Freedom on Holiday: The Genealogy of a Cultural Revolution

What follows continues a story about freedom that I wrote about on July Fourth of this year. The story was less than celebratory, however, because it was concerned with the loss of freedom, our noblest cultural ideal, whose full significance we seem no longer to understand. But unless we understand all that freedom means, i.e., its full range of significance, we will not be able to appreciate our predicament and what we have lost. Our objective on Fourth of July was therefore to recall that freedom is not a univocal, but an analogical term and that we are free, accordingly, only to the extent that we approximate its primary analogate, which is to say, its divine source.

Conversely, our aim was to show that the farther we run as a society away from freedom’s divine source, ostensibly in the name of human freedom, and the more freedom is detached from other ideals such as the common good, the more we risk destroying not only the freedom we as a society cherish, but the very foundations of a free society. For, as we showed, not only is there is no freedom apart from some good to which it ordered, however confusedly perceived that good may be; there can be no freedom in the most replete, overflowing sense of the term apart from the freely blowing Spirit, who is one with the Divine Logos and is given by the Logos to those who follow him.

Admittedly, this notion of freedom through following, through obedience, is mysterious (being veiled by a seeming paradox and bound up ultimately with the nature of God as the Trinity), and far removed from the profane understanding of freedom as “choice.” In such times as these, therefore, when negotiating the difference between sacred and profane conceptions of freedom seems all but impossible, the Church may be tempted to shut up her doors and guard her mysteries in a Horatian spirit—“odi profanum vulgus et arceo; favete linguis” [I shun the uninitiated crowd and keep it at a distance. Pray silence!].

But this would be a temptation. For the task of the Church is not merely to ponder its mysteries in silence, though that also it must do, lest even the Church forget them. It must also go out into the marketplace and invite others to consider them, and consider, too, how the profane might be related to the sacred, or, in today’s terms, how the secular is related to the theological. How that relation is to be conceived is another matter, which we have already touched upon and to which we will return in our final installment. For now, as we resume this second part of our story on Labor Day, we do so in the hope that we might all have a little more time to think about freedom and the kind of labor that may be required to sustain it; moreover, to create a better America, whose freedom is not for nothing, but a blessing given for the sake of a Common Good.

Before we continue our story, however, a brief clarification is in order. Whereas the first installment was concerned with the objective problematic of freedom, and was therefore more systematic and metaphysical in nature, this installment is more historical and genealogical. In other words, our concern here is with the concept of freedom as it has developed over time. In some respects, of course, this development has been wonderful, namely, inasmuch as political freedom has been extended to all, or nearly all, in short, inasmuch as it has been democratized, having once belonged only to the privileged few. And this, needless to say, is something to celebrate. It is why we celebrate not only July Fourth but also Labor Day, which (ideally) gives every laborer who so wishes the chance to sit down with a book and be a philosopher, even if it is just for a day.

But with these gains, there have also been considerable losses, which the gains, great and significant as they are, have largely concealed. And the loss consists, quite simply, in this: that we in the West have almost completely lost sight of what freedom used to mean in the ancient philosophical and ancient Christian understanding of the term. Having once meant the leisure to study for the sake of pursuing wisdom and becoming wise, and having once meant the spiritual freedom offered by the Logos to all who follow him, in order that all might be freed from sin and share in the freedom of the children of God, freedom has come to mean nothing more than the profane and banal freedom of the marketplace, the freedom of objective “options” and subjective “choices”—a freedom that is becoming by the day so pointless, once all material needs are satisfied, that we no longer even know what to do with our free time, because we, as a society, increasingly have nothing—no Truth, no Goodness, no Beauty, in short, nothing Divine—at which to aim.

If, therefore, we as a people would wish to regain freedom’s higher ground, its Logos, and see what freedom is ultimately for, we would do well to remember how we lost its more original meanings in the first place. But, nota bene, our story is not simply about what a secular world has forgotten about freedom. It is also, and perhaps more fundamentally, about what a certain age of Christian theology forgot and, if one may be so bold, got wrong about freedom, which has made it that much harder for us to understand what it means to be free today.

