“O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” Thomas Cranmer, Collect for Peace
Whose service is perfect freedom… Cranmer reminds us of the Biblical and catholic vision of true human freedom and flourishing in his Collect for Peace (you can find it in the new Book of Common Prayer 2019 as it used in the Daily Office on Tuesdays).
As I have written and shared elsewhere, I believe the question of what constitutes true human freedom and dignity lies at the heart of the once-every-500-year Reformation that we are in right now. The question might be phrased around the issues of authority that have been at the heart of every 500 year reformation: Where does the authority lie in defining the issue of our day?
The issue of our day is human freedom, dignity and flourishing. It’s not just about the sexual revolution anymore, nor the convulsions over gender. It’s about the very assumptions that shape our approach to human rights, business, capitalism vs. socialism, the appropriate size and involvement of government, euthanasia and abortion, immigration policy…. Where does the authority lie in defining what it means to be a human being, with perfect freedom and dignity to flourish?
Our secular society has planted its flag in the ground of the authority of the state to define such freedom and flourishing in terms that are entirely subjective and untethered to any moral absolutes—and especially untethered to the Judaeo-Christian tradition! One need look no further than Justice Anthony Kennedy’s definition of human freedom in Casey vs. Planned Parenthood (1992) and its promise of defining even the mystery of life itself as each individual chooses.
“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” —U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy
But Archbishop Cranmer, following Martin Luther, understands that the biblical view of human freedom, “perfect freedom,” and therefore human dignity and flourishing, comes from surrender and service to Christ himself. Moreover, this vision is shared by Protestants and Catholics alike who find this vision of human identity, human freedom and human flourishing rooted in both creation and the Scriptures.
I am writing today from a diverse gathering of Roman Catholic and Evangelical theologians from Hope College (Reformed) to Cambridge University to the Pontifical Institute in Rome, with church leaders of all ages from Ghana, Slovakia, the Netherlands, England and the US, leaders of mission societies and Christian entrepreneurs. We have been gathered by the Acton Institute and Reformation 500/Coram Deo around the topic “Loving our Neighbors for the Common Good: Subsidiarity, Responsibility and Change.”
One of the most compelling addresses I heard this week addressed this very issue: “The Human Person at the Center of Society.” It was the first address because, as I have hinted above, everything else we discuss flows from this principal vision at issue in our culture today. The address was in response to and in reflection upon Psalm 8:3-4: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him…” (emphasis added).
Let me share seven insights from the Christian view of human identity, freedom and flourishing that I received from this address (with thanks to the Rev. Trey Dimsdale from the Acton Institute)
- The overarching property of humanity is our capacity for discursive reasoning, solving problems logically and sequentially: Only humans have the capacity of self-reflection (Ps 8: “What is man…”? No other part of creation is asking that question!). This capacity for self-reflection and moral reasoning is a quality that God possesses, and to the extent that we also possess this quality it verifies the fact that we are made in the image of God (Imago Dei) which is the very immutable grounds for our human dignity. Such grounds contrast with the ever-shifting secular grounds for human dignity. Moreover, we have the capacity to orient our intellect toward God’s vision for common good and our own individual flourishing.
- We are created free, but this freedom must be connected to reason in order that we may be moral actors who can sacrifice for the sake of what is right, and to see beyond the immediate. So, the dominant understanding of freedom from a Biblical standpoint is to reject both the extremes of determinism and libertinism. We have a freedom which must be properly oriented in order to be true freedom… “Whose service is perfect freedom.” We are created FOR love and TO love. But we love “because He first loved us.”
- We are capable of heroic goodness AND profound evil (Romans 7). By virtue of our rebellion, sin and the Fall, we are in need of grace. Secular visions of human freedom and flourishing do not offer grace—they can only offer coercion, typically from the state. Christians appeal to God’s grace and his power to re-order our lives and will on the basis of faith and reason.
- We are social beings created for social relationships. Adam was never an island. He was created from the beginning for relationship with God, then relationship with Eve and the created order. Therefore, it is simply impossible to be “human” by exercising one’s freedom while isolated from others on an island of narcissism and solipsism. We need to be both personal and communal, and the family is the first community. This community of the family is pre-political; it is not a construct of politics, social contracts or institutions. The family finds its source in the creative activity and life of the Trinity—the “holy family” within the Godhead itself.
- We are embodied. The Bible and the teaching of the Church teach us that we are not just souls “driving around in a body” as if we were driving a car! Our soul is not just a PART of the body but rather the animating principle of the body. The soul is a gift of God knit inextricably with his gift of the body. When we do not grasp this, we fall into massive disorder in our lives.
- We have been given reasonable emotions. Emotions can be an instinctive measure of conscience. Emotions should be oriented towards truth, beauty and the beatific vision. So the emotions must also be ordered by reason. Therefore the “passions” we have are capacities to do certain things, to have certain experiences that can be oriented to the good: even anger can be oriented toward the good as we see in Jesus’ cleansing the temple and Paul’s command in Ephesians 4 to “be angry but do not sin.” But there are other “passions” (such as lust or greed) which cannot be ordered! As CS Lewis observes, “The heart never takes the place of the head…emotions can be reasonable or unreasonable.” So this takes enormous discipline to make sure that emotions are reasonable and ordered rightly. Christians find these disciplines in the daily “means of grace” provided us in word and sacrament.
- We have an eternal destiny. All of our decisions are points on a line that has an ultimate destination—heaven! This goes against emotive, romantic and reactionary decision-making. The fact that there is an ultimate destination for everyone must affect every decision we make, as CS Lewis observes in The Weight of Glory: “You have never met an ordinary person…It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities that we should conduct everything we do…”. So, are we helping people to become immortal beauties or everlasting horrors?
I share these insights not because I think they are exhaustive, but because I believe they are so compelling, so beautiful and winsome an alternative to the secular visions of human freedom and dignity, that we can virtually shout with Paul in the face of the darkness of our culture “Therefore we do not lose heart!” (2 Corinthians 4:1, 16)
Surely this vision is essential to the Great Commission mandate that was highlighted at GAFCON 2018 (Jerusalem) to “Proclaim Christ faithfully to the nations.” Therefore, I’d like to pose a question—perhaps even a challenge to the GAFCON Bishops gathering in June 2020 in Kigali.
Dear Bishops, in your determination to meet in Kigali rather than Canterbury in 2020, you have assumed the moral authority and responsibility that bishops rightly exercise to guard the faith and order, doctrine and discipline of the Church. You can do this for the Anglican Communion in contrast to the Canterbury-led bishops who will almost surely weaken the doctrine and order of the Church when they meet at Lambeth.
Dear Bishops, would you please exercise your teaching authority in Council to articulate for Anglicans yet again the Biblical and catholic understanding of human identity, human freedom and human flourishing? This would enable us as global Anglicans to address the secularizing cultures and pressures of the west with a true and alternative vision of human freedom and dignity that manifests the “truthing in love” (Ephesians 4:15) that Paul commends we do in proclaiming Christ faithfully.
And wouldn’t such a clear articulation from our GAFCON Bishops set a wonderful table for GAFCON 2023?
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is President & CEO of the American Anglican Council.