As social beings, we humans are profoundly influenced by the past, often in ways we do not entirely comprehend. While free and self-determining, it is nonetheless true that our values, moral commitments, manners, expectations, and vision of the world are shaped by a cultural inheritance; sometimes even one we might reject or question if it became explicit to us—ideas have consequences, in other words.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to learn that the modern citizen of the West, whatever her religious commitment (or lack thereof), is deeply formed by a late-medieval theological dispute about the nature of God, however arcane this may seem to an advanced technological age.
In a nutshell, the question is this: Are there limits on what God can do? If God is omnipotent, as the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions all hold, can God make 2+2=5? Can God make the past not to have been? Could God command us to hate Him? Could God rewrite the Ten Commandments to read “Thou shalt commit adultery”?
If God really is omnipotent, then God should not be limited by anything. His will, his choice should be determined and shaped by nothing other than what he chooses. If limited by anything else, even by the laws of logic, God would be subservient. And an omnipotent God cannot be subservient, so God is limited by nothing other than his own choice, which he can change.
Or so the argument goes. It’s an enormous mistake of course, for while God is not limited by anything external or superior to him—whatever that is would be an über-God—genuine freedom is the excellence of acting in keeping with one’s own being, and God, because not caused or dependent in any way, simply is his own being. God does not obey external rules, but he does always act in keeping with his own nature and so cannot will anything counter to himself. There are all sorts of things God cannot do, precisely because he is God. (He cannot be contingent, or sin, or will that 2+2=5, for instance.)
Sometimes termed divine voluntarism, and often associated with William of Ockham (1280-1349), the mistaken “absolute sovereignty” position piously attempts to preserve the dignity of God but ends up casting a long shadow over divine integrity, human worth, and moral and political normativity.
Start with morality. The older natural law tradition, as articulated by Thomas Aquinas, thought of the moral law—including the commandments of God—as a dictate of reason, not of pure will. Further, because humans are created in the image of God, and endowed with reason, humans are able, at least in part, to know the good and right through reason. On this account, humans are made for flourishing, for the good, and were oriented toward the good by their own nature. We want what is good for us, we can know what is good for us, and the moral law helps us attain what we always already want—well-being and true flourishing.
However, if the moral law is ordered only by God’s willing it so, and it could have been ordered in an utterly different way—up could be down and down could be up, morally speaking—then the moral law is only accidentally ordered to our flourishing. It might be, but it might not be, and there is no compelling warrant to consider it so—it’s potentially random, even capricious. Consequently, the moral law is not intrinsically related to human flourishing and a chasm appears between our freedom and morality.
While Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas all thought that morality educated us in what it meant to be a good, happy, flourishing person, the new morality taught that our freedom was not by nature oriented to morality but rather that morality was a limiting condition, a check, on our freedom. God’s will crimps and cramps rather than sustains and nurtures our will. Now, it was thought that the pious would obey (perhaps from fear, perhaps from love), but human freedom and morality were positioned in opposition to each other, as combatants. Was it so surprising that self-respecting men and women would eventually choose freedom rather than God? Would choose license over an alien and alienating moral constraint?
It didn’t need to be that way, of course, and giants like John Paul the Great, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis have performed heroic labors trying to recover the older, better, and lovelier tradition of divine-human friendship, but the damage is done. The modern impulse, seen so clearly in someone like Immanuel Kant, is to privilege human freedom or autonomy (self-legislation) against moral directives thought external or heteronomous (legislated by another). The voice of the other—whether God, nature, tradition, authority—is thought an illicit and arbitrary curtailment of our creative power and force.
Or, consider nature. Thinkers as diverse as Heraclitus, Plotinus, Seneca, the author of Genesis, the Psalmist, and Aquinas, all believed that nature was full of beauty, meaning, and purpose. Sometimes, admittedly, in ways that would not meet the test of science. But the idea that matter was inert, just brute, dumb, mechanical, and purposeless, is a metaphysical rather than scientific idea, although it is the metaphysics of our own age. Ancients and moderns both could look at the world and see a book, a text speaking forth goodness, order, and purpose. Nature and nature’s God, as one important document put it, spoke self-evident truth. Nature was never just matter, but logos, and attending to nature was to be attuned, to be whole.
But if God can make 2+2=5, and if his creative power was arbitrary, then “living in accordance with nature” was not normative. In fact, revolting against the limits of nature could be an exercise of genuine human freedom. Consequently, the claims by those like Francis Bacon—nature was to be tortured or put on the rack to yield her secrets—or Marx—past philosophers interpreted the world, now we would change it—are simply the logical extension of a misguided theology.
In our own time, almost every natural limit is thought to be indifferent or oppressive. That is, either we can simply disregard the limit or are perhaps even duty-bound to resist it. The human body, for instance, is thought to be a matter of our own whim and construction, as in the transgenderism of our time. Sexuality is a flux and continuum, as in the ongoing sexual revolution. Humanity itself is up for grabs, as in genetic editing, partial-birth abortion, and personhood for animals.
And on it goes. We could multiply examples. But these are all symptoms, not causes. The really human things are not being attacked and abolished by the moral revolt we witness, these are simply the spasms and death throes of a civilization long unmoored but preserved by the cultural inheritance of an earlier time.
As the institutions and form of life long nourished by those “long since under earth” decay, so goes humanity, for we live by those graces bequeathed to us by others, just as we suffer because of those who abolished that grace.
R. J. Snell is 2015-16 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow of Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University and professor of philosophy at Eastern University. His most recent book is Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.
Image by Bethany Weeks via Flickr.