I. Freedom’s Half-Life: From Modern to Postmodern Freedom

If we begin our story with the eighteenth century and with the American and French revolutions in particular, we find that to be free in the modern sense of the term originally meant to be free from tyranny, oppression, and all forms of unreasonable government, e.g., unreasonable taxation and so forth. In other words, the modern concept of freedom (at least for its more philosophically cultivated proponents) was connected with the proper exercise of reason.

Thus, for someone like Kant, only one who lives and acts in accordance with reason, which is what is highest in human nature, is truly free. To act otherwise, to act merely in accord with instinct, feeling, or transitory desire, would be less than freedom; it would in fact be a form of slavery. And to this extent, the modern concept of freedom stands in continuity with what the main philosophical schools of antiquity, the Platonists, the Peripatetics, and the Stoics, understood by it. For notwithstanding their differences all of them agreed that the good and happy life was one lived according to reason, kata ton logon. Anything less would have been considered beneath the rational nature of the human being as a zōon logon echōn.

But modern freedom is a fragile thing. For what happens when the rational foundations of modern freedom, which Kant and the philosophes took for granted, are no longer part of the story? What happens when the classical understanding of freedom as the freedom to become virtuous and wise is forgotten and becomes utterly irrelevant to the great western mythos of freedom? What happens when Kant’s philosophy, including his residually Christian belief that freedom is grounded in a universal rationality and ordered to a “kingdom of ends,” comes to be regarded as the quaint daydream of a professor from Königsberg and nothing more?

Then, with nothing left to aim at and no higher standard to ennoble it, freedom degrades into what Isaiah Berlin aptly termed “negative freedom”—a freedom, that is, merely of non-interference and non-coercion. It degrades, in other words, into the freedom of modern liberalism, the freedom of the marketplace, in short, into American freedom, which, seen historically, is the last form of freedom, and seen philosophically is the lowest kind of freedom: a freedom whose chief, if formally negative virtue is that it opens markets, ensures the free exchange of goods, and provides a safe space for individuals to do, pursue, and purchase whatever they think will make them happy.

But the fall from the heights of classical liberalism, which was accelerated by the conceit of the Enlighteners to be able to do without history and tradition, was not yet complete. For there can come a time when freedom becomes so detached from reason that all superordinate reasons, all reasons of a practical (moral) nature, and even the idea of God, which Kant believed to be a necessary idea of practical reason, are thought to be just ideas, just “values,” and finally (after Kant gives way to Nietzsche, and rationalism decays into voluntarism) just fictions of the will to power.

It is then that modernity gives way to that terminal condition commonly known as postmodernity: when every last vestige of Plato’s Ideas—every topos eidōn, every ordo essentiarum, to which the ancient Greeks once directed their gaze, as though to a fixed North Star—finally disappears before the restless flux and aimless spasms of pure existence. And this time has come. For we now live in an age that has largely rejected not only Christianity, which understood itself as the perfection and the means of the universalization of the wisdom of antiquity, but even the rationalism of the modern philosophers that was thought to perfect Christianity, leaving us with no ground but the abyss of human freedom beneath our feet. Such is the precariousness of our situation today, out of which, as Yeats feared, just about anything, but no Venus, could arise—perhaps a man without any morals at all with “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.”

So, if we do not wish to greet this prospect with the thoughtless stares of Nietzsche’s “last men,” who blink with unfurrowed brows, or of Eliot’s “hollow men,” who have no eyes at all, in short, if we want to understand how freedom has come untethered from every objective order and gone into a final stage of free fall, let us take a closer look at this historical development and try to comprehend what has happened and how—mindful of Hegel’s dictum that the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the setting of the sun.

