Posted by: gcarkner | November 17, 2013

Freedom, Identity and the Good…4

Proposition Three: Redeemed freedom flourishes within a transcendent trinitarian horizon. Trinitarian divine goodness proves to be a fruitful plausibility structure within which to think differently about freedom and the moral self. Trinitarian goodness-freedom answers some of the concerns in the Foucauldian self and reveals new opportunities for identity, discovery, transformation and exploration. It also adds sophistication and meaning to some of Taylor’s categories without offering the final answer on the discussion. It is in the life of Jesus as a member of the Trinity that one can visualize this goodness-freedom dynamic most dramatically. This holds dramatic implications for moral discourse.

Foucault (1984e, p. 4) claims that, ‘Ethics is the deliberate form assumed by freedom.’ But what kind of form in our freedom will endure and flourish? What is the impact of a transcendent paradigm in this conversation and how does it help to interpret and discern the constitution of the moral self? The language of strong transcendence implies a transcendence which resides outside the economies of human experience, and human culture spheres of science, art, religion and ethics, and yet it plays a key role in the drama of self-constitution. It offers a significant contribution to the validation, affirmation, and recognition of the self from a larger horizon of significance, creating a whole new range of possibilities. It also occasions a standpoint for an evaluation of beliefs and practices, offering a subject position from which to protest the unexamined hegemony of the aesthetic present in Foucault’s hermeneutics of the moral self. This hegemony, along with the hegemony of science, is resisted through an exploration of the horizons of the good, moving the self beyond Foucault’s limitations and beyond the hegemony of scientism. It reaches for something higher and deeper, more meaningful.

The discussion of recovering ethics and freedom of a higher quality as a partnership with trinitarian relationality is highlighted in Jesus. He offers an example of redeemed human freedom, through the cooperation between divine goodness and human freedom, effecting and empowerment of human freedom. In earlier posts, the human good was linked through a transcendent turn to trinitarian goodness. At this juncture, it will be fruitful to explore the marriage of the good (transcendently rooted and qualified) and freedom. Jesus’ life constitutes the reconciliation of, rather than the enmity between, goodness and freedom. Transcendent goodness energizes and impacts his expression of freedom. In the philosophical turn towards transcendent goodness, freedom as an ontology is subverted by the ontology of agape love, or divine trinitarian goodness. Foucault resists this sense of strong transcendence in his ethics of the disenchanted self, and his project risks falling back into nihilism. His ethical thought is focused through the culture sphere of art (in resistance against the preceding cultural hegemonies of science and religion). Aesthetics is given a controlling position over the other culture spheres. It is an arts of rebellion and self-assertiveness.

But does Foucault miss something significant in his analysis of Christian technologies of the self and is it not a bit one-sided? How does Jesus’ life interpret freedom differently in the light of this suggested turn to transcendent goodness? How does it deal with Foucault’s claim to radical autonomy for the self? The interpretation starts as trinitarian theonomous goodness-freedom, a God-related freedom, that is qualified by transcendent divine goodness (D. Stephen Long, The Goodness of God).

It begins with the living God of the Christian story, who is constituted by a form of relation, mutuality and reciprocity in which freedom is given to that which is Other—other Persons in the Trinity and the creational Other, humans. The Christian Trinity is a tri-unity of Persons with a history of self-giving freedom that defines God’s being as agape love, and the moral source and inspiration for human finite goodness. Human goodness participates in, but is not identical with, nor does it reach the quality of divine goodness. Jesus is a form and expression of trinitarian goodness in human society, a robust example of this goodness-freedom. The studied avoidance of Jesus’ exemplum in ethics accorded by Foucault’s critique of Christian moral self-constitution is an unfortunate oversight. It skews the conversation quite inappropriately.

The position articulated here is enhanced through the insight of Leeds University theologian, A. McFadyen, who reflects astutely on the hermeneutic of freedom and self-giving within the Trinity. Human freedom, claims McFadyen (1995), is grounded in and defined by God’s freedom. There is no necessary competition between these two freedoms.

