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Bound to Be Free: Evangelical–Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism.

By Reinhard Hütter. Pp. x+313. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004. ISBN 0 8028
2750 0. Paper n.p.

Faith and Freedom: An Interfaith Perspective. By David Burrell. Pp. xxii+266. (Challenges in
Contemporary Theology.) Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. ISBN 1 4051 2170 X and 2171 8. Hardback
£60; paper £19.99.

These two books are very profitably read in tandem as rigorous theological reflections on
freedom in the context of—and in contrast to—the libertarian ethos of late modernity (an ethos
that, in America at least, has captured both liberal Protestantism and conservative
evangelicalism). For the most part, the church and her theologians have fallen captive to the
“negative” freedom of libertarian modernity; indeed, we can only imagine freedom in those
terms—as a lack of constraint. Against those habits of mind, Burrell’s and Hütter’s books are a
kind of intellectual therapy seeking to free up our theoretical imaginations to think freedom
otherwise.
Burrell does so through a series of studies in medieval thought. But he unapologetically
situates this against our late modern culture. As he notes in his Preface, “human freedom is one
of the least understood features of our existence, and that largely because it has been (especially
in a capitalist culture) unduly limited to choosing” (p. vii). In particular, such a valuation of
choice removes any consideration of telos. And Burrell’s “conviction is that this distortion of
our views on human freedom, while congenial to and pehraps contributory to a capitalist culture,
has its roots in the imperative of late modernity to remove a free creator from the scene” (p. vii).
In the place of a Creator ex nihilo we get a free, autonomous agent.
Burrell’s studies constitute a de facto genealogy of libertarian freedom, which he traces to
shifts associated with Duns Scotus. The primary deficiency of such a libertarian concept of
freedom is that it disconnects freedom from the dynamics of desire. Seeking to eliminate the
theological overtones of the scholastics, especially the disruptive presence of a free creator,
modernity erected a philosophical account of freedom that (at least) ignored the presence of a
creator and instead conceived of freedom on wholly immanent grounds. This required also
jettisoning any functional role for transcendence, leaving us with “a world bereft of teleology” as
affirmed in medieval Christian, Jewish and Muslim thought. There are two key effects of this
modern shift: (1) it denies any transcendent object of desire and thus excludes any kind of robust
teleology (and on this point, Burrell’s claim echoes that of Charles Taylor); (2) it makes any
external/transcendent dependence a compromise of autonomy. Instead, freedom now becomes a
“power” that resides self-sufficiently in autonomous human agents. Freedom is thus reduced to
both a radical indifference and auto-determination.
Burrell sees this exemplified in Descartes, but emerging most significantly in Duns
Scotus. For Scotus, it is the will that determines what one does: “the role of the intellect is to
[merely] present to the will a list of possible actions from which to choose” (p. 106). This
libertarian or voluntarist notion of freedom implies “a radical ‘indifference’ before a set of
options” coupled with a self-sufficient picture of the will as auto-determining its “free” actions.
It is this that marks Scotus “as a ‘modern man,’ for whom freedom is auto-determination of an
‘indifferent’ power, as in ‘the church of your choice.’” Hence it is not surprising, Burrell
surmises, that a Scotist account of freedom is the regnant conception
in a liberal society where choice spontaneously dominates discussions of freedom,
as ethicists are preoccupied with decisions and economists concerned with trade-
offs. What is conspicuously missing from such parlays is a vision of the end or
goal of a society, and understandably so, since such questions become procedural
in a society where the reigning ‘theory of justice’ finds it both possible and
expedient to bracket any discussion of the human good (106).

Once freedom is conceived in this way, the picture “left no room for divine subvention
except as a form of intervention; no way for God to empower a free act without interfering”
(107). Any involvement of God in human action could only be a compromise of human
autonomous agency. By choosing to preserve auto-determination and indifference, modernity
could at best retain only a deistic Creator (this is most helpfully developed in Burrell’s
discussion of Al-Ghazali’s radically creational account of human freedom in Faith and Freedom,
pp. 156-175).
While offering a genealogy of modern, libertarian autonomy, Burrell’s studies also
established the marked contrast between this model of freedom and the “positive” freedom
articulated in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. An unstated implication, of course, is
that those who affirm these theological traditions should be much more suspicious of the
conception of freedom that informs late modern, capitalist societies. But another implication is
the fact that, in a world that seems rent between Islam and the (so-called “Christian”) West,
Burrell’s account of our shared conceptions of positive freedom provides grounds for imagining
quite a different international coalition.
Reinhard Hütter’s Bound to be Free could be read as a kind of sequel to Burrell’s
medieval studies on the topic. Given Hütter’s subsequent conversion to Roman Catholicism, it’s
very tempting to read this volume as a sort of final indictment of what he describes (in chapter 7,
the heart of book) as “Protestantism’s antinomian captivity.” With the benefit of retrospect, one
can see this as both a lament and a farewell. Continuing his earlier emphasis (in Suffering
Divine Things) on the “church as public,” in this book Hütter tackles the scandal and burden of
such a vision, viz., the dis-unity and fragmentation of this “one body.” If “the freedom to be
church” is the upshot of our redemption, then we need to “be church as one public” (p. 5). Thus
the ethos of this project is indelibly ecumenical. (Here again we note some curious aspects in
retrospect, such as Hütter’s criticism of simple “retutrn-to-Rome” ecumenism.)
The heart of the book is a robust, constructive, and polemical articulation of “positive
freedom” as the scandalous, Augustinian intuition that we are bound to be free—that authentic
freedom is found in obedience rather than the removal of all restraint. Contesting the autonomy
of the modern, Promethean self (what he describes as “modernity’s daydream”), Hütter
articulates an account of “participatory freedom,” in which the creature is most free when it is
bound and nourishes by the norms of law, now enacted in the “new law” which is “the Holy
Spirit’s self-enactment in the believer’s life” (p. 126). If “human freedom comes to itself only in
the practice of the commandments” (p. 127), and it is the Spirit which enables such obedience,
then this freedom in participation is also pneumatological: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there
is freedom.”
These two books are outstanding examples of rigorous theological and philosophical
reflection undertaken with one eye on “the signs of the times,” without collapsing into an
occasionalist “relevance” that will leave them silent a few years hence. Indeed, they are
probably two of the most important books that I have read in the past five years, making an
indelible impression on the trajectory of my own work. Convinced by both Burrell and Hütter, I
would agree that the shape of freedom is a life-or-death question for the church. Thus I leave the
last word to Hütter. Commenting on the idolization of (negative) freedom at the conclusion of
the film, Braveheart—a “faith” for which this William Wallace is beheaded—Hütter notes our
tendency to prize freedom over beheading, then makes this striking claim: “strangely enough,
there are worse things that can happen to us than being beheaded. So when we ask what is so
great about freedom, we should recognize that this is a dangerous topic. If we get freedom
wrong, our mistake will ultimately kill us. Yet if we get freedom right, we will live, often
painfully and sometimes dangerously, but always truthfully in an ever expanding horizon that
will lead us deeper and deeper into the Giver of true freedom” (p. 7).

James K.A. Smith, Calvin College