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A Criterion for Liberation?

Alexander J. McKelway. The Freedom of God and Human Liberation. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

This book sat on the “Read Me” Shelf for a long, long time. It’s a short book. But it’s one of those books that I started more than once, got part way through, then sat aside because it required focus, which I needed more for other things, and then by the time I got back to it I’d forgotten what I’d read and had to start over from the beginning.

How it came to be on the shelf in the first place is now a mystery. Someone, somewhere, sometime, cited it as critical to read and understand in the context of something. All of that context is long lost.

Cover of Alexander J. McKelway The Freedom of God and Human Liberation

Now that I’ve finally read it, I still need to read it. Again. More slowly. Not only does it require focus, it merits it.

The main claim of The Freedom of God and Human Liberation is that the hope for human liberation that is embedded in Christian faith depends on God’s own absolute freedom.

That may not sound radical, or particularly questionable, at first.

Its import becomes clear when we realize that a different way of thinking about the meaning of this claim is that God’s absolute freedom implies that human theologies err whenever they identify God with any particular human group, cause, principle, or structure. When they say things like “God MUST be for …” or “God MUST be against …”

In other words, we human beings, limited to a particular place and time, have a tendency to claim God and God’s redemptive activity for “our side” in whatever struggle we are waging. McKelway’s argument about the freedom of God yanks this claim out of human hands and dashes it to the ground.

Any theology, whether conservative or liberal, whether reactionary, revolutionary, or revisionist, that so identifies the will of God with human values that it measures itself against its own objectives rather than against the free word of God, must inevitably reproduce the human presumption that lies at the base of every oppression. For this reason both conservative and revolutionary theologies need the corrective of the freedom of God (10).

This contrasts explicitly with the kind of theological sentiment articulated by, for instance, Gordon Kaufman in Theology for a Nuclear Age, that “Theology should be judged in terms of the adequacy with which it is fulfilling the objectives we humans set for it (10).”

Thus, McKelway’s argument seems guaranteed to annoy everyone, on all sides of today’s political, cultural, and theological struggles. It’s equivalent to claiming that all of us, all the time, need to recognize our tendency to equate God with our concepts of God as a theological and practical problem. Any of our concepts. Even “the good ones.” Maybe especially “the good ones” – at least, the ones we think of as “the good ones.”

“Constructive theologians” seem unlikely to appreciate this formulation, because of the way it challenges a theological epistemology based in human experience. But Biblicists and inerrantists won’t like it any better, because of the way McKelway sees God’s freedom from any particular way of being “for us” as transcending and calling into question our favorite authoritative forms of God’s being with and for us, like the human, culturally-conditioned words of scripture.

A good example of how this is going to work occurs on pages 20-21 of the book, where McKelway is analyzing the structure of God’s freedom.

At this point he has already introduced his primary claim, critiqued the way historic and contemporary theologians have put forward ideas that undermine the notion of divine freedom in various ways, and worked through the implications of what he – along with John of Damascus and Karl Barth – take as the irreducible theological claim: that God is God (12).

So, God is; God is as God; and while

[t]he circularity of this formula cannot be denied, … it is not an empty circle into which we are invited to place either abstract or concrete projections of ourselves. The content of that circle is provided by God’s self-revelation, which discloses the two primary characteristics belonging to the way ‘God is God,’ namely, that God is God as one who acts – and who acts in love (12).

After elaborating the meaning of God’s self-revelation as one who acts and as one who acts in love, McKelway turns to an analysis of the structure of God’s freedom, which he presents (in chapter 2) as a four-fold structure: intrinsic freedom (or, classically speaking, aseity), freedom from “other being,” freedom for us (humanity, or more generally, creation), and freedom from [any particular way or form of] being for us.

In developing his argument about God’s freedom “from Other Being,” McKelway points out that this aspect of the divine freedom “is expressed primarily in the well-known doctrine of creation out of nothing (creation ex nihilo) (20).” He goes on to privilege the English translation of Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God …”) explicitly over an alternative reading of the Hebrew Masoretic text (which could as easily, perhaps more easily, be translated “When God began …”), as well as over against the image of the pre-existing waters, the tohu va bohu, that “the priestly poet” seems to present in Genesis 1:1 as God’s raw material.

If the first verse of Genesis is read, ‘When God began to create’ [RSV, note a], the poet’s neglect of the ex nihilo principle becomes even more apparent, because coincident with God’s creation, there is already an ‘earth … without form and void and darkness.’ The dogmatic implications of the rest of the chapter contradict this reading as well (note 12, 20).

McKelway argues, in effect, that we need to read the text of Genesis 1 with its overall thematic and theological significance, against its literal and specific culturally-conditioned human word in the first verse, and arguably even against its culturally-conditioned human authorial “neglect” of the vital theological principle he thinks we can and should discern in the poem as a whole.

