Saturday, October 30, 2010

Freedom vs. Autonomy

Coming back to a well worn topic.  But just recently read a discussion by Rahner on this issue and so have been thinking about it a bit more.  Also, paper that I wrote for a conference last year on free-will is about to be published in a journal put out by Yale!  So musing again on the issue of free-will:

Freedom needs to be contrasted from brute autonomy.  Typically, especially when the idea of free-will is being critiqued, this distinction is collapsed, which I think is an illegitimate, straw-man argument.  Brute autonomy is the supposed "ability to do otherwise," the claim that at any particular junction, any point where we have to make a decision, we can actually choose either option that seems to be available to us.  The critic of free-will argues that such an ability, such a "contra-causal freedom," results in the denial of all influences and collapses into a kind of nihilism in which the world is a fantasy of our own making.  The critique is, I think, a good one.  But I don't think it addresses true freedom.

Karl Rahner makes a very helpful distinction between the transcendent essence of our being and the categorical accidents of history in which our being is situated.  Rahner is operating within a Kantian framework- there is a difference between the world as it is and the world as we perceive it.  The real realm of reality is transcendent to us because we are perpetually subjective beings- we always see things from our own first person perspective which means that we have no way of objectively knowing how things actually are beyond ourselves.  Our essential being falls into this category, Rahner argues.  Our lives as we perceive them are categorical- they exist in a particular historical situation and are mediated through particular actions which we perceive from our subjective,  first person, perspective.  But this perspective is not who we actually are.  Who we actually are, what makes up our essential being, is transcendent.

The ins-and-outs of the metaphysics of that claim are not particularly important to the point that I want to make.  Rahner may or may not be right about his metaphysical musings, I'm not going to hazard a guess on that right now.  However, what I think he does accomplish is a very interesting distinction in terms of how we can view freedom.  Freedom, Rahner wants to argue, and I want to agree, is the ability to mold who we are in our essence and thus to be responsible for who we are in the deepest part of our being.  This has, actually, very little to do with the individual actions that make up our life.  Many of those actions are not "free" in the sense of autonomy.  In fact, what Rahner is arguing is very similar to Robert Kane's model of Libertarian freedom in which our freedom comes out in a few "self-forming actions" in which the course of our lives hits a significant cross road and we must make a decision that will shape many future decisions, in effect a decision about the kind of person we will be or the kind of life we will live.  This is, more or less, what I think Rahner is getting at (and it is a distinction that I think can stand apart from his metaphysical claims about the person).  It is not that we are completely without influence in the decisions that we make, it is not that our actions are marked by a kind of "contra-causal freedom" but that our essence, what makes us who we are, is something that we are ultimately responsible for.  Freedom, then, is most basically equated with responsibility for one's self.

Two implications from what we have said thus far:

First, a clever compatibalist will try to come back at this point and say "that is exactly what we think!"  They would argue that responsibility for ourselves, the freedom that I am describing, does not require any "alternative possibilities" to ever exist- that we can maintain this kind of freedom while also maintaining that God has ordained (or determined) every event that will ever happen.  Two responses have to be made.  One is that I don't think compatibalism works on a strictly philosophical level.  That will have to be saved for another post, but essentially I think compatibalism faces a dilemma of either ultimately denying personal responsibility (because God will determine our essential selves, not us) or with reducing our essential selves to a meaningless, epiphenomenal existence.  The second response is what the main thrust of my paper is about, which is that I do not believe we can be rational without alternative possibilities.  Most people, I think, would agree that rationality is a pretty essential part of how we determine who we are and in how we understand the world in general.  Eliminating rationality, I think, results in an absurdity that makes any sort of determinism invalid.

Second, and the real point that I want to make in this post, is that this freedom is not a "goal" to be obtained but an essential fact of our being.  We are responsible for the kinds of persons we are.  This cannot be denied by any political or economic system.  No external force can eradicate this essential freedom.  The Modern, Western project of establishing "free" political or economic systems, then, is not so much based on establishing freedom, which already exists, as in establishing brute autonomy which I would argue is in many senses neither possible nor necessary.  The history of "free" and "Modern" Western societies is marred by a great many tragedies- racism and genocide stand out prominently among them- which act as explicit denials of the brute autonomy on which these societies are supposedly founded.  The impact of making these societies "free" is to say that the responsibility for the character of these societies lies explicitly on all the members of the society and not merely on a few.  Yet I would argue that this description exists inherently in the society because the people who make it up already posses that freedom regardless of how oppressive or "coercive" their political environment is (and, ironically,  whenever the character of the society changes for the good, it is usually the result of a few people taking responsibility for changing their society and not a society wide change in attitude).  Now am I attempting to justify a communist/authoritarian dictatorship through this comment?  Certainly not.  What I am saying, however, is that what makes a healthy society is not the explicit creation of freedom in the sense of brute autonomy.  What makes a healthy society is when the inherent freedom that people already posses is used constructively to build a better society for others.  Freedom is not the goal, it is the presupposition which enables other goals to be set and accomplished.  And that presupposition exists in any and every situation around the world- it is inherent in being a person.  This also means that inherent in being a person is responsibility for what kind of person we become and what kind of society we create.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pharisee-ism and Christian Dialogue: A Caution

