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God, Freedom and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture Paperback – March 1, 2013
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"For some people, God is far from being a solution to life. He is the problem. For how can I be a free, morally responsible agent if God ordains and orders the world? And what is the place of human dignity in a creation saturated with the presence of God? In this accessible and readable book, Ron Highfield engages with a host of thinkers in the history of ideas to show how we need to reorient ourselves from being 'me centered' to being 'God centered.' Only then, he argues, can we leave behind competitive views of our relationship to the Deity, in order to understand the dignity and freedom God bestows upon us as creatures." (Oliver D. Crisp, Fuller Theological Seminary)
"Humans have great dignity. Yet from where does it come? How is it sustained and protected amidst the turbulence of life and ever-changing opinions? In Ron Highfield's philosophically informed meditation, he reminds us that a 'God-centered' identity is the only secure basis for our dignity. We are never as truly free, safe and whole as we are when we rest in the self-giving God of the gospel." (Kelly M. Kapic, Covenant College)
"In this fine book Ron Highfield exposes the false advertising of those who call us to find true freedom and dignity apart from an obedient relationship to our Maker. And he does it with philosophical and theological savvy, charting the complex course that has gotten us to the delusions of 'modern selfhood'--delusions that can only be cured by accepting the promises of the gospel." (Richard Mouw, Fuller Theological Seminary)
"Henri Nouwen claimed that the most important question anyone asks is 'Who am I?' In a world where we define ourselves by performance, conformity and image, competing with one another and relying on the blessing of others to discover and live out of a healthy sense of self, Ron Highfield reminds us that it is when we embrace God's invitation that 'we become truly ourselves and live life to the full.' Dr. Highfield's solid scholarship, theological depth and inviting style allow us to wrestle honestly with the nature of God's love as we seek to be released from the bondage of the false, 'me-centered self.' We've needed this book for a long time, but it's been worth the wait." (Chap Clark, Fuller Theological Seminary Chap Clark, Fuller Theological Seminary)
"Proceeding from the axiom that genuine self-understanding requires a true understanding of the self, Ron Highfield shows how popular, modern notions of the self fail in this regard, because they construct freedom, knowledge and power in human terms and therefore in competition with God. To overcome this narrow, idolatrous image of both God and humanity, Highfield first deconstructs the modern self and then recovers the older, more profound, biblical, trinitarian understanding of human identity as grounded in God's love for humanity. Drawing with equal facility from theological sources both ancient and modern, the author unfolds a beautiful vision of human dignity, freedom, will and morality as participation in Christ, the true image of God and founder of our true humanity." (Jens Zimmermann, Trinity Western University)
"Ron Highfield's book explores the philosophical and theological inner world of the core human temptation--the Promethean quest to challenge and even be god. By unmasking the impulses, desires and arrogance of the modern self, God, Freedom and Human Dignity provides for anyone who cares about the gospel today a guide to the postmodern condition and where the gospel must strike first. If this book were pocket size you'd find a copy in my pocket." (Scot McKnight, Northern Seminary)
"Reading God, Freedom and Human Dignity is an intense and rewarding experience. Highfield brings to the conversation a wide range of philosophers and theologians and invites his audience to engage meaningfully with them. Simultaneously, he displays a rich belief in the goodness and faithfulness of God and challenges readers to allow their relationship with God to provide them with the dignity and freedom they desire and that can only be found there." (Jeanene Reese, Restoration Quarterly, 2015)
"Highfield approaches this project with a great deal of sensitivity and honesty as he establishes and addresses the problem described in the title of the book―the prevalence of the me-centered culture in determining a faulty sense of human identity and the freedom and dignity inherent in that identity. . . . The overall work is well worth reading for those seeking a better of human dignity and freedom and the ways in which God's nature impacts these things." (Jordan B. DeBord, Review and Expositor, Spring 2015)
About the Author
Ron Highfield (PhD, Rice University) is professor of religion at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He is the author of Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God, Barth and Rahner: Toward an Ecumenical Understanding of Sin and Evil, God, Freedom & Human Dignity and coauthor (with Gregory Boyd, William Lane Craig and Paul Helseth) of Four Views on Divine Providence. His published chapters and articles have covered subjects ranging from theological anthropology to open theism to Christian higher education.
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His basic premise--which I certainly think is valid--is that the Christian God is seen as a threat to a distinctly modern understanding of the self. Since the Enlightenment, we have been bombarded with narratives that spur us to believe our "self" is more authentic and possesses greater dignity the LESS we permit ourselves to be shaped by the will and values of external forces (institutions, authorities, communities, friends, etc.), and the MORE we adhere to our own independent will and desires, making ourselves into whatever we choose and refusing to let anyone else shape us.
