This week, the United States will celebrate our annual Independence Day (July 4th--the day in 1776 we declared, a bit preemptorily, our independence from Great Britain).
Freedom and independence are words with great political and cultural meaning for us; and not only for us, but for the numerous nations who (more-or-less following our lead) also declared their independence from sovereign rulers whom they believed were oppressing them, both socially and (not-infrequently) religiously.
Sad to say, Christianity was just-as-not-infrequently the religious oppression the people were revolting against. To some extent this is even true of the United States: even though our own national revolution was grounded on a mixture of orthodox Christianity and nominal deism (such as Franklin’s and Jefferson’s), the history of our country’s settlement in the centuries before the revolution was typically based on fleeing religious (as well as financial) oppression in Europe. And it can hardly be argued that Buddhists or Hindus or Muslims or witches, or atheists or agnostics for that matter, were the perceived (and even the actual) oppressors; not in this case. (Resistance by flight or arms to Muslim religious oppression is an earlier story, of the Middle Ages.)
Consequently, I fully expect that our agnostic and atheistic and otherwise sceptical colleagues have a special fondness in their hearts for Independence Day--because those particular first American Christians-and-nominal-deists made a provision of the principle that a person should be free to responsibly follow his or her conscience and best judgments concerning such issues, the most important issues of all; even if that means rejecting the religious beliefs of the founding fathers themselves--whether or not such a rejection involves substituting something better, including truer, as a set of metaphysical beliefs in their place.
Nor am I writing today’s essay in order to condemn such rejections, in principle. I have always consistently (even religiously!) insisted of ally and opponent alike, that insofar as the person is walking according to what light she can see and is looking for more light thereby, then I consider her my sister, whom I should support with my life (if it comes to that), even if she does not recognize me for her brother.
(The people I have problems with are the ones who, on any side of any aisle, would mire us in fog. That attitude is worse than an attack against me, which I care little for; that is an attack on my sister-in-heart, condemning her to hopelessness. And I am not remotely tolerant of that.)
Having said all this, however: as a metaphysician, I am aware that many people are not aware, that notions such as ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ are rawly metaphysical claims about reality. They are also claims which, in regard to our relationship to the evident system of Nature in which we live, can only be affirmations not only of supernaturalism (of one or another kind), but of supernaturalistic theism (of one or another kind).
Ontologically speaking, only a self-existent fact can truly be independent. We ourselves, however, are clearly not Independent Facts of that sort: we obviously depend upon the system of Nature for our existence and abilities, to at least some large extent. What can be coherently meant, then, by freedom and independence?
The first answer must be, that since we are not Independent Facts, we are not and can never really be ‘independent’. Whatever worldview we accept, we aren’t going to be escaping from this fact, any more than we are going to be escaping from whatever Independent Fact ultimately grounds all existence. (I am setting aside, for purposes of brevity, the notion that two or some other limited number of IFs exist, independently of each other, upon all of which Facts we are dependent. If readers want to discuss this option in the comments, I will have no complaints, although I will point out first that if the proposition is that we ourselves depend on only one of those IFs, then for all practical purposes we might as well be talking about a single IF anyway. If you wish to propose cosmological dualism, you’ll have to go the distance. I discuss this more directly myself as part of an ongoing series of metaphysical argument here.)
Very well; then what if Nature is the IF? We will recognize, realistically, that we humans will not be independent of Nature in any ontological fashion. But, is there not some kind of meaningful freedom, a derivative independence so to speak, which we can still coherently propose of ourselves in relation to Nature?
To this I answer that such a derivative freedom depends, and must depend for its possibility, on the intrinsic characteristics of the IF. We are fond of using the phrase ‘to make free’. But if by ‘make’ we think in terms of force instigating reaction, then clearly there can be no freedom at all, even derivatively, in such a reality. I somewhat doubt we could even have the illusion of freedom, for the recognition of an illusion as such depends on being able to distinguish between reality and only the appearance of a reality. Such an ability to distinguish, however, depends itself upon the very freedom to act, instead of merely to react, which is now being questioned; or else the consideration has been put back one stage for no gain.
There is a crucial tension which must be resolved in metaphysical accounts of freedom, when discussing derivative creatures such as ourselves: we, our selves, are dependent for our existence and capabilities, on something other than our selves; thus any freedom we have must itself, paradoxically, be dependent on something other than our selves. But how can this be a legitimate paradox, and not an outright contradiction to be rejected?
It should be clear in any case, that if the IF’s intrinsic existence only involves mere power-effect, then only mere power-effect is responsible for our existence and capabilities. We cannot be even derivatively free, if such a reality is true.
