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What Kind of Free Do We Want to Be?

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

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project; discussions of earlier chapters of McKelway’s book are here, here, and here.]

Alexander J. McKelway concludes his reflections on The Freedom of God and Human Liberation with a consideration of human freedom: what we think it means, and what it “really” means. According to McKelway, we think it means “autonomy.” Unfortunately for us, autonomy turns into a particular kind of bondage to self. We ought to rethink our desire for autonomy, and turn to the authentic freedom that consists in obedience to God.

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

This somewhat paradoxical conclusion will not surprise many Christians. Christians will have heard enough “freedom for” and “true freedom” and “freedom in service to God” and “the freedom of our true nature” preaching, I think, to make McKelway’s discussion of freedom and autonomy and obedience strike the Christian reader as more of the same.

For that reason, it seems to me, it leaves all of the same old unresolved problems on the table, more or less untouched.

Maybe this is the key lesson of McKelway’s exercise in thinking through the freedom of God and its implications for human liberation: that those old unresolved problems are old and unresolved precisely because of the situation we’re in – the situation of finite human beings, called by God, met in Jesus Christ the Word of God, most of the time known to us, if at all, through the human, all too human, vehicles of the church and its scripture, walking by faith and not by sight.

McKelway’s argument runs something like this: “Freedom” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To avoid confusion, he will analyze human freedom in relation to God’s freedom: God’s freedom “in himself, from other being, for us in Jesus Christ, but also free from his ways of being for us” (88). Human beings, obviously, are not free in this same way. In fact, when it comes to human freedom, “we find a contradiction masquerading as a correspondence” (89). It’s worth quoting his analysis of this contradiction at length:

We want to be free in ourselves, ‘autonomous,’ a law to ourselves in a way which apes the aseity of God. We seek a promethean grandeur that frees the self from this or that undesirable influence. The self thus secured can then assert its freedom for the enjoyment of natural rights or special privilege according to its tastes. And since our tastes and inclinations contradict each other (a need for love conflicts with a desire for independence, or an unrestrained life style with a desire for health), we display in tragic irony our own way of being free from our freedom for. Insofar as human freedom is understood as autonomy, we must say that there exists only a negative correspondence between our freedom and the freedom of God (89).

The hinge in this argument is humans’ inability to achieve a correct ordering or balance of values. This inability seems to arise from our finitude (we can’t pursue certain goods ‘infinitely’ far, without running into our finite limits, which makes the effects of those goods into bads). That finitude is also the ground of our ignorance (we’re not omniscient, and with respect to the ordering or balancing of values specifically, we don’t know for certain what that ordering or balancing would be in every case).

In other words, we’re doomed. We will inevitably screw up our efforts to live good lives.

Doomed, that is, apart from God, who creates freedom in us as a free gift, “a freedom we are given and given ever anew so that it can never be something we can have on our own” (89).

What will this freedom look like in practice?

Well, we can’t say it WON’T involve “revolutionary struggle,” necessarily. But. Human revolutionary struggle is inevitably ambiguous, and revolutions “tend also to revolve back to the oppressive tactics of the regimes they supplant” (90).

Solving this problem has something to do with our understanding of freedom itself. McKelway offers a “deconstructive” reading of an episode from The Brothers Karamazov, the episode in which the Grand Inquisitor encounters Christ, to substantiate his assertion that autonomy turns out to be “freedom of choice” within an inevitably closed set of alternatives. This makes autonomy “at its root a self-enslavement which must find expression in other forms of enslavement” (94).

Freedom as illustrated by Jesus Christ, then, is not autonomy. Freedom as illustrated by Jesus Christ appears as “his decision to let his life be determined by his vocation, to be what he was, the Son of God, obedient to the Father” (94). Freedom, in this analysis, means following the “one way” to which we are invited by God (96).

This “one way,” however, may surprise existing authority structures, including the authority structure and convictions of the church. The church has to “expect the new” and can’t expect God’s liberating will to be bound by “the laws of nature, the precedents of history, or … this or that ideology or system of values” (96). A lot of helpful criteria just got thrown out with the revolutionary bathwater, in other words.

McKelway suggests that Martin Luther didn’t recognize the hand of God in the German Peasants’ Revolt, and didn’t recognize that God was on the side of the peasants, because he didn’t expect the unexpected from God. McKelway seems to be offering the German Peasants’ Revolt as an example of what he means by “God’s revolutionary ‘new thing’” that “comes into view wherever revolutionary effort is saved from the self-destructive circle of autonomy” (97). Other examples might be the US anti-war movement of the early seventies (“if the freedom of God was not at work then, how did it happen that a powerful nation … allowed its guns to be stopped by the flowers of children?”), and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (where the only hope for peace and justice is that God will “transform the laws of self-interest and racial pride” 98).

The telling problem with the example of the German Peasants’ Revolt, however, is that not everyone is as clear as McKelway that God was on the side of the peasants, even today. Eric Metaxas, for instance, spends a fair number of pages in his popular book on Luther calling the peasants in general and Thomas Müntzer in particular dangerous utopians, who would have been as authoritarian as utopians always turn out to be if the lords hadn’t slaughtered them first. (Way to go, Christian lords!) If it’s that easy to disagree about what the liberating will of God looks like concretely in historically remote cases, how much easier will it be in contemporary ones?

