Light from Neither the East nor the West

The Paradox of Freedom

The dialectical ills we last discussed cannot be cured overnight; and in the end only Christ can cure them, who alone grounds and fulfills the analogy of freedom, showing us how divine and human freedom go together, calling humanity to follow him in voluntary obedience. In the meantime, as a first step in these troubled times—and as a kind of praeparatio evangelica—it would help to cultivate a more musical and more metaphorical sensibility that is attuned to the mystery of analogy, of unity-in-difference, and a way of seeing how things that are opposed might nevertheless go together—to the point of what Nicholas of Cusa called a coincidentia oppositorum. 

Of course, this term does not apply to all things.  Some things—like good and evil, heaven and hell, as C. S. Lewis reminded us—are just plain contradictions and therefore can never be “married,” as Blake’s peculiar poem at least superficially suggests. But many opposites, such as man and woman, God and humanity, evidently are meant to go together, which has led some to see in the “coincidence of opposites” a mystery so basic that to deny it would be tantamount to undoing the warp and the woof of the world.

Writing in the late eighteenth century, for example, the Lutheran prophetic thinker J. G. Hamann considered the principle more valuable than all the divisions of Kant’s analytic criticism. It is even borne out, he observed, in everyday language, which is always already uniting concepts and intuitions, the ideal and the real, which philosophers like Kant only subsequently (and, in Hamann’s view, artificially) separate. Indeed, Hamann considered language at once so ordinary and miraculous that he did not shy away from calling it a sacrament analogous to marriage, which is arguably the natural sacrament par excellence, inasmuch as it points from nature beyond nature: to the union of divine and human natures in Christ, to the mystery of the nuptial union of Christ and his Church, to the eternal mystery of the divine life in itself as a coincidentia (a veritable Trinity) of opposed relations.

Absent an analogical sensibility, however, none of this is clear; on the contrary, such a vision of reality is utterly incomprehensible. And here we face a profound irony: Modernity begins with a quest, nay a demand, for certainty—from Luther’s irrefragable certainty with regard to salvation and the interpretation of Scripture (whose meanings he supposed to be clear and not subject to exegetical discussion), to Descartes’s cogito as a certain starting point for philosophy, to the certainty of Bacon’s novum organum and Kant’s purified reason as ostensibly certain instruments for establishing a certain basis for the sciences and politics. Yet such modern methods, which may serve well as a guide here below, namely, in terms of mastering what is below us, turn out to be utterly inept and crude with regard to understanding the things that are above us. Indeed, the higher we go, so to speak, the more “useless and uncertain” as Pascal rightly said, modern philosophical, scientific, and exegetical methods become.

Nor can we really say that modern methods help us to see the empirical world for what it is. For if the empirical word is an analogy, a divine poem to use a more Romantic image, then we do not see it at all. We see nothing but what Hamann called the disiecti membra poetae. In other words, we see nothing of Orpheus, the Poet in his works, because we do not see that the world is a kind of poetry. Nor can we say that we have mastered its elements, its subatomic particles—its “ABCs.” For if quantum physics has learned anything about these particles it is that, with seemingly coy and playful reserve, they refuse to be mastered. And even if we could master them, as Hamann bluntly put it to Kant, knowing an alphabet is obviously not the same as knowing a language, which requires an understanding of the grammar and syntax and meaning of the words themselves—not to mention an understanding of the spirit of their author. All of which reveals the chasm between understanding and scientific analysis, and the lunacy of trying to understand a poem, much less the poem of the world, on the basis of its parts. For such methods there may be a superficial mastery but no understanding, much less of the things that are “above.”

This is by no means to deny the good things that have come from modern methods—the blessings of modern medicine above all—for which we may all be grateful. It is simply to say that, with regard to just about everything other than modern science and technology, these methods are next to useless, and that, if we are to see clearly in the “higher” regions, which are at the same time the ground and depth of all things below, we must begin to see wisdom in the play of analogy and symbol and metaphor that the modern, scientific, world can no longer understand. Then, to continue with the metaphor, we might begin our ascent.

Analogy or the Horns of the Dialectic

And we have compelling, even urgent reasons for doing so. For aside from our incapacity to rise to any understanding of divine things, or fathom how all things divine and human could be united in Christ, the Logos and raison d’être of creation, there is also a darker side to our modern failure to think analogically. It is that, with a dreadful inevitability, the earthly city will fall apart again and again into the same dialectics we have seen and from which, sadly, we seem to have learned nothing. It is, one could say, the perpetual sign of this city’s fallenness, its constant tearing apart at the seams. Although it should have been instructive, one of the more obvious examples of the dialectic can be gleaned from the history of ideas.