Moreover, it should be clear that if the IF is atheistic (aside from questions of naturalism vs. supernaturalism for the moment), then there can be no doubt as to whether the IF’s intrinsic behaviors, upon which we depend, are anything other or more than mere power-effects. By excluding, per hypothesis, the notion that the IF itself has free will, we exclude the notion that the IF may in some way choose both to grant this gift to a derivative entity and also to somehow reduce its own merely direct control over the behaviors of this entity. (The two grantings might be the same grace, looked at from different perspectives.) Nature is not going to make personal sacrifices for our sake, if Nature is not a personal entity. Nor is the problem removed by proposing an atheistic supernature with either an equally non-personal natural system derived from it (in which we live) or else a personally sentient and active natural system derived from it (for that only puts our problem back one stage for no gain.)
If I take my freedom seriously, then--and I do, especially as a necessary presumption I find I must hold in order to be engaging in any argument--then I should conclude from the presumption of my freedom, that the IF must be theistic.
But does this much mend matters? The previous deadly question can be asked just as pertinently: if God is ‘making’ me free, then is my ostensible freedom meaningful in any way? If I answer, as before, that it depends on whether I consider the intrinsic self-existence of God, the final reality, to be about mere power-effect... well, we are talking about the ‘omnipotent’, aren’t we? And if we aren’t, then we’re verging into acknowledging that while we may be talking about some conscious intentional active entity, we aren’t really talking about the IF anymore, but about some subordinate entity instead. (Shades of Mormonism here! Which, incidentally, is why I have insisted that one way or another Mormons are not talking about the final IF of reality; but the IF is what I am interested in, especially as a metaphysician.)
To sceptical criticisms such as these, I am entirely sympathetic, and even ready to agree. (I feature a whole entry agreeing with such criticisms from the particular standpoint of ethical grounding here.) If God, in His own self-existence, is only an active sentience causing power-effects in whatever creations He creates, then my apparent freedom is just as illusory as it must be under atheism. It isn’t even a real-though-derivative freedom. And I am only a puppet; at best a fictional character like the characters in one of my novels.
But then, so much for the relevance of any argument I may be making, including the ones I have been making up to this point! Such a proposal violates the Golden Presumption: that I (and you, my reader) can act--that even if derivative, we still are somehow free.
Yet, didn’t I say near the beginning that the claim of our freedom and independence--a claim we celebrate in the United States every July 4th--is itself a claim not only of supernaturalism but of supernaturalistic theism?!
If I am real and am more than just a knee-jerk automatic reaction in a system of non-rational reactions and counterreactions, then I must be supernatural in some constituent way to that system of non-rational reactions (even if I am also largely constituted by that system and its behaviors). Furthermore, if I am real and more than these things, yet am not myself an Independent Fact (which is obvious), then God must also be real and must be the IF, with Nature (where I agree this exists) being a subordinately created system, along with myself. The argument only breaks down where God’s existence is regarded as being most basically the forcing of effect.
Therefore, insofar as I recognize the presumption of true (if derivative) action ability to be required for making any argument per se (whether the argument is mine or even an opponent's), I conclude that God’s existence must not be most basically the forcing of effect. But how can this be?
Here I find I need to appeal to what I think is a dichomatic option regarding the IF’s self-existence (whether the IF is God or not-God, supernaturalistic or naturalistic, in any combination of those claim-sets.) Either the IF is dependent upon itself for its own self-existence, or else the IF is not even dependent upon itself for its own self-existence. Each of these options, in its own way, resolves the problem of mere force-effect being intrinsic to God’s self-existence; but each option does so in very different fashions.
The latter position, which goes by the technical name ‘privative aseity’, essentially denies that even God’s own action is intrinsic to God’s own self-existence. If this sounds rather more like a static atheism than theism--I agree! Nevertheless, it is also, ironically, the position that has been usually taken by theistic philosophers, since the days of Aristotle. (Whether they were misunderstanding what he meant is beside the point; though the debate over whether Aristotle was a theist after all might not be entirely beside the point! But neither is it a debate I intend to engage in here.)
If the IF does not act at all for His (or its) own self-existence, then of course the IF’s existence must not be most basically the forcing of effect. But then again, a host of other problems begins to emerge which, while not immediately inescapable, will eventually resolve into effectively proposing atheism, I believe. Since I already conclude on other grounds (ones logically more prior--and ones that involve positively respecting the existence of even my opponents as responsible persons), that I should believe not-atheism to be true instead, then I am inclined to reject privative aseity and consider the other option of self-existence.
The other option, is that God’s own action is intrinsic to God’s own self-existence. (That the IF is going to be paradoxically self-existent in any case, is something we will be required to logically accept whatever else we believe to be true, once the logical math has been done; so I am passing over this potential difficulty, not without some sympathy, but for sake of relative brevity.)
