© Marilyn McCord Adams
Presented at a Society of Christian Philosophers session at the Central APA 2014
The Glories of Self-Determination? We tend to think of freedom as a good-making
feature in human beings. To hear free-will-defending analytic philosophers and
theologians tell it, libertarian free will, a self-determining liberty of
indifference, is essential to human persons and so something that characterizes
the human race throughout the up’s and down’s of its salvation-historical career.
Back in the middle-ages, Scotus and Ockham were champions of freedom as a
self-determining power for opposites, insisting that–despite Adam’s misuse of it
in the fall–we are still capable of exercising it to become persons of heroic
virtue, choosing to love God above all and for God’s own sake, electing to do
whatever right reason dictates because right reason dictates it. Courage of their
convictions required them to face the soteriological problem: how can the drama of
salvation permanently resolve into a happy ending if the saints still have the
liberty of indifference in heaven? What assurance do we have that history will not
repeat itself with Adam’s race freely and deliberately falling again?
Like Ockham, Kant saw libertarian freedom as a condition of the possibility of
moral responsibility. Only autonomous agents, capable of rational self-government,
can be fully responsible for their acts. Interestingly, some developmental
psychologists take a page from philosophical ethics. Empirical observation forces
them to deny that human beings are fully competent agents right from the start;
rather, they take autonomy to be characteristic of human being in its maturity.
Autonomy is a goal of human development, something we grow up into if all goes
well. A variety of scales are offered to map and norm the individual’s progress.
According to psychoanalytic versions, the human infant begins as a booming
buzzing confusion of inputs and impulses, but by the age of three months or so has
the cognitive capacity to differentiate and center its psychic field on a human
face. A few months later, its cognitive skills progress enough to recognize that
the face goes away, and so cannot be relied upon to hold the self together. The
infant differentiates itself from the face and begins a long process of ego
development over the course of which the ego deploys a variety of self-management
strategies that organize, structure and restructure the personality. Therapy
assists the ego in consciously identifying, sorting, and discarding dysfunctional
defenses and–when successful–brings the individual to the goal of rational
Lawrence Kohlberg<2> charts the evolving structures of moral functioning, from
punishment/reward to instrumental hedonism, onto local peer-group (tribalism) and
then societal orientation, and finally to principled self-government according to
universal and universalising ethical principles (Kantian). Robert Kegan<3>
envisions the human individual structuring and restructuring its personality
through a sequence of stages in which the self is first embedded in a
matrix–maternal, familial, peer group, social institutions–and then disembeds,
then re-embeds, culminating in differentiated autonomy. Kegan contrasts the
earlier self-constructions that identify and fuse with authority figures or social
groups from the goal of autonomous differentiated individuals entering into
intimacy with others differentiated from themselves.
Philosophers conceive of freedom metaphysically; psychologists analyze the
functional dynamics of personality. Despite differences of conceptuality, many in
both groups seem to agree: the freedom that is a good-making feature in human
being is differentiated autonomy, that is and recognizes itself to be functionally
independent when it comes to its beliefs and choices. Differentiated autonomy does
not “follow the leader” no matter what–whether that leader is parent, teacher, or
mentor; neither does it invariably “go along with the crowd”–whether it be a high
school clique or company headquarters or the Marine corps. Differentiated autonomy
maintains boundaries between itself and other individuals and groups, keeps its
own counsel, and from that posture decides to whether and how to relate to them.
And–many Christian analytic philosophers and theologians would insist–it is
differentiated autonomy that will stand before the great judgment seat of Christ
on the Last Day, differentiated autonomy that will be rewarded or punished for its
self-determined choices for or against God!
Traditional Cautions: Before we jump to conclusions, however, we need to remember
that the Western Christian theological tradition is far from unanimous in
promoting self-determining power for opposites as a permanent possession or its
autonomous exercise as the goal whether of human development or of the saving work
of Christ. According to Augustine, power for opposites–posse peccare, posse non
peccare–characterizes human beings only before the fall in Eden. In this present
state, the scope of the human will is restricted to the bad option–non posse non
peccare–while the elect in heaven have power only for the good–non posse
peccare. In speaking of freedom, Augustine slides back and forth between two
understandings–freedom as a self-determining power for opposites, and freedom as
a stable orientation to the good–with the former as our beginning, non posse non
peccare as the interruption, and the latter as the goal.
