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Creation in the Abrahamic Faiths -
What is Freedom For?

David B. Burrell

I want to begin with an outrageous thesis: there can be no freedom for human beings without a creator; moreover, not just the fact of a creator but belief in one. Why? Because freedom as initiation is chimerical; authentic freedom must consist of a response to a perceived good. Much as the dedicated bachelor discovers when he finds someone with whom to share his life: while certainly restricting his freedom of movement (and much more, should children come), this relationship opens him to a reason for acting which is the polar opposite of compulsion. The example is loaded, of course, since it is persons especially who call forth a response from us. Yet that response (I shall argue0 fairly defines authentic freedom. That is, the most free action we can muster- even when we think of it as initiating something-is done in response to something else. And that 'something else' offers the answer to the question 'why?', which tells us what freedom is for.

We have, of course, another view of freedom which actually embodies a theory about freedom called "libertarian," that is, freedom is taken to be "doing what I wanna do." But Socrates long ago queried whether such action could be called free; a query which Kant endorsed, since our desires can, of course, whipsaw us, and with the omnipresence of advertising appeals to those very desires, we are less and less sure they are even ours! Yet what does all this have to do with creation? As a doctrine, teaching or "theory," very little; yet the presence of a creator to an intentional agent can make all the difference-a difference dramatized by the stark contrast between seeing our lives as a career or a vocation, as a self-making or a response. For careers are at least presented as something I want to do, adopt as my own. That entire decision is of course heavily mimetic, yet I embark on it as a project. A vocation, on the other hand, comes as a call from another to fulfill their expectations for me. Again, as with the career, there is ample room for personal creativity, but the self-image is starkly different: the purported initiator is ostensibly the boss, whereas the responder is far more like a servant.

Yet when the One calling me forth is the "creator of heaven and earth and all that is between them""-that is, human beings, as the Qur'an likes to put it, then "to serve is to reign," as Paul insists; whereas Socrates' dialectics of desire (together with Rene Girard's reminder of the ubiquitous mimesis) renders questionable whether I can ever be "boss"-that is, autonomous. For if we are called forth by the One by whose Word the universe comes to be, then it cannot but be that we are called to become the person whom this One intends us to be. Yet the fact of a call addressed to each one of us, to say nothing of its content, is hardly evident, so will best come to us within a community of faith and a mediating discourse-Torah, New Testament, Qur'an-cum-hadith's. Now me to become the one addressed, each of these will require communal as well as personal discernment, especially as it touches me, whose response is elicited by the call itself. The image I am invoking here is that of the Qur'an as a call, an invitation, which identifies its provenance as the creator of heaven and earth (with all that is between them; that is, ourselves), and so properly asks, if not demands, the response which is Islam: submission, that is; but of a ennobling and exalting sort, given the nature of the One to whom we are called to submit. For the shape that response takes is the endeavor to return everything to the One from whom we have received everything! Hardly, of course, all at once; if this is the form an appropriate response must take, its execution will inevitably be piecemeal and gradual. For as Aristotle insists that authentic friendship it takes time, so Rowan Williams will remind us that "growing into fellowship with God is not an instantaneous thing ..; relation with God takes time" (Interview with Rupert Shortt, to be published).

Perhaps we can now begin to glimpse how the presence of a creator operates, and with it, the import of what we mean by "creator." Nothing is presupposed, so all is gift. There is no profit to the creator, so the gift is utterly gratuitous. That is to say, utterly free: no compulsion, not even an answer to 'why?'-so sheer spontaneity. (James Ross has rendered divine freedom as spontaneity in a scintillating exploration designed to deconstruct our many misconceptions of human freedom ["Real Freedom," in Jeff Jordan and Daniel Howard-Snyder, eds. Faith, Freedom and Rationality (Rowan and Littlefield, 1996, 89-117)]). Now when the historical dialectic of philosophical strategies succeeded in removing the creator, human beings arrogated this image of freedom to themselves in the touted ideal of autonomy. Yet the dialectic continued as it became clear that the stark ideal of sheer spontaneity is quite beyond human beings, so it bifurcated into duty (Kant) or license (Jean-Paul Sartre). So it appears that we are painfully grouping our way, in post-modernity, towards a servant's freedom, if only we can find one worthy of our service. For we cannot ignore the question 'why?', which intimates a goal we serve as well as our ontological status as creatures.

Yet how, you will ask, does postmodernity authorize a search for a creator? What is "postmodernity" anyway? Recall the usual division, redolent of Hegel: "pre-modern, modern, post-modern," which readily identified "modern" with "critical," and "pre-modern" with "pre-critical," so leaving "post-modern" quite up in the air-indeed, open to the trivial "anything goes." So to give a proper sense to "postmodern" as well as show how contemporary (rather than "premodern" or " pre-critical") are the Jewish, Christian, Muslim reflections on creation initiated in the medieval period, let us try a new periodization of philosophy:

Medieval = post-Hellenic (by introduction of a free creator)
Modern = post-Medieval (removing creator) = post (post-Hellenic)
Postmodern = post (post-Medieval) = post (post [post-Hellenic])

Here the various uses of 'post' will differ, alternately by adding or subtracting to the previous configuration, yet the upshot will be that the "postmodern" context within which we find ourselves bears startling affinities with the "post-Hellenic" (or medieval) context of classical Jewish, Christian, and Islamic attempts to introduce a free creator into the seamless garment of Hellenic philosophy.

