Saturday, October 06, 2018

Creatureliness and Freedom

By ‘creatureliness’ I mean the creatureliness of  human beings. This is a dominant fact about you and me and our neighbours. And somewhat underplayed at present. We are, together, creatures of the living God. That is, to use a more familiar word, we are his products. We are in the state of creatures whether we like it or not. But though all of this is true, the fact of creatureliness is one that few people gave much thought to. The fact that we are made by him in the most intricate fashion, and are what we are by virtue of his creatorship and by his providential upholding of us, has  been surrendered by most of us. At best, it is a notional rather than a real fact.

Having done no research on the question, nonetheless I have the conviction that this awareness, the awareness of creatureliness, has in our culture shrunk to almost disappearing point. So that those who are aware of being creatures are exclusively to be found among conservative Christian and perhaps also the conservative Jewish communities, and Islam. Among its fate in other groups I am almost totally ignorant.

And even among Christians there is often only a token recognition of the point. Which is a great pity. There is not such a thing as a doctrine of creatureliness; a doctrine of creation, yes, and of the Creator – creature distinction, of course. Without an awareness that we are creatures of God it is hard to see us ever being aware of those ills that Jesus came to deliver us from.

The sense of creatureliness is a state of mind which is the fruit of other, more obvious doctrines, but which has its own part to play for those who are aware of it. These other doctrines, of creation, and providence, when they also are not merely notionally believed, may water and feed it. To say that they function as an ingredient in a state of mind shows that it can ebb and flow in our awareness of it. Why it is rather stricken in the modern Christian western mind is not hard to guess. This fundamental truth is forgotten:

Know that the Lord, he is God
It is he who made us, and we are his;
We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Ps.100.3)

Such words are now never heard in public, not even at harvest time, which is now a somewhat antiquated festival. The ‘tone’ of our fellow citizens of themselves is much more likely to be of one who is an initiator in human life, here to make, to enjoy and to fulfil, understood a set of purely  human projects. Human life is for expressing and enjoying ourselves, and so for ‘making’ ourselves.  In this sense we view ourselves not so much as creatures but as creators. Our horizons are this world, in the sole enjoyment of some of its riches and of its temptations.

In the pride of his face, the wicked does not seek him
All his thoughts are, ‘There is no God’ (Ps.10.4)

Insofar as such pride is true of ourselves, it shows signs of a lack of belief in our creatureliness. From this lack flow some of the dominant features of our culture: a preoccupation  with fairness, and with physical fitness, and of gaining and maintaining our rights.

Christians hold that God’s eye is on us; and that in him we live and move and have our being. I suppose, therefore,  godliness is not  next to cleanliness, as we were taught, but it is certainly next to creatureliness! Unlike sheep and seals, say, human beings can be aware of being a creature, and this asymmetry between the Creator and his self-aware creatures is a fundamental factor in God’s providence and grace, and of taking stock of human life more generally.  

Creatureliness and freedom

Being creatures having the awareness of our creatureliness does not make us robots, or puppets, or fated by the stars, for we are obviously not. But the point is, human choice can only do so much. From God who ordains who we are, we receive gifts and are ourselves gifted one way or another, as we say without realizing what we are saying. And he supports and works through us to bring to pass his own purposes, re-creating us moment by moment. As the Westminster Confession puts it, by God’s providence, ‘ordereth them [all things] to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.’ (V. II)  God, our creator and Lord, works through us, and so to speak ‘respects’ our individuality, an individuality which is distinct of each person, another part of our creatureliness.

There are contemporary philosophers who hold that it is an infringement of human autonomy to come into the world with a particular endowment, and subject to parental nurture and example, and further formed by an early education. In their view we ought to have the right to choose  what character we have, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and what life chances we are given. What we would the ‘me’ be like who has to plan his or her own life, selecting one’s DNA and all,  is not made clear. It looks incoherent and it in any event is fantastical. This fantasy can be regarded as an  attempt to destroy or erase the features of our creatureliness or at least to circumvent them.

The desire for a 'freedom' in which we are at first, or constantly, or periodically,  can ave some freely chosen new start in our lives is an illusion. In such situations we believe that we are  faced with a blank future on which we can impress our character uninfluenced by other effects from sources not solely our own.  In sharp contrast to this human, freedom is conditioned freedom. Each choice, free in the sense that the choice is our choice, and is not forced upon us, and  is the product of our inner likes and dislikes, our character as creatures. Libertarian or countercultural freedom, unconditional choice,  is a illusion, in my view, whether it is the character of our everyday choices, or as the ability exercisable at some definitive turning point of our lives.  It is an attempt to be free from the shape of our creatureliness. Our creatureliness here is invariably expressed in terms of preferences or goals, the product of our beliefs and desires, and they are the result of our initial endowment of genetics, culture, upbringing. We own these as our own, as indeed they are, and not anyone else’s. We face choices that we may not know the outcome of. These familiar situations are the results of creatureliness. This is the nature in which the regenerating grace of God operates. If we would be pilgrims, then try as we may we cannot avoid our heteronomy.