A few mornings ago I was one of the designated readers for the Morning Prayer Service at the Berkeley Center here at Yale.  My reading was taken from Luke's recounting of Jesus pronouncing "woes" on the Pharisees of his day for their legalistic behavior which produced in them an overblown sense of self-worth.  Now I'm setting aside the issue of how the Pharisees are portrayed in the Biblical text, which is undoubtedly with a fair amount of bias, to merely reflect on the principle of Christian practice which has emerged from that portrayal.  The idea of "Pharisee-ism" in Christianity is any activity or view or stance or attitude which produces in the person who partakes in it a sense of "moral superiority."  We have to be a bit careful here- I'm not saying that we disregard moral progress and forget all about how we live our lives morally.  That said, Christianity has always attempted to take a path of humility- remove the plank in your eye before you attempt to remove the speck in your neighbors, judge not lest you be judged.  As someone at Berkeley summed it up this morning, Pharisee-ism is "any sort of viewing yourself as better than others" in regards to morality.

Now typically, this gets used to criticize people of a more conservative persuasion, often with a good bit of justification.  They are viewed, often rightly, as old fashioned and as arrogantly (or perhaps "colonially") upholding a moral code that simply does not have any bearing anymore.  Or so the argument goes from those who claim to be more "inclusive."  Recently I have come to a very ironic realization, which is that the "inclusive" side of this debate is every bit as guilty of the same sin.  After sitting in several services centered around a "journey" motif in which the leaders of the service no longer viewed themselves as on the journey but as having already arrived, after hearing quite a few conversations in which those who claim to be more "inclusive" explicitly denied fellowship to those of a more "conservative" view, I have come to the conclusion that neither side is exempt from the Pharisaic sin of exclusivity (though, ironically, the ones normally bashed for this are actually more honest in admitting their exclusivity and not masking it by "inclusive" rhetoric).  Which reinforces my typical assumption that most of the debates that rock our churches are not really debates at all but political shouting matches...

What I am saying here is not an attempt to take sides on any issue.  This is merely a caution to those who would argue that the greatest of sins is to exclude that quite often that is the very thing they do with their rhetoric.  I have been very shaped in this regard by the writings of one of my professors, Miroslav Volf, who in his book Exclusion and Embrace states what I think is a frequently forgotten, and for that reason extremely profound, statement (which I am paraphrasing):  There is no human conflict in which one side is completely innocent and another completely guilty.  In any and every conflict that divides us both sides have contributed to the problem, both sides bear some of the guilt.  Part of what is needed for restoration is for this statement to lead to an attitude of humility by both sides so that actual dialogue can occur and not persistent exclusion, even by those who claim to "include."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

On Christian Dialogue

A friend just recounted to me the details of a very difficult, painful conversation over a very divisive issue in the Christian community.  Won't go into any specifics, but after reflecting I want to expound on two principles I think are necessary for healthy Christian dialogue or discussion of any of the issues that divide us.

First is a willingness to stand by one another and stick with the community even when we disagree.  My Catholic roommate has a few significant issues with the Vatican, but has repeatedly said "I don't come to the Church to have my social problems solved."  Likewise, a friend of mine on the conservative side of the issues dividing the Episcopal church said to me something like "I love this tradition.  Right now, I think our denomination is crazy.  But I love this tradition and I'm not leaving it."  Even though we are divided by a great many things we should strive to continue to stand by one another.  Our first reaction to disagreement should not be to separate or cut off contact with another group but to acknowledge the difference and continue talking.

Second is a recognition of what might be termed a "Paradigm of the Cross."  Both of my roommates are freaking out right now.  One just yelled "Emergency!"  The other thinks I'm finally seeing the light.  I'm appropriating a term that has been thrown around in our house a good bit.  I'm fairly certain the meaning I'm about to apply to it will not be the same as the meaning that has been presupposed in those discussions, though there is a certain similar starting point.  If the cross makes any demands on us, I think it demands that we have a willingness to lay aside any part of us for what God is doing with us.  This does not mean we will always actually have to lay aside anything, but I think at the very least the cross demands the willingness to do so.  Many, many of the discussions that divide Christians today are deeply personal to many people.  As I understand our faith, I understand it to be one that seeks to guide us to truth that transcends our own personal concerns.  As emotionally entrenched as we may be in a given issue, the quest for truth, I think, demands that we are willing to put aside that part of us for the sake of dialogue, and further that we have a willingness to admit that we just might be wrong and that even our most personally cherished beliefs and opinions may have to be changed or replaced with new ones, that deeply significant parts of our lives may have to be given up if God so demands it of us.  Until both sides of the discussion can come to the table with that sort of an attitude, I'm not sure how much dialogue will ever take place through the shouting of political slogans motivated by an arrogant assumption by both sides that they most definitely are the ones in the right.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Where I Am Now, Part 2

So here is basically the conclusion I tried to reach before:

The authority of our faith and theology is not found in any revelation but in God himself.  We know God through revelation, but the shape of that revelation is not nearly as cut and dry as the Evangelical mindset wants it to be and cannot be equated merely with Scripture.  Scripture comes to us through the Church and is interpreted within the body of the Church alongside the tradition of beliefs not found in scripture.  To make sense of this sometimes confusing muddle we have to, I believe, start from the most basic, central part of our belief structures.  This, I think, is found in the Orthodoxy expressed in the Creeds.  This Orthodoxy then sets the parameters within which the rest of our theology can grow and develop, but it does not dictate theology.  In fact, I think it intentionally, allows for diversity.