God’s inmost being is constituted by the radical mutuality of the three divine Persons, in which they both give and receive their individuality from one another. In their intersubjectivity, there is the creative intention and recognition of subjectivity, and therefore transcendence in form of the integrity of personal identity, in the giving of space to one another. This giving of space is an interpersonal event, and must not be thought of as analogous to the evacuation of physical space. It is not a form of absence, but a way of being present with others in creative recognition of their autonomy within the relationship. It is a letting-be, rather than a letting-go: a structuring of the relationship so that it includes space and time for personal discreteness and autonomous response. Thus the trinitarian life involves a circulation of the divine potentialities of being through the processes of self-giving, in the unity of which the three Persons receive their distinct personal identities. (A. McFadyen 1995, pp. 46-7)

The identity of trinitarian Persons is strengthened, not weakened or lost, through mutuality. This knowledge stimulates the human imagination of the possibilities for relationships and the dynamics of the moral self. The sheer joy and freedom of this mutuality within the Trinity is not confined. Lively self-giving freedom is revealed as possibility and reality within divine relationships; it involves mutual indwelling of identities, mutual support, a perichoretic freedom. It provides an example of interpersonal relations that do not need to threaten the individual self or its freedom, but which enhance and empower the individual self and give direction to its freedom—towards the Other in communion.

This is the same gift of benevolent divine freedom that is expressed within human creation, particularly through the presence in the world of God the Son and God the Spirit, the second and third Persons of the Trinity. God is a community of Persons in movement towards and present within creation, stimulating and opening up a future of new possibilities for human freedom. Yes God is invested in human freedom. The transcendence of the trinitarian Creator includes free personal presence and free indwelling in history, revealing the potential of a definition of freedom which is rescued from the obsession with radical autonomy. It is the kind of freedom that begins as a mutuality interpreted in trinitarian terms. It then proceeds towards a rethinking, a relocation of the self through a realignment of self with God’s freedom, a new interface of self with the transcendent horizon of goodness-freedom. The new subject position is informed by, bounded by and rooted in, empowered by divine freedom and the relational dimensions of creation, rather than standing over against or aloof from it.

The character of this redeemed freedom is creative and dynamic in terms of human sociality. God and human creation are in dialogue-partnership. Human freedom takes its cue from God, exists within the context of God’s freedom, but can also engage with it. It is a creational relationship, deeply implicated with God and his freedom to create and move towards his creation. In fact, the dependence of human freedom on God secures its integrity, grounds it in a higher reality. God creates the context for freedom, recognizes, affirms and validates human freedom; the self is constituted in its freedom at this level by God. Thus, this relationship between divine and human freedom should not be seen as a handicap to personal freedom, but a robust source of actualization of freedom, as a profound divine gift.

Knowledge of this goodness-freedom is offered through relationship with God as Trinity; it is not invented. God’s creation offers the latitude that affords space for human response in a non-coercive environment. It even includes the possibilities of human misunderstanding, rejection, disobedience towards and even disbelief in God. That is quite amazing. God’s gift of freedom entails God’s willingness to take the consequences of human freedom and even human radical assertions of autonomy.

Again McFadyen, (1995, p. 44) writes: “We find God subjecting Godself, first of all to the limitation of the incarnation in a human person; secondly, allowing Godself to be subject to human freedom—even to the extent of death—to bear the consequences of the human refusal of freedom on Godself.” According to his emphasis, human freedom is enhanced when there is a grateful response to the God who built into creation the very possibility and parameters of human freedom, when human freedom is discerned within the larger context of God’s freedom. The created, ordered ecology of relations is respectful of both divine sovereignty and a large degree of finite human choice and autonomy.

Space is given for growth in individual integrity, uniqueness and particularity; this meets some of Foucault’s strong desire for creativity in the self, without sacrificing many other positive dimensions of the moral self. At the end of the discussion, Foucault resists this limited definition of freedom as a gift from God; he wants unlimited, absolute freedom for the self. But it is something of a wishful thinking without hope of achievement.

Andrei Rublev's Trinity, representing the Fath...

Andrei Rublev’s Trinity, representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a similar manner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Furthermore, Jesus is the free and loyal Son of the Father, exemplifying the positive marriage between goodness and freedom, showing that it is possible and viable in this life. Whereas definitions of freedom as autonomy lead to loss of self and alienation towards the Other (Taylor’s argument elsewhere), a trinitarian definition leads to the fresh discovery of self and the re-appearance and appreciation of the Other in a communion of love. In order to explore the trinitarian concept of goodness-freedom, it is instructive to look to the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, to inquire what human freedom can become when it engages with the transcendent goodness of God the Trinity.

In the practice of redeemed freedom, the human freedom of Christ can vividly disclose God’s creative freedom to human observers. Schwöbel (1995) captures this well.

