Ron Highfield, a religion professor at Pepperdine University, thinks that even among people who believe in God, there is a suspicion that he might not always have their best interests at heart. Although they might be reluctant to admit it, they think that God might come between them and being truly happy, and so they hold him at arm’s length. There is a deep, and at times unacknowledged, fear that God will make them do things they don’t want to do, like become a missionary in some godforsaken corner of the world.
Highfield has written God, Freedom & Human Dignity to calm those fears and give us a more accurate depiction of God than we are likely to get from quotes we see on the Internet, much popular Christian literature, and indeed, some churches. In part one, he tells the story of how we came to have such a “me-centered” self as our cultural default. He draws on the work of philosophers Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre to show that our modern understanding of the self roots human dignity and freedom internally: in the self and its autonomy. If we understand our dignity and freedom to be rooted within, then we will inevitably see God as a threat to our true fulfillment. Even if we acknowledge God, we treat him as a sort of superhuman vending machine that we can attempt to cajole into doing our bidding. He is the means to another end, rather than an end in himself.
In part two, Highfield looks at the “God-centered” self, and shows that “the view of God, freedom and dignity brought to life in Jesus Christ addresses the pain and paradox of the human condition and secures the hope that we will experience our true greatness and inherit our promised glory” (113). He argues that dignity is not something that humans inherently possess, but instead is something that is conferred on us by the fact that we are loved. This love is not human love—which can decrease or ultimately cease—but God’s eternal, unchanging love. Likewise, freedom is not the ability to do what we like whenever we like, because not all of our momentary desires arise from our true selves. Rather, freedom is “the power to live as we were created to live and to be what we were meant to be” (183). Freedom has a goal beyond mere autonomy, and if freedom is not exercised toward that goal, it is not true freedom. Again: “Even if circumstances permit us to act for our self-realization, that is, to do what we want, we are not genuinely free in those acts unless we want the right thing. You cannot be free in willing evil because the desire for evil keeps us from realizing our true selves” (189).
This is a powerful book, and it strikes at the heart of why the very thought of God in our modern world leaves so many people cold—even some people who believe in God. When I first started the book, I thought the central question Highfield was responding to—”Is God a threat to my happiness?”—was strange. Nobody really asks that question, do they? I still think that most people do not ask that question in so many words, but I do think that in many people there is a vague uneasiness that God might not want for me what I want for me. This is an excellent book for anyone who struggles with that kind of uneasiness.
On the other hand, I think there is another issue in how our “me-centered” selves think about God that Highfield did not address. It is the sense that God is not “other” at all: he wants me to be happy the way I define “happy,” i.e., by giving me whatever my me-centered self wants. This book addresses well the concerns of those who might see an all-powerful God as a threat, but what about those who have such little awe for God that they have domesticated him? It isn’t fair for me to ask Highfield to address a different set of questions in an already strong book, but I do think that this would be fertile ground for a different book.
Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.
UPDATE: I noticed my friend James posted a review of this book the same day I posted this. Go on over to his blog and check it out.