Just as clarification, this is not to say that scripture is not important to our theology.  It is certainly very, very important.  But it cannot be the ultimate foundation because before we can use scripture we have to know what scripture is, and the essential point I'm trying to make is that this is not self-evident and therefore there must be some core, some foundation, that is prior to scripture and through which we interpret scripture.  And that prior foundation is the orthodoxy of the creeds. 

From this orthodoxy stems, I believe, two poles around which our theology is built- the pole of scripture and the pole of tradition.  The point of their being two poles is not to say that one overrides the other or that on some issues we follow one and on some the other.  The point, I think, is that through the processes of reason and experience we attempt to find the best harmony of scripture and the oldest, most widely attested (notice the importance of both of these tests, Apostolicity and Catholicity we might say) traditions to formulate an understanding of who we are as God's people in this world.  This process happens through  a cycle that involves both poles.  It will always be true that we read scripture in light of our traditions.  It should likewise be true that our traditions are informed and shaped by scripture.  It’s the combination of the flowing of influence back and forth, shaped by our reasoning and experience, that gives rise to our theological beliefs.

So from all of that, going to sketch out a very basic framework of where I am in terms of theology at this point in the journey:

The narrative of scripture is a narrative of redemption.  I think that word is much better than "salvation" because of the way the latter term is understood in popular discussions.  The narrative of scripture does not lay out a one-time solution to sin, a "say this prayer and get into heaven" kind of message.  Its not so much about conversion, I don't think, as about participation in what God is doing.  And what God is doing is working in and through the history of fallen, broken, sinful humanity to restore God's creation to the state of completed, perfect rest in which it was meant to exist.  The call to make disciples is not a call to fill our churches with converts but to call others to join in the work that God has given the Church- the work of living as though in the Kingdom in the midst of a world that is still opposed to the kingdom, a task we will continue until Christ returns, the enemy is completely vanquished, and the Kingdom is fully established.

This is the vision the church is meant to live out, I believe.  When we ask what that exactly looks like logistically we get little help from the New Testament, though.  We know that the practice of the church was to gather together, that some in those gatherings spoke as teachers, that they sang and prayed together and that they shared in a meal and cared for one another's needs.  We get a few hints about organization- there were some sort of elders who had a major leadership role, some sort of pastoral shepherding role, deacons who served the needs of the congregation, and beyond that we don't know much.

It happens, however, that early church traditions cohere very nicely with the picture of the New Testament and fill in that picture quite a bit.  Very, very early and almost universally the Episcopal form of church government develops.  Along side it is the practice of infant baptism as a rite of initiation for children of Christians.  The regular celebration of Eucharist as a "feast of thanksgiving" for Christ's death and resurrection and the saying of liturgical prayers based on the Lord's prayer are likewise an early and widely attested part of the church's practice.

So far everything I have said would, I think, fit very nicely within a Roman Catholic framework.  My Catholic roommate thinks that is wonderful, my Baptist roommate thinks me a traitor (not really, but I am officially the unfaithful Protestant)…  Unfortunately for the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), there are a couple of fairly significant issues for me that prevent me from going all the way to Catholicism.  Some of these include how we understand the sacraments (I'm not sure I buy into the idea that baptism actually forgives sins or that I can agree with transubstantiation).  But chief among these is the issue of Roman supremacy.  One of the reasons for the split between Eastern and Western Christianity is that in the West, Rome gains authority as the supreme Bishopric, while in the East, there is a concept of Equality of Bishops.  Honestly, I find a much more compelling case for the equality of bishops than for the supremacy of Rome and also am of the belief that equality of bishops can serve as a great safe-guard against the kind of corruption that emerged in the medieval Catholic Church and prompted the Reformation.

One of the things I have been challenged on both in thinking through theology on my own and in conversations since I have arrived here in New Haven is how to justify my existence as a Protestant, as someone who claims to be Orthodox while remaining part of a separatist group from the standpoint of the two Christian traditions that can claim a history stretching back to the Apostles themselves.  I certainly believe that reformation needed to happen in the Western Church.  However, I sincerely wish that it could have happened without schism in the Church.  The unfortunate fact of history is that the split did happen and that it can't be undone at this point.  I am deeply encouraged by the ecumenical movement, but I am not convinced that it will ever result in actual union.  What I do think can be accomplished by the ecumenical movement, however, is a new understanding of the Equality of Bishops in which Orthodoxy becomes the focus of our union and not shared episcopacy.  So for the moment I situate myself somewhere in the Anglican tradition and continue to pursue a better understanding of the Orthodoxy I think defines the entire Christian tradition.

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