I am not suggesting that McKelway is mistaken about this, either.

I am, however, suggesting that what McKelway has done, in effect, is to make “divine freedom” his working theological criterion for how to read scripture.

McKelway’s claim that divine freedom constitutes the indispensable ground of hopes for human liberation feels profoundly true, but it also feels necessary to work through some of its concrete implications more closely.

In his discussion of God’s freedom “for us,” for instance, McKelway argues that because God is free from “other being,” God is not limited by or caught up in the structures of cause and effect that apply to us human beings. This leaves God free to be with us in “unrestricted immanence” (24). This is comforting, of course, and one consequence of this unrestricted immanence is that liberation theology need not “accept the assumption, common to revolutionary idealism of every sort, that all inherited structures of human community are unredeemable” and have to be annihilated and replaced (26).

This will appeal to the anti-revolutionary anti-utopians in the crowd, I suspect. But then he goes on to say

Of course, within the structures of human history there are what Tillich has called ‘structures of destruction’ which are not of, but against, human community. Forms of male oppression, of child abuse and neglect, of economic exploitation, of political oppression and military violence – all these and more constitute negative structures with which God does not identify and from which God would liberate us. To discriminate correctly between destructive and constructive forms of human life is always risky and necessarily a matter of prayer and guidance. Nevertheless, it would surely be wrong to imagine that all inherited forms of life are dispensable, or that a God who wills to be immanent in human affairs cannot exercise the liberating power of his grace in and through the structures of family, church, the state, and commerce (26).

So, some of those pre-revolutionary structures are, practically speaking irredeemable, and have to go. But some of them are potential channels of God’s gracious immanence. Which are which?

That seems like an important question. The problem is, how do we answer it?

McKelway’s discussion of God’s freedom from God’s freedom for us is not going to make this problem any easier to resolve. In discussing that structural element of God’s freedom, he proceeds to develop a line of argument that makes a strong claim that there are no particular forms that can serve as absolutely or universally necessary, or absolutely or universally reliable, vehicles of God’s liberating activity. So, “if, for example, according to his immanence, God may work through a variety of political forms, he may work as well through none at all (29).”

[From the perspective of someone who, along with Aristotle, understands “political” to be such a fundamental aspect of human nature that it is impossible to imagine a form of human life that would not also incorporate some form of political life, it’s hard to imagine what that statement can even mean. If we regard McKelway’s next sentence as clarifying, it seems to mean that he himself thinks of things like nihilistic protests and charismatic enthusiasm as apolitical. Exploring that would take a whole other conversation.]

McKelway himself raises the question whether God’s radical freedom leaves open so many possibilities that “we can know nothing of God with certainty, and thus have no assurance of what obedience to God’s call for liberation means or how it should be pursued (30).” He thinks not, because of the criterion of the love expressed in Jesus Christ. In light of God’s self-revealed love, we can know that the first principle of liberation efforts ought to be love, and “we have no reason to interpret God’s freedom … as having any meaning or purpose other than that of grace and good for his creation (31).”

Again, that’s encouraging. But … practically speaking, it seems unlikely to help resolve, for instance, the fundamental disagreement between the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the CBE (Christians for Biblical Equality) about what love looks like concretely in the structures of the human family or the leadership of the church. Nor will it make it easier for the United Methodists to hammer out a faithful and liberating alternative to either the Traditional or the One Church Plan. How we limited, conditioned, self-interested human beings correctly discern the movements of God’s liberating activity and the boundaries of those “structures of destruction” is precisely the difficulty that’s always facing the yet-to-be-liberated people of this radically free God.

McKelway argues, and I am inclined to agree, that we ought not to identify any particular criterion of liberation as a general theological criterion. I agree as well that we can have confidence that God’s activity is controlled by love, and that we always have to question whether our particular notions of what social, cultural, economic and political forms best express that love really do, or are instead “merely projections of our own assumptions and values (31).”

But this position seems to force us back to the practical conclusion that in every political and theological controversy, we cannot short-circuit the process of working through that controversy in the messy, sometimes painful, sometimes astonishing ways we have available to us. No side can appeal to some institutional form or reading of scripture or position that we can simply affirm, a priori, as not one of those “projections of our own assumptions and values,” or as the one institutional form or reading of scripture or position that we can know in advance God MUST support, or oppose. It looks like we’re always going to have to “work it out as we go along.” And if history teaches us anything, we’ll get it wrong a lot before we get it close to right.

In other words, what McKelway advances as the only real hope for human liberation also, simultaneously, implies that we probably don’t really know what human liberation looks like yet. And probably won’t until we actually have it.

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library
What comes next?

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