The Freedom of God

Continuing with Heather’s dangerous theological games, she leads us to the following question:

What does it mean to say that God is free?

Like saying that God is sovereign, saying that God is free is not what we often think it is. It is a different kind of freedom, quite apart from the philosophical freedom that a Greek philosopher might posit. I will conclude with a little more on why I think that all freedom must be limited and contingent.

For lack of time to be rigorous about this response, I will model it somewhat on Heather’s own statements about God’s freedom. Where I am stealing from theologians, philosophers and scripture, I’m not making citations because of a frank lack of time to spend rigorously doing so.

God is able to act in history, and does. This is a faith statement. I’m not aware of any action of God that cannot be described in any other way. There is no sky-writing to demonstrate to all that God is present and active. God seems to have no “objective” activity, as it were. Part of what it means to be a theist, for me, is the faith statement that God acts in history. That is also part of who God is if God is meaningful in our lives at all. God must be a subject.

With a different classical philosophical tradition from what Heather prefers, I would say that God and the universe are co-contingent. God without the universe is meaningless. Perhaps I just have a very broad idea of what “universe” means, but I also have the philosophical commitment to locate God “here” rather than in some theoretical “outside” that is in every way imperceptible and incomprehensible. God probably does not relate to space and time as we do, but I think God is still in there somewhere.

God’s freedom is irreducibly relational rather than atomistic and impervious. God’s freedom is not disinterested. It is not hermetically sealed off from us. It is not hovering above, unmoved. God relates to God’s self in the trinity and God relates to us as creatures. This means that God can be affected by us. I posit very strongly the vulnerability of God as an idea that makes things like the love of God and the activity of God meaningful.

God is free to change, a freedom which most theologies jealously keep away from God. But even Abraham can negotiate with God, and the 1st century Jews got their messianic expectations from somewhere – expectations which God did not fulfill, except by reversing them entirely. I think that understanding that God can change has far-reaching implications for what we mean by faith and trust. God is not a cosmological constant which we can allow for in our calculations. God is not a predictable partner. If God is free, then I think these things follow.

God values freedom and acts among agents who are as free as possible. I say “as free as possible” because I don’t think freedom as we often conceive of it exists at all. I think that “free will” is an idea state that is never experienced by any human being. We never escape the conditionality of our agency, period. Given that, however, I don’t think that any part of God’s agenda involves taking away the meager freedom that we do have in any way. The ‘love’ of slaves is of no value, and coercion has no place in the Kingdom.

God’s freedom also means that God is incomprehensible in God’s fullness. Every statement about God is contingent upon another, and every understanding of God is radically incomplete. This much could be said about any other person, however. You never know anyone so well that they can never surprise you anymore. If we can’t even know people that well, how can we ever know God that well?

Lastly, I have a philosophical statement that is behind this thinking that I need to make clear: Pure freedom is meaningless; it makes every decision purely arbitrary.. In a non-arbitrary universe, that is, one with any meaning whatsoever, freedom will always be contingent. If God is non-contingent, then we cannot say that God is also loving, or good, or just, or in any kind of relationship, because these are all things that restrict freedom. That they do so is incredibly good, however, because these are the things that give meaning to our experience and to our actions. If the universe is anything but nihilistic, then contingency is necessary. If any of our decisions have any meaning whatsoever, they derive that meaning from their contingency.

7 thoughts on “The Freedom of God

  1. Nice.I especially like what you have to say about God’s freedom to change. I mean, it sort of makes me twitch, too, because I don’t want to be wondering all the time if God is going to change His mind and walk away from a covenant that was His idea in the first place. But, you’re right on with Abraham and others who negotiate with God. Even those who’d quibble and say that God had already decided to change tactics, still have to admit that God changes!

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  2. Nice questions…I like Simone Weil’s understanding of the freedom of God here. For Weil, in the act of creation itself, God chose for God’s freedom to be limited. In her terms this was like the first crucifixion. In the act of creation, God sacrificed God’s own freedom and omnipotence in order that creation could exist as that which is contingent, yet exists in freedom and of its own accord. And this is so because love exists only when an other is given its own existence to be an other. To love is therefore to be disinterested in the sense that loving the creation is not to the degree that God dictates what creation ought to be. Creation can develop on its own, but it is the logos that holds it in balance.Very Platonic way of reading God’s freedom, but it is the only intellectually satisfying way I have understood God’s freedom, omnipotence and love in relation to the cosmos.And you are right. The nature of freedom itself is limited and conditioned by the structures of reality. There is thus an isomorphism between God’s own self-elected limitation on freedom with the natural limitations of our own freedom.

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  3. I’d always thought that freedom IS self-limitation. Freedom is the freedom to choose this and not that. When one thing is chosen, untold legions of things which are not what was chosen are rejected. The power to do and be ‘anything’ is necessarily limited by the act of doing or being ‘something.’ Freedom is the freedom to transform infinite possibility into a singular actuality. Therefore to say that God is everything and everything is God is not so much incorrect as it is hopelessly behind the times.

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  4. Very nice, Doug. I would say that God without the universe isn’t “meaningless”, but it certainly doesn’t matter to us. When we speak of God we’re only speaking of this specific God who has chosen to be for us. We don’t know and can’t really properly conceive of any other God. So, while it is theoretically possible that there could be a god without the universe, it wouldn’t be YHVH.

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  5. I liked a lot of what you wrote.The one thing I am not clear on is your suggestion that God is free to change. Humans change their minds about things because they had incomplete information, or sometimes because they are capricious. But God has complete information and cannot make any kind of decision that is not already perfect to begin with. And to attribute capriciousness to God would be to assign a human flaw to a perfect God. The biblical stories that have God changing “his” mind are, in my view, examples of anthropomorphizing.I am in agreement with process theology, though, which says that God is changed by the world in the sense that God responds to the changing conditions of the universe as events take place. I believe that God is also affected by what we do through his/her infinite compassion. I liked the statement that “There is no sky-writing to demonstrate to all that God is present and active.” God’s activity is of a different order than the actions of ordinary agents in the universe. God is not a being like others, but of a wholly different order of being.

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