Freedom as creative liberty among loving options


I want to try to express something I’m unable to make sense of in David Bentley Hart’s view of choice and freedom. I’ll start with very briefly stating his view of human “freedom” as the flourishing of created nature in its telos or end in God as the Good (with which I agree). Then I’ll summarize his qualified view of “libertarian” choice as the “possibility of freedom, not its realization” (with which I also agree). Thirdly, I’ll re-introduce (having done so previously) his response to my question regarding the nature of human choice once the will is perfected in the Good. This is where my difficulty gets introduced. Lastly, I’ll try to express what I think is an inconsistency or at least an unresolved issue (or perhaps my own stupidity) at the heart of his objection to a certain understanding of creative liberty as spontaneous.

First, what is true freedom? To restate it simply – freedom is the uninhibited, unhindered flourishing of nature in its final and proper end. It is the teleological fulfillment of nature. It is not an unqualified voluntarism or pure spontaneity free from all givens, unconstrained by any orientation of the will towards transcendent ends. We are finally free when our will rests fulfilled in God, when we want nothing but God. Our truest freedom, then, cannot be an absolute libertarianism or unrestricted voluntarism.

Second, though our truest freedom is not an unrestricted libertarianism, a certain libertarian exercise of the will is the necessary means for realizing our final freedom. Hart seems to be clear on this as well. We don’t start our journey toward fulfillment already free. We must “become” free, and that becoming entails being at liberty explicitly and intentionally to determine ourselves with respect to the Good. This exercise of will is the gnomic will. The ‘natural’ will is the will’s fundamental and irresistible teleological orientation toward the Good (God). It is the will in its givenness. The ‘gnomic’ will is the will in its less-than-perfected state, subject to ignorance and mortality and thus capable of misrelating to (or perhaps rather “within”) the Good.

As passionate as Hart is about exposing the philosophical and theological bankruptcy of any absolute voluntarism, he has on several occasions made it clear that the will must exercise its way into its final rest and freedom. I’ll use “libertarian” (because Hart does) to express this gnomic, deliberative capacity for self-determination and as that context in which the will must resolve itself finally in its ‘natural’ orientation.

Third, with this distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘gnomic’ in mind, let me reintroduce here a question I put to Hart over at Fr Aidan’s place last year and which I’ve reflected on here. I asked:

On p. 320 of Beauty of the Infinite, with reference to Michel de Certeau’s “Autorités Chrétiennes et Structures Sociales,” you concede the possibility that in our final fulfilled form Christ offers (in Certeau’s words) “a style of existence that ‘allows’ for a certain kind of creativity and that opens a new series of experiences” as opposed to, say, Christ specifying every particular of our continuing existence without remainder (even if, as you say, Christ comprises the fullness of every contingent expression).

My question has to do with created agency as fulfilled in Christ and enjoying a ‘scope of loving possibilities’ within which to freely/creatively determine how it shall reflect divine beauties. Going with Certeau’s suggestion, might we imagine the logoi of created beings as embodying or specifying a “range” or “scope” of beautiful expression and not the particular of every form? The divine will (or logoi) would terminate not in the final form of creaturely expression but in the range of creative possibilities offered to creatures to uniquely shape their expressive form. Would the gnomic will retain a unique function in this case? (emphasis mine)

Hart’s reply:

Sure, works for me. I know that Maximus often speaks of the gnomic will as simply the sinful and deviating will. Something tells me – more a phenomenology of consciousness than a moral metaphysics – that it might be better to think of it as the “third moment” of the conscious act, so to speak, the first two being the primordial intention of the natural will and the power of intellect (both being rational). Then the gnomic will is that supremely rational moment of (ideally) assent or love or creative liberty that completes the “trinitarian” movement of the mind and makes it genuinely rationally free. That is obscure. Sorry. But, yes, I prefer to think that, healed, [the gnomic will] remains, and that it makes each soul’s reflection of and participation in divine beauty a unique inflection or modulation of the whole, which makes each individual indispensable, of course, to that glory. (emphasis mine)

fullsizerender-44This is where something very curious arises. As I then argued, the relevant point here is the terminus of the divine will being the provision of a ‘scope’ or ‘range’ of beautiful expression, not the specific form that expression finally takes in created particulars. Please think on that. Once the gnomic will is definitively fixed in its desire for God, its deliberative capacity for “creative liberty” is left to self-determine within a scope of beautiful possibilities, what Hart calls “creative liberty.” That liberty is of extreme metaphysical interest to me.

Lastly then, let me try to express what I think is a problem here for Hart’s articulation of things. I’m probably misunderstanding him, but the problem as I see it has to do with Hart’s description of any choice between equally good ends as voluntarist and thus as not truly free, on the one hand, and the “creative liberty” of the will to determine itself within a scope of given possibilities on the other. If the divine will offers us a range of creative expression within which to uniquely self-determine, and those possibilities are all equally reflective of the good, and our truest freedom is equally instantiated in them all, then neither the principle of sufficient reason nor any aspect of nature entails one expression over the other. It is not enough to say the will is not impeded or hindered or that it does not suffer from any lack in its movements, though all that is true. There is the additional and very interesting question of the nature of the resolution of that movement ‘within the given’ when what is given is a scope or range of possibilities.

In the question and answer portion of his presentation at Notre Dame (57:47 to 1:00:30), Hart clarifies his view, stating that divine freedom “suffers no limit, inhibition, impediment or lack” (which is certainly true) “and therefore isn’t reducible to any sort of spontaneous choice between differing but morally indifferent ends.” He’s talking about divine will here, but he holds the notion as meaningless when expressing created freedom as well. All talk of a truly free determination within the Good, i.e., between equally loving (and thus morally indifferent with respect to each other) ends, is nonsense? This is what I question. As a possible example, consider my being faced with equally lovingly options relative to my wife; i.e., dinner out or a show on a particular evening (but not both). Flowers or chocolate on a particular occasion (but not both). Would spontaneity in this situation be a violation of freedom if the motivation remains love throughout? What else would a perfected creative liberty be but a certain species of playful spontaneity if God’s will for us terminates in a scope of beautiful possibilities and our truest freedom amounts to a creative choice among them? It seems to me that if our perfected wills can creatively express themselves in this sense, then spontaneity per se would be a fulfillment, not a violation, of our truest freedom. Perhaps there is a certain natural spontaneity to loving expression, i.e. God wills our improvisation. The wonderfully troubling question of course would be, Does God improvise? What must the divine freedom to create be if its reflection is us includes our capacity for indeterminate, creative, spontaneous expression?

My first evening with David Bentley Hart


I was visiting family in Baltimore and I needed a break. So on an overcast evening I found Theosis or Bust, a small, dimly lit library pub covered wall to wall in books and boasting a fine selection of libations (including Ouzo). They played an assortment of Catholic and Greek chants. A pub for intellectuals. As I waited for the barman Max (Maximus) to serve up a 16 year old Lagavulin (no ice), I turned to scope out a quiet corner near the Philokalia and there he sat, a bearded man with a dark walking cane, wearing an ill-fitting sport coat with a “Do not disturb” sign on his table. He was reading Charles Hartshorne’s Creative Synthesis. DBH reading CH? Now that’s interesting, I thought. Max came through just then, and I strolled over and intruded:

       “με συγχωρείτε” (Pardon me), I said, “but you wouldn’t happen to be Professor David Hart would you? And that wouldn’t be Charles Hartshorne you’re reading there, would it?” (careful to pronounce it “Hart’s Horn,” not “Hart Shorne”).

       “Ποιος ζητά” (Who’s asking?), he muttered without looking up, reaching for his cane and pulling it a bit closer.

Without saying a word, I lowered the volume of my own choosing that I brought along to cry over, Greg Boyd’s Trinity and Process: A Critical Evaluation and Reconstruction of Hartshorne’s Di-Polar Theism Towards a Trinitarian Metaphysics.

       “Πρόστιμο” (Fine, whatever) fell out of him as he slowly raised his gaze above Hartshorne to check me out. “τραβήξτε μια καρέκλα” (Take a seat), he offered, training his eyes on the open chair opposite him. I slid in.

I’m sworn to secrecy about the conversations that followed. We were there until I know not when. All I can say is we spilled our souls to each other that night, drained Max of all his Lagavulin, singing all the Greek chants (while ignoring all the Latin ones) and cheering each other’s glass with “Opa!” I once toasted him with “На здоровье” (Na-zdorovie) which brought him to his feet in tears shouting “Bulgakov!”

We continue to meet at Theosis or Bust annually on cold, rainy nights. I can’t say when.

Quick! Read this on slowing down!


Please take the time to sit quietly with Andrew Sullivan’s recent article on sitting quietly. My family has been emailing our responses to each other. (Yes, I recognize the irony.) In addition, if you haven’t already seen Photographer Eric Pickersgill’s photographs on the isolation effect of cellphones, take time to check those out.

One of my sons-in-law emailed his first thoughts on Sullivan’s piece (which will make more sense if you’re read Sullivan’s article) which I’d like to share:

Thanks for sharing this. I’ve felt this way for years – just a vague fear of what social media and incessant connection is doing/will do to us. It’s why I postponed getting a smartphone for many years. And it’s why I quit Facebook a few years ago. Not to proselytize, but I’ve barely missed it at all.

Sullivan said:

“For if there is no dark night of the soul anymore that isn’t lit with the flicker of the screen, then there is no morning of hopefulness either.”

What I’ve found is that not only is it hard to find time away from the screens and little meaningless validations, but it’s increasingly hard to even want it – to want to spend some quiet time or to even ponder “enduring it.”

That’s dangerous.

I think you could put together a church/organization/group that basically takes all its direction and meaning from these thoughts from the article:

“The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn…If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation…It is the routine that gradually creates a space that lets your life breathe.”

Aren’t we all suffocating? I’ve found it’s virtually impossible to resist the urge to check notifications or texts or messages. But what isn’t impossible is turning off notifications (e.g., email while on vacation) or – better still – just ending my co-dependent, unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship with social media. I really don’t think it does anything positive for our lives. It’s just giving little dopamine boosts – just like a Percocet or a cigarette drag – and we find that we need more and more, we need it to go to sleep at night and get out of bed in the morning, that 11 “likes” aren’t enough anymore.

People say they can’t live without it. I think they’re almost right. I think they can’t live with it.

Being painted into being

beingpaintedintobeingAnita and I spent a few days on Minnesota’s north shore on Lake Superior. Everything we imagined wanting to be the case for those days was the case. The weather was unbelievably perfect. Zero humidity, the clearest and bluest sky imaginable, the Milky Way alive enough to reach out and touch, Aurora Borealis on display, the air, the trees; what can I say? Well, one morning as we hiked the High Falls on the Canadian border, I was overwhelmed and said, “It’s like stepping into a painting.” Not just seeing a beautiful painting on the wall, but the world actually becoming a living work of art, and you’re in it. I could no longer separate myself from what I saw, from the world I was in. I was the world I was in.

As hideously as the graphic from the previous post approximates the truth of the Void, this picture depicts the plenitude that lies beyond it – but only beyond it. Beyond the horizon of our absolute nothingness and our acknowledgment that existence is given, and that the only work there for us to do is say that it is so, there is the truth of the giver, a truth that is as satisfying in its power to define us meaningfully as the Void is consuming in its meaninglessness. Once that painful journey is taken, life erupts out of nothing, breath fills your lungs, form and substance emerge from the dark, light fills the mind, and colors spill into the landscape. “All things become yours” (1Cor 3.21b-23), says Paul, “whether the world or life or death or the present or the future [what else is there?], all things are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

Nothing but nihil

skeleton-mirrorIf you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Alexei Nesteruk (Senior Lecturer, Department of Mathematics, University of Portsmouth, UK), I encourage you to explore his work. Start with his Light From the East. Here I’d like to share an interesting article of his (from 2005) that I’ve just run across this week. Given events in my own life the past month, this piece spoke deeply to me. Parts of the article connect with things I’ve tried to express about the Void, death, identity formation, meaning-making, and I’ll stop there. If it doesn’t connect with you the way it did with me, that’s fine. Its effect upon me had as much to do with where I am these days as with anything else. I tried to express my sense of discovering the meaning of life in the context of the Void here where I describe experiencing (as opposed to just believing in) “being spoken into being.” It comes up in Nesteruk.

There is a moment, a place, an experience of one’s own self, precipitated by suffering, loss, or the careful contemplation of one’s own mortality, that brings one into the truth of one’s utter contingency and absolute ontological poverty. James Loder calls it the Void. It’s depicted in the picture that accompanies this post. I spent quite some time trying to find an appropriate picture to represent this Void. Not easy. Every representation I considered portrayed the Void as outside one’s self, as a threat that is external to one’s existence. But the truth is that the Void is one’s self, an experience of one’s own existence. I don’t know how else to say it. If you’ve entered the black abyss there in the picture, you know. If you’re still under the delusion that your worth and value to God are something God perceives (as other than his own value expressed ad extra) and is attracted to and so dies on the Cross to affirm so you can achieve self-realization, in turn enriching and growing God’s own existence, then what I’m describing will all seem BS, because part of the Void is coming to see our gratuity and radical contingency in precisely this sense. You’ll just have to encounter what I’m talking about later; and you will. I’ll see you on the other side.

