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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 5: The Individual-- His Faith and Freedom

Modern man’s attitude toward himself is ambiguous: he worries neurotically over himself, wondering who he is, while fearing to be himself and fleeing from himself. Self is in the saddle but with no horse to ride, for faith is gone. Existentialism is modern man’s insistence that he must ride his own horse where he will. It is the cry for freedom without faith. With self as goal, modern man has nowhere to ride. He sits in the saddle of self on a phantom steed of freedom, for faith is the carrier of freedom in directions beyond self.

This chapter is a presentation of man’s personal freedom within the presupposition of the Christian faith. It deals with three basic levels of freedom: the physical, the moral, and the spiritual. The aim is to interpret facts aright within their proper context.


Physical freedom is fundamental in nature. There are many interpretations of freedom which are, in fact, what William James called "soft determinism." They exclude freedom from the natural order of cause and effect. They relegate freedom to some attitudinal realm of the spirit. But if freedom roots in faith in God the creator, there can be no place from which freedom is basically excluded. This assertion is poignantly true in the case of the physical realm. The individual must have the capacity to relate himself in freedom to every major aspect of life.

There are limits to the freedom of the individual in the world of fact. There is the limit of time. Man is born, lives, and dies within a severely circumscribed bit of time and, while living, he has time for only an infinitesimal segment of affairs. He is not free to do or to participate in more. Man is likewise limited in space. In physical fact he can be in only one place at any given time, less than a pinprick in the illimitable universes. Man also is bound by the physical equipment of his body and by what seems to be semiphysical dispositional drives. In Gordon Allport’s vocabulary these drives become autonomous.

Man is bound by a vast order of cause and effect outside himself, over most of which he has no control at all, and by involuntary functions within himself which seem nearly to usurp mastery over him. A Boston physician once offered money to anyone who could demonstrate scientifically that by thought or by willing he could change the functioning of his kidneys. Man is also limited by the acts of others in the physical realm. He can be literally confined in prison or shot to physical death.

If these are some of the limits of physical freedom, what, then, is the nature of this freedom, and what measure of freedom does an individual possess? Man’s freedom in nature cannot be isolated from nature. Man is physically a part of it. There is a positive relation between the field theory in physics and its application by Kurt Lewin to psychology. In the old physics, reality consisted of minute particles that at least in theory could be isolated and located. They affected each other externally and mechanically. In the new physics, there are no isolated particles but fields of magnetic forces where the smallest units are limit-points, altogether a part of the whole field and internally related to it. Nor is the relation between whole and part mechanically external, but even as the whole exerts determinative influence on the parts, the parts act back and influence the whole. A seemingly inert and passive table actually hits back at the hand that touches it. Thus even on this physical level, determinism and freedom are correlative terms. Every part plays its role, but within the conditions of the whole and in relation to it; such freedom and determinism characterize all that we know.

In the organic realm, the unit is more markedly defined and distinct from its environment even though it is subject to the same situation. In this realm, however, the meaning and measure of freedom are intensified. The part played by the organism is more complex and original. The unit of exerted influence is more pronounced. In an animal, complexity and originality depend on the animal’s degree of development. A monkey can employ tools to change its environment even beyond its field of immediate perception, and animals can be conditioned to an artificial world of values by learning to enjoy substitute rewards. Even a cat may, I believe, respond to the stimulus of the food bowl when out of sight of it, or may sit waiting for a person to come to open a door, weighing motivations, not mechanically as on a scale, but organically within complex drives. An element of hesitation in the cat indicates more of originating influence than does the hesitation of a flow of water waiting for the easiest path to take. In no case is there decision without motivation, all the way from the more causally controlled event to the more organically conditioned act. The whole plays its full part of influence while each event or agent exerts its own proper degree of influence.

The same is true a fortiori in the case of human psychology. No act is free in the sense that it is apart from the conditioning power of the whole of its environment both from without and from within. External stimuli and internal associations of past experience basically penetrate, form, and color every act. No decision is free of the influence of the dominant field. But neither is any decision reducible to such external and internal influences as though there were no unit striking back. The more complex the unit, the more defined and originative is its influence. The freedom of man in the physical realm is along the same line as that of the physical and the organic realms as understood by field theory.

Man, however, adds a new dimension. Man’s consciousness and self-consciousness define him as a unit of originating response of peculiar complexity and power.(Kurt Lewin and Gardner Murphy have been especially perceptive in their application of the field theory in physics to psychology.) The table, an inorganic event, hits back at the hand that touches it. An animal, a complex organic event, modifies the world it meets. For example, it builds a home. A man not only reacts but responds. He meets the world uniquely in terms of self-conscious reflective evaluation. He thinks. By means of his ability to abstract and to create an alternate world to the one he finds, man receives a new level of freedom. For this reason there is real truth contained in Thomas Aquinas’ assertion: totius libertatis radix est in ratione constituta.(De Veritate, XXIV, 2.) Freedom is not basically of the mind but of the total person; without the ability to think, man would not be uniquely free. David Miller, in Modern Science and Human Freedom, has well said that freedom proceeds through planning by means of symbolic projection of possibilities into the future and involves a continuity of physical, psychological, and ethical factors.