Highfield is certainly correct that this represents a sharp departure from the rest of the Western tradition, in which such a view was considered to be not only ungracious and dishonest about man's healthy attachments and reliance on a broader community, but dangerously disabling. Man should not be permitted, let alone encouraged, to withdraw into his own insular viewpoint. Any reasonable assessment of human nature and social interaction will be forced to admit that it is healthy and essential to have external influences that challenge our own independently formed beliefs and independently willed desires--indeed, that is the process of maturation, and without it, we could scarcely expect to mature beyond our beginnings as thoroughly self-centered children.
In essence, Highfield is arguing that major thinkers since the Enlightenment have instead constructed plausible arguments for insulating ourselves in that childish self-centricity--and it is from that perspective that most people today encounter Christianity's message that we must submit ourselves obediently to God's love and guidance. As a result, for a majority of people today, that message can only sound threatening--and faith in God necessarily appears like a threat to human dignity. If, in the contemporary Me-Centered understanding of the self, I am more authentic and "true to myself" the more I refuse to let my will be shaped or guided by others (including God), then Christianity's insights can only sound like they are trying to strip me of my freedom and worth.
The broader point is that, in order for people today to hear what Christianity is actually trying to convey--and hear it in the right way--we first have to dispel the false assumptions that underlie the Me-Centered understanding of the self. Perhaps we can't begin at all with Scripture or theology. We may need to begin with history, philosophy, and psychology, inviting people to first reflect on the flawed notion they hold of the self and dignity. We need to resurrect the more traditional awareness that isolation within one's own will constitutes a kind of enslavement to one's passions and desires, and a postponement of maturity and natural interactions with one's community--not the authentic act of expression or liberation it has been made out to be.
Given the extent of its focus on (Christian) God, the book will be best suited for a Christian reader who wishes to cultivate his or her faith, as well as better understand the pressures in contemporary culture that pit many against such faith. However, if they can look past the Christian language, even non-Christian readers will find much of use in Highfield's astute insights into how the modern Me-Centered self differs from pre-Enlightenment understandings (from ancient Greece through Kierkegaard) of the self. I'm greatly impressed with Highfield's ability to move swiftly and intelligibly through many influential thinkers, pointing up very useful comparisons and contrasts in terms of how they conceive of the self, freedom, dignity, and God. Highly recommended!
I was actually unfamiliar with Ron Highfield going in to reading this book. He is clearly an intelligent philosopher, even though I'm not aware of what contributions he's made to the field. But the concept of ethics and personhood are two of my favorite philosophical questions to ponder. Unfortunately, the book wasn't as great as I was hoping it would be.
I would say it's certainly worth reading. There are important discussions in here, such as the fact that we have to place our identities in Christ and keep it God-centered, as opposed to me-centered. He explained how we see God in this view, and our many reactions that we can have toward God. Only by having a God-centered view of self can we move from loving God for our own sakes (for what God can give us) to loving God for God's own sake, as an end unto himself. I just don't agree with much of how he got there.
His first seven chapters are talking about the "me-centered self" and how detrimental it is to our view of ourselves as persons. He talks, in his book, about how we all feel competitive toward God, but I don't think I've ever felt this way. I've never been envious of God in the way that Highfield seems to think that we all are (with the exception of one or two attributes that I wish human beings possessed). But never have I felt competitive to where I wanted to be in God's place, or to be God.
His last nine chapters are spent talking about the view of God as revealed in Scripture, and that this view of God is not a threat to our freedom and dignity as human beings.
Despite the fact that Kierkegaard has made some important contributions to the philosophy of Christianity, I think that Highfield speaks far too highly of Kierkegaard (calling him "clairvoyant as always" on p. 96).
I also think that Highfield is simply wrong in some of his claims. An example would be on p. 117, in which he states that "the only answer that makes sense of the Biblical story is that God created us because of love for us." This is clearly false. God created us so that his own power and creativity can be displayed, and for his pleasure (Psalm 19, Colossians 1:16). God couldn't create us out of love for us because before God's desire to create, there was no "us" to love. Highfield even seems to understand this later in the book (p. 130), in which, speaking of bringing things into existence, he states that "God has no need to compel them to be, for before they come into being nothing exists to be compelled." Yet before God decides to create, there is nothing in existence for God to love, save the three persons of the Trinity. It seems nonsensical to me to claim that God created us out of love for us.
Back on p. 117, Highfield also states that there is no deeper reason that God loves us other than "God loves because he loves" (quoting Karl Barth). But this is a tautology and doesn't tell us anything meaningful about God's love. I certainly think it's incorrect to say there is no deeper reason that God loves us. He loves us because he made us. As the painter loves his painting, so God loves his creation. He called it "very good" right from the beginning. I certainly think there's a better answer than that "God loves because he loves."
Aside from these points, I do think, as I already stated, the book may be worth a read. I think there are probably better books out there that talk about our personhood in relation to God, but this one at least gets the job done. And it does include an important conversation about our need for placing our identity in God and not in ourselves.