In our me-centered universe we define terms like freedom, dignity and God by looking inward. We understand freedom as our ability to act autonomously to achieve our own desires. Dignity describes our right to self-determination. Because we have made God in our own image, his freedom necessarily impinges on our own. He is like us, only more powerful and more present (more able to act with total freedom). When what he wants isn’t what we want, He is free while we are not.
Ron Highfield, the Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University, provides an incisive look at this modern me-centered culture in God, Freedom & Human Dignity. Building on the works of Alisdar MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, Highfield describes the ‘inward turn’ and the subjective self-understanding of contemporary culture. He describes our tendency to regard God as a threat to our own self-actualization. Contemporary people respond to God with defiance, subservience, or indifference (or some combination of these three attitudes). We secretly fear that God’s omnipotence and omnipresence thwarts our own self-realization, self-determination and self-perfection. In short, God is seen as the enemy of all human freedom and dignity.
Yet the gospel and Christian theology tells a different tale. In part two, Highfield unfolds a picture of the triune God whose freedom consists not in His ability to achieve His every whim, but in self-giving relationship (within the Trinity and towards us in Christ). When Jesus comes in the flesh to bring salvation to humanity, He doesn’t impinge on human freedom but gives us real hope and provides the means by which we become our true selves. The love of God for provides for us the basis for all human dignity because we become secure in the fact that we are loved. As we grow in the grace of God we attain true freedom in relationship with Him. The sign that the love of God is formed in us is that we reach past our self-referential love where we love God for our own sakes but love God for God’s own sake (cf. Bernard of Clairvaux).
This brief summary does little justice to the richness of Highfield’s text. His description of the me-centered culture insightful. Too many approaches to spirituality (even Christian spirituality) devolve into self-referential naval-gazing. And if we are honest, there is something in the water which causes us to suspect that God is out to spoil all our fun and prevent us from doing what we want when we want. Highfield repudiates the modern vision that makes humans gods and remakes God in our own image. He calls us to experience God on God’s terms and to trust His love for us.
I found this book personally edifying and it got me to examine my self understanding, and my view of God. I affirm Nicene Orthodoxy and believe that God has acted decisively in Christ for our salvation, and yet if I am honest there is a part of me which doubts how much God is ‘for us.’ I wasn’t expecting such an academic book to give me such a strong and passionate picture of the love of God but this one did. Far from being a threat to human freedom and dignity, God is the ground for true freedom and dignity. Our identity is rooted in him
I give this book five stars: ★★★★★
Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
NOTE: as I was preparing my review I noticed that my friend Elliot also reviewed this book on his blog, you can read his review here. If my review leaves you unconvinced, read Elliot’s. He’s smarter than me.
3 thoughts on “Beyond Self-Referential Freedom: a book review”
Thank you for reviewing my book. I am so pleased that you felt that the book communicated a “passionate picture of the Love of God.” I deeply believe that serious and rigorous theological reflection should lead to loving and praising God.
Well thank you for a wonderful book! It is sad that so much modern theology does not lead to doxology. I’m grateful your book does! and thought your use of Taylor to name our peculiar modern-me-centered malady was spot on! Thanks!