In De Libertate Arbitrii and De Casu Diaboli, Anselm is, if anything, more
emphatic when he defines “freedom” as “the power to uphold justice for its own
sake.” So understood, freedom is an excellence (what would later be called a pure
perfection–a good-making feature that involves no bad-making features) that
belongs to God by nature. God is justice by nature and so is power to uphold it.
By contrast, Anselm denies that the power-for-opposites Augustine mentions–posse
peccare, posse non peccare–is a pure perfection. Power to sin is not an
excellence, and power to sin cannot belong to God. God builds a
power-for-opposites into rational creatures at their beginning only because
temporary possession of it is a necessary means for giving rational creatures the
opportunity to be somehow self-determined in their stable orientation to the
good–which is as godlike as it is possible for a creature to be. For both
Augustine and Anselm, created power-for-opposites plays a role in salvation
history. But power-for-opposites is not salvation’s goal.
Freedom as Perichoresis: In my judgment, the freedom that is the goal of
salvation is succinctly described in the Collect for Peace included in the morning
office of The Book of Common Prayer:
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal
life, and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants in all
assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear
the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The prayer is steeped in the soteriology of John’s Gospel. In John’s Gospel,
freedom is characterized, not so much metaphysically–e.g., in terms of
compatibility or incompatibility with causal determinism–but rather
psychologically or functionally in terms of the dynamic organization of
personality. For John’s Gospel, freedom is not a natural endowment. Freedom is
something that human beings are called to grow up into. It involves our becoming a
certain kind of person, a person whose functional core is friendship with God.
In John’s Gospel, the paradigm free person is Jesus, the manifestation of what
harmonious life-together with Godhead should be. Jesus abides with the Father, and
the Father abides with him. Jesus’ partnership with the Father is conscious and
voluntary. Jesus spends time in prayer with the Father (Jn 6:15; 17:1-26): they
share points of view and harmonize perspectives. Jesus has entered into the
Father’s purposes, is at one with the Father about his soteriological role. Jesus
follows through by doing what the Father wants him to do and saying what the
Father wants him to say. He voluntarily cooperates with the Father in carrying out
the plan upon which they have agreed (Jn 5:19-23, 30; 6:38; 10:14-30; 12:27-28).
Jesus trusts the Father. Because of their intimate acquaintance and lived
partnership, Jesus is confident of his power to lay down life and take it up again
(Jn 5:24-29; 6:38-40; 10:17-18). Jesus’ own life is so entangled with indwelling
Godhead, that he sees the cross as a moment of glory. He looks forward to it,
predicting it by turning to water into wine at Cana (Jn 2:1-11), with veiled and
winking references foretells it in his discourses with Nicodemus (Jn 3:13-15) and
more hostile Pharisees (Jn 7:19, 33-36; 8:28; 12:31-33). The cross is a triumph
also in the sense that it is the culmination of Jesus’ faithfulness, because with
crucifixion and ascension Jesus has accomplished the special work he has been
given to do (Jn 12:27-28; 13:31-32).
To be sure, John’s Jesus is presented as a mature person. So far as the
psychological development of his human nature is concerned, Jesus has moved beyond
identification with human authority figures, peer groups, or social institutions.
John’s Jesus teaches without footnotes (Jn 7:15: is learned although he never
studied). John’s Jesus is not narrowly tribal: he takes the initiative to convert
Samaritans (Jn 4:7-9, 39-40), welcomes Greeks (Jn 12:19-23), and reassures Pilate
that his kingdom is not of this world (Jn 18:36). What is important is not social
location here below, but how you respond to Truth and Light. Certainly, John’s
Jesus does not hesitate to contradict the religious establishment who retalliate
by plotting his execution. In relation to other human beings, he has reached
Kegan’s stage of functionally differentiated autonomy.
Nevertheless, in John’s Gospel, God does not create human beings for functional
autonomy. The goal of salvation is to turn us into persons whose functional center
is friendship with indwelling Godhead: not a solo-act, but a duet; or–given that
Godhead is a Trinity–a quartet. Arguably, other characters in John’s Gospel have
also reached Kegan’s stage of differentiated autonomy: at least the disciples and
religious leaders; perhaps also some that Jesus heals. The Divine Word becomes
flesh to issue the challenge: the freedom for which God sets us free is not
functional autonomy, but perichoresis. Jesus confronts Nicodemus: to reach the
goal of salvation, he must be “born from above/born again” (Jn 3:3). This means
undergoing a developmental process to restructure his personality, one at least as
messy and confusing as adolescence.
