Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Ten propositions on freedom

by Kim Fabricius

1. An intellectual history Europe since the Enlightenment could be written with the title “The Decline and Fall of the Concept of Freedom”. The nadir has now been reached with the banality of freedom as “choice”. From life-style and shopping, to schools and hospitals, to our bodies and death itself, the mantra is “choice”. Such an understanding of freedom “presupposes a blank will looking out at a bundle of options like goods on a supermarket shelf” (Rowan Williams). A more vulgar anthropology is hard to imagine.

2. Nor a more dangerous one: for “freedom of choice” read “will-to-power” and social nihilism. And all the more dangerous for the rhetorical force of the word “freedom”, with its claim to ideological innocence and, indeed, quasi- religious righteousness. Here a hermeneutics of secular suspicion is de rigueur – but so too is a hermeneutics of theological retrieval and reconstruction.

3. Writing at the beginning of the Cold War, Isaiah Berlin famously plotted a pre- to post-Rousseau trajectory of freedom. Initially Berlin referred to these two types of liberty as the “liberal” and the “romantic”, the former understood as the absence of obstacles to thought and action, the latter understood as self-expression and -actualisation. Later, in a seminal inaugural lecture at Oxford in 1958, Berlin recast these concepts as “negative” and “positive” liberty. Berlin did not reject positive liberty as such, but he observed, historically, a “strange reversal”: what began (for example in the French Revolution) as reformation ended in terror and tyranny.

4. Berlin was attacked from both left and right. The right resented his challenge to liberal elites and disputed his claim that the values of freedom and truth may be incompatible, and his insistence that liberty should therefore be disconnected from projects of liberation. The left argued that his critique of self-realisation, while right about Rousseau, was a distortion of Kant; and that while on target about Stalinism, it left laissez-faire regimes to run amok.

5. Needless to say, theologians must look on these internecine secular polemics with astonished detachment. The scene really is Pythonesque. How, we wonder, can these philosophers be unaware of the elephant in the room? Because, they think, the beast has long been banished to the Reservation for Otiose Deities. But why the enforced exile? Because they think that divine and human freedom is a zero-sum game, an exercise in irreducible agonistics. Because, in short, they have a pagan notion of divine omnipotence and presume the Trinity to be a mathematical nonsense.

6. Herbert McCabe (following Aquinas): “God’s activity does not compete with mine. Whereas the activity of any other creature makes a difference to mine and would interfere with my freedom, the activity of God makes no difference. It has a more fundamental job to do than making a difference. It makes me have my own activity in the first place. I am free…. Not free of him (this would be to cease to exist), but free of other creatures. The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature – a part of the world.”

7. The inevitable and predictable upshot of this oppositional understanding of human and divine freedom is an antagonistic reading of human freedom over against nature, other individuals, and society as a whole. And thus the “convention” of freedom as human autonomy, pre- or post-Rousseau, personal or political, is unmasked as “destructive of the very reality of liberty which it seeks to uphold and defend…. What is required is a gospel-derived account of freedom as that which creatures discover in fellowship with the free, self-bestowing God made known in Christ and in the Spirit” (John Webster).

8. The starting point for such an account will be freedom as divine gift, the gift of me and the gift of others. I am free to be the unique person the Father has created me to be, freed by the Son from the false self I have become, enslaved to sin and death, freed for life in the Holy Spirit who perfects human freedom. The Trinity sets me free from self-concern, above all the self-concern of fear. But in the same dynamic movement, the Trinity sets me free for other people, given to me to love. Evangelical freedom is thus not the “freedom” to do what I want. “What kind of power would that be! Man becomes free and is free by choosing, deciding, and determining himself in accordance with the freedom of God. The source of man’s freedom is also its yardstick” (Karl Barth).

9. Luther: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.” The relationship between freedom and obedience is not antithetical but dialectical. Ben Quash suggests that Karl Barth “wants the creature to have the obedient embrace of freedom,” while Hans Urs von Balthasar “wants the free embrace of obedience.” Both, however, are agreed that the free creature is characterised, above all, by joy and thanksgiving – and by prayer and praise.

10. Finally, a theological account of freedom must have not only a relational and social but indeed a political dimension, a baptised version of Isaiah Berlin’s “positive liberty”. The Old Testament paradigms are the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the return from Babylonian captivity. In the New Testament Jesus reconfigures Isaiah (of Jerusalem, not Berlin!) with his Jubilee manifesto (Luke 4:18-19, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2). The freedom of the children of God is more than political freedom, but its telos cannot be less than political freedom. When Western missionaries translated the Bible into African languages, for “redemption” they often used words that meant, literally, “God takes the chains from our necks.” Libertas is a package deal – even if the package is finally unwrapped only in the civitas Dei.


e said...

Webster has an excellent essay on freedom in his book Confessing God--there is much that overlaps with your ideas Kim.

byron smith said...

Thanks once again - particularly appreciated the McCabe quote in #6.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Byron. And, Eze, there is "overlap" with Webster's fine essay in Confessing God, "Evangelical Freedom", because I've not long read it (and my quote in #7 comes from it)! Indeed it was the immediate fillip that set me thinking about this particular set of propositions.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy and am challenged by reading this blog, and its propositions. But I always wonder: unde decem? Whence the ten-ness of the propositions? Chance? Convenience? More? Thanks for writing them. He is risen! Philip

Looney said...

