Freedom, gender and transcendence

Of all the contributors to The Work of Love (see previous posts here and here), Anglican theologian Sarah Coakely is the most critical of the revisionist, “kenotic” picture of God. (Interestingly, she’s also the only woman contributor.) In particular, Coakely insists that “classical” theists have intelligent responses to many of the concerns motivating the other contributors. She cites, for example, Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe’s contributions in his book God Matters (a book I haven’t read, but intend to).

Her essay is subtle and nuanced, but I want to focus on her discussion of “libertarian” freedom as the lynchpin of many of the other contributors’ arguments. As she writes, “To most of the writers in this volume it is taken as an axiomatic good that humans should enjoy a type of freedom that places limitations on God’s power and foreknowledge” (pp. 204-5). She notes that this freedom is defined in an “incompatibilist” sense—that for humans to be genuinely free God has to “restrain his influence.”

Coakely suggests, however, that this picture of freedom is “gendered” in the sense that it portrays freedom as “an act of total independence from restriction, conditioning, or the admission of dependence,” a view that some feminist thinkers have characterized as “an intrinsically ‘male’ fantasy.”

An alternative, “compatibilist” view of freedom would evoke a “picture . . . in which I am most truly ‘free’ when I am aligned with God’s providential and determining will for me.” On a more classical view of providence, Coakely maintains, God can be understood—perhaps more maternally–as empowering rather than overpowering. Citing Julian of Norwich, she highlights “a notion of divine desire that finds its completion in human responsiveness rather than setting itself in competition with it” (p. 206). On a nuanced classical view, divine causality need not be thought of as competing with creaturely causality, but as making it possible.

Whether one agrees with Coakely on the “masculinist” nature of incompatibilist, or libertarian, freedom, I think she’s right to point to the pivotal role it plays in some of these “kenotic” accounts of God’s relation to the world. And I think she raises an important concern about some of the proposals developed by Ward, Polkinghorne, Fiddes and others. The concern is that when human and divine power are seen as locked in a kind of zero-sum game—such that for me to be free God has to “step back” or self-restrain—we risk putting God and creatures on the same “ontological plane” so to speak.

In the classical tradition—stemming from the “three As” (Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas)—God is not a being among beings, but the source of all that exists. As such, God’s relation to creation is “radically other” than the relationships among created beings. Thus it can be argued that God’s omnipresent activity does not compete with the powers of creative beings, but rather sustains them in their very freedom. (Such a “noncompetitive” view of divine power has been articulated in modern times by Kathryn Tanner, Rowan Williams and William Placher, among others.)

I’m not sure where I ultimately come down on this. As I said in my previous post, the impassible God of classical theism can sometimes seem remote from the passionate, involved God of the Bible. But the Bible also affirms that God transcends any image we can make or comparison with created things. The classical tradition rightly upholds this sense of divine transcendence. However, it’s also true that the classical picture of God has sometimes been rendered in an omni-causal deterministic way that really does threaten to suffocate human agency and any sense of reciprocity with the divine. Maybe reading McCabe will help me sort this out. 🙂

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