But there is also discontinuity, uniqueness. Uniqueness means definitive distinctiveness, an isolable kainos that is neither some quantitative neos nor some unrelated wholly other. There is continuity between the freedom of the table, the animal, and man, but there is also qualitative discontinuity. For the purposes of discussion, such a distinction is all important. Sir Charles Sherrington, in his famous Gifford Lectures, declares that from the point of view of chemistry to make "life" a distinction between a person and a corpse, for instance, "is at root to treat them both artificially."(Man On His Nature [Cambridge University Press, 1953], p.78.) When a person dies, he writes, "chemistry not knowing the word ‘life’, says the proteins are [merely] irreversibly altered."(Ibid., p. 87.) But to the widow, life or not-life in her husband is a "root" difference, and in the lecture hall whether or not Sherrington is alive makes the crucial difference. There is no denial of the continuity of the whole field of chemistry, including man, alive or not; but what is to chemistry simply a matter of the irreversible alteration of proteins is for man a matter of life or death.

Similarly, man’s freedom is both continuous and discontinuous, but its uniqueness is all-important when man is understood on his own level, not to mention his fullest relation to God. The measure of man’s freedom varies, then, with his capacities and the development of those capacities. Obviously, the limits of physical freedom overwhelm man in terms of his finiteness. But as a part of the field, man is able to affect the field uniquely. By purposing he can initiate new changes of causations in the physical world, reversing, altering, or redirecting through his body the flow of energy. Self-determination is not apart from the field, but in response to it, and is in turn part of it.

There are also new ranges of understanding of extrasensory perception and kinokinesis. Invisible energy can affect the visible without direct contact in the body. The function of consciousness itself is determination of personal existence. There are also, the Christian knows, resources in the spiritual realm which enhance the power of man in and over the physical world. The measure of freedom thus varies with each person; but within the conditions of the field and of the person, man has a genuine measure of freedom in the physical world, especially through consciousness, self-consciousness, and the deeper reaches and relations of man as spirit.


Moral freedom is the ability to know the right and to do it. Right morality is a matter of conduct in relation to law or to life, or in some way to both. In a world of many moral agents (if right is to have any dependable meaning for the community), there must be some objective reference centrally common to all. Historically and analytically, law and life are the main references for morality. Self-fulfillment can be a standard in a world of many moral agents only if the fulfillment is of such a nature that its realization does not frustrate the moral situation or the moral life for others. If this requirement is carried through, we are back to some objective order of relations, law, or to some subjective order of relations, life, or to a synthesis of both.

The limits of moral freedom are within and without, and in the relation between the two points. Human beings do not see and know the total order of relations, either objectively or subjectively. Therefore, they act ignorantly and unwisely. Nor do they have the power or the will constantly to live up to the fullest they know. Moral failure is part of the human lot. Either the external requirement is too hard or the inner equipment too slight, or both; or else such failure itself has purpose within the moral order.

The Old Testament, on the whole, makes law, in the wide sense of the term, the standard of morality. God has revealed his way and man must walk in it. Gerhard Von Rad writes in Moses that "the basis for all life of men in community is law."(Unpublished manuscript.) The fulfilling of such law was the highest obligation, ideal, and joy of the dedicated Jew. Von Rad also writes that "in the whole of the Old Testament we do not find one single word which suggests that the Law is a burden, or that turns life into weariness."(Ibid.) Such understanding of God’s objective rule and of man’s fulfillment through obedience to it represents the highest morality based on law. The Jews further believed that it was possible to keep the law. Therefore, they could have moral freedom within the law and fulfillment of life by means of law.

The Christian position is that moral freedom is a matter of conduct in relation to life itself. Law is a matter of right relations, and right relations among men is love. Love therefore fulfills the law. The Jews in their two chief commandments approached and almost arrived at this position. Love means inclusive acceptance and outgoing concern. In full Christian love all men are accepted and have the same care for each other. Law then formulates the conditions for concern. These conditions depend on the nature of man and the world in which he lives. Law formulated as rules of conduct is necessary, but that does not touch the inner relation of persons. The fuller understanding and keeping of law as right relations among persons requires love. When love is realized, the conditions for right relations among persons are included, but they are relegated to an external means of involvement, and as such are no longer normative to human conduct. It is at this point that the objective and subjective aspects of morality are synthesized. Law is fulfilled in the service of love.