Note how this fresh periodization works by de-centering modernity from the customary "pre-modern, modern, post-modern" triad, redolent of Hegel, wherein medieval thought is identified with both "pre-modern" and "pre-critical," with respectable philosophy identified with the "modern" and "critical." Yet this configuration, so long in possession, was to prove unstable once its foundation in "self-evident truths" began to dissolve--negatively with Richard Rorty, who signaled the "end of philosophy [so conceived]," yet positively with Hans-Georg Gadamer. To discern the difference and to illuminate the references to these two persons, let us try the new scheme. The affinity between postmodern and medieval turns on modernity's rejection of a creator, and with it, faith as a mode of knowing. Cultural reasons for rejecting a creator abound, usually coalescing around Europe's exhaustion with the prolonged and acerbic religious conflict in the wake of the Reformation. Philosophically, the founding (and foundational) rationalism of Descartes removed any fiduciary element from knowing, rendering knowledge and faith mutually exclusive. (Indeed, this opposition marked early twentieth-century Thomism as well, just to prove how much it also embodied the culture of its times; in stark contrast with the appropriately "postmodern" presentation of the mutuality of faith and reason in John Paul II's encyclical named Fides et Ratio).

The primordial act of faith relevant here is in a free and intentional act of origination that so orders the universe. The lineaments of the articulated response of Muslim, Jewish and Christian thinkers can be traced from al-Ghazali (d. 1111) through Moses Maimonides (d. 1204) to Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). The standing alternative to the biblical and Qur'anic revelation of a free creator, which confronted each of them, was Plotinus' appropriation of the seamless garment of Hellenic philosophy, adapted by al-Farabi into a scheme of necessary emanation from "the First." The philosophical cachet of this unifying scheme was reinforced by its appeal (notably in Ibn Sina [Avicenna]) to Aristotle's presumption that the universe always existed, bolstered by his arguments that a temporal beginning made no sense. Both Ghazali and Maimonides found it necessary to identify the alternative offered by their revelations with a beginning of the universe coincident with the beginning of time itself (a "temporal beginning"), whereas Aquinas' rendition of free creation found it intellectually compatible with an everlasting universe, though in fact the strategy he inherited from Maimonides legitimized believers in accepting a temporal beginning, since neither could be proved.

Yet given these shared conceptual strategies for introducing a free creator into the Hellenic scheme, what kind of knowing does talk of such a creator presume? Briefly, that the "distinction" between creator and creatures be sui generis. That is, the act of creation brings the universe into being while allowing the distinction to obtain, yet the unique character of this action, with its correlative "distinction," should keep us from conceiving of the creator as "over against" the universe. In traditional theological parlance, the creator must be at once transcendent and immanent to its creation. If, as Aquinas insists, the "proper effect of creation is the very to-be of things" (ST 1.45.5), then the to-be of each existing thing participates in the divine to-be: to be created is to participate; to create is to be participated. So a creature's to-be is to-be-to-the-creator: esse creaturae est esse ad creatorem (cf. ST 1.45.3). It is worth recalling Aristotle's trenchant critique of Plato: "participation" is but a metaphor (Metaphysics 1); yet "emanation" (or "overflow") is equally metaphorical. Indeed, this "distinction" can never be articulated in terms proper to characterizing relations among things in the world, as Robert Sokolowski reminds us (God of Faith and Reason [Catholic University of American Press, 1995]): this "distinction is glimpsed on the margin of reason, at the intersection of reason and faith" (39).

As a result, many customary ways of expressing this relation, like the "intervention" of creator in creation (as in the giving of the Torah to Moses, the incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus, or the "coming down" of the Qur'an to Muhammad), will prove intrinsically misleading. For how can the creator-of-all, the One in whom our very being participates, be said to "intervene" in creation? Unless, that is, we had improperly thought of the creator as one thing and the universe as another. Indeed, Sara Grant has argued for adapting Shankara's arresting term "nonduality" to render the "non-reciprocal relation of dependence" which Aquinas insists creation must be (Towards an Alternative Theology [University of Notre Dame Press, 2002] 40). So we see how a proper grasp of the act of creating must be ingredient in a proper grasp of the act of selfrevealing, as well as a proper grasp of the act of covenanting and a proper grasp of the act of incarnating. Indeed, only a creator could unite with created nature without contradiction, since creator and creature are not two separate things to start with. Indeed, it is illustrative to note how the Qur'an proposes, pairwise, the resurrection of the body as "proof" of creation, and creation as "proof" of the resurrection: that is, accepting one in faith stands or falls with accepting the other.

