God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture.
Ron Highfield. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2013. 227 pages. Paper.
Ron Highfield is Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University in California. He approaches his topic from a largely traditional Evangelical approach to Christianity. He has a high view of Scripture and he upholds the centrality of the redemptive work of Jesus as the key to understanding life.
Highfield’s concern is how traditional Christians can engage an increasingly secularized Western culture with the truth claims of the Gospel. The barrier to such engagement, as he sees it, is that contemporary culture regards the idea of God as a threat to the freedom of the individual and to the values the culture currently holds in high esteem (individual autonomy, pluralism, relativism, tolerance, etc.). In his preface he writes that he is seeking “to explain why God, far from posing a threat to our freedom and dignity, secures their foundation and brings their potential to glorious fulfillment. … I want to show why we should want to think about God and love God with our whole being, and how we can give ourselves completely into God’s care without losing anything conducive to our ultimate joy” (p. 12).
The first half of the book is devoted to examining the historical shift from the predominantly Christian worldview in the Medieval West to the predominantly secular-materialist worldview of contemporary culture. Highfield presents viewing God as an adversary in terms of defiance (one might think of the angry atheist), subservience (imagining God only as a powerful overlord who must be obeyed), and indifference (regarding God as inconsequential to the desires of the modern person). In any of these forms, the achievement of full human potential is regarded as something hindered by God’s presence. The Deity’s power and will are regarded as limitations on human freedom. If humans are not free to live as they please, then there is a loss of dignity, worth, and the potential for self-fulfillment. Thus the attempt by Christians to evangelize the modern world by bringing God back into the picture is a conversation that is unwelcome from the start.
There is solid and reliable information given in this part of the book, and it is not overly technical. Highfield writes for “students and teachers; ministers and laypeople; believers, searchers and skeptics; and for anyone interested in God, freedom, dignity and the search for self-understanding” (p. 14).
In the second half of the book Highfield presents his apologia for how the God of the Scriptures, revealed in the redemptive ministry of Jesus, should not be viewed as a threat to human freedom, dignity, and fullness, but rather as the one who provides authentic versions of those elements of life. In Highfield’s narrative, what is missing in modern views of God is an appreciation of his nature of love. If God is viewed as an overlord or a master, then the relationship between God and humanity would appear as a zero-sum game, such that if God is powerful and free, then humanity is not. However, if God is also loving and selfless in his desires and actions to reclaim his creatures from sin’s snare, then his power and truth are not limiting but liberating.
The narrative Highfield presents certainly is a good response to those who view God as a threat. The Gospel is disarming in its graciousness. However, the second half of the book has three weaknesses that ultimately limit the volume’s utility.
First, Highfield’s response to “me-centered” culture (accurately described in the first portion of the book) is primarily cognitive. Highfield is of the view that if we can help the current culture see that its narrative is lacking, and then help that same culture understand how a God of love provides authentic freedom and dignity for people, then there will be a shift from “me-centered” to “God-centered.” He writes:
Our analysis has shown, however, that the modern self is an illusion, a vain wish to be like God and possess divine attributes and prerogatives. This illusion, attractive and flattering at first, can maintain its hold on us only as long as we are not aware of it. Once it is fully articulated, however, we can no longer believe it; for we are not gods. We cannot create ourselves, give ourselves dignity or free ourselves from the “other” that blocks our self-realization (p. 212).
Certainly it is appropriate to expose the delusions of a “me-centered” culture. But it is naïve to think that by exposing the delusion people will no longer believe it, adhere to it, and live by it. Sin’s deluding power deludes also our heart’s desires, and often those desires aren’t the least bit interested in what the mind no longer gives full assent to. I know I am not God, but that doesn’t stop me from behaving as if I were.
This weakness leads to the second: There is strikingly little said about the response of faith and trust in this loving and merciful Lord. The “me-centered” approach to freedom, dignity, and fullness is, from a Christian perspective, severely flawed. But from the perspective of the Enlightenment, self-determination, individual autonomy, and self-fulfillment are, well, enlightened. The Christian narrative is not always well-lit (now we see through a glass dimly) even when one does have the light of Christ dwelling within. The appeal of the “me-centered” approach to life is that it seems to attend to my needs better than other approaches. It takes trust in Jesus to deny oneself, live sacrificially, and believe that the way of fullness comes through the way of the cross, the way of service. Highfield certainly is aware of faith’s role, but it needed to have a larger place in his presentation. (The subject index lists only one reference for “faith.”)
Finally, the book would be enhanced if Highfield had given practical suggestions for how Christians could engage in conversations with a “me-centered” culture in ways that lessened God as a threat. Highfield articulates the problem well. He presents the God of love well. But what are some practical ways to accomplish his objective of increased engagement? There is very little of the pragmatic in this volume.
These weaknesses notwithstanding, God, Freedom & Human Dignity would be a valuable resource for Christian leaders who desire further information to help young adults (and older adults) see how insubstantial a “me-centered” approach to life is. Highfield’s material could be augmented with a greater emphasis on trusting the Redeemer Jesus, and also with practical ideas for talking to “me-centered” people about the far greater advantages of a Christ-centered life. These additions from the reader would make this accessible volume a useful component in a teaching unit designed to reveal the limits of Enlightenment liberty in contrast to the true character of freedom and fullness given and received through faith in Jesus.