Friday, February 13, 2009

Tillich on Freedom and Humanity

Because I'm hoping to go to Minnesota's "Boundary Waters" this summer with my son, I've been reading and thinking ahead about the trip. This metaphor for Tillich's view of freedom comes from imagining the trip. Between lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) one must follow paths while carrying one's canoe or kayak. Portages between the lakes are by way of trails, and the trails pick their way between various hazards. I'll name just three; bogs, rapids, and thickets. If I were a salamander, the bog would be a good place to go. If I were a trout, the rapids would be a good place to go. And if I were a rabbit, the thicket would be an excellent choice. But I am a person, and If I want to make it through the Boundary Waters, I had best stay on the trail. The trail is my "destiny," because I am a human being, that is, assuming that my son and I go to the BWCA this summer. But it is also my choice, since I don't have to go to the BWCA. But it is also my destiny in another sense: I think that a trip to the BWCA is the best option, all things considered, for spending time together with my son this summer. In that sense my "choice" is determined by the point of view that leads to it, in a way that is analogous to the portage trails between BWCA lakes being the best option in that literal landscape. And we can keep on creating new levels of understanding to add to this analogy: Will I go just with my son? and if so, why that rather than the alternatives, and so on. The point is that freedom and determinism are not exclusive in Tillich's view of Freedom.

"Instead of separating the spirit from the conditioning psychological realm, we shall try to describe the rise of an act of the spirit out of a constellation of psychological factors. Every act of the spirit presupposes given psychological material and, at the same time, constitutes a leap which is possible only for a totally centered self, that is to say, one that is free." (Systematic Theology, Vol. III, p. 27.)

John Stuart asked for a clarification of this uniting of destiny and freedom in Tillich's thought--above, "the conditioning psychological realm" and "the rise of an act of the spirit out of a constellation of psychological factors." Specifically, he was interested in whether destiny is predetermined or character influences choices. Here is Tillich taking that question head on:

"...the whole complex of acts, in which this [act of choosing] happens has the character of freedom, not freedom in the bad sense of indeterminacy of an act of the will, but freedom in the sense of a total reaction of a centered self which deliberates and decides. Such freedom is united with destiny in such a way that the psychological material which enters into the moral act represents the pole of destiny, while the deliberating and deciding self represents the pole of freedom, according to the ontological polarity of freedom and destiny." (Vol. III, p. 28.)

In an ordinary spacial frame of reference we have up/down, near/far, left/right. We do not ask whether these "opposites" exclude each other. We understand that they describe poles within a complete frame of reference. In the same way that we cannot have a meaningful sense of "right" without "left" in a physical space we cannot have a meaningful sense of freedom without destiny as its pole in Tillich's formulation of the reality of freedom in human life. If I make a "choice" for no reason, it is a meaningless freedom, a vacuous choice. If my choice is constituted by a meaning that determines it, it cannot be viewed in the traditional way as being incompatible with determinism. In fact, to be meaningful, freedom must be compatible with determinism. But how?

John asked a great question precisely because it requires us to get beyond this impasse where the discussion traditionally stalls.

Here's the further question that will help us specify how freedom is manifest in the framework of destiny and the "rise of an act of the spirit" by which a choice is made: What constitutes the cognitive space in which the pole of freedom manifests itself?

Since Tillich does not confront this question specifically--and it is this question that will allow us to best understand his perspective on freedom--I will: we can always go to a further logical level of understanding or explore further in the present psychological and cognitive context, or seek out another person's advice. That is, we are free because our cognitive/psychological frame of reference open.

This comes as a bit of a shock to me, since I had always thought that Wiliam james had frames the question in the best and shortest possible way when he wrote that the free will problem was about whether "the will is a free variable." But if the will is "free" with respect to being determined, then it is only vacuously so (according to the rationale of Tillich's sketched above).

The important point comes in here: at any point in time doesn't the "Tillichian" view of freedom--assuming I've got it right--reduce to the perspective that determines it, and if not, then doesn't it reduce to an act of freedom separated from that which determines it, thereby falloing prey to the critique of Tillich's by which James' view was just discarded. (That is, was Tillich just going in a conceptual circle that he did not complete, but if he had would have put him right back with the Jamesian, traditional, view?)

Recall the quote used last week to set out the crucial point: "All ethical open to ethical criticism under the principle of agape." (Vol. III, p. 103.) To which I pointed out, "Agape is not one of the factors determining the psychological forces acting on us, but a commitment to remain open to all possibilities in a spirit of good will toward all." (Feb. 7, 09) In essence, I asserted the point that we are now questioning. Tillich asserts that it is "the elevation of one element of finitude" (Vol. III, p. 103.) over others that distorts human values and morals as it destroys human freedom.

It is the commitment to love that keeps us outwardly focused, that keeps us focused in a way that preserves the cognitive and psychological space that makes human freedom possible. But to be loving just as to be free we must carefully avoid the temptation to elevate a finite good to the place of defining the meaning of life--the perspective by which we make our way through life. If we do so, we are no longer "open to ethical criticism under the principle of agape." To be self-serving, and to serve any finite good, is to destroy the perspective of ethical freedom guided by love out of which our actions are meaningfully determined and free.

To understand that is to understand the core point in Tillich's thought and--if his thought succeeds--in Christian faith: God is Love, and we only "represent" God correctly when we understand that God cannot be given a finite representation (idolatry) but must be realized through human nature (Tillich's "transparency") as the continual openness toward transcendence made possible by agape, the ground of human freedom. For Tillich freedom and humanity have the same root, the divine ground of being, which is love.

{Note: I am sorry about the rather frequent typos over the last few posts. I am both very busy and am not able to save my posts or import them... So you're reading first drafts, and my "craft" isn't up to to snuff as a result. Sorry! It's only my belief that the subject is very worthwhile that keeps me posting.]


Under the Eagle's Wing said...

Thank You, God Bless

Earthstar said...

Nice work -- I'll dust off my Systematic volumes and chime in on Tillich soon. So delighted to see that Tillich is still interesting to people, more than 40 years after his death.

Freedom is clearest for me from Bonhoeffer, for whom freedom and responsibility [response-ability] are the polarities, and the transcendent he calls obligation. Agape and obligation are pretty much the same concept, perhaps? The free venture is the deed, rendered up to meet the need. Obligation drives toward volitional, decisional, surrender to God and [or perhaps in] neighbor. It is the 'nevertheless Thy will . . . ' of Gethsemane. In Tillich's language, self-transcendence appears at that moment of surrender. Otherwise, it's a monumental ego trip, no? Or more subtle forms of self-service?