Nesteruk explores the Void in other terms in his piece “The Universe Transcended: God’s ‘Presence in Absence’ in Science and Theology” (2005). But whatever you call it, it has to be faced. Momento mori (“Remember to die”) so it is said. It is not evil, by the way, though relating to it falsely spawns all manner of evil. It is simply the truth of contingent finitude. We are loath to confront it. It is the death of everything in us other than the good God gives and invites us eternally toward. But that incomparable glory of being we crave is knowable by us only on the other side of the Void. Nesteruk nails its logic and description, and I highly recommend it. Here’s a portion:

In order to know about God, one’s mind should descend inside the hellish furnace of the Big Bang in order to realise all emptiness of impersonal being. Only then becoming aware about the Big Bang as merely a lure of the evil one, who wants to distract and detach our consciousness from the reality of it hypostatic incarnate existence, is it that human consciousness attempts to acquire back itself as existence in a concrete person. But having divested itself, i.e. cleansing itself from all sorts of contents about impersonal substance, hypostatic consciousness realises the whole scale of the paradoxical tragedy of its own existence: on the one hand, being incarnate consciousness, it exists in the context of substance of the world, but is not rooted in this substance; on the other hand it does not understand the foundations of its own facticity: it feels itself brought into being without knowing its reasons and motives. It is through this acute feeling of ontological loneliness and an incessant desire to enquire about the foundations of personal life, that some other channels of human communication with reality at large experience transformation so that the intentionality of repentance comes forth, and at this initial stage one can claim that faith in God is called out in a being by the power of God and his Spirit. In a way the very fact of awareness of the loss of personhood and the mystery of its own facticity comes from acquiring a sort of faith. To feel loneliness in the universe and abandonment by God one needs faith: “those who do not believe in God do not know the meaning of being abandoned by Him.”

And when a human being by the virtue of its fate is placed to contemplate the perspective of its finitude and finality, the perspective of its own dissolution and return into that substance from which it was born, at this very moment, man realises the scale of its own falleness and apostasy against God – that single and life-giving source which makes human life indeed the most valued thing in the universe. At this very moment a human being reduces itself to the zero of feeling alone and realising a tragic mode of existence of a person in a vast and hardly comprehensible universe without a link with God, in its own effective loneliness in being withdrawn from God, that God who is still present in his incomprehensible absence. This acute awareness of the mystery of life in personhood, which is devoid of any visible care from God and comprehension of its own facticity is described by Archimandrite Sophrony as “uncreated energy,” as the arrival of the Divine Light, and the entry of the Spirit of God into the heart of a person: “…through the repentance given to me – even up to the extend when I hated myself – I unexpectedly for myself experienced a wonderful world, and uncreated light surrounded me, permeated through me and transformed me into light, and was giving to me in the Kingdom of God of Love. The Kingdom to which ‘there will no be end’ (c.f. Matthew 18: 10-14).”

This entry of the Spirit acts also as the invocation through the repentant soul (so that the intentionality of the Spirit enters human cognitive life only through the ontological repentance in which the tragic place of hypostatic consciousness in the case of detachment from God is realised) of that God who is the real Father to all humanity and to the whole universe. Here the Spirit exercises its action in a human heart providentially: through the awareness of the tragic facticity of personal life and effective abandonment by God, the economy of the Spirit reveals itself tacitly by showing us God in the conditions when God withdraws from His phenomenality and is given to us through some mediated manifestations.

A moment of true vision, when man faces himself before the abyss of nothingness, when he perceives, through being providentially abandoned by God, all transitiveness of cosmological being, this moment one can compare with that grace, which is given to a man for the first time, which enters the reality of the human heart when one is reduced to zero and when one is open those flows of Divine energies which transform the human constitution and when God, being initially absent in human life, comes back into consciousness of a man in the form of ‘presence in absence’. Afterwards this ‘presence in absence’ becomes that stable phase in the human condition in which human freedom is subjected to a trial: freedom either to achieve the fullness of communion with God, or, alternatively, to reject God and to live blind life by being turned onto itself through following the cult of mere rationality. (bold emphases mine, all the quirky spelling is his!)

Monk without a monastery

hqdefaultI am a monk without a monastery
Kill myself daily, everlasting hari-kari
Married to Creator and I’m livin’ for nothin’ but Love
Walking the earth, still I live in the Heavens Above
Had to cut all the ties to the Limited—
Running the race of grace hard, and I’m winnin’ it—
Seeing the Logos Code in the Void like the Matrix
I lost all illusion and found the Eternal Oasis.

(Dwayne Polk)