What student of modern history, for instance, cannot see the peculiar back-and-forth movement from the Renaissance to the Reformation to the Enlightenment to Postmodernity: from an optimism about reason to a pessimism about reason; from faith alone to reason alone; from faith in ideal concepts to their historical dissolution; from anthropocentrism to theocentrism, and back again? Likewise, what student of philosophy cannot see the interminable and tiresome dialectic between all the realisms and idealisms, all the empiricisms and transcendentalisms, all the rationalisms and voluntarisms; all the philosophies of identity (from Descartes’s cogito to modern analytic philosophy, both which posit some kind of ultimate identity discernible that can be uncovered by reason) and the philosophies of difference (characteristic of Continental postmodernity, which reduce all things to the flux of différance)—all of which traces back to the seemingly irreconcilable positions of Heraclitus and Parmenides?        

Beyond the academy, however, which is made to contain dialectics and ideally learn from them, there are far more frightful and diabolical faces of the dialectic—the most glaring, ghastly, and destructive example of which is surely the fallout of the fission bomb, the “creative” result of dialectic turned into method, which Thomas Merton rightly called a diabolical parody of the light of the resurrection. For what was meant to go together we diabolically split apart, the result of which was the closest thing yet to an apocalyptic unleashing of hell on earth. Is it any wonder that Oppenheimer was so troubled by his creation, having become a “destroyer of worlds”?

Another, even more sanguinary example, and the one that more perfectly illustrates the consequences of a failure to understand freedom analogically, is the clash in American politics between those who would take human life in the name of an irrefragable and godlike “right to choose,” and those who would set reasonable limits to human freedom in the name of the inviolable dignity of every human being. I mean here, of course, the cultural war over abortion. But, nota bene, the dialectic does not always fall neatly along party lines, because whereas the left does not set any limits to the taking of innocent human life, or the cruel separation of mother and child, it reasonably sets limits to other freedoms, such as the freedom of corporations to exploit employees or to pollute and destroy the environment.

It has, of course, also shown itself to be quite willing to set limits to the freedom of speech and religion, and in one way or another to punish those who do not comply, even on grounds of conscience, with the latest dictates of political correctness. Conversely, whereas the right would legitimately set limits to abortion, it sets none to the accumulation of wealth or assault weapons; indeed, by celebrating the free play of markets and freedom of choice in just about every domain, militating even against reasonable regulations of industry and commerce, it has made it nearly impossible to argue against free choice in the matter of abortion. Clearly, both parties are deeply confused—servants not masters of the dialectic, which works in them balefully like a fallen god—which is why neither party is just or wise, much less worthy of any except the most provisional allegiance.

Finally, at a more global level, the dialectic (and its diabolical face) can be seen in the ominous clash of civilizations between the religious East and the secular West. Obviously, I am speaking in general types, since the categories of the religious and the secular cut across any boundaries between East and West, but there is nevertheless a discernible truth in them: One civilization tends to be all about “humanity” to the increasing disregard of God; the other all about “God” to the increasing disregard of humanity. One treats God with contempt, relegating the Creator to banal invocations at the conclusions of political addresses; the other treats human beings with contempt, through brutal acts of terrorism, or through the appalling treatment of women and minorities.

Nor can we say that each is at least half right, as though the one did justice to God, and the other did justice to humanity. For both sin against God and man, but differently. The secular West is supposedly humane, but it sins against humanity whenever it denies immigrants hospitality, perhaps even water, or mercilessly kills them in the womb before they can cross the border into life. The religious East, on the other hand, which is supposedly about a merciful God, sins against this God and blasphemes his name, whenever it shows no mercy to innocent civilians or those who do not submit to its understanding of this God’s laws. In sum, by beginning with man alone or God alone, neither “civilization” (let us call them what they really are: opposing fundamentalisms) ends up doing justice to God or creature. Nor can they: they are but the horns of the same infernal dialectic, which knows no final peace, but only strife and violence without end.

