Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Freedom and Free Choice

Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World
(1886), by Edward Moran
In terms of importance to the western cultural ethos, freedom or liberty is up there in the company of such ideological priorities as life and equality. The story of modernity is easily conceptualized as a progression from less freedom to more freedom, from bondage to despots, superstition, and the shackles of nature to the freedom offered by liberal democracy. More "freedom", whatever form it may take, is a Good Thing; it is thus common for debates on social issues to be framed in terms of promoting freedom.

Just what kind of "freedom" is being assumed here? Arguably, it is the freedom of choice, of self-determination, the freedom to chart one's own course in life by acting on one's free will, and the corresponding freedom from any oppressive constraints that prevent one from doing so. (This is the distinction between positive and negative liberty) On a societal level, in modern liberal democracies this freedom is seen as a goal in itself; it serves to support and ensure the capacity of the individual to formulate and live out his or her own goals in life, whatever they may be, and it is the duty of the state to protect it.

But, however praiseworthy the power of choice may be, does "freedom" truly consist in it? I would  disagree. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart (in a First Things article about, of all things, Janet Jackson's accidental exposure at the Super Bowl) considers the consequence of equating freedom with choice to be "that we tend to elevate what should at best be regarded as the moral life’s minimal condition to the status of its highest expression, and in the process reduce the very concept of freedom to one of purely libertarian or voluntarist spontaneity." For Hart, and for many others in the eastern Christian tradition, "freedom" includes, but is much more than, the freedom of choice. "True freedom," he says, drawing on the definition inherited by classical Christianity from Platonic philosophy, "is the realization of a complex nature in its proper good (that is, in both its natural and supernatural ends); it is the freedom of a thing to flourish, to become ever more fully what it is."

In light of this definition, choice is not automatically an expression of freedom, but can actually impair it. In fact, as Hart says in his book The Doors of the Sea, "the will that chooses poorly, then—through ignorance, maleficence, or corrupt desire—has not thereby become freer, but has further enslaved itself to those forces that prevent it from achieving its full expression." (71) Freedom is not simply the ability to choose between ends arbitrarily; it is directed towards a particular end, the realization of what we are, what we are created to be (not simply what we choose or wish to be via self-determination), and freedom is truly suppressed when this realization is hindered—even by our "free" choice. The particularity, the directionality toward which our nature is oriented, far from a constraint which much be cast off to maximize freedom, is rather the mode in which we are most truly free. In the words of my high school economics teacher, true freedom is freedom for (the full realization of our nature), not merely freedom from (oppression and constraint).

In Orthodox theology, this dynamic is applied in the distinction between two kinds of "will", the natural will and the gnomic will, developed especially by the 7th-century church father Maximos, as Fr. Stephen Freeman explains:
St. Maximos the Confessor, in writings that have become the teaching of the Church following the 5th Ecumenical Council, held that there is such a thing as the “natural will.” This is the will of our human nature. The natural will always wills the good and right thing. It wills the proper end and direction for a human being. This is an inherent part of every nature. It “wants to be” what it is, so to speak. But we do not directly experience our nature for the most part. What we experience as “choice” is a brokenness that St. Maximos called the “gnomic will.” It does its best (as we do when we’re at our best) but is frequently torn between things.
The innate desire of the natural will is the "true freedom" described above by Hart. It is an inalienable part of who we are, namely beings created good by a loving and all-powerful God for union with him (cf. John 17:21-22), and through it we innately, naturally desire to be more what we really are. Our created freedom to realize this highest end is a consequence of our creation in the image of God (Gen 1:20-21), who is perfectly and completely free to be who he is, as the second-century church father St. Irenaeus writes:
If then it were not in our power to do or not to do these things, what reason had the apostle, and much more the Lord Himself, to give us counsel to do some things, and to abstain from others? But because man is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of free will, in whose likeness man was created, advice is always given to him to keep fast the good, which thing is done by means of obedience to God. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV.37.4)
Throughout this section, Irenaeus presupposes that the created nature of man and the biblical admonishments to obey and choose the good which he is given entail the power of choice, "so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves." (IV.37.1) Our active, free participation in the good is what makes it so precious and worthwhile. In the same vein, St. Gregory of Nyssa later wrote in the fourth century:
He who created human beings in order to make them share in his own fullness so disposed their nature that it contains the principle of all that is good, and each of these dispositions draws them to desire the corresponding divine attribute. So God could not have deprived them of the best and most precious of his attributes, his freedom. (Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Oration 5)
But obviously we do not always realize the desire of this natural will. We sin, we miss the mark, we fall short of attaining to the likeness of God (Rom 3:23) as our natural will desires. And so, because of sin, our will experiences fragmentation, debilitation, corruption, inner division. We become double-minded, as James describes in chapter 1 of his epistle. Our nature itself does not change (for this is a misunderstanding of the concept of "nature", and otherwise no one could "by nature do" the things of the law, as Paul describes in Rom 2:14, followed by a description of the double-mindedness involved). As Freeman writes, if our nature had actually changed from good to evil, "we could never be nor become what we truly are", because we would truly be evil, and any change from this natural state would be a delusion. Nor is our freedom of choice totally abolished, for then we could not be held responsible for sin (a common intuition among the Fathers, especially Irenaeus and Chrysostom), but the faculties of our nature, the will and the passions, are blinded and corrupted. The image of God is still very much present in us, and our nature remains good just as God created it, but the expressions of these things become distorted and confused.