II. The Declension of the Analogy of Freedom

For two-and-a-half millennia philosophers sang of the dignity of the human being as an animal rationale, and of the beautiful soul whose desires were subject and attuned to reason, which was regarded as what was most divine in the human being—a tradition that Christianity, far from rejecting, essentially affirmed, stipulating merely that the natural light of reason, since it is benighted by the passions of a fallen nature, is ordered to faith and to the healing power of the sacraments, by which one is set free to be truly rational and truly enlightened.

For once one is liberated by faith and the sacraments from the darkness of ignorance and the power of sin, which so easily entangles (Heb 12:1; cf. 2 Esd 7:68), one is able to live in communion with the Logos and be taught by the Logos, who is Reason itself. Nor, did Christianity merely affirm and qualify this tradition; it perfected it by liberating human desire, too, announcing to the world that the One who is eternally the Logos is also eternal Love and therefore most lovable—thereby orienting our intellects and our wills to their perfection in the loving contemplation of the triune God who is both Logos and Love.

After Nietzsche’s relatively simplistic transvaluation of values, however, rather than the will obeying the voice of reason (neither one’s own immanent reason, nor that of a transcendent Logos, who speaks through our conscience and even more perceptibly to the cultivated senses of the saints), reason lies supine as the last tyrant to be conquered before the triumph of the will and whatever (however base or irrational) it wants. This is not because Nietzsche did not have an aesthetic attachment to higher standards. He was no fan of the common man and vulgar pleasures. And he would surely have considered the Nazis, who appealed to him, to be barbarians.

But, of course, his own philosophy, which destroyed the rational foundations of the Enlightenment, was nevertheless appallingly amenable to them. For absent a universal Logos or even a universal human rationality, Nietzsche’s tastes could at the end of the day be nothing more than his tastes, lacking even the modest subjective universality and traces of reason in Kant’s understanding of aesthetic judgment. And, to his credit, Nietzsche saw this. For, as his madman tried to explain to the thoughtless crowd, who mocked him and laughed at the idea of God, if there is no God then there is no longer any high or low, left or right, good or evil. In short, there is no morality; nor is there any reason, since the only truth left is that of the will to power and whatever ideology happens to gain currency in any given age or decade or year or month—so quickly do the powers that shape human culture change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

But, tragically, there is really no conversation to be had about what is better and worse because there is no longer any standard by which to say one way or another in the first place. In sum, ideas are now ideologies—and nothing more. And so it is that the “last men” come of age, when free at last of the paradox of rational autonomy, which was the last bit of mystery left in Kant, they celebrate “freedom for freedom’s sake,” and do so with the kind of thoughtlessness that Nietzsche himself (baselessly, of course) decried. Such is the ironic end of the Enlightenment, since it was as much about reason as about autonomy. By the same token, it is the logical end of the American dream for which freedom, and not any particular logos, has always been the ne plus ultra.

Now from a Christian perspective, it almost goes without saying that modern freedom, insofar as it retains traces of classical wisdom and belief in a rational order of things, is preferable to postmodern freedom. Indeed, it would mark a genuine cultural advance if we finally grasped what Jean Paul and Nietzsche saw when they peered into the abyss; if, just for a moment, in the midst of the general thoughtlessness of a consumer culture, we thought about what drove Nietzsche mad; if, in view of the horrors of the twentieth century, which should give us endless pause, we returned in fugam vacui to a genuinely modern, residually classical, and thus more reasonable account of human freedom—a freedom that is not for nothing, nor ordered to happiness in the vulgar sense (viz., freedom simply for the sake of pleasure), but a freedom ordered to that happiness that is peculiar to the human being as a rational animal. Then we might be able to speak again about freedom—for truth’s sake, for goodness’s sake, for beauty’s sake—and act accordingly. This would be a genuine liberalism and also a genuine humanism because it would genuinely be open, liberally open, and not de facto closed to the possibility of finding the ultimate source and unity of the transcendentals, and therewith the meaning of our humanity, in God.

