Thursday, November 30, 2006

Karl Barth, God, Freedom and Love

Karl Barth, in the Church Dogmatics, talks about God as 'the One who loves in freedom'. I do think this is somewhat helpful, but I must confess to some lingering uneasiness about it, specifically with the theological role that Barth makes God's freedom play.*

By this, I don't mean to say that God is unfree, that God is externally constrained or compelled. To speak of freedom in the way that Barth does is a means of speaking of God's sovereignty and omnipotence without the difficulties that attend to those specific terms. In this way, speaking of God's freedom can be quite helpful.**

But my concern is that 'freedom', at least in the wake of Kant and the (rest of the) Enlightenment implies a sort of free agent libertarianism, a sort of atomistic individualism, which usually also comes with an idea that one may do as one likes, so long as one doesn't infringe on another's rights to do the same. The will -- voluntarism -- is exalted as a primary dynamic, and relationship is set aside, except as mediated through the will; in our contemporary world, friendship and marriage are most significant because they are the relationships we choose.

In just this sense, it completely fails to capture the dynamic of our Lord. The broad Scriptural narrative: gracious creation of something out of nothing; the calling of and promises to Abraham; the deliverance of Israel from slavery and establishing of it as a chosen nation for the good of the world; coming among us -- 'stooping to the creation' -- for our salvation in the incarnation and paschal mystery (cross, tomb, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit); the giving of the Spirit to the disciples; acting at the 'end of time' to consummate and fulfill the creation: these are not the narratives of a distant, unrelated, faceless deity who contemplates in splendid isolation about whether or not to act, who may choose one thing one moment and another thing at another. This is God, who willingly and without compulsion binds himself (and love is a binding) to his creation -- itself radically contingent -- and is faithful despite our failure. Thus, God is free -- uncompelled by anything beyond himself -- but God freely, constantly, faithfully, commits himself to the creation. This certainly speaks of love -- and yes, the love is freely given -- but the constancy and faithfulness and willingness really mean that we need to find a more adequate category for faithfully depicting the biblical God. 'Freedom' isn't wrong per se, it simply doesn't go far enough.

And the love is truly gracious, too -- the creation relies on it, but it is not compelled. God loves because of who God is; it is part of God's glory. (And, as I've written elsewhere, God loves us because we are his redeemed creation: the love makes us loveable, but it truly makes us loveable. It is radically contingent on God's love, but that love truly effects our being loveable.) So, again, there is a sense in which freedom is correct, but it simply doesn't go far enough in faithfully rendering the Lord, who is wise, loving, faithful and true.

An esteemed colleague yesterday suggested that Barth may actually be mounting a critique of the Enlightenment notion, by parsing this freedom out in terms of love. He suggested that perhaps this might not be so much a freedom from as a freedom for. My ears perked up at this and I might pursue this suggestion a bit more. Certainly this common, Enlightenment-era notion of freedom, as popular as it is in modernity and postmodernity, is ripe for re-thinking. But I wonder if 'freedom for' is even really adequate for thinking of God?

I've begun thinking that 'binding' might be another way of getting at this, that God is the one who willingly, lovingly, faithfully, multiply binds himself to us for our good, because of who God is. God's binding himself arises out of who God is, what God does. There is no 'external' compulsion or necessity which requires God to do so; and yet -- wonder of wonders! -- he does so. This is his love, good pleasure, glory.

A human analogue of this is in the concept of sacrament. 'Sacramentum', the Latin from which the word sacrament comes, originally referred to a military oath, a binding of someone to the Empire, one's unit, etc. As we engage God in the sacraments, it is a way in which we are 'bound' to God. The mutual binding is, of course, radically asymmetrical, and strictly analogical. God binds himself, out of God's love, for our good; through the Spirit we are bound, through God's love, for our (and our neighbour's, and the creation's) good.

This also corresponds to the New Testament notion of 'musterion', translated as mystery, and also used to the refer (in Greek) to the sacraments. The NT notion is typically parsed out in terms of the overwhelming goodness of God and God's action in and for the creation, as an expression of his good pleasure.

So perhaps instead of being free, full stop, the Lord is the one who faithfully, lovingly binds himself, without compulsion, for the good of the creation, as an expression of his glory -- and in this way, perhaps we truly have a 'sacramental God'.

*Gaunilo and I spoke about this briefly at the recent AAR conference. By the way, did you realise that he has bought the Church Dogmatics -- the entire series -- for $50? I've bought individual volumes for more than that. Some guys have all the luck.

** In order to make this a better critique of Barth per se, I will need to engage in a deeper reading of the relevant sections of CD; at this point it is instead an exploration of concepts.


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