never shall his wrath or might

Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace

With suppliant knee, and deify his power.

As I observed above, defiance strikes us as admirable only if the power we defy is unjust. For both Prometheus and Milton’s Satan, God is an unjust, arbitrary power. Their concept of God—their theology—views God as pure will, the will to dominate. Only one can rule all. But the modern self rests its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness in its autonomy, its power of self-determination. If God is the infinite will to determine all and our happiness depends on exercising our will for self-determination, our options are limited. In our terror we may submit, or we may try to forget God and our slighted dignity by submerging ourselves in sensuality. But we may also find it difficult to suppress the urge to defy, which is rooted in our ineradicable sense of dignity.

Surely something has gone wrong! Is the modern secular culture’s understanding human freedom, dignity and hope of happiness the only (or best) way to view them? Is God really pure, arbitrary will and power? Is God the enemy of humanity? 

Questions for Discussion

 1. Expand on the concept of defiance by discussing some examples of admirable defiance and some cases of deplorable defiance.

2. Why does Prometheus’s defiance of Zeus stir our admiration? Give examples of situations that awaken your urge to defy. What are some popular cultural images of defiance?

3. How do you think the urge to defy is related to humanity’s sense of its own dignity?

4. The essay pointed out the relationships between admirable defiance and unjust authority and between deplorable defiance and just authority. Following the previous analogy, what is the relationship between admirable defiance and our true dignity and deplorable defiance and our false dignity (i.e., pride)?

5. According the essay, Prometheus and Milton’s Satan view God’s essence as pure, arbitrary will. In what ways do you think their theologies are defective?

6. To anticipate an important theme of the book and this series, given how Prometheus and Milton’s Satan view God, what relationship do you see between the way we view God and the way we view ourselves?

Note: This essay can also serve as a companion to Chapter 2 of my book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity.

Next week, we will examine the attitude of subservience or “the religion of idols, hypocrites and hirelings.”