Liberty within the Scriptures

September 19, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 11:41 am   Category: Determinism vs. free will,Ethics,Happiness,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Scriptures,Universalism

If you have not done so already, I strongly recommend that anybody interested in social or political thinking go and read Isaiah Berlin’s classic: Two Concepts of Liberty.  Within this paper he lists 4 premises by which modern thinking can and at times has transformed into the very opposite of freedom.  I will then state my views regarding the (in)compatibility of these premises with the religious tradition found in the scriptures.

  1. “all men have one true purpose, and one only, that of rational self-direction…
  2. “the ends of all rational beings must of necessity fit into a single universal, harmonious pattern, which some men may be able to discern more clearly than others…
  3. “all conflict, and consequently all tragedy, is due solely to the clash of reason with the irrational or the insufficiently rational – the immature and undeveloped elements in life, whether individual or communal – and that such clashes are, in principle, avoidable, and for wholly rational beings impossible…
  4. “when all men have been made rational, they will obey the rational laws of their own natures, which are one and the same in them all, and so be at once wholly law-abiding and wholly free.”

First and most obvious, the scriptures have little if any praise for “rationality”.  For this reason alone, the scriptures are pretty hostile to all 4 premises.  If, however, we replace “rationality” with “righteousness”, then things start looking much closer to something we would hear in Sunday school.  Even with this substitution in place, however, there are still some aspects of (1) that I do not find within the Abrahamic tradition.  For instance, whatever praise there is for “righteous self-direction” is qualified at best.  Within the scriptures there is always an element of deference (what Kant would call “minority”) to higher authorities (especially God).  This, however, is exactly what (1) is rejecting.

I also find problems with (2).  While one probably could say that the scriptures teach a single, universal and harmonious ideal (I’m not totally sold on this), I do not think that the scriptures place much importance at all on our cognitive discernment/conceptualization/articulation of that ideal.  The prophets do not lead us because they necessarily have a better understanding of the plan in any deep sense – most of them being quite illiterate and ignorant in general.   They know what they have been told to do and they do it.  Put simply, a better understanding of God’s plan in no way legitimizes authoritative leadership within that plan – sorry Scribes and Pharisees. Again, I think this premise is simply too tied to the Greek notion of enlightened or rational self-legislation rather than the Abrahamic notion of faithful righteousness.

I think that a version of (3) that replaces “rationality” with “righteousness” is actually pretty spot on.  Indeed, the entire point to the stories of the translation of Zion, the Nephites after Christ’s visit and this world during the millenium is that righteousness entails peace and wars/fighting stem from unrighteousness.  This correlation should not, however, come as much of a surprise since it has often been noted that modern thinkers such as Marx explicitly imported this Messianic thinking from their own religious backgrounds.  With regards to tragedy, however, the Book of Job strongly resists the idea that all suffering in this life is due to wickedness – although one reading of the fall would suggest otherwise.

With regards to (4), I find some ambivalence within the scriptures.  On the one hand, we are taught that to choose evil is to become slaves of some sort to Lucifer.  On the other hand, we are also taught that, contrary to Lucifer’s plan, we are completely free to choose good or evil.  I guess the question is what does it mean to choose liberty or captivity?  Is this simply choosing to retain the liberty that we already have, or is it choosing to acquire some kind of liberty that we do not yet have?  What is clear is that, just like (4) says, the highest degree of heaven will indeed be populated with persons who are both fully righteous and fully free.


  1. Got a post coming up on this. That book I’ve been quoting from (The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture) argues exactly the opposite of what you are arguing (that the scriptures have little praise for rationality). Although we have to be careful about what we mean by “reason alone” or even reason for that matter.

    Comment by Clark — September 21, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

  2. Is there a modern person anywhere remaining? Imagine you went to a gathering and someone asked you your life purpose and you said rational self-reflection. I mean really today people see that as an oxymoron.

    Comment by Martin James — September 21, 2015 @ 1:49 pm

  3. Martin, I think a lot of traditional trappings of modernism such as the idea that reason leads to truth, foundationalism or the idea of indubitable knowledge that is true, and a few other such items are held in deep skepticism. Perhaps still held, but held with a certain out are the ideas of technological and social progress, individualism, and faith in democracy.

    What I think is still inherent to our society is a kind of faith in transformation. Even the movements that distrust or try to rebel against some purported dogma of modernism end up having faith in the possibility of transformation via discourse. Whether that is modernism inherently contaminating and dominating any other form of discourse is of course open to debate.

    In response to modernism there have been two interesting moves. One is an attempt to return to pre-modernism with moves against skepticism, distrust, cynicism and the like often with a strong move to submerge the individual in the community. The other is privileging the individual in various ways and denying the categories of meaning inherent in modernism. A possible third move recognizes modernism is unescapable but that there are many ways to be modern. This movement often undermines various modern discourses but think that what results is still modernism.

    The first example I gave pops up (according to some) in 20th century trends towards religious fundamentalism (such as the rise of Evangelicalism, the religious right, and even Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish fundamentalism) and some might say extreme nationalisms such as Nazism or even elements of Communism.

