In Catholic, Orthodox and Arminian circles, “Freedom” often seems to be pushed as the central dogma of the faith. More important than the divinity of Christ; More important than the victory of the cross; More important than the all powerful, completely loving, salvation-intending will of God; Human “Freedom” reigns supreme. If we are not free to reject salvation, how can we truly love God? If we are not free to reject God’s loving, salvific overtures, where is our dignity as human beings? If we are not free to choose Hell, anathema sit.
My conviction and contention is that this popular view of “supreme libertarian freedom” essentially constitutes an idolatry of freedom and a perversion of Catholic dogma. I hate to see myself admitting it, but I suspect the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition actually has it mostly right when it comes to this matter of freedom.
In my own reading, I have encountered many authors who invite us to imagine freedom as a “scale”: One side of the scale represents a choice to perform some loving work, while the other side of the scale represents a choice to perform a perverse and sinful action. This image is incredibly useful for illustrating a variety of views on freedom.
Arminian / Catholic / Orthodox – Unimpeded Libertarian Freedom
In the popular Catholic mind, humans possess a supreme and unassailable dignity in that we are free. When presented with a choice between good and evil, it is entirely up to the freedom of human subject to determine which alternative will be chosen. The human is completely impartial; his choice is completely uninfluenced; whatever choice is chosen will be determined by that persons freedom, and nothing else. The image is that of the scale previously described, in which one side of the scale is equally as appealing as the other side of the scale, and therefore the choice that is eventually chosen is determined purely by the whimsy of the human will.
This is libertarian freedom. When someone makes a choice, this choice is not determined by outside influences; it is determined purely by the agent who makes the choice. The interesting thing is that this libertarian view would appear to contradict Catholic dogma at a cursory reading.
Augustinian / Calvinist – The biased scale of Freedom
It is a Catholic dogma that the fall lead to something called concupiscence in every human being who has ever lived. Concupiscence is essentially a tendency towards sin. Despite the fact that we are free, our human natures have been wounded such that we tend towards sin in everything that we do. It is an important philosophical point to establish that this tendency towards sin is not an external influence upon us; it instead arises from within ourselves, and proceeds from our very nature as human beings, and therefore it is not something that could be said to nullify freedom. As the Calvinists say: we are free to behave according to our natures, and if our natures are wounded and tend towards sin, then we are free to behave according to that nature and accordingly, we will almost certainly sin.
The image is that of the scale of freedom, as before, however that scale is now biased. Given any choice between good and evil we do indeed have the power and freedom to choose the good, however because of our wounded nature, the scale is biased such that we will in most cases tend towards choosing evil. The scale has a weight underneath the cup that represents the choice for evil; so while it is indeed possible for us to defeat this bias and do good, this is incredibly difficult to achieve due to the opposition we face via the bias given to the evil choice.
So in a sense we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influence is able to determine the choices we make. However that libertarian freedom is not “neutral”: it is instead biased towards sin from within due to our wounded human natures. This bias towards sin is called concupiscence within the Catholic tradition.
Arminian Grace – Equalising the Scale of Freedom
The Arminian account of the plan of salvation (as I understand it) is thus: Human beings were originally created with complete libertarian freedom, which is to say we were able to choose to sin or not to sin and this choice was not determined by any force outside of ourselves. However our first parents chose to sin by eating the forbidden fruit. One of the effects of eating the fruit was that we lost our libertarian freedom: now instead of being able to choose between sin and love, we always choose sin. Arminians (and Calvinists) call this “total depravity“. Our scales of freedom are biased towards sin. However the good news of the Gospel is that God has sent us his Holy Spirit, and this Holy Spirit is able to act as a counterweight on the scale of freedom, equalising the scale such that we regain our libertarian freedom. Now we are once again in our pre-lapsarian condition: we are able to exercise our freedom and choose between good and evil, unimpeded by any bias towards one choice or another. So the essential good news of the Gospel is not that God has saved us, it is that he has restored our freedom and therefore restored the opportunity for salvation.
Step back for a moment and consider the situation: It could easily be described as schizophrenic. The image is that of the demon and the angel sitting on each of the human’s shoulders, whispering into his ears and trying to influence him. The Holy Spirit acts as an equal counterweight to concupiscence. Yes, we have neutral libertarian freedom again, but only as a result of two competing vectors of equal magnitude pulling in opposite directions and equalising to a null vector. The human subject finds himself pulled in every direction at once, and as a result ends up going nowhere, with the final destination being determined purely by his will.
The end result is that both salvation and damnation appear equally appealing: The human subject has no compulsion to choose either way. As such, his choice is apparently “free”, although I would prefer to say that the choice is random, and randomness does not constitute freedom.
Calvinist / Augustinian Grace – Biasing the Scale Towards Good
Compare this with the Augustinian/Calvinist understanding of the Gospel. In this account of events, the fall lead to a wounding of our human nature such that we tend towards sin. In other words, our scales of freedom are biased towards sin rather than good. However the good news of the gospel is that God has sent his Holy Spirit – not to equalise the scales of freedom, but instead to change the bias. So now instead of being biased towards evil, we are biased towards good! Technically we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influences are able to determine the choices we make, however the Holy Spirit has healed our nature, and not only healed it, but glorified it, such that rather than tending towards evil, we tend towards good.
The image is close to that of the Arminian account: There is an angel and a demon sitting on each shoulder of the human subject, whispering into his ear. However the angel is ultimately more persuasive, and tends to defeat the demon in debate. As such, the human person tends towards doing good rather than evil. Calvinists have historically referred to this as irresistible grace.
Universalism – A more nuanced view
A common charge against universalism is that it nullifies freedom. I contend that universalism implies no such thing. I draw on the Calvinist/Augustinian understanding to explain my case.
We are free to behave according to our natures. If our natures are sinful, we will tend towards sin, but if our natures are glorified we will tend towards love and good works. The good news of the Gospel is that God is in the process of healing our natures, and not just healing, but glorifying them. That is to say, God is attempting to make us impeccable – incapable of sin. This is not to say that God is trying to take away our freedom to sin, instead he is simply removing any impulse within us which would tend towards sin. In other words we will retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom.
The Universalist eschatalogical vision is that in the end times God will have successfully defeated sin whilst safeguarding freedom. This is to say, we will all retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom. As such, we will only ever do good. However in the present time a battle is still raging – the Arminian vision of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on another is apt to represent the situation. We are in the midst of a battle between good and evil. Evil is powerful and will put up a fight, however we have a promise from God that God will have the victory.
The end result is that yes, in the present time we have neutral libertarian freedom: The spirit is battling with sin/concupiscence and it seems that they are equally matched. However the eschatalogical vision is that God will win the fight. Eventually we all will choose him, freely. Moreover, at that point, our natures will be completely healed and glorified – which is to say we will be impeccable; even though we are free to sin, we simply wont do it, and will instead always choose the good.
This vision is entirely glorious. God will not force us to choose him, but nevertheless we will choose him. Our freedom is safeguarded, our salvation is safeguarded. No one will be damned. Confronted with such a vision of the future, what can we do but explode in faith and hope, praising God and petitioning him to bring it all about? Let us love God and love his plans, praying for them and working towards them in love. God really is that wonderful; Salvation really is that beautiful. Thanks be to Christ for the total victory which he wrought at the cross. Amen