Failed me-centered quest for freedom

This post continues a review of key points in Ron Highfield's book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12, 3, 5678910111213.

Colors of Happiness by Candilov
(creative commons attribution, Wikimedia Commons)
Last time we noted that the modern, me-centered self is insatiable in its desire, particularly in its quest for a god-like personal freedom. But because we are not God (and thus lacking God's attributes, including his non-contingent freedom), we humans eventually crash up against the hard reality that our insatiable desire is "infinitely greater" than our capacity to satisfy ourselves. Thus a me-centered quest for freedom eventually leads to a state of futility, even despair, "for no finite thing can satisfy an infinite desire" (p. 100).

This time we'll examine the nature of human freedom, the limits the human condition places on that freedom, and the failure of the me-centered quest for freedom, leading ultimately to futility and despair. So this is a bad-news post---but take heart, the good news is coming!

Freedom and power 

In chapter 7, Highfield examines the "strange disparity between the inflated self-concept of modernity and the truth of the human condition" (p. 102). He notes that "since our desires cannot be satisfied by merely feeling them, they force us to look for means through which to fulfill them... The need for means raises the issue of power, which is the measure of our ability to fulfill our desires" (p. 103).

Seeking to exercise power, the modern self encounters resistance in the form of various barriers. This resistance raises the unhappy reality that we humans are not (as we desire) truly free. Yes, we desire to be free from any barriers/obstacles that stand in the way of fulfilling our desires, but then reality raises its ugly head to remind us that we are not truly free.

As a result of this reality, freedom itself becomes an object of our desire, standing as it does "for all the goods that would become available were all limits removed" (p. 104). Conceiving of freedom in this way leads the modern self to see God as an obstacle---as a limit to our freedom, "and by definition freedom cannot coexist with limits" (p. 104). Thus for the modern, me-centered self, God (who alone possesses the absolute freedom we desire) becomes an obstacle, a competitor---even an object of envy.

Freedom and happiness

Why do we desire the things we desire? Largely because we believe that the desired "things" will, in some way, contribute to our happiness. The desire for happiness is a fundamental driving (motivating) force in the modern self. But there is a problem---"As everyone knows, simply having circumstances favorable to fulfilling our desires cannot guarantee happiness...," for "even if external obstacles are absent, 'there may also be internal ones'" (p. 104, quoting Charles Taylor). The self, itself, is a very big internal obstacle to our happiness for our desires often are in conflict with our deepest, true self. And so we must ask two vital questions: Which is my true self? and the related question, What is my true good? Highfield comments:
We need the inner freedom of self-knowledge so that we know what is good for us. And we need sufficient knowledge of our actions' consequences so that we know what we are getting when we choose [i.e. when we exercise freedom]. (p. 106)
Finding answers to these vital questions necessarily moves us into a realm beyond the range of our human ability. Should we then give up on freedom, settling for the best we can get? Many moderns have settled and that leads to a great deal of pessimism, even despair. But we need not give in to despair, for as Highfield notes (and as we'll explore in the posts to follow), "The promise of freedom is at the heart of Christian hope" (p. 107, emphasis added). This is the hope the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote to the churches in Rome concerning "the freedom and glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).

Freedom and dignity

There is a close connection between human freedom and dignity. As Highfield notes, "The freedom we associate most often with dignity is self-determination" (p. 107). Indeed, one of the insatiable desires of the modern self is for self-determination and the sense of personal dignity it brings. But, once again, reality (both internally and externally) stands in the way. Internally, we are unable to be truly self-determining because "we may have some control over our actions but we have none over our willing." Externally, we may be able to "choose freely among available alternatives [but], we cannot choose which alternatives are put before us.... Being able to choose from among alternatives thus does not give us complete self-possession and hence proves an inadequate foundation for our dignity" (p. 108).

A quest ending in despair

The net effect of all this is that, in reality, our "control over our lives appears small indeed. We simply awake in our world to find ourselves already defined and largely determined" (p. 108). In the end, the modern, me-centered quest for freedom, power, happiness and dignity proves to be a dead-end street where "bold claims of natural freedom for complete self-possession and inherent dignity" are found out to have been "highly exaggerated" (p. 110).

Indeed, believing that humans are in control, possessing a dignity rooted in their own powers, and thus independently free, is an illusion that requires vast energy to sustain---an energy that even the strongest among us simply do not possess. As Highfield notes, "Augustine labeled this [sad] condition as a 'state of disintegration,' and Kierkegaard called it 'despair'..." But no matter what you call it, it is a "miserable condition far removed from the happiness and rest we seek" (p. 111). Miserable condition indeed, and with the far-reaching consequences seen all around us in our narcissistic, me-centered culture.

What is the solution to this miserable condition with its debilitating despair? Certainly it is not to give in to our me-centered propensities---that may make us feel better for a time, but it eventually leads to deeper despair. Next time we'll begin to look at the solution, as we examine the good news of the God-centered self wherein lies true and lasting personal freedom, dignity and happiness. Stay tuned!