The problem, however, is that modern liberalism was never able to sustain such a noble pursuit, because its understanding of reason was from the beginning too opposed to tradition (however understandable this opposition may at times have been) and for that reason, ironicaslly, too uncritical. Having dispensed with history and tradition as at best accidental to its vision, it was hopelessly abstract, ahistorical, and cut off from the philosophical and religious traditions—the alimentary matrices—that alone could have sustained it. Simply put, the Enlighteners sawed off the branch on which they were sitting. And so the radical desire to be free from tradition (which is the last illusion of reason, and the one that Kant, for all his brilliance, seems not to have seen) proved to be the end of reason itself, since reason is never pure, as Hamann pointed out, but always embedded in an historical context with all the contingencies of language, tradition, and culture.

To be sure, one may grant with Kant that an uncritical faith in tradition is blind, but then one must also say contra Kant that an uncritical reason without any faith in tradition is empty. For with Paul we may ask, “what do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7). But this was forgotten, and so with an almost Hegelian necessity, modern liberalism collapsed—and, with it, freedom’s inherent connection to reason and a reasonable notion of the common good, apart from which no society can flourish.

Such, then, in admittedly brief outline, is the story of the gradual breakdown of the analogy of freedom: whereas in the first stage (under the sign of Prometheus) a free human rationality is gradually detached from any transcendent Logos, in the second stage (under the sign of Erebus) freedom is gradually detached from any reason, any logos, whatsoever, since reasons are now deemed to be nothing but fictions of the will to power, and the last vestiges of an oppressive rationalism, which in the name of the freedom of the individual will, which is all that is left, must perforce be destroyed.

One is tempted at this point to give a rebuttal of postmodern philosophy—to explain why “postmodern philosophy” is an oxymoron, why it never found much acceptance among philosophers, and why it flourished chiefly in literary studies departments. But that is a task for another day. Our task here is to understand how modern freedom gave way to postmodern freedom. But to understand this, there is another story to be told, which begins in the middle ages.

III. Nominal Freedom

According to more traditional historiographies, the story of modernity begins either with the Renaissance or the Reformation. In view of the work of Louis Dupré, Michael Gillespie, John Milbank, and Thomas Pfau, among others, however, the consensus is growing that modernity does not really begin with the Renaissance or the Reformation, but with a seismic shift in theological positions during the late middle ages. Whether or not he ever intended such a thing, this shift is said to begin with Scotus’s univocal understanding of the concept of being (conceptus univocum entis), which ended up flattening the ontological topography of the universe and collapsing the Thomistic analogy between God and world.

In other words, after Scotus, univocity and a more empirical-scientific worldview of the kind we see in Roger Bacon (and later Francis Bacon) wins out over the more poetic and metaphysical analogia entis. Setting aside the thorny debate about blessed Duns Scotus, however, the figure most relevant to our story here, is William of Ockham and, in particular, his teaching about God’s absolute power (Dei potentia absoluta). But before casting aspersions on Ockham, who has not without reason become a bête noir in these genealogies, let us consider the particula veri in what he was trying to say, namely, that God is free not only in himself as the source and exemplar of all freedom, but also as regards everything that he does ad extra.

After all, this is what sharply distinguishes Judaism, Christianity, and, for that matter, Islam, from pagan fatalism and the ultimately tragic nature of most classical thought; and so it is understandable that Ockham should have wanted to emphasize it. The problem, however, was that in the Occamist tradition divine freedom came to be logically separable from the divine nature and thus from Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and Love. In short, God’s freedom became a “free radical” with no intrinsic relation to the divine nature. And so, logically, it was claimed that God could do anything—even what is objectively evil.

Now, obviously, this is an exceedingly troubling claim, based more on reasoning about possibilities than on faith in anything that God has revealed. And it is all the more ironic inasmuch as Ockham wanted to defend the freedom of the God of revelation against rationalism. Could God really be spiteful or malicious? Could he ever act without the good of his creatures in mind? Must not even the startling verse from Isaiah 45:7: “I make weal and create woe”—be understood in this light, namely, as a form of salutary discipline? In short, could God ever be less than God or ex hypothesi choose evil?