On the face of it, this proposal should look more immediately theistic: even if I decided (which I would, for a technical reason I will not go into here) that I should accept positive aseity to be true, and yet still tended (which I don't) to believe atheism, I think I would find it more and more difficult to maintain that belief, the longer I consistently held to positive aseity.
But what positive aseity entails, is nothing other than that God is (borrowing biological language for a semi-anology) both self-begetting and self-begotten. We are talking at least, then, about God the Father, and God the Son, as nevertheless being the singular Independent Fact.
Normally I would discuss the option of modalism here. Instead, I will abbreviate to the result I already know (from experience) I will reach if I do: the Persons must be distinctively real as persons, even though they constitute one substance. They cannot be like two of the three or five ‘aspects of the Goddess’ in some popular mythologies; or rather, the Persons are aspects of the singular God but also more than only aspects. The persons are to be regarded as distinctively real as Persons.
What we arrive at, then, is a discovery: even though the Independent Fact does act (and so in that regard exercises power) in order to be eternally self-existent, this intrinsic action of the IF is itself an interpersonal relationship. The Father actively begets the Son, the Son actively concedes to the Father, so that the circuit of self-existence will be complete and completely active in one substantial unity.
If power-effectment then (to coin a term), is an interpersonal relationship at the most foundational level of reality, restricted only in the sense that self-existence chooses to not cease existing and cannot choose to simply exist and also not exist simultaneously (on pain of contradiction of ultimate reality, which is itself), then the first hurdle has been exceeded: my existence as a person does not depend on mere reaction to stimuli, whether atheistically or under mere monotheism. Consequently, neither would any derivative freedom I am given by God: to exist as a real boy, not as only a puppet. (Which is the hidden point to the fable of Pinnochio.)
I do not say that this is the end of the difficulties. I would (and do) need to work out other implications and corollaries from this, as a beginning of understanding the process of creation distinct from self-existence--a creation which I find includes myself (as a not-God entity).
But I can say from here, that insofar as I presuppose my freedom in some meaningful fashion--the same freedom any atheist, agnostic or other sceptic presupposes and indeed insists upon, in standing for what they believe to be correct--then I find I am robustly asserting a reality’s truth that is not only supernaturalistic, and not only theistic, but at least bi-nitarian. (I haven’t discussed a Third Person yet, because as far as the argument has gone here I do not discover such a person. This does not mean I would never reach such a conclusion from inference, however; refer to my section of chapters on "Ethics and the Third Person", especially from this entry onward.)
It is, in fact, only in orthodox Christianity that I find these precise claims also being made by people who, in turn, are drawing inferences from data ostensibly revealed in a historical story: which in fairness should dramatically increase my respect and regard for that general claim of special inspiration!
On the other hand, if (as some Christians prefer to do, though this is not my own preference) I began with the orthodox Christian metaphysical system as a presumption, then personal derivative freedom of the only sort that can be coherently available, even to a proponent of atheism, is provided for as a logical corollary of the worldview. (Actually, such freedom is necessarily presupposed even to presuppose the worldview, which leads to what I regard as major problems of circularity; so I personally do not recommend proceeding by this route. But to the extent that some Christian philosophers insist on doing so, I affirm, somewhat tautologically, that such freedom is in fact specially included in the package!)
Which leads back to the grief of my initial remarks: that Christians, who of all people ought to have known (and know) better, have still insisted on religious oppression throughout our history. Such oppression is not only immoral, it directly contravenes the very doctrines we profess to hold and cherish as truths. Sceptics are entirely correct to account us as hypocrites when we advocate, and have advocated, such things; and I cannot personally find it in my heart to blame them if they turn with loathing from the fruit we have spoiled (a fruit spoiled, I would say, by the persistent technical heresy of gnosticism, insisted upon by us as a safeguard we ourselves ought to have rejected), and reject our attempts at linking freedom--including the freedom cherished and died for by our ancestors, in order to secure the blessings of liberty today in these United States and other nations--with a system they find through simple (if occasionally oversimple) historical polling to have been, with some regularity and in some ways, an enemy and oppressor of freedom.
It is in honor of such sceptics that I am writing today’s entry. Yet it is also precisely in honor of such sceptics that I am, in fact, an orthodox Christian apologist. Against the abuses of our history, I urge now and always: please, do not give up hope.
'Christianity' is not the heart of freedom, whatever some uncautious apologists may have said to you. And you are correct to complain when Christians try to promote it as such (for this is the heresy of gnosticism, among other things.)
But God, the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit, too) is Himself the very heart of freedom. And He gives His very life for your freedom, too: cherishing you, yourself, whoever you are--forever.
God’s hope, then, to all our readers, around the world, on this day, and every day.
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This week, the United States will celebrate our annual Independence Day (July 4th--the day in 1776 we declared, a bit preemptorily, our independence from Great Britain).