    The second example is existentialism but some might find it in many philosophies of the individuals that reject social categories. Relativism (if it ever actually appears) is a good example. Perhaps the various “transgressive” art movements fit too.

    The third example is postmodernism from a certain view although the second example is part of some postmodernism as well.

    I confess I’m most sympathetic to the third element which sees everyone saying they’re not modern and then continue to act very modern.

    Comment by Clark — September 21, 2015 @ 9:48 pm

  4. Clark,

    To me the heart of the conflict in all of the approaches is quote (William James possibly?) that all theory is against free will and all experience is for it.

    To me the fundamental situation that we are in is that reason tells us that we do not have choices and reason tells us that we do have choices.

    Since rationality is inconsistent it is not of that much use in areas like moral responsibility. The part of our brains that create the moral sense can’t help but hold people responsible and the part of our brains that develop theories of causes find lots of explanations for change but can’t find what a choice is.

    Take the question of trying to explain where in the world one finds fundamentalisms of various kinds (evangelical, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, materialistic, etc.) Then ask yourself, what type of rationality best explains the geographic distribution of these fundamentalisms?

    I would hold that that rationality is not a rationality with which one can function in the world. I think we are modern in the sense that a rationality that doesn’t explain can not be held to be rational, but that we are postmodern or anti-modern in that none of us can live based on the theories that best explain why we are what we are. Basically, it is impossible to be rationally consistent and also function in the world.

    What does it mean to be rational in relation to animals with different forms of consciousness than us and aliens or machines with consciousness different from us? We are completely at sea in terms of making any kind of rational sense of multiple forms of consciousness yet we experience that these things are legitimate concerns in some sense. Most think that animals suffer when we are cruel to them and some think that that makes it wrong to be cruel to those animals but no one is really rational about it, that is no one has a theory that works and is convincing about how to make sense of what is right or wrong in the use of animals – it is all ad hoc to an incredible degree. Its not so much relativism as just making things up as we go along – pretense as rationality?

    The usual response of most Mormons to these type of questions is that they are not that important that they are a distraction from what is important. In other words that rationality is not that important as a principle. Fair enough. But then just like you say about people acting modern, they go about acting like the difference between rational and irrational is quite important with rational usually being a synonym for “habitual, historical or how we do things around here.”

    But that way of being is just not up to the task of the situations we find ourselves in. There are just too many facts and too many situations for historical ways of being to make sense of.

    I’m curious about what you mean by “our society” and “faith in transformation”. If Donald Trump counts as part of our society then the discourse that gives us faith in transformation is ridicule. We have faith that if we can appropriately and successfully ridicule the people that don’t agree with us then those that do agree with us will be ascend to power and life will be as it should. I doubt that this is the transformation you are referring to but I’m not really sure what you do mean. I don’t know whether you are talking about “is” or “ought” in this transformation.

    To get back to Jeff G’s position, I think he is trying to make his rationality come together by returning to an authority based form of rationality, in other words that we can successfully ignore all of the contradictions by just making important a certain subset of them according to the dictates of authority.

    To me it is a nice theory but it fails to cope with the world. There are too many priorities. We see this in the difficulty it is for the leaders of the church to balance getting along with neighbors and converting neighbors to the truth. There are all manner of practical considerations, political and social that call for a form of rationality different from the prophetic. After all the church does hire PR people schooled in a non-religious form of expertise. Why? It makes no sense to need to do this if their rationality is completely authoritative. This leads to a problem of segmenting rationality into spheres which always seems completely ad hoc and irrational.

    Comment by Martin James — September 22, 2015 @ 8:02 am

  5. Clark,

    I agree that the word “rationality” means so many things such that it is impossible to dismiss it entirely without reservation. I think this is not at all an accident since ideological words like that are always vague such that they can be used to include and exclude across differing social contexts.

    For example, the Jews have most definitely taken a reason oriented approach to the Bible for over 2,000 years. Unfortunately for Christians, however, I think this reason based approach is exactly what Jesus and his illiterate discipline stood most against. In other words, I think the Christian reading of the Bible has more of an anti-intellectual slant to it than the Jewish reading does.


    I think you misread it. Rational self-direction just is the definition of modern freedom and EVERYBODY claims it today. Nobody said anything about rational self-reflection.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 22, 2015 @ 9:51 am

  6. JeffG,

    Typo. Still nobody rational believes in freedom.

    Comment by Martin James — September 22, 2015 @ 11:54 am

  7. “Still nobody rational believes in freedom”

    Say what!?! Point me to one politician that says freedom isn’t important and I’ll show you a politician that won’t get elected. Even on this very blog I tried to defend a type of compatibilism and everybody rejected me because my version of freedom wasn’t good enough.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 22, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

  8. Well, Trump says freedom of movement across borders is a bad idea. He is arguing that people shouldn’t be allowed to rationally self-direct geographically.

    Comment by Martin James — September 22, 2015 @ 1:21 pm