[It is in the] Image of Christ, where freedom is exercised as rooted in the will of the Father and mediated in the power of the Spirit that the true character of the image of God is disclosed to us, both as the divine freedom for grace and as the human freedom of obedience …. Christ is both the revelation of the divine freedom of grace and the disclosure of the human freedom of obedience, where obedience to the will of God the father is not the abrogation of human freedom but the form of its exercise. (p. 80)

For Foucault, obedience to a religion is negative and repressive, destroying freedom. But in Jesus, it is never a contest between God the Father’s freedom and Jesus’ own. It entails an intimate co-operation rooted in loving communion. Jesus reveals that freedom can be liberated from the weighty obligation to live self-reflexively out of one’s own power and resources, and also reveals a creative divine-human relationship filled with freedom and grace. This is carried on even in the midst of many attempts of others to oppress Jesus and repress his voice. In his life, he has fathomed a very deep level of freedom.

McFadyen (1995) illuminates some nuances of the divine-human interface of freedom, revealed through the incarnation.

[By] incarnation in the body of the crucified one implies that God’s freedom does not, after all, entail a transcendent aloofness from the world, but a form of involvement with it in which the divine being and freedom are staked. God subjects Godself to the risks, vulnerabilities and ambiguities of historical existence, including the risk of rejection, suffering and death, as well as of misinterpretation. God’s freedom and sovereignty must be of a radical kind: the freedom to give oneself in relation; to be with and in creation in ways that are costly to God, but which do not abrogate God’s sovereignty, freedom and transcendence. (p. 42)

In the incarnation, one sees God communicating and relating, not as a tyrannical, coercive, absolute sovereign, but vulnerably in and through the form of human individual, by uniting the divine freedom of self-giving agape love with that of a human being. In the Christ event, one is confronted with a divine power that is highly personal, and which consequently has impact through forms of interpersonal communication and personal presence. This God posture makes creative appeal to human freedom; divine freedom is the lareger context or horizon of human freedom. It is not a divine monologue of commands, but a dialogue in which humans are intended and respected as subjects with choice. Jesus is in constant dialogue with the Father. Redeemed freedom articulates human freedom against the backdrop and within the horizon of God’s freedom.

Freedom, its content and definition, has been a central concern in this series on identity, freedom and the good. As a result of this dialogue/debate between Michel Foucault and Charles Taylor, not all definitions of freedom are deemed equal or valid. When freedom embraces goodness, it transforms freedom from an end in itself, to freedom as a benevolence or agape love. Within the plausibility structure of trinitarian transcendent goodness, love becomes the content of freedom as well as freedom’s trajectory. The exercise of redeemed freedom takes seriously the human and divine Other, especially the weaker, more vulnerable human Other. This redirected freedom is a consequence of the interface between human and divine goodness. Schwöbel capture it succinctly.

The true measure of freedom is love as the relationship which makes the flourishing of the other the condition of self-fulfilment. Human freedom becomes the icon of divine freedom where the freedom of divine grace constitutes the grace of human freedom …. That most poignant image of hope, the Kingdom of God, expresses the relation of free divine love and loving human freedom together in depicting the ultimate purpose of God’s action as the perfected community of love with his creation. The fulfilment of God’s reign and the salvation of creation are actualized together in the community of the love of God. (Schwöbel, 1995, pp. 80-81)

Foucault’s provocative aesthetic-freedom has raised many questions and stimulated deep reflection on the nature and constitution of the moral self. It has asked us to be more circumspect about self-construction. Taylor has pressed in on us and convinced us of the importance of the good in ethics. Transcendent trinitarian goodness has contributed further insight into that concept in healthy ways.

Three theologians  (Long, McFadyen and Schwobel) have shared a map of God as Trinity, who is present to humans, taking them seriously in their integrity and freedom, and inviting them to participate as living expressions of divine agape. The life committeed to this goodness-freedom can constitute a great, and yet accessible, work of art, a beautiful and free life. This is the beginning of an ongoing debate and fruitful discussion that has many implications for Westerners as they engage in late modern culture, and struggle to find answers and hope amidst its moral crisis.

~Gordon E. Carkner, PhD Philosophical Theology

See also the blog posts on Critique of the Aesthetic; and Quality of the Will.

See also Loyola Philosopher Paul K. Moser’s reflections on love in his essay “Evidence of a Morally Perfect God” in Craig & Meister (eds.) God is Great; God is Good. (IVP 2009)

Foucault, M. (1984e). The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom. (trans. by J.D. Gauthier, S.J.) In J. Bernauer & D. Rasmussen (Eds.) The Final Foucault, (pp. 1-20) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Long, D.S. (2001). The Goodness of God. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Schwöbel, C. (1995). Imago Libertatis: Human and Divine Freedom. In C. Gunton (Ed.) God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (pp. 57-81). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

McFadyen, A.I. (1995). Sins of Praise: the Assault on God’s Freedom. In C. Gunton (Ed.). God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (pp. 36-56). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.


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