The bible stories show how–because of the size-gap–God uses a multi-media
approach to get through to human beings and rear us up into lived partnerships.
Theophanies present naked Divinity on the outside (think of God descending on Mt.
Sinai (Ex 19:7-25), of God showing Moses the Divine backside (Ex 33:17-23), of
Isaiah’s vision in the temple (Isa 6:1-13), and of YHWH’s confrontation of Job
(Job 38-42)). Confrontations with naked Divinity have the merit of re-sizing
reality for human participants, but a steady diet of them would not be helpful for
learners, because our capacities have not evolved to cope with naked Divinity.
Naked Divinity scares us of our wits. Happily, Godhead is omnipresent by nature.
God is always present to human persons, interacting with us at unconscious levels,
fostering familiarity willy nilly. Being born again, growing up into friendship
with God will involve our coming consciously to recognize our surround as
personal, the good things that happen to us as God’s friendly gestures, thoughts
and ideas that occur to us as attempts at communication, etc. John’s Gospel
details God’s third approach: the Word-made-flesh, Jesus manifesting Who the
Father is by epitomizing friendship with God.
Among other things, John’s Gospel is a tract of initiation. Disciples ask, get to
come and see where Jesus is abiding (Jn 1:37-39). Jesus abides in friendship with
the Father. That is the core of his personality. That is where he makes his home.
Disciples begin by believing in Jesus under superficial, first-approximation
titles (‘Rabbi’, ‘Messiah’, ‘Son of God’, ‘King of Israel’ (Jn 1:41, 49)). Life
together with Jesus, hearing what he says, seeing what he does, catapults them
into deeper levels of recognition of who he is. In other interactions (e.g., with
the woman at the well (Jn 4), with the crowds at the feeding (Jn 6), with the
healed blind man (Jn 9)), what Jesus says or does provokes a series of good-guess
identifications (‘a prophet’, ‘the Savior of the world’; ‘king’, ‘rabbi’, ‘Lord’),
all culminating in Jesus’ own self-disclosure (‘I AM the Messiah’ (Jn 4:25); ‘I AM
the bread of life’ (Jn 6:35, 41, 51, 53-58)). Other times, John’s Jesus makes
explicit public declarations: ‘I AM the light of the world’ (Jn 8:12, 9:4);
‘before Abraham was, I AM’ (Jn 8:58); ‘I AM the door of the sheep’ (Jn 10:7); ‘I
AM the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep’ (Jn 10:11, 14-15); ‘I
and the Father are one’ (Jn 10:30).
For disciples, life-together, abiding with Jesus on the outside is a preparation
for being born again, a rehearsal for the stage transition which restructures
their personalities around life-together with indwelling Godhead (Jn 14:15-26;
15:26; 16:7, 12-15). Believing in Jesus is key, because Jesus is the divinely
authorized manifestation of the Father (Jn 5:30-47; 7:16-29; 8:12-30; 12:44-50;
14:8-11). Jesus is paradigm friendship with God. Paradigm friendship means that
there is continual trafficking between Jesus and the Father. Jesus knows the
Father in the biblical sense. The Father has brought Jesus on board as to Divine
plans and projects with which Jesus is in full agreement. The disciples can get to
know what the Father is like by getting to know Jesus, because everything that
Jesus says and does flows out of his friendship with the Father.
Put otherwise, to know God is eternal life. But getting to know who God is, is
not simply a matter of “wow” experiences on the one hand and intimate personal
presence on the other. Both of these have to be interpreted. Jesus’ lived
partnership with the Father expressed in words and deeds are an explication on the
outside of who God is and what God means. But there is more. Our grasp of Divine
intentions moves from the outside in, from the abstract to the concretely embodied
when we obey their commandments (Jn 14:15-24). We get to know what Jesus and the
Father are like as persons by joining in their projects, by “acting out” their
intentions, by becoming more and more like them ourselves.
To be sure, the language of “commandments” smacks more of “master/slave” than it
does of friendship. Jesus explains the difference when–on the eve of his
crucifixion–he proleptically pronounces the disciples friends (Jn 15:14-15).
Friends differ from slaves insofar as they are taken into the master’s confidence.