Faith is the affirmation of love. Faith presupposes that God can be trusted. By faith we justify God’s faith in us. Such faith releases our lives for freedom. Those who love are free from themselves in proportion to the depth of their love for others. God’s love alone is fully mature and therefore fully free.

Growth belongs to the life of man. As we trust God, our capacity to love grows. Paul writes that Abraham grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to perform what he had promised. Erich Fromm tells us that mature love never springs from the needs of others but instead, that it needs others precisely because of its own outgoing nature. It is free. Faith and freedom come together in the person who knows true love.

But the ability to love is blocked by sin. Being self-centered, we fear that we will be hurt by loving, and therefore we shut love from us. We want to be loved, but we know deep down that if we accept love we shall have to love; therefore, we fear being loved. Lovelessness is due to fear of loving. We can love, as finite creatures, only by first being loved. Love depends on acceptance, even of ourselves. God is the source of love because he is love. Therefore, the biblical witness is true that we love because he first loved us.

With sin blocking love, and self fearing love, we are bound by existential anxiety. We are imprisoned in self. And the prisoner is ill. We cannot will freedom. We are free to want it, but as we try to grasp it neither heavyhearted defiance nor lighthearted acceptance of freedom secures it for us. We fear and fail. We fail and fear. And there is no health in us commensurate with our desire. Our hopes disappoint and our expectations frustrate. We talk freedom -- and act bound. We shout freedom -- and crawl slaves to self, to others, and to circumstance. Our confession neither carries nor communicates conviction. Our claims, high or low, hurt and hinder us. We have freedom to choose, but not to be free by choosing.

Not until we own up to our plight can we be helped; not until we see ourselves within the total field of freedom and relate ourselves rightly to it. Not until we will be free within the will of God for the total good! Then, freedom to choose becomes freedom of life within our restoration to reality. We repent of our false fight for freedom and accept our native right to freedom. We then pine to be forgiven and to be made free within the full field of freedom.

Forgiveness frees the self by removing the block of sin, the fear of self. Forgiveness frees the self by relating it rightly to God’s will for the common good. Forgiveness frees the self by making it authentic before God. The twisted conscience hears again the voice of God, as the image of God becomes clarified at the depths of life. The tortured spirit of man is released from the guilt that makes him want to hide from self and others as well as from God. Forgiveness comes by faith in God’s love beyond our moral attainment. Forgiveness is therefore the gateway to fullness of life; it is, as Jakob Boehme says, "the open gate of grace."

The forgiven man becomes opened to the creative powers of faith. He is made free to love. He lives a new creature. Peace begins to flood life and faith, to give man the creative satisfaction of zestful freedom. Faith finds freedom through forgiveness.

The nature of moral freedom is freedom of life as fulfillment by means of freedom of choice as inescapable responsibility. Faith finds that freedom, as trust in God, leads to repentance, forgiveness and re-creation. These words may seem old-fashioned for modern man, but they are nevertheless prerequisite for life and truth. The Old Testament is right: the way of the law at its highest leads into the way of faith. Through Abraham’s faith comes the promise of blessing to all peoples. The highest revelation of the Old Testament is a wondrous way of faith far beyond our ordinary understanding or achievement. But its own fulfillment comes through the Gospel of the love of God, where faith as law reaches its fulfillment within the freedom of love.

Thus, moral freedom is within the total field of righteousness. The law is the way of right relations among all people. Community is based on law. It cannot be done away. We are free to choose or to reject it. But right relations among people are beyond law as law; they are a matter of full acceptance and creative concern. Law is fulfilled by love. Such love engenders creative individuality and enriching difference within the total fulfillment of the common good.


In the Christian view, the meaning of both physical and moral freedom is to be found in spiritual freedom. Man is spirit by creation, but vague, inchoate spirit, a spirit largely brooding over the void and confusion of the physical drives and moral problems. The purpose of both drives and problems is to learn freedom by freedom. The very nature of spirit is freedom, freedom of choice and freedom of life. We are born free to become free.

Since man is spirit by creation, he can become free through self-fulfillment only when he is rightly related and developed as spirit. God is the personal Spirit who is holy love. Man is created to become free spirit by learning to live holy love. Only such a mature spirit can make man truly free. Man can become free from self only by becoming an authentic self. Man can become free from others only by accepting them, identifying himself with them, and being concerned for them. But such freedom is no physical choice, not even a moral choice. Such freedom does not come by fear or by duty. It comes only on the spiritual level when man learns to receive, to be, and to live love.

Freedom on the spiritual level comes from participation in the life of God, the eternal Spirit. