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?


9 comments on “Freedom as creative liberty among loving options

  1. brian says:


    I am swamped at work and harried by life, so I cannot properly attend to your exposition here. I do want to clarify a few things in order to possibly move the argument along a bit.

    Spontaneity as it is generally understood in arguments about freedom, will, and the nature of the Good is specifically tied to a subject understood as limited to a momentary, whimsical reactivity to empirical stimulus. Locke, for instance, cannot metaphysically comprehend or establish a subject that would exist outside of specific temporal urgency. His subject is narrowly punctual, unable to transcend sensory data impelling a decision. Decision here may be a choosing, but it is not rationally deliberative or conscious of memory that persists beyond sensory stimuli or working with an understanding of ethical responsibility that has a narrative dimension or an understanding of the person as bearing intrinsic relational ties that persist beyond the present moment.

    Spontaneity in modernist terms does not coexist with any sense that the will is guided by the intellect, that the Good is what allows liberty to be liberty by providing a rational end. When one redefines spontaneity so that it is not contrary to the latter, one is talking about something else. Further, the kind of spontaneity you seem to prize is part of the “event quality” of truth or the logical consequence of what Desmond calls “open wholes.” None of this is incompatible with God as Pure Act. Indeed, Balthasar explicitly argues that temporal dramatic possibility is always already grounded in the pleromatic, loving relations of the TriUne God.


    • Tom says:

      Thank you Brian. I very much want to keep all you say in mind. Maybe I’m just describing what Desmond and von Balthassar describe. I’ll definitely explore that.

      So apart from the use of the term “spontaneity,” you don’t have any objections. Certainly “spontaneity” in the modernist sense is as you say, meaningless, for the reasons you point out. I’m not talking about that sense. All the factors you list (it not being rationally deliberative, conscious of memory that persists beyond sensory stimuli, respectful of ethical responsibility, or narratively grounded) understand spontaneity without any reference to transcendental grounding. They’re not teleologically understood. Modernist spontaneity is an absolute voluntarism free from transcendent givens. I grant this is incoherent (philosophically and existentially).

      We might repeat here with ‘spontaneity’ our difference over the use of the term ‘libertarian’, i.e., the word is owned by a history of discourse and we’re not allowed to transform its terms. Maybe that’s the case, though I’d like to think the word can, if carefully qualified, allow us to express some important insights about freedom that aren’t meaningless in any modernist sense. Perhaps “improvisation” will do as fine. It doesn’t have a philosophical history and it’s not comprehendible apart from some notion of the spontaneous. I’m fine with that.

      My point was – once we correct the modernist disavowal of our irresistible and transcendent grounding in/toward God as the Good, as the ‘given’ that the modernist cannot tolerate, there doesn’t seem to be any need to equally disavow all notion of the spontaneous (the improvisational). It would be a spontaneity or improvisation ‘within’ the Good. This wouldn’t be irrational (any more than “riffing” or “scatting” in music) is irrational. It’s supremely rational if it occurs within the givens of key, time signature, and the narrative of a simple melody line. Then it’s beautiful, though no more predictable (within those givens) than any spontaneously creative act.

      My other point is that Hart’s statements appear to dismiss the resolution of the will with respect to equally loving/good options as inherently spontaneous in the modernist sense. I mean to say the “event quality” derives in part from the indeterminate nature of the expressive act ‘as creative’ (or improvisational). So we have ‘ends’ within an ‘end’ (perhaps “open wholes”).

      I’ve got the morning off, but I understand your swamped. Please get back when you can at your leisure. No rush at all. 😀



      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Tom I don’t see any reasons why you conclude that ‘Hart’s statements appear to dismiss the resolution of the will with respect to equally loving/good options as inherently spontaneous…’

        Hart did respond to you in the affirmative, ‘Sure, works for me’ in reply to your ‘creaturely expression…. in the range of creative possibilities.’ Did he not?

        I fail to see what is not clear about Hart’s position. I don’t see the dichotomy, the antithesis, between God’s telos and creaturely freedom that you keep revisiting, over and over again.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Tom says:

        Hi Robert,

        If I was unclear, I’m sorry. Hart has been clear on the (non-modernist, non-absolute) libertarian nature of choice. No confusion there. The confusion for me came when I heard him describe (check out the Notre Dame link at the beginning of the last paragraph) a choice between morally indifferent ends as meaninglessly spontaneous in the objectionable sense. Perhaps I’m stretching his statements farther than he intended. If so, then there’s no issue. It just seemed to me that when I put his agreeing to the idea of our freedom being a ‘creative liberty’ to self-determine within a range or scope of equally loving options beside his objecting to freedom being the choice between “morally indifferent ends” (and I take the difference between “equally loving ends” to be “morally indifferent”), that’s where I saw a problem. It’s a problem because if the former is true (i.e., if our fullest freedom in a creative liberty to self-determine within a range of creative expression) then freedom really is a certain kind of spontaneity (or improvisation, if that’s better).



  2. brian says:


    Like Robert, I appear to be somewhat confused as to what you are finding problematic. Indeed, as you surmise no doubt, I cannot see why “open theology” and the like thinks the classical metaphysics of Pure Act is incapable of accommodating authentic creaturely freedom, creativity, and dramatic interaction. Nor do I quite see how it is you think that an “improvisational” capacity is somehow threatened or ignored by older theoretical understandings of personal liberty.

    If you can rephrase or try a new perspective to help illuminate where I am blind to your deeper concerns, that would be helpful. I shall probably have to respond on another day, alas.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    The identification of ‘equally loving ends’ with ‘morally indifferent’ here is not correct – and not in the context of the Notre Dame conversation. There he objects to the modernist libertarian understanding of freedom as choice between morally indifferent ends; he jokingly chides ‘the von Balthasarians’ of sitting on the fence about this issue, keeping them from not accepting apokatastasis.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. brian says:


    I rather suspect your equation of “equally loving ends” and “morally indifferent” to be a sticking point. The capacity to choose various ethical means towards a particular end does not diminish a teleological end, as you know, of course. The sense that the former is not constrained by a moral or utilitarian calculus is perhaps akin to aesthetic options. A painter must decide if oils or watercolor are preferable. Using another metaphor, one must musically respond to a moment bearing a complex symphonic past and an ongoing prospective future. The person acts as an artist, not as a mechanical thing that must functionally produce a good end. Within an eschatological eternity, one would have to see temporal durance and novelty as contained within a loving actuality that yet beckons into an ever further deepening that requires the grace filled completion of what we know as adventure, daring, creativity, and gift.


  5. Tom says:

    I’m on the road and will try to reply more fully later if I need to. But apparently I’m seeing mirages. I mean, Hart doesn’t dismiss as modernist the sort of spontaneity I’m describing. I wasn’t convinced he did, which is why I published this looking for, among other things, clarity.



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