Before Ockham, any Christian theologian would have considered such suggestions blasphemous, a turning of God into his opposite. And therein precisely lies the problem of (the exclusive exaltation) of divine freedom apart from the divine nature; for if God is conceived first and foremost in terms of absolute power and the arbitrary right to choose, then our image of God can easily be distorted into that of a tyrant who is to be revered not for who he is—the one who lovingly delivered Israel out of Egypt and the entire world out of the bondage of sin—but merely out of fear of what he could do.

This is not to say that the fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom, as Proverbs says. But fear alone, quite obviously, does not make for a good and lasting relationship, neither between human beings (e.g., parents and children), nor between God and humanity. On the contrary, it tends to set the stage for rebellion, which is precisely what in due course and on an unprecedented cultural scale happened. But there is a further, and perhaps even more ominous consequence.

For if God himself is conceived in such terms, and if human beings are made in God’s image, then logically human freedom will sooner or later be conceived along similar lines: as conceptually detachable not only from reason, but even from biological human nature. And such precisely is our situation today. Like the Occamists of old who effectively did away with the divine nature by subordinating it to the divine will, today’s Neo-Occamists, who go by another name, have subordinated human nature to the human will; moreover, some have gone so far as to deny that there is any human nature, saying that what we are is not merely what we think we are (for this would still be too intellectual, depending as it does upon a discernible biological or psychological identity), but even more radically what one at any given time might choose to be. In short, according to this Neo-Occamist doctrine, esse sequitur arbitrari.

But, of course, there is no such thing as pure freedom, which is evident enough in that freedom is always ordered to certain ends, certain reasons—this being the ineradicable sign within creation of the Logos to whom creaturely freedom is ordered. Indeed, the notion of pure choice is an illusion, for our choices can never be separated from layer upon layer of highly complex biological, psychological, and spiritual conditions, which are informed, in turn, by no less complex social, cultural, and environmental conditions. But it is nevertheless an attractive proposition, which appeals to our pride (much like the first temptation), to be told not only that we have the right to choose, but that we can do so free of reasons purely as a matter of will.

All of which, once again, has its roots in a heterodox fourteenth-century theology that separated God’s freedom from God’s nature, making us postmoderns, for all our “progress,” just late mediaevals in reverse: for the same freedom that the factio Occamistica ascribed to God, we now ascribe to ourselves. In the interest, therefore, of a better account of human freedom, let us now briefly consider the basic difference between late medieval and all preceding theology.

For the older Christian theologies up to the fourteenth century, God is free to be God. That is to say, God suffers no constraint whatsoever on his pure act of being Who He Is. But for this later theology—the via moderna, as it was aptly called—freedom in a sense was God, and everything else, even the Logos, the Father’s Eternal Reason and Self-Definition, became a secondary consideration. In fact, for this theology, the incarnate Logos is not, strictly speaking, an absolute manifestation of the Father, but merely a contingent one. For, as the Occamists reasoned, absolute possibility trumps absolute actuality, and so God in his absolute power really could be other than the God of love and mercy he showed himself to be in the economy of salvation.

Thus, what Nicaea dogmatically excluded suddenly became possible: God came to be thought in terms of pure possibility in abstraction not only from his actual eternal nature, but also from his Logos or any revelation of this Logos. And so, de facto, Arianism returned. And like a mutating virus it returned not only in the guise of divine freedom, but also and more insidiously in the guise of divine glory—a glory associated not with the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6), in seeing whom one sees the Father (John 14:9), but with the terrifying inscrutability of a hidden God of infinite power, who in his eternal counsel eternally elects and eternally damns, not as a matter of eternal foreknowledge, but as a matter of absolutely sovereign predestination.