So the upshot of each of these revelations is to move their faithful into new ways of speaking and thinking: about the universe of which we are a part, and of our part in it. About the universe, "by the introduction of a new distinction, the distinction between the world understood as possibly not having existed [recall Aristotle's presumption that the universe always was] and God understood as possible being all there is, with no diminution of goodness or greatness. It is not the case that God and the world are each separately understood in this new way, and only subsequently related to each other; they are determined in the distinction, not each apart from the other" (Sokolowski, 23). So "God is understood not only to have created the world, but to have permitted the distinction between himself and the world to occur" (33). About our part as intentional microcosms of the universe, as our very being entails the task of learning how, in whatever we do, to be returning everything to the One from whom we received everything-by Torah-observance for Jews, by following Jesus for Christians, and by "Islam" for Muslims. So our life becomes our own, and our actions become free when we so respond to the invitation divinely proffered. The only authentic freedom lies in a servant's response to God's call. Yet this postmodern articulation of a medieval posture is not proposed as the ineluctable result of a genealogy, but as issuing from an act of faith in a free creator, given distinctive voice in each Abrahamic tradition.

Yet how elicit so disproportionate an act? How can this preposterous sketch become one's own? So far we have focused on the way it might properly be described, in an effort to remove to idolatrous substitutes for faith. For Moses Maimonides, that is the primary task of philosophical theologians; the rest is practice, directed by a tradition as intent on rooting out maladroit practices as it is weeding idolatrous conceptions. So reflection, in matters of faith, is ever "therapeutic," as Wittgenstein characterized good philosophy. Then what about execution? How do we take the initial steps? The answer of course is mimesis, and the most telling account I know is given in the way Augustine constructs his memoir, The Testimony (a title which Gary Wills suggests for the classical Confessions), as the odd-numbered books appear to outline ways he came to correct his myopic vision, with the following even-numbered ones try to show how he stepped into (or managed to avoid) the path he had glimpsed. The point of the ordering is epistemological: to remind the reader-especially precociously intelligent ones like Augustine himself-that one cannot properly know such things until one sets out on a journey to appropriate them for oneself. So after stumbling (in Book 7) upon an idiom which he found would render divinity with minimal distortion, that of Plotinus, Augustine related (in Book 8) how the witness of one person after another at once indicated and facilitated the next steps. For while minds can project a path, only persons can take steps. Yet the indisputable fact is that each of us knows someone whom we are drawn to emulate, as we sense that emulating them will carry us towards the one we are called to be. (Freedom, once again, belongs more to responding properly than to pretending to initiate.) Rowan Williams suggests Dorothy Day (whose early life most of us know from her memoir, The Long Loneliness), asking "how it is that in a life like that you can carry on in perpetual defeat at some levels" (Ibid.)? One might offer Etty Hillesum as well, whose journals trace the final years of her life under Nazi occupation in Holland to her final demise in the Shoah, displaying in intimate detail a person drawn first into her heart to the service of prayer and thence out of herself to minister to her people, declaring in the most abject of circumstances, that "my life is full of meaning" (An Interrupted Life).

And what of ourselves, living in a world where the optimism endemic to people of the "new world" is unleashed on the rest of the world as we try to impose on them "our way of life;" condemning us to watch (in the word of E. L. Doctorow) "the classic archetype of democracy [the United States] morph into a rogue nation?" Whence comes our hope? From those lives which show us that they have learned to discriminate hope from optimism, for as we come to know them we will begin to see how (like Etty and Dorothy) we ourselves might be able to see in unqualified horror something to give a future to, to open up to God, in the hope that all will have been drawn together by grace (to paraphrase Rowan Williams, ibid.). And if 'grace' sounds like a characteristically Christian word, we should realize that what it signifies is endemic to Muslim life and practice, which begins each undertaking with b'ism Allah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim, as well as to the form characteristic of Jewish prayer: baruch ata adonai elohenu, melech haolam . . For in each of these faith traditions, it is the presence of a creator which calls us to respond to that One's call by pouring our lives out in response to the gift we perceive them to be. Indeed, as careers can careen out of control and the quest for gratification yields emptiness, what else could freedom be for? Moreover, once we have realized how present a creator must be to the world it energizes from moment to moment, then we are invited to replace the agonistic metaphor of a "leap of faith" with Eckhart's telling one of the Grund: the very ground of our being. When the God we seek turns out to be the "creator of heaven and earth and all that is between them," we need not reach out for such a One but can fall into its gifted embrace.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

David B. Burrell, C.S.C., Hesburgh Professor of Philosophy and Theology
University of Notre Dame / Tantur Ecumenical Institute [Jerusalem]
Furlong Lecture: University of St Michael’s College 3 October 2004