McKelway follows up his discussion of political freedom with a discussion of individual freedom. Here, again, freedom will not simply involve autonomy, a “maximization of our own freedom,” but “giving up the old, worn-out compulsions that accompany autonomy” (99). Like wanting not to have to work, or be married to the same old person, or meet our obligations – McKelway’s examples. Other examples of seeking “autonomy” rather than the freedom given by God are trying to revise “lordship” language in Christian liturgy, or understanding God’s authority as “persuasion” à la process theology.

An example of the kind of Christian freedom McKelway is talking about is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to be part of the plot to assassinate Hitler, which involved acting

in the knowledge that in Christ (1) we are liberated from our own and the world’s autonomy, and therefore, (2) we are directed to responsible decisions under the conditions of sinful existence. Then, however, by an ‘after thinking,’ (3) we are required to acknowledge that even our best judgment will not in any case conform to the will of God. … The radicality of freedom under God consists in our being directed to submit to law (although we have been saved from law), to live with guilt (although we are justified), and to act by the direction of our own judgment (although that is not our freedom) (101).

This may seem unclear and confusing. McKelway, indeed, seems to recognize this. Maybe for that reason, he offers a couple of possibly helpful criteria for recognizing or knowing Christian freedom of the sort he has in mind. First, it will be for others, a freedom that preaches good news to the poor, releases captives, and so on. In this sense, Christian freedom is distinctly “heteronomous,” governed by “the law of the other” (102). Second, it will be joy.

So, Christian freedom in obedience to the grace of God in Jesus Christ will “not confuse our own images of freedom with God’s freedom,” will “liberate theology from every principality and power which would keep it from effectively articulating the liberating power of God,” and will be found “in obedient service to God and our neighbor” (103).

I’m glad he cleared that up.

Sadly, though, I don’t see how any of this would have helped Martin Luther come to a better conclusion about the German Peasants’ Revolt. Were the peasants the poor captives who needed to have good news preached to them? (Well, I think so, but …) Or were they self-serving disobedient rebels against God’s gracious ordinances?

I don’t see how any of this helps the complementarians and the egalitarians come to a meeting of the minds about the proper role of women. Are women who want to go get jobs outside the four walls of their nuclear family homes, and trust their children’s schooling to the local school corporation, freely acting in obedience to God’s gracious call to be who they truly are? Or are they succumbing to the principalities and powers of the culture, autonomously enslaving themselves to a lesser model of womanhood, and ultimately rebelling against God? How would we know? Especially since McKelway has, in his earlier chapters, disqualified some of the go-to criteria on each side of this long-standing argument: scriptural inerrancy, literalist interpretation, prior theological principle … So maybe the self-correcting properties of the Word of God in scripture are calling patriarchal family structures into question. Or maybe the “others” women are supposed to be “for” are first and foremost their husbands and children.

You make the call.

And let’s face it, you and I and all the rest of us do have to make the call. The pastor has to say “yes” or “no” to the two women who ask to get married in the sanctuary, the Session has to vote “yes” or “no” to approve holding that wedding, the members of the congregation have to decide “yes” or “no” whether they’re actually OK with that.

Are we being or refusing to be the people God calls us to be? Are we for others or for ourselves? Which others? What’s gracious? What’s obedient?

Situations arise, and when they do, we have to respond one way or another, which requires us to take a stand on what obedience to the liberating will of God requires of us, in this particular situation.

Ultimately, it seems to me, McKelway’s reflections reveal, rather than resolve, the besetting problem of human finitude: dialectic. Dialectic, that is, the “ongoing tension between opposite elements that can neither be separated from nor dissolved into each other,” in Merold Westphal’s incomparable definition (148). We are not God; justice and love are not one thing for us, but separate things, dialectically related. Likewise law and grace, freedom and obedience. The binaries may all be dissolved in God, but God is in heaven, and we upon the earth.

However few our words may be, the last one will not be ours. We know that much.

As Christians, we think that last word will be Jesus Christ, and we believe that will be a Word we will be happy to hear, as well as one we will have to hear.

In the meantime, however, while “Freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1),” the liberating will of God has not, it seems, freed us from our dialectical condition. The fear and trembling in which we work out our salvation stems from our recognition – once we have that recognition – that no matter what position we take on the issues of our day, we are always biased somehow or other, always self-interested as well as others-interested, always self-serving as well as others- and God-serving, always a bit deaf even when alert to the witness of the Holy Spirit.

So we get to, as we must, live into the demands of the day in freedom, which seems to say, in some irreducible uncertainty.

Hopefully, we are doing that in faith and love.

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

Westphal, Merold. Whose Community? Which Interpretation?Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. The Church in Postmodern Culture, James K.A. Smith, Series Editor. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

A tower of books with a almond- or vaginal-shaped opening

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