IV. The Freedom of the Reformation

And so we come to the Reformation, since it was this “new” theology that was to play a significant role in the theological formation of Martin Luther. It even helps to explain something of Luther’s psychology: why he was one of the more vexed souls in the history of the Church, and why out of desperation, seeking refuge from the speculative terror of Ockham’s “God” (and doubtless tired of debating the more reasonable Erasmus), he finally threw up his hands, denying not just any capacity to save ourselves, as prior Christian tradition had done (this, after all, was the victory of Augustine over Pelagius), but also any human cooperation in our freely offered salvation (which the ancient Church, Catholic and Orthodox, has always maintained). In other words, the divine will became so absolutely determinative, excluding the possibility of secondary causes factoring in our salvation, and the fallen human will so utterly bound and ineffectual, that human freedom became for all intents and purposes nothing—“a fiction,” as he says in De servo arbitrio, “without reality.”

Now perhaps that was Luther at his most hyperbolic—and a Catholic can sympathize with such statements to the extent that they make a prophetic point, as for example when Luther rails against all forms of “works-righteousness” (the idea that we are justified by our own good works, as if they of themselves could ever atone for sin and bridge the distance between a holy God and ourselves). But if one takes Luther at his word, his denial of human freedom was ominously consequential. For if God really does everything alone and any cooperation with his grace is eo ipso excluded—this “alone” being the metaphysical correlate of sola fide—then the difference between God and creation, the so-called analogia entis, is abolished. For while it looks like we have faith in Christ, we actually do not, because there is nothing that we actually do. Nor is our will ever liberated to respond to grace.

The mystery of salvation, for Luther, is not the mystery of God’s grace rehabilitating human freedom so that we can freely respond to grace, but the mystery of God accomplishing our salvation without any real consent or response on our part. Nor for Luther is there anything that we ever could have done differently, since the Fall was not just foreknown, but predetermined. In short, what appears to be a free creature is not, but rather from the beginning (and at every point along the way) a plaything of divine decrees. At which point, mutatis mutandis, with no analogical interval to speak of, we are only a step away from the heterodox Lutheran Hegel, for whom creation is similarly insubstantial, being nothing in itself but the theater of God’s self-production.

But, again, as we did with Ockham, let us try to consider the particula veri in what Luther was trying to say. When Luther speaks about the bondage of the will he means, quite specifically, the fallen will, and when he speaks of the world he means the fallen world of history, which, as fallen, can in no way save itself from sin and death. Thus far, Catholics and Lutherans are agreed. Moreover, we have it directly from Christ himself that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5), which is something that the saints learn—and that the editor of the profound mystical text, the Theologia Germanica, himself learned—from experience. As Luther so rightly says, “sola experientia facit theologum.” In other words, the experience of human frailty and the many afflictions of this world teach us that apart from Christ we can do nothing.

But, for a Catholic, this does not mean that, once redeemed by Christ, we can do nothing with him. On the contrary, it is precisely for this synergy—this cooperation with grace—that we were made and for which Christ liberated us from sin. Thus Paul himself could say that we were liberated by grace (Rom 8) so that, once restored by grace to who we really are, children of God adopted by God, the Father, to walk in the freedom of the Spirit, we can perform the good works that God has willed us to do (Eph 2:10) from the beginning. But this fundamental principle of redeemed human cooperation with grace, which is a central tenet of all the ancient churches, Luther denied. As a result, the analogy of freedom mutated into a dialectically explosive, zero-sum game: to give any freedom to the creature, whether fallen or redeemed, would be to deprive God of the freedom and glory that belongs to God alone.

What Luther left unfinished, since he was not a particularly systematic theologian, Calvin then took to its logical conclusion. Perhaps the most striking example of this is in his commentary on 1 John, where he discusses the well-known verse “God is love.” For most people, this is one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible and an assurance about who God is: that God’s nature is love. Calvin, however, reads the verse not as a description of God’s nature, but as the “minor proposition” of an argument that love for others ought to follow from those who have faith in God.

It is a novel misreading of Scripture, and one fairly striking for a sola scriptura theologian, but it is understandable in light of Calvin’s major premise regarding predestination: there are some whom God eternally loves and some whom God eternally hates—not because the former deserved such love or the latter such wrath (for they could not have done otherwise), but simply as a matter of God’s sovereign pleasure. Thus, rather than trying to think through the paradox that God is both absolute love and absolute power, Calvin throws God’s love under the bus in order to save God’s power. For again, according to this tug-of-war logic, to give any freedom to human beings would be to take freedom away from God, which is impossible. And so the analogy of being (and freedom) was effectively denied once again.