And so choice, intended to be the manifestation of our natural will's freedom, always freely choosing God, instead becomes its own kind of bondage. Choice is no longer simply the singular voice of the natural will calling out to God and freely moving towards him, but an often agonizing and unclear deliberation of one course of action among numerous alternatives. We have to choose because we are torn between the still, small voice of the natural will and the corruption of sin, and so situations that are transparent to the natural will seem opaque to us. For to one who knows the way perfectly, there is no real "choice" to make between possible routes; there is only freedom to walk the Way. Similarly, I normally don't have to "choose" to be faithful to my wife, but only in times of extreme temptation and weakness do any alternatives to faithfulness begin to seem like possibilities. This imprisoning necessity of choice which the world considers true freedom is what Maximos calls the "gnomic will". Hart writes that "this is the minimum that liberty must assume; but it is also, just as obviously, a form of subordination and confinement." (The Doors of the Sea, 70-71) Freeman further describes our situation:
We may choose countless numbers of ways to remain in bondage. But unless and until we can see the proper goal of our life and existence, we cannot freely choose it. We live our lives in an illusion created by free-choice, but always with a vague, haunting sense that something is missing – this is the echo of the natural will.
This is something like how Orthodox believe that we have the freedom of choice, so that we can actually be expected to obey the commands of God and held responsible for disobedience, while remaining enslaved to sin and unable to free ourselves. For we are not saved simply by making the right choices, even if salvation necessarily involves our active "yes". Christ promises to set us free, as in John 8:32-36—what kind of freedom is this? Not the voluntaristic freedom of choice idealized by modern western culture (which, as we have seen, is really the expression of our captivity), but the kind that makes us "slaves" to God and to righteousness (Rom 6:18-22). This is no paradox or contradiction, but the heart of Christian soteriology.

In my opinion it is characteristic of the western controversies about justification and the "order of salvation", especially following the Reformation, to conflate and confuse these two kinds of freedom or willing. Pelagius, against whose teaching much of the debate was reacting in one way or another, arguably did so. Jaroslav Pelikan describes Pelagius' view:
[To Pelagius, t]he doctrine of original sin was self-contradictory. 'If sin is natural, it is not voluntary; if it is voluntary, it is not inborn. These two definitions are as mutually contradictory as a necessity and [free] will.' Even after sin the will remained as free as it had before sin was committed, for man continued to have 'the possibility of committing sin or of refraining from sin.' (The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 315)
Pelagius' heresy, in one sense, was the denial that we are any less free after sinning than we are before, because sin remains voluntary; we can seemingly choose to sin or not. Yet as we have seen, according to the Orthodox tradition choosing not to do any particular sin does not make us any freer; we remain trapped in the necessity and blindness of choice itself. In a very real sense, all of our choices not made by faith, even our "good" ones, are sinful (that is, they miss the mark of union with God); see Rom 14:23. Despite having the "freedom" to choose, we remain in bondage to sin. Pelagius' error was supposing that because the gnomic will remains "free", the natural will must be free as well.

The Protestant response to Pelagianism tends to continue his conflation of the natural and gnomic wills and argues the contrapositive—that because our natural will is bound, our gnomic will must be bound as well and our "freedom of choice" abolished. Instead of the minimal, sorry condition of our fallen nature, free choice is seen as somehow exceptional, a power that has been lost to the Fall, the power to "save oneself" in a Pelagian sense. Conversely, when we are made "free" in Christ, this refers to the restoration of choice; as one saying puts it, after redemption in Christ, we become free to sin or not to sin, whereas before, we could only choose to sin. The role of choice in salvation, somewhat paradoxically, thus tends to be exaggerated, especially in traditions placing great emphasis on the "decision for Christ" as the decisive crux when someone "gets saved".

