The Danger of Freedom

Some folks seem to delight in freedom, in choice, in thinking for themselves and sometimes find themselves in a world made for themselves, a kind of narcissism. Others delight in order, hierarchy, in faith, and in a kind of theology that seems to lock in the creative potential of humans and who at the same time believe all things are determined (by a sovereign God, and rarely do they add a sovereign and “good” God) and predestined. These have become two poles of thinking — the narcissism and determinism, one in which humans are narcissists and the other in which God seems (to many of us to be) the narcissist.

What do you think of Highfield’s sketch of the “modern self”? How does this help the church? 

Both of these approaches are exaggerated expressions of truth, what Francis Schaeffer somewhere called “true truths.” The two truths are freedom and God’s sovereignty and ordering of reality. In the midst of this is what Pepperdine professor Ron Highfield, one of my favorite theologians today, calls “The Me-Centered Self” in his new and important book, God, Freedom and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. This is not a book for pessimists, but neither is this a cheery-eyed sketch of just how indulgently wonderful we are. This is a book for straight-thinking Christian theologians and pastors who want to probe how our faith puts the Self into place. Here one finds a balanced, philosophical approach to the historical development of the modern self. A few highlights from a good book to reading during Lent:

The self was shaped through the development of inwardness (Descartes, Locke), the affirmation of the ordinary life (Locke), the inner and expressive voice of nature … leading to a kind of emotivist self. The modern self is noted by defiance, subservience in the natural or default religion of humans, as well as in indifference, and here Highfield sketches four ways of being indifferent: esthetic, conformist, celebrity, and agnostic.

Remember this: the God of traditional thought is considered by the modern self to be a threat to freedom and dignity. Right there is the cutting edge of the gospel and the cutting edge of the Christian faith: the human quest is to rule, it’s as old as Genesis 3, but is challenged by the divine right to rule by God. Highfield’s contribution here is to sketch that the God rejected or feared by the modern self is but a “superhuman” God and not the God of the Christian faith. What most think of God, and what most reject of God, is a projection of the human onto God.

And Highfield, before he sketches a God-Centered Self, cuts into the ice three self-perceptions in the modern quest for freedom:


Highfield knows this theory of freedom means competition of selves and envy of selves. Dignity is the recognition of these three (or one or more of these three) selves for each person. “The more self-sufficient and self-defining we are, the more dignity we have” (96). Wow.

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  • Mijk V

    Is it worth getting out my passport and taking a trip to the US? We don’t get this title in Canada for another month 🙁

  • “The more self-sufficient and self-defining we are, the more dignity we have.” That’s a potent bit of cultural diagnosis.

    Presumably when he says rule begins in Gen 3 he means autonomous rule? Rule is huge for our anthropological prolegomena (Gen 1:26-28).

  • I struggle with that statement. The more self-sufficient we are, the further we are from God. Intimacy with God is about self-denial and surrender to Christ. It is only there that we find our true selves.

    Unless I am missing something, the statement above is very troubling.

  • Tom F.

    This sounds somewhat familiar to what Charles Taylor did in “Sources of Self”, although Taylor tracks most modern trends as exaggerations of late (Christian) medieval trends (e.g., nominalism). (Upon reading the Amazon blurp, Highfield is apparently influenced by Taylor). Is Highfield arguing that these trends are completely reactionary against Christian faith? The philosophers Taylor noted are varied in their view of God; for example, Locke seems to have been much more open to Christian thought than someone like Hume.

    I think making plain cultural assumptions about “self” is worthwhile, and could be really helpful for the church. However, the story seems a bit too neat for my liking. Does Highfield get at why the modern philosophers sometimes wanted to displace medieval notions of self? (How much do mediveal notions of self = Christian notions of self?) Does he get at the historical crisis of authority, driven by the breakdown of religious legitimacy in the late medieval period, resulting in the Reformation first and then exacerbated by nearly three quarters of a century of religious wars and persecution? Without that context, modern philosophers look like they are just out to get rid of God.

    This is admittedly a somewhat blunt critique; but it sometimes seems awful convenient for conservative Christian critiques of modern philosophers to decontextualize them in this way, so that modern philosophers can then be moved into narratives of self-rule based around medieval/reformation ideas of pride/self-sufficiency? The modern crisis was not about modern philosophers bravely facing off against a unified Christian tradition so that they could accomplish Renaissance goals of becoming self-sufficent and god-like. (Although some modern philosophers attempted to cast themselves in this light.) The sad truth is that modern philosophers faced a society where traditional understandings and assumptions were all upended and in chaos; and where claims to authority multiplied and multiplied. There was no unified Christian tradition (how can you possibly claim a unified tradition when people are literally killing each other over differences in theology?).

    So the question becomes; given multiplying claims to absolute authority (Catholic/Reformed/Protestant/Anglican…Anabaptist?), each demanding absolute allegiance, what would a philosopher try and do? Maybe try and come up with a way for individuals to adjudicate for themselves, free from authority and tradition? (Descartes for example, undertakes this project in service of his faith in God; the modern project begins with an attempt to separate out human authority from the acknowledged authority of God.) I think that the modern project is likely a dead end, because no individual is free from tradition. We make sense of the world through the traditions and cultures we are in. But it is a very understandable dead end; any Christian critique of modern philosophy of self should make sure its critique is aware of the context these philosophers wrote in, and why they were so desperate to get free from traditional authority. Traditional authority seemed to be quite literally killing them.

    I’m not saying Hatfield doesn’t address this; I haven’t read the book. It’s just that this too-easy narrative about modern philosophy is becoming increasingly standard amongst conservative Christians (e.g., you can see someone like Tim Keller make similar arguments in “The Reason for God”). The idea that modern philosophical quest for self is about self-sufficiency against God rings hollow, and is a bit too convenient. It only partially matches up with the incredible complexity of the modern period and modern philosophy, and it seems to allow contemporary Christians to downplay the incredible challenges that faced early modern societies (as a result of the breakdown in the church), and that still face us today, in a frenzied multiplication of claims to authority that individuals in modern societies are forced to navigate much more self-consciously than in the past.

  • mkmangold

    My initial criticism had to do with intentions (i.e. Descartes) but Tom F’s fine post shifted this into a surrounding culture issue. So now my question is: is the book worth the cost? If it tells me something new (as Dr. McKnight hints) then it is. If it’s an attempt, however elaborate as Tom F hints, to set up straw men then knoch ’em down, then I’m out.

  • scotmcknight

    There’s nothing straw man-nish about Highfield’s work. I gave a sketch of 2/3ds of the volume. Full of detail. Tom F needs to read it too.

  • Merv Olsen

    Unfortunately I can’t afford tp buy new books these days, so can’t comment on those ever mentioned on this blog.

    However, my favourite Christian book on `the self` is by Fuller Seminary’s renowned Dean and Senior Professor of Psychology, Dr Archibald A. Hart – Me, Myself And I (1992).

    Dr Hart charts a biblical and balanced course through the tangled web of self-image, self-esteem and self-denial to arrive at Gods answer: healing, salvation, genuine esteem, and the grace to change for ourselves. Scripturally sound, psychologically up to date, and engagingly written.

  • mkmangold

    Good to know it’s worth the read and not straw-manish.