But, as with Luther and Ockham, let us try to understand how Calvin came to this conclusion, because it is not an unreasonable conclusion if theological reasoning takes place at the level of discursive reasoning alone (at the level of dianoia rather than noetic insight) in light of Scripture alone, and one thinks one has to choose between God’s love and God’s power, or between divine freedom and human freedom, according to a zero-sum logic. Indeed, it appeals directly to our sense of piety, which tells us that God is absolute and therefore neither dependent upon anything nor constrained by anything; moreover, that God’s will is absolutely free and, by dint of divine power, absolutely effective.

And how could it be otherwise if by God we mean God—Deus omnipotens—and not something less than God? Nor is such reasoning peculiar to the Reformers. Catholics, too, have debated these issues, most famously during the de auxiliis controversy between the Thomists and the Molinists at the end of the sixteenth century. While the Molinists were concerned to defend the integrity of human freedom, the Thomists were concerned that the Molinists had turned God into something less than God, a passive spectator of creation, who merely sees in advance, according to a so-called scientia media, what it is that people freely will or will not do and acts accordingly. In fact, the Thomist position is quite close to that of Calvin, even mutatis mutandis with respect to the question of predestination.

But, similarities notwithstanding, Calvin goes further than Thomas not only by making a dogmatic decision that from a Catholic standpoint was never his unilaterally to make—since for Catholicism no one theologian stands at the center of the Church, not even Aquinas—but also by denying the integrity of secondary causes, which Aquinas unambiguously affirmed. Thus, Calvin de facto denied what we have called the analogy of freedom, inasmuch as for Calvin there is only one freedom, which is divine, and every other (or what from our perspective would appear to be creaturely freedom) is really the working out of necessity.

At the end of the day, therefore, the difference between Reformed and Catholic theology turns on a very different conception not only of love, which presupposes both a genuine other to love and the freedom of the other to love in return, but also of sovereignty. For whereas for Thomas God’s sovereignty is like that of sovereign householder, who knows how masterfully to work with the secondary causes of his household, which typically includes willful children, Calvin understands sovereignty in proto-modern terms, namely, in terms of absolute power, which cannot tolerate any resistance and therefore rules any out from the start. Thus, what appears to be creaturely freedom is not; and what appears to be creaturely resistance is not; for even this is willed and predetermined.

Now, at some level, one might think that these are differences merely of theological metaphysics, about which one can reasonably debate. Unfortunately, however, they amount to fundamentally different views not only of creation, but also of redemption. For, from a Catholic perspective, the human being, though now in bondage due to sin, is natively free as the image of God. Redemption in Christ, therefore, is the liberation of the image of God to become once more the image of God it was always intended to be. Put differently, it is a liberation of the human will, freed from sin, to will once more the will of God, so that a liberated creation might be wedded to God in the Spirit of love.

But, nota bene, such perfection requires not just a genuine other of God, a genuine creature, but a genuinely human will. And in this regard, tragically, the Reformers seem not to have thought out the implications of the hypostatic union or the doctrine of the integrity of Christ’s human will, which Maximus the Confessor defended at the cost of his tongue. And something similar could be said of the failure to appreciate the distinction Maximus draws between a natural will, which is naturally aligned with that of the Father, and fallen, vacillating, gnomic wills, which have not been confirmed in God’s will.

Now one can make qualifications on Calvin’s behalf and a Catholic would certainly be obliged to look for what is best in his theology, including his stress on sanctification and, as Carl Moser has admirably shown, even deification. But if Reformed theology really entails double predestination and therefore leaves no room for creaturely freedom before the fall or even after redemption—though a rehabilitated creature, empowered to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, is the entire point of salvation—it amounts to a very different gospel indeed, from whose consequences we are still reeling today. For in giving systematic precision to Luther’s most hyperbolic positions, above all his denial of human freedom and reduction of human beings to purely passive subjects of divine decrees, Calvin set the stage for the dialectical backlash of modernity: for humanity’s frustration with its reduction to slavish impotence, and for the rebellion of rational creatures against an (apparently) irrational despot.

