Freedom as creative liberty among loving options

jazz_pianist

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?

Advertisements

God wills our improvisation

jarrett_3

American pianist Keith Jarrett. It might not be your thing, but I promise, if you set time aside to sit, quietly and alone, and listen to his 1997 CD “Las Scala” (named after its venue, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan), you shall be transfigured.  Well, not literally. But “La Scala” is a musical Mt. Tabor, an unveiling within finite human capacity of God’s creative design. Now, as you listen, keep in mind that Parts 1 and 2 are live improvisations. He’s on stage—creating. Yeah. The final rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is an equally beautiful improvisation upon that wonderful piece.

Improvisation. What’s it have to do with God and us? Everything, I think.

I seem to find myself in conversations about created freedom and divine will these days. And part of what often creeps up in these conversations is a certain fear of occasionalism that attends the claim that God knows creation only by knowing himself (i.e., his own sustaining acts within creation). It can’t be, so I’m told, the case that God knows I’m typing these words “because” I’m typing these words. That would suggest God is being “acted upon” by my typing, and that can’t be. God’s knowledge of the world cannot be the effect in God of our doing that which he knows we’re doing. So God doesn’t “get” his knowledge of the world “from” the world. This does seem to reduce creation to the divine will as a mere ‘occasion’ for the latter. The answer I seem to get from my Orthodox friends on this is, not surprisingly, “It’s a mystery.” I’ll leave that as it is. I think there’s plenty of mystery in a certain sense of “mutuality” too, but I don’t want to get into a dispute over that here. Rather, I wanted to share a question I asked David Bentley Hart (regarding God’s will for human being as such) last Spring. Let me share the question and then come back at the end to make a suggestion regarding this whole debate over God’s will and created freedom.

My question to Hart:

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 (unique not in the creation of beauties not already comprised in Christ as the summum bonum, but simply as the creature’s contribution to the consummate beauty of ends synergistically achieved). Would the gnomic will retain a unique function in this case?

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)

The conversation was generally about the gnomic will. But the relevant point 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. I hope you see how consequential this is for the question of God’s will in its immediate sustaining of creation as such, on the one hand, and the determination of creation’s actual expressive forms, on the other hand. These are not convertible ‘ends’. That is, God’s will in sustaining is assymetrical (we don’t share in sustaining our existence, we are given being), but what God gives is itself a “scope” of possibilities whose particular determined forms are not asymmetrically willed by God; they are left to created agency to decide. (I see some squirming going on as some read this.)

keith-jarrett3I’d like to suggest that this should shape how we understand God’s relationship to creation as qualifiedly mutual—that is, asymmetrical (non-mutual) in the giftedness of life because the logoi are God asymmetrically present in us, but truly mutual in the gift’s improvisational return to God. A Bach composition or a Gershwin piece offers a scope or range of interpretive expression. These are never played twice the same way, nor can they be performed at all apart from some interpretive license. This is not due to any limitation in those who play either composer. It is what Bach and Gershwin wanted. It was their will to be so improvised upon. But apart from that, improvisational license is inherent in any creative act.

If the logoi of created beings can be analogously understood, then the divine will ends in defining the ‘scope’ without prescribing or determining the actual creative expressive ‘form’ which Truth, Beauty, and Goodness take in us—as us. But this means, I believe, that God’s will in sustaining creation as such embraces created improvisation on our part, which means—I’m afraid to utter it—the divine will (viz., logoi) is given to us to improvise upon. I mean, if you want to retain mystery, there you are. The endless possibilities are God’s, their final arrangement is ours. But if this is his will, then it seems to me that the mode of God’s knowing creation would reflect the mode of his willing; that is, God would know the improvisational form which divine logoi finally take in us as a knowledge of form ‘apprehended’ or ‘received’ and not only a knowledge of created being as ‘given’. What the world gives to God is what it gives back to God in improvisation upon and within the grace of being.

Prayer

You are the themes, the scope, the rhyme
We improvise upon in time,
Are not made less giving away
Your temporal form to what we say;
These forms are what you will to be,
A mirror of your Trinity.

God’s creative options

hqdefault

Just thinking out loud here. No commitments. Just speculating.

In the immediately preceding post I noted Hart’s criticism of those who imagine God’s choice to create in terms of a deliberation among infinite options. There are some, for example, those of a more analytic bent, who revel in talk of ‘possible worlds’, logical constructs depicting God’s creational ‘options’. Most suppose these to be infinite, since God is infinite. But certainly they’re innumerable. God could have created, say, a world with no sentient beings in it at all. Or he might have created a world populated with beings programmed to do only his bidding, or he might have — and on and on the possibilities go.

