4.22.2010

One Argument for Human Freedom With Sovereign Power

This is an essay I wrote for Honors Seminar this semester.

If God is, man is a slave; now, man can and must be free; then, God does not exist. I defy anyone whomsoever to avoid this circle . . . Michael Bakunin, God and the State[1]

This provocative statement forms the heart of Michael Bakunin’s passionate argument against the tyranny of religion in general and of God in particular. I tend to believe that God is and that man can be free. Here’s why.

The first three words of Bakunin’s statement assume at least two things: that God is all-powerful, and that He is like humans—that His motivations and thought-processes are fundamentally no different than ours. I have no problem with his first assumption; it is the second part that prevents us from seeing eye to eye. Is it possible that the universe could contain a being with motivations that are completely foreign to our way of thinking? Is it not reasonable to imagine that if an alien being exists, it would have alien thought-processes and alien abilities? If you will allow for the possibility of sentient existence other than humanity, then you must allow for extra-human thoughts.

This is a difficult concept to identify, let alone allow credence, because we are steeped in human reasoning. Why should we as humans imagine anything other than what is natural for humanity? Powerful humans have exhibited a despairingly consistent tendency towards oppressive behavior over the past few millenia; hence the axiom, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[2] Time and again through history we have witnessed power and tyranny stalking hand in hand, from Periander and Dionysus I of Ancient Greece, to Caligula, to Pope Pius II, to Stalin and Pol Pot of the previous century. It makes sense then, that if God, a being to whom is attributed power of infinitely greater scope and magnitude than the most tyrannical human, were anything like us, His sovereignty would inherently preclude individual freedom.

Can a self-avowedly omniscient God exercise voluntary restraint? I don’t believe this negates God’s sovereign power—indeed, it might stem from His omniscience. Even in human culture, recognizing and abiding by self-imposed limits does not indicate weakness, but rather strength of character. If an extra-human being with extra-human abilities exists, then it makes sense that this being could exercise extra-human restraint. This is especially plausible when we realize that coming from outside of humanity, this being would necessarily draw motivation from a source that is entirely foreign to human inspiration.

In addition to being all-powerful, God claims another fundamental quality: love. By definition, love is other-centered. Love is not selfish; it does not seek power over others—to dominate them for selfish reasons—but to serve them. If we can conceive of a God who is an extra-human Being, with extra-human power, motivated by extra-human love, then it is not inconsistent for Him to exist along with human freedom.

The way to escape Bakunin’s circle is by recognizing the possibility that the character of God is so incredibly different from us (a presupposition he already granted by assuming Divine omniscience) that not only could He do something we have not been able to do—possess sovereign power while allowing freedom of choice—but that He does so on the basis of His incomprehensible love for us.


[1] (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970), 25.

[2] John E. E. Dahlberg-Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887, Essays on Freedom and Power, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1949), 364.

Excelsior:)

9 comments:

  1. That essay is solidly built with excellent points Joel :) Thanks for sharing it! It is amazing how often we impose our personal and completely human definitions onto God. The clarity of life always increases when we acknowledge and seek to understand these perceived differences from a vantage point outside of personal prejudice. If genuinely approached with honesty the searching process will lead us into a richer comprehension and appreciation of His character.

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  2. Well argued. Especially this point- "I don’t believe this negates God’s sovereign power—indeed, it might stem from His omniscience. Even in human culture, recognizing and abiding by self-imposed limits does not indicate weakness, but rather strength of character."
    Thank you for sharing your insight and reason; I enjoyed reading this.

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  3. You're welcome :)
    You're right Caitlin, projecting human attributes on to God is far too common--I do it all the time without even realizing it.

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  4. PTL --> That is the way He has revealed Himself!

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  6. Have you thought about publishing? The Adventist Review for instance?

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  8. Good points. His argument is certainly faulty. He kind of reminds me of William Blake, a Romanticist who viewed God as a tyrant and therefore created his own religion that placed Satan as the liberator of humans. The human drive for independence and freedom can be scary sometimes. Only by fully relying on God can we be truly successful in life and have joy through it all. Of course, God gives us the freedom of choice that we desire, but everything just works out better when we choose to depend on Him rather than on ourselves.

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  9. lol, that thought hadn't particularly crossed my mind, D, seeing as how this was just an essay I dashed off for class one afternoon. Glad you liked it though :)

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