Think of the interchange between God and his friend Abraham over the destruction
of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16-33). God gives Abraham advance warning of what
God is planning to do, and creates space for Abraham to offer a candid reaction.
Abraham steps into the friend’s role of reminding God to be true to Godself and to
behave in a way that befits the Divine station. The judge of all the earth should
do right, and the judge of all the earth should be magnanimous and show a bias
towards mercy. Friendship with God is very lop-sided; God is inevitably the senior
partner. It is natural to speak of “service” and “commandment-keeping.”
Nevertheless, talk of “commandment-keeping” is also misleading. For starters, it
is too oppositional for friendship. When we become friends of God and carry out
Divine intentions or go along with God’s program, we will be like John’s Jesus:
participating in projects regarding which we have given input (Jn15:26; 16:23-24)
and about which we have been consulted, taking up agreed roles and carrying out
common objectives. Such “service” will be perfect freedom!
Talk of commandment-keeping leads us astray another way. It suggests division of
labor: that it is God who commands and the creature who carries out Divine orders.
The Gospels’ lists of commandments ought to convince us: there is not enough to
autonomous ego’s to obey them; compliance can reliably happen only in the context
of friendly collaboration. Thus, the Synoptic Jesus makes clear: would-be
disciples will have to move beyond lex talionis “do-as-you’re-done-by” to the
“do-as-you-would-be-done-by” Golden Rule (Mt 7:12). On another occasion, Jesus
forwards the first and second great commandments: to love God with our whole
selves and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 22:37-40). Torah had already
specified that reference to “neighbor” reaches beyond tribe and nation to include
resident aliens (Lev 19:33-34). Torah makes clear: to love in this sense is to
behave as though I have nothing to gain by denying you the necessities of life or
access to life-giving resources and opportunities. The Good Samaritan midrash
universalizes that injunction (Lk 10:25-37). Sermon-on-the-Mount Jesus goes
further, commanding disciples to love their enemies and bless those who curse
them: that is, to act as if they had nothing to gain by denying arch-enemies (Mt
5:43-45). John’s Jesus refocusses on friends but ups the ante: for the disciples
to love God is–among other things–for them to love one another as Jesus has
loved them. It is to be persons prepared to lay down their lives for friends (Jn
15:12-14; cf. 10:15-18). What God expects of us, what Jesus demands of disciples
goes beyond garden-variety moral virtue. Disciples are called to become saints and
martyrs, whose whole manner of being and doing bears witness to who God is.
Experience shows that the vast majority of people are unable to lay down life for
friends, much less to love arch-enemies as themselves. Indeed, it is a rare few
that show any inclination to do so. John’s Gospel bears witness to what is even
more shocking: merely living at close quarters with Jesus on the outside, while
attempting to learn the lessons he was teaching, was not enough to enable most of
his disciples (perhaps the beloved disciple is an exception–Jn 13:23; 19:26-27;
20:28) to (in Thomas’ words) go die with him (Jn 11:16). Judas betrayed; Peter
denied; the rest scattered in terror (Jn 18:2-27; 16:31-32). John’s Gospel is
show-casing how–even with the religiously serious and
well-intentioned–differentiated autonomy is not a center that will hold. The
disciples’ integrity went to smash in a developmental crisis of horrendous
proportions. Happily, the risen and ascended Jesus reappears on Easter Sunday
evening to resurrect them. “I AM the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25). Jesus
breathes Holy Spirit into them (Jn 20:19-23), and they become sites of indwelling
(cf. Jn 14:15-28; 17:23, 26). Put otherwise, they are born again with
restructured, perichoretic personalities.
Friendship with God is a center that will hold, because “to know” God “is eternal
life.” John’s Jesus declares that the Father is eternal life, that the Father is
and endows Jesus with power to lay down life and take it up again (Jn 10:18).
Intimate acquaintance, lived partnership with indwelling Godhead convinces us of
this. The more we entangle our lives with the eternal life of the
Father-Son-Paraclete Trinity, the more we live out of that friendship, the greater
our assurance that even if we die, we will live forever (Jn 6:40, 44, 53, 58, 74).