This way of thinking presupposes a radical view of the Fall as abolishing or destroying the image of God in man, or actually changing our nature to be evil instead of good as originally created (which, again, is a contradiction of the classical definition of "nature"). As the commonly used term "sinful nature" suggests, in this view sin is taken to have become the "natural" or baseline condition of our existence as human. Such an intensive view of the Fall is unknown in the Fathers, and is considered by Orthodox to be incompatible with the doctrine of creation, and of evil as a privation of the good. For in this view, sin cannot exist on its own, as a discrete thing occupying the place formerly held by the love for God in our natural will, but only as a parasite, alongside and beneath a good will. If there were no prior desire for God in our hearts, there would be nothing for sin to corrupt. If the image of God were not only tarnished and damaged, but actually destroyed, along with our free will, we would be little different from the animals, unable to be held responsible for our sins (St. Irenaeus expresses this idea in Against Heresies IV.37.2), and there would be no one to save. St. John of Damascus wrote that "God made [man] by nature sinless, and endowed him with free will. By sinless, I mean not that sin could find no place in him (for that is the case with Deity alone), but that sin is the result of the free volition he enjoys rather than an integral part of his nature." (The Orthodox Faith II.12) Our freedom of choice is not removed by sin; it is what makes it possible for us to sin (and to be saved).

All of this speaks to my prior confusion about how the Fall could have actually changed our nature; how did Adam have such power to do so? Why can I not change my nature back through my own choice, as he apparently did? Or did God inflict the "sinful nature" on him as a punishment, thus creating the problem he would later solve through the gospel? As I came to understand and accept the Orthodox teaching on the matter, it became much clearer.

So for the Orthodox, "free" choice is not as a casualty of sin, but a symptom of it: it entails not that we have the power to save ourselves in a Pelagian sense, but that we are "rational" (not mere animals), able to be held responsible for our deeds. It is not really "free", not in the sense of being somehow prevented from choosing good, but because it testifies to our weakness, our frailty, our inability to see and know the good and our resulting vacillation between good and evil, or (as we all too often perceive them) pleasure and pain. Our rejecting the evil and choosing the good does not, in itself, make us any freer; against Pelagianism, Orthodoxy rejects the notion that we can be saved simply by the exercise of the will, without the intervention of divine grace received through faith. In other words, our "free will" (as choice) is not constrained; it is itself the constraint on the innate desire of our deeper, still-good natural will, as Hart summarizes:
The natural will must return to God, no matter what, but if the freedom of the gnomic will refuses to open itself to the mercy and glory of God, the wrathful soul experiences the transfiguring and deifying fire of love not as bliss but as chastisement and despair. The highest freedom and happiness of the creature ... is the perfection of the creature's nature in union with God. And the highest work of providential grace is to set our deepest, 'natural' will free from everything (even the abuse of our freedom) that would separate us from that end, all the time preserving the dignity of the divine image within us. (The Doors of the Sea, 85)
The Confession of Dositheos, an Orthodox confession promulgated by the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672 largely in response to the claims of Calvinism, expresses how the human will can naturally choose what is good (explaining how, in the language of total depravity, man is not as evil as he could be), but cannot do any "spiritual good" (leading to real salvation) without grace working through faith.
We believe man in falling by the [original] transgression to have become comparable and similar to the beasts; that is, to have been utterly undone, and to have fallen from his perfection and impassibility, yet not to have lost the nature and power which he had received from the supremely good God. For otherwise he would not be rational, and consequently not a human. So [he still has] the same nature in which he was created, and the same power of his nature, that is free-will, living and operating, so that he is by nature able to choose and do what is good, and to avoid and hate what is evil. For it is absurd to say that the nature which was created good by Him who is supremely good lacks the power of doing good. For this would be to make that nature evil — what could be more impious than that? For the power of working depends upon nature, and nature upon its author, although in a different manner. And that a man is able by nature to do what is good, even our Lord Himself intimates saying, even the Gentiles love those that love them. {Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32} But this is taught most plainly by Paul also, in Romans 1:19, [actually Rom 2:14] and elsewhere expressly, saying in so many words, “The Gentiles which have no law do by nature the things of the law.” From which it is also apparent that the good which a man may do cannot truly be sin. For it is impossible for that what is good to be evil. Although, being done by nature only and tending to form the natural character of the doer but not the spiritual, it does not itself contribute to salvation without faith Nor does it lead to condemnation, for it is not possible that good, as such, can be the cause of evil. But in the regenerated, what is wrought by grace, and with grace, makes the doer perfect, and renders him worthy of salvation.  
A man, therefore, before he is regenerated, is able by nature to incline to what is good, and to choose and work moral good. But for the regenerated to do spiritual good — for the works of the believer being contributory to salvation and wrought by supernatural grace are properly called spiritual — it is necessary that he be guided and prevented [preceded] by grace, as has been said in treating of predestination. Consequently, he is not able of himself to do any work worthy of a Christian life, although he has it in his own power to will, or not to will, to co-operate with grace.

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