I think talk of an infinite number of possible worlds other than this one, possible worlds God deliberated and from which he picked this world to create, is mistaken. I do think there are innumerable possibilities this world faces, possible futures this world’s own inherent dispositions and capacities might or might not realize in time. So talk of possible ways this world can become is certainly meaningful. But other initial states, i.e., a number of other beginnings or fundamentally different original orders, a pre-creational slate of infinite and contrary ‘options’ of which our world was but one? This all seems impossible talk to me now. I think Hart is right. God doesn’t choose from a menu of innumerable possible worlds he deliberates, because there are not an infinite number of worlds God could have created, and certainly no ‘best of all possible worlds’ debate to have in Leibnizian fashion.

I know this is a big claim. So why make it? The main reason to think God either creates this world or none at all lies in an Incarnational metaphysics of participation. Consider non-human (specifically, non-hypostatic or non-personal) creatures and entities. How do they achieve their end or telos in God? How is God “all in all” (1Cor 15.28) in them? Paul taught (Rom 8.22) that all creation groans “waiting for” the children of God to be revealed, that creation is only finally liberated when it is “brought into the freedom and glory” of humankind. Non-hypostatic realities find their telos not immediately in God, but mediately through human beings. That is to say that creation’s perfection is implicated in humanity’s perfection. I take this to be a fundamental metaphysical principle definitive of created being per se. I don’t know how to prove this, but my hunch is that Romans 8 is best understood as describing a kind of mediated teleology: all things other than human beings are implicated in humanity’s perfection, and all humankind is implicated in the perfection of the Incarnate One. This defines the scope of possible worlds because it defines the path of perfection which any creation must take.

The word Options on a cork notice board

Certainly no creation is conceivable that is not loved. And nothing is loved by God that is not intended for the greatest possible union with God, i.e., that does not have its end in God, its share in and contribution to God’s being “all in all.” For if God is the summum bonum, all possible worlds end in God’s being “all in all.” But none of this is possible apart from Incarnation. That is basically what I wanted to say. God would not create that for which he would not will himself as end, and as no non-hypostatic reality has its end in God immediately but only through implication as an aspect of the hypostatic existence of another (Rom 8), such created hypostatic reality becomes essential to any conceivable creation as the means by which God brings that order in its entirety to fulfillment in himself. Essentially then,

…there’s only one possible creation—Incarnation. Creation and Incarnation are one and the same possibility in God.

God either creates to bring all he creates to fulfillment in/through Incarnation, or he doesn’t create at all. All other varieties and created distinctions don’t constitute a range of options God chooses between. They are all potentialities inherent in the capacities and dispositions God breathes into his one determination to create for Incarnation. It should then be impossible not just to speak of this creation apart from Incarnation/Christology, but to speak of God’s creating at all apart from the intention to incarnate. Indeed, I’m suggesting that all possibilities for creation derive from and return to the one possibility of Incarnation.

What of Leibniz? We talk of the logic of infinite possible worlds and whether there is a “best of all possible worlds.” But God is the best possible world and whatever God creates has its best possible end in him. When God is viewed as summum bonum defining the end of every world (which must be the case), there can be no one best possible world among an infinite number of possible worlds (if we multiply worlds for the sake of argument) since every candidate possibility has God as its end. And thus,

as the value of anything created ex nihilo derives entirely from God and has its end in God, no world-order God brings into being can be better or worse than any other order God brings to be. Hence, there is no ‘best possible world’. Anything God does is as good as anything else God does.

In the end, there is in fact only one possible world to create—an initial state suitably fitted and sustained for the emergence of sentient-hypostatic/personal life for the sole purpose of Incarnation.

Prayer: Be all in all in me today, Incarnate One. May all I do—my seeing, my thinking, my touching, my speaking be your home.

Motivation for creation

exnihilo

Nobody emphasizes the doctrine of ‘creation from nothing’ (creatio ex nihilo) more passionately than the Orthodox. However, while exploring this beautiful and frustrating doctrine through reading and in conversation with Orthodox friends, I have moments of confusion about the consistency with which they articulate the position.

One of the best pieces I read last year was David Bentley Hart’s Notre Dame (July, 2015) paper “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of the creation ex nihilho [sic].” Getting into his introduction, Hart says:

“…while one has to avoid the pathetic anthropomorphism of imagining God’s decision to create as an arbitrary choice made after a deliberation among options, one still has to affirm that it’s free; that creation can add nothing to God, that God’s being is not dependent upon the world, and that the only necessity in the divine act of creation is in the impossibility of any hindrance upon the ability of God’s expression of his goodness.”