To both fundamentalisms, therefore, both secular and religious, the venerable quote from Irenaeus bears repeating: “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.” Typically, only the first part is remembered, but both parts are necessary. The first part addresses the propensity to violence peculiar to the religious East and the secular West (whether it be the terrorism of the marketplace or the abortion clinic). To both fundamentalisms one must say:  the dignity of the human being is inviolable, because every person is made in the image of God (Gen 1:26) as a potential likeness of God, and so is created to bring a particular and unrepeatable glory to God. But then, in the spirit of the second part of the same saying, one must also say (here more to the secular West): the life-giving relationship of human beings to God, in whom human beings find their telos, indeed their very selves (Mt. 10:39), must not be obscured, obstructed, or denied; for to do so is to frustrate humanity itself and lead it into a godforsaken dead end, which is culpably inhumane.

But one can put all of this more simply: each fundamentalism sins by missing the mark of one of the two great commandments, which go together. Indeed, the love of God and the love of neighbor are so inseparably linked that the more one loves God, the more one loves one’s neighbor, and vice versa. Thus, more to the fundamentalist religious East one must say: the love of God cannot be separated from the love of neighbor (although this applies to the West, too; for who is more a neighbor than a child in its mother’s womb?) But then, more to the fundamentalist secular West, which is more explicitly concerned with human rights (except the rights of the unborn, who have none), one must say the same thing in reverse: the love of neighbor cannot be separated from the love of God. For if human beings are created in God’s image to be deified in Christ, then no one can truly love another human being without an ultimate concern for his or her eternal destiny, however obscure that destiny may seem here below.

Now, let us return to our main theme, just as both fundamentalisms halve the mystery of love, they also halve the mystery of freedom, and they do so doubly, on the same two planes described above. As radical voluntarisms each severs freedom from reason, from any logos, whether divine or human, leaving only the question of where the will, which is de facto made absolute, is located: whether one extols the freedom of the divine will, to which humanity and all human claims must finally submit (as in the fundamentalist East), or whether one celebrates the freedom of the human will, to which all religious claims must finally submit (as in the fundamentalist West). Whereas the West is increasingly defined by the absolute autonomy of the individual will, the East is increasingly defined in dialectical reaction to the West by an absolute heteronomy. Such is the seemingly irreconcilable difference and ominous dialectic between secular and theocratic politics.

If there is to be any peace or resolution, one must therefore repeat the Christian claim, which the whole world seems to have forgotten, that divine and human freedoms are meant to go together. To the fundamentalist theocratic East one must say that God created human beings to be free, so that under no compulsion they might freely approach a God of mercy, volunteer their service to him, and make a free-will offering of themselves to this God in faith (such is the particula veri of the West). To the fundamentalist secular West, on the other hand, one must say that divine commands are not an untoward imposition, but a reasonable service to the Creator (such is the particula veri of the East), moreover, a light burden, which, when freely accepted, make one truly free.

Admittedly, this latter point is something that the secular West has an especially hard time understanding, and not without reason since we are confronted here with what would seem to be a paradox. Nevertheless, it is a conviction shared by the best of western philosophers and saints alike that freedom is realized through obedience—whether it be obedience to an immanent logos (as for Kant and the Stoics) or to a transcendent Logos, which transcends every human logos, but makes itself known in the depths of conscience and still more intimately to those who do what the Logos commands (John 1:9; John 14:21f.). Nor can we say that this obedience is oppressive, and unworthy of our commitment. For what we are talking about here it is an obedience to the Logos whose Spirit is Freedom itself (John 3:8), such that the closer one comes to the Logos, the freer one becomes. As Aquinas brilliantly observes in De veritate, the more perfect the creature, the more it shares in God’s own freedom—not in such a way that its own integrity as a free creature is destroyed, but in such a way that in God the creature is set free to be what it is: quanto aliqua natura Deo vicinior, tanto minus ab eo inclinatur et nata est seipsam inclinare. In other words, the closer the creature is to God—and the more it freely participates in the freedom of God—the more it realizes itself as the image of God.

Christian Freedom

Now, finally, in an admittedly (but perhaps necessarily) roundabout way, I come to Christian freedom, which is the proper telos and primary analogate of the three freedoms under investigation. For apart from Christ the most we could reasonably say is that there is some kind of analogy between divine and created being, between divine and human freedoms, but how these freedoms go together, if this is even possible, we would never know. We would be able to speak of an analogical unity-in-difference between divine and human freedoms, but not of an accomplished analogical unity-in-difference between them. In other words, there would be nothing (more precisely: no one) to span the difference between these freedoms so as to unite them and to be the analogy of freedom, and humanity would be nothing but a series of failed and ultimately tragic attempts to be free. 