Eventually, our friendship with God could become so strong that lethal opposition
would have no power to intimidate us. When our hour came, we would hesitate no
more than Jesus did (Jn 12:27-30) to welcome it and finish our work. “To serve”
God “is perfect freedom.” Because stable friendship with God thus defends us “from
all assaults of our enemies,” it fosters security and constitutes the foundation
of the Lord’s peace (Jn 20:21; cf. 14:27, 16:33, 17:12).
Concluding Queries: My thesis–that the freedom that is the goal of salvation is
friendship with God–may be faulted for deliberately changing the subject.
Surely, the organizers of this session–like most analytic philosophers and
theologians–were interested in the metaphysics of freedom in the context of
salvation. But I have treated freedom in John’s Gospel in psycho-dynamic
categories, which may seem to raise more problems than they solve.
I plead guilty to the charge of shifting attention off the metaphysics of
freedom. I did so on purpose, because I think the issue of psycho-dynamic
functioning is more illuminating theologically, when it comes to the freedom that
is salvation’s goal. Christian attachments to incompatibilist freedom have three
roots. Two are theoretical–the sense that incompatibilist freedom is a condition
of the possibility of moral responsibility, and the notion that it is necessary
for free-will accounts of the origin of evil. Remarkably, Scotus and Ockham hold
that–while self-determining power for opposites cannot be demonstrated–it can be
certified by introspection. Lucky them! Most developmental psychologists would
probably opt for compatibilism, once they understood the question. While I find
much of what they say metaphysically neutral on this point, I do agree that once
one adopts an interactionist model and appreciates the many and various factors
that shape the self, incompatibilist liberty of indifference is not the hypothesis
that leaps most readily to mind. Just for the record, John’s Gospel does not seem
concerned to preserve an incompatibilist picture. More than once, the evangelist
appeals to Divine predestination to explain why people who should know better
reject Jesus (Jn 6:44, 65; cf. 10:25-30).
Metaphysics aside, psychologists might find my thesis–that friendship with God
is salvation’s goal–developmentally regressive. After all, I am suggesting
that–after all that work to achieve adult differentiation–we are called to
re-embed in the matrix of the Trinity, to let our words and deeds be the resultant
of communal interaction. Why is this a developmental advance, rather than
backsliding into a construction of the self that “follows the leader” or “goes
along with the crowd”? In fact, Kohlberg and Kegan borrow their bias towards
differentiated autonomy from Kantian philosophy. But Christians have positive
reason to reject it: viz., that Godhead is a Trinity of persons, a personal matrix
of identity conferring relationships. The Western theological tradition holds that
the persons of the Trinity are metaphysically distinct, and that it is
metaphysically impossible either that they should exist separately or that they
should fail to agree with one another. Of metaphysical necessity, They are
socially embedded in harmonious society. Anselm tells us: one of God’s goals in
creation is that some creatures should be as godlike as possible. Anselm insists:
Divine purposes must be accomplished, no matter what. Certainly, the all-wise
Creator has no interest in stunting human growth. God wants us to grow up to full
stature and work our way through to differentiated autonomy in relation to other
human beings. But friendship with God does not force us to step backward from
that. It is that fully differentiated adult self that is ripe to be born again.
Embedded in the trinitarian matrix, becoming someone whose life is tangled up in
the Trinity, mutatis mutandis seeing as They see and loving as They love, is as
godlike as it would be possible for a personal creature to be!
Except for Jesus, this sort of friendship with God is mostly an eschatological
goal. We see something approaching it in shiny saints–Francis of Assisi, Mahatma
Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, the Dali Lama, grandma,
our family doctor or high school teacher, the store clerk down the block–people
who, whether or not they use the name of Jesus, have been converted until who they
are, what they say and do, become remarkable expressions of Divine Love.
Developmental transitions are not “all at once” “in the twinkling of an eye,” but
prolonged and messy combinations of two steps forward and three steps backward, of
confused advance and compromising failure. Having achieved one sort of stable
integration of self, it is scary to strike the set for restructuring towards a new
play. In the meantime, John’s Gospel reassures: God calls us into entanglement
with the Trinity. God gets what God wants, eventually. The freedom that is
friendship with God is salvation’s goal.
<1>:James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment: Understanding Convictional Experiences (San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).
<2>:Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Essays on Moral Development
(San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981 & 1984), vols.1-2.
<3>:Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Cambridge,
MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1982). See also James W. Fowler, who draws on
work by Piaget, Kohlberg, and others, to chart stages of faith (Stages of Faith: the
Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (New York: Harper Collins,