Everything but that God is actually free to refrain from creating. I may be nit-picking, sorry. I’ve expressed my concerns over how it is to be consistently maintained that God’s determination to create is both free and an eternal and unchanging aspect of his nature. Today I had one of those moments of confusion while reading Fr Aidan Nichols (Wisdom from Above: A Primer in the Theology of Father Sergei Bulgakov, pp. 33f) on Bulgakov’s view of God’s “motivation to create.” Nichols summarizes:

“Bulgakov begins his account by pointing out that the God who creates from nothing does not do so because he needs the world – meaning by that, through some hypostatic or natural necessity to complete himself in thus creating. God does not need the world in order to be the Trinity. He does not need the world in order to be divine. As we have seen, he is already the fullness of personhood by being the tri-hypostatic God who in his existence as Father, Son and Holy Spirit exhausts all the modes of personhood there are – I, thou, he, we, you. And in his divine nature he is already plenitude, than which nothing greater is possible. No, the world issues from God’s creative freedom.”

So far so good. Nichols continues:

“This said, however, Bulgakov is very keen to emphasize that the world’s creation was in no sense an arbitrary act, the result of a vast divine caprice. The creation is not just a manifestation of God’s power. He calls such an idea blasphemous, an impiety. And the reason is that the God who in no ordinary sense needed the world still in his love longed for it, desired to bring it about from nothing. Here the love of God is the key.”

Not arbitrary. Not the result of caprice. Not just a manifestation of power. No complaint here. Even “longed for and desired,” yes. At this point, however, a slight transition is made to a more positive articulation of God’s motivation to create. Nichol’s quotes Bulgakov (Lamb of God) directly:

“God is love and it is the property of love to love, and to enlarge oneself by love. It is proper to the divine love not only to realise itself within the limits of divinity but to overflow those limits … It is proper to the ocean of divine love to spread beyond its shores….”

This becomes for Bulgakov the motivation in God for creation, that which makes it not arbitrary. The problem, of course, is that God’s being “free” in creating presumably means that it is as proper for God not to create as it is proper that he create. So arguing for a divine motivation to create from its being proper to God’s loving nature is problematic. Otherwise we are in the very difficult position of asserting God’s freedom to do what is not proper to him, i.e., refrain from creating. As it stands, the Bulgakov quote could be construed in Process terms, which I’m guessing the Orthodox don’t want to do. And while it is indeed “the property of love to love,” Bulgakov has already insisted that all the ‘proper’ modes of love are fulfilled in the plenitude of the divine relations. So in grounding God’s creating over not creating in what is proper to his nature as love, Bulgakov implicitly renders the notion of God’s not creating improper, and that’s a problem.

I’m coming to see the Orthodox position on God’s “freedom from creation” as God’s freedom merely from any external constraint of necessity preventing God from doing what God wants. But this is perfectly consistent with a Process view of God and creation as necessarily related where the necessity is construed as the inherent necessity of God’s being as love and not as an outward compulsion. Tom Oord claims that much. But surely the Orthodox want to say something more about God that Process theologians would disagree with, namely, that God’s freedom is a freedom from an internal disposition or orientation of nature that makes creating any more proper than not creating.

But the passage isn’t done. Immediately after the above quote from Bulgakov, Nichols continues:

“Granted the possibility of creation, the divine love by its own inner character must take up that possibility. God’s ‘insatiable’ love moves him to go out of himself, to love elsewhere than himself, to love beyond himself, in the world. So there is a sense in which God ‘had to’ create, after all. But this is an altogether sui generis kind of necessity and freedom.” (emphasis mine)

Nuremberg_chronicles_-_f_2v

Sui generis. It’s hard to argue against someone’s position when what they say about God appeals for its intelligibility to the terms applying sui generis. I suppose one could push back here and posit the sort of libertarian choice Hart feels is a “pathetic anthropomorphism” and then save the notion by qualifying it as a sui generis kind of libertarianism, a sui generis kind of deliberation, a sui generis kind of power to the contrary, etc.

Let me finish with Nichols’ summary of Bulgakov at this point:

“The ‘necessity’ of love is really, writes Bulgakov, a ‘fusion of necessity and freedom’. The Absolute need have no relations. But in fact as we know from revelation, the Absolute is God. And God can only be understood not in himself alone, but in his relation with the world as well. If God were simply the Absolute all our theology would be negative theology, saying what God is not. But God is not just the Absolute. He is God, related by his love to the world. And so our theology can be affirmative theology, saying what God is. God is the Absolute who is also the relative or relational, and this makes him a mystery of whom we can only speak in apparent contradictions, statements with two sides either of which, if pressed to its conclusion, would tend to contradict the other. For Bulgakov the most important of these ‘antinomies’ or seeming contradictions is found in the very statement of what the word ‘God’ means. It means ‘the Absolute existing for another: existing for the world’.”

I’m both inspired and troubled.

Prayer: Needing nothing, you create me. Wanting nothing, you desire me. Full beyond measure, you pursue me. Absolute, you invite me into relationship, that you may be all in all. Be all in all in me today.