But part of the good news is that this is precisely who Christ is: For Christ is not only “the concrete analogia entis” (as Hans Urs von Balthasar famously put it, uniting metaphysics and Christology in a single phrase), but also the concrete analogia libertatis. In other words, he unites in himself not just Being and becoming, eternity and time, divine and human natures, but also divine and human freedom. This is why, for Christians, Christ is not merely a man, and not merely God, but, as totus homo et totus Deus, the heart of reality; and why to enter into his life, through the waters of baptism, is to enter progressively, the more that one follows him, into the Reality of freedom itself. But we still need to be more precise. For what, in more practical terms, do we mean by Christian freedom? And what exactly does Paul mean in his letter to the Galatians when he says, “It is was for freedom that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1)?

Let us begin with John’s gospel, where Jesus plainly indicates that in our fallen state we do not really know what freedom is. For what Christ means is not freedom from political oppression (which everyone was expecting of him, including the disciples), much less the banal freedom of a consumer’s power to choose among a variety of products, but rather—quite simply, quite starkly, and quite gravely—“freedom from sin”: “Very truly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36). Now, if this is true, it should cause all of us heirs of modern democratic societies to blush, because Christ’s teaching about freedom cuts right through all the shallowness and superficiality of our most cherished conception of it.

For, far from this freedom being something one either has or does not have (according to a univocal conception of the term), or something that is universally afforded citizens of free societies, this is a freedom that is strictly unattainable unless, as the letter to the Hebrews says, we “lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles” (Heb 12:1-2); unless, following Christ the true Moses, we leave “Egypt” (the various passions of our fallen nature, which are our real “oppressors” and “taskmasters”) and set our hearts on an ascetical-mystical pilgrimage to the promised land.

Now, I do not mean to suggest that we should not celebrate Presidents’ Day in gratitude for the liberties we cherish—such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and so forth. These certainly are things that we should appreciate. But political freedom such as we find in this world is not an ultimate good; it is not an end in itself. Rather, it is an analogue of a higher freedom, a spiritual freedom, to which all human beings are called in Christ: the freedom of the glory of the sons and daughters of God. It is for this freedom that all creation most deeply longs—the freedom that was first revealed on Easter morning when Christ broke through the chains of death, transcending even the limitations of space and time. And it is a freedom that is more lovable than every other freedom because, as Evagrius says, in freeing us from sin and from the passions of our fallen nature that enslave us, it enables us, as never before, to love. 

So, in conclusion, let us return to where we started this series, with the natural images of freedom, e.g., that of the river, the wind, and so forth. For we can now see how these images are analogies of spiritual freedom. In John’s gospel, Jesus uses the wind as a metaphor for the freedom of the Spirit, and of the experience of those who are “born of the Spirit” (Paul’s pneumatikoi). And, throughout scripture, rivers are figures of spiritual freedom—the “river flowing out of Eden to water the garden” (Gen 2:10), the life-giving river flowing from the temple in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek 47), the “rivers of living water” (John 7:38) that flow from the heart of believers as from a deep well, and finally that river, “bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22:1).

What is more, in the spirit of Aquinas’s prologue to his commentary on the Sentences, one could say that Christ, the Word of God, is himself a river, and not just any river, but the river of rivers: that River, namely, which eternally flows forth from the Father, in whom to be immersed is to live, and “whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4).

So, then, there is an analogy between nature and spirit, just as there is an analogy of being, which undergirds our understanding of the analogy of the transcendentals—of truth, goodness, and beauty. For what we mean by all of these terms has its source in and receives its intelligibility from a higher, transcendent order. The same is true of freedom. And this tells us, finally, how we should judge our three “freedoms” (the modern, postmodern, and Christian): There is a freedom that looks free, being radically detached from any logos, but is ultimately oppressive and unbearable, hellish even, because it is a freedom that is egocentrically trapped in itself. In metaphysical terms it is the result of existence when it is turned in upon itself, and every horizon of objective and essential moral truth is denied. 

At the other extreme, there is the heavenly freedom that we see in the voluntary obedience of the Mother of God and her Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum—the seemingly paradoxical freedom that finds its way, course, and perfection, in obedience to the Word of God. As she, the Seat of Wisdom, says, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). And then there is a kind of freedom poised between the two, modern freedom, which can go either way.

Featured Image: Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi, 1475; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


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.

Read more by John Betz