Brad Gregory is therefore right to say that secular modernity is a child of the Reformation. For, quite simply, had there been no Jupiter (into whose pagan image the God of the Gospel was idolatrously refashioned) there would have been no Prometheus. Nor, as we will see in our final essay, is this conflict over. On the contrary, it can be seen wherever in the world there is a conflict and mutual incomprehension between secular and theocratic regimes, which emerge like two horns of a tragic dialectic whenever an analogy of being and freedom is denied. But really, can one blame Goethe, the Romantics, and even Beethoven for rallying around Prometheus and celebrating him as a fitting symbol of modernity—or, for that matter, western culture at large for its literary and cinematic fascination with images of rebellion from Milton’s Satan to James Dean?

If the ruling authority is imagined to be a capricious tyrant on the model of Plato’s Zeus or Shelley’s Jupiter, secularism’s founding myth of defiance—its Titanism—would seem justified. But, of course, the whole founding myth of secularism is based upon a tragic misconception of who the God of the Gospel, the Father of the Lucan parable, really is. And it is all the more tragic in that, unlike the modern myth of Prometheus, that of the ancient poets does not have a happy ending. On the contrary, it leads to the opening of Pandora’s box.

For when we fail to see human reason as ordered to a divine Logos and spurn every revelation; when we spurn even the ointments, the sacraments, that would help us to see; when in due course we come to deny even the existence of a natural law, a Tao, a Dharma, of which every sacred culture has known, or any such a thing as a conscience deeper than our own volitions, then there is nothing left but what Nietzsche was horrified to realize but in his madness affirmed, namely, the will to power. At which point, with no further ground on which to stand, having rejected any transcendent Logos or even any immanent logos, humanity becomes, ever so ironically, the very image of the capricious, irrational “God” it rejected. And just as this “God” was terrifying, so too is this “anti-God.” For if laws have no grounding in a divine order, but reduce instead to arbitrary acts of power, then there is nothing to prevent the rise of unimaginable tyranny, whose form will depend merely on who at any given time may be in power.

Nor is democracy any comfort, as the German federal elections of 1932 should suffice to show. On the contrary, when human authority comes to rest on nothing but human convention, democracy itself can become totalitarian (along the lines openly advocated by Herbert Marcuse, for instance). At which point the sympathetic rebel, who once had a cause, becomes the tyrant—the only difference being that it is now a secular tyranny from below and not a theocratic tyranny from above. And so the tragic cycle will continue, indefinitely it seems, between theocratic and secular regimes until we recognize that real freedom (and real justice) is founded upon a correlation and analogical interplay between divine and human freedom.

And so I briefly come back to my initial proposal: To get freedom right we have to recognize an “analogy of freedom”—not merely an immanent (“horizontal”) analogy that obtains among the various kinds of creaturely freedom (natural, political, philosophical, and so forth), but also a transcendent (“vertical”) analogy that obtains among all these immanent freedoms and their divine archetype. Otherwise, we will fall victim again and again, in an endless, fateful cycle, to the same old, but perennially explosive dialectics that constitute the structure of a fallen world: on the “vertical” plane between an exclusive theocentrism and an exclusive anthropocentrism, which is the root of the contemporary dialectic between theocratic and secular politics; and, on the “horizontal” plane between rationalism and voluntarism, which is the root of so much moral confusion in the West today.

Featured Image: Photo by Moscarlop, William of Ockham, from stained glass window at a church in Surrey, taken during 2007; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


John Betz

John Betz is Associate Professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in systematic and philosophical theology. He is the author of After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J.G. Hamann and the co-translator of Erich Przywara's Analogia Entis.

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