I find this discussion detached from both Christianity and reality. Rock climbing is popular in my area. It begins with discipline and ends with the freedom to move around the rock. Likewise, Paul emphasized Christian freedom, but this is always in the context of the disciplined Christian life.

Culturally, we are indoctrinated to believe that discipline and responsibility are the enemies of freedom. Christianity says that without self discipline, there is no freedom.

Anonymous said...

Hi Philip,
Unde decem? Not "chance"; "convenience", yes, in the sense of self-imposed focus and economy, and as a round number for using the Ps as a discussion-starter teaching-aid. I certainly don't intend my Ps to be summaries as such - let alone decalogues! They tend to play themselves out over various areas of concern (sometimes my own, which, thinking out loud, I am trying to tease out), and sometimes of controversy. I haven't found the number 10 to be a bed of Procrustes, and there are 12 Ps in my "Same-Sex Relationships and the Church" and "9.5 Theses on Listening to Preaching". On the other hand, maybe I'm just in a rut! By the way, I don't have any more up my sleeve at the moment. Perhaps I've played myself out.

Hi Looney,
I appreciate what you say about discipline and responsibility. I'd hoped my references to obedience, and freedom "for", directed to the other in love, would suggest that I'm not an antinomian. Perhaps an 11th proposition on the tertius usus lexis (Calvin), the law as the "form of the gospel" (Barth), might have allayed your fears of both detachment and "enthusiasm" - as well as braking the mold of TEN!

John P. said...

Hey Kim,

Thanks again...

I did not detect any antinomian leanings in this set, much less any of the others in which you have rightly alluded to "cheap grace" a la Bonhoeffer.

Having recently posted a series on the discussion of Divine/Human agency in Barth and Cone, I especially appreciate the timing of these comments. They seem to clarify much of what I was aiming towards.

Could it simply be stated that the (post)modern view is one of "freedom as choice" whereas Barth suggests a "freedom from choice?"

Last, it seems to me that prop. #1 is where the church must begin. Since, as Williams rightly notes, freedom all too often falsely assumes an innocent or "blank" will making decisions free from any manipulation or suggestability. As the instructor of a course on Augustine's theology once said:
"Do you really think Advertisement agencies would spend billions each year if the companies didnt have evidence that it actually effected the habits of viewers?"

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there's any room at all here for what Berlin calls "negative (political) liberty"? "Freedom of choice" may have become a shibboleth, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have some value. Theologically it seems to me that our sin, fragility, and finitude are as good an argument as any that we need negative freedom to protect us from the unwarranted certainties of others (and them from ours).

Dai Corleone said...

Good one, Kim.

Anonymous said...

Hi John and Lee,

Thanks for your comments. I guess some distinctions need to be made. I don't have a quarrel with Berlin's negative freedom politically, the kind of freedoms, e.g., enshrined in the First Amendement. The thing is that culturally it has morphed into a kind of pseudo-positive understanding of freedom, as (negative) freedom-from-coercion now equals (positive) freedom-to-do-whatever-the-hell-I-want, mainly shop-and-consume-and-excrete (a metaphor for our times). Thus could Bush, in the wake of 9/11, call the American people to that great act of national sacrifice: "Go out and spend! Show the enemy, who envy and hate our freedom, that we will not be deterred from our way of life!" The grand Enlightenment shibboleth of "autonomy" (which is one way to translate libertas) - "This is what it's come to!" (I can hear Kant weeping).

From #5 on, I jot some very brief notes towards an evangelical understanding of freedom, where we have to talk about the Trinity, the gift of freedom, about what you might call an analogy of divine freedom in the human, and also about a soteriological movement from our bondage to sin and death towards the "freedom of the children of God", which includes a theological reconfiguration of Berlin's positive freedom.

Does that help to clarify a thing or two? "Freedom" is a very slippery term! As for the theological question of "free will" - Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism, etc,. etc. - I didn't want to go there with these propositions!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kim,

Regarding 6, I'm sympathetic to the belief that human wills sometimes conflict with God's, and also to the belief that God is part of a larger reality, though of course he is not a creature. This 'larger reality' includes wills other than his own, though they are his creations and can ultimately be made to bend to his.

Is this view incompatible with orthodoxy? Can you give me a biblical reason to reject it?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Jonathan -- yes, the idea that "God is part of a larger reality" is generally thought to be incompatible with the doctrine of creation. In fact, the historical development of the doctrine of creation was closely connected with polemic against the Gnostic view of God as "part of a larger reality".

If you think of God as "part of a larger reality", you would certainly be solving (i.e. eliminating) the traditional problem of how divine freedom relates to human freedom. The only question, though, is whether you'd still be thinking of either "God" or "humanity" in a Christian sense!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks for the response. How does the understanding of God as physical fit with this, then? Doesn't being embodied involve having a boundary between what one is and what one is not? That is, being part of a larger reality?

Ross said...

I too really enjoyed the McCabe quote in #6. I was wondering if I could get a reference to it. I'd like to take a closer look...

Anonymous said...

Hi Ross,

The McCabe quote comes from the recent collection of his essays (which I reviewed a few weeks ago at F&T), edited by Brian Davies, Faith within Reason (2007), in the essay on "On Evil and Omnipotence", pp. 75-76.


Closed said...


Might Volf's little hint at a suggestion of ecclesial rights in relationship to the Trinity be useful in this regard to developing the political. It seems in many of these discussions the political disappears, though this is a primary way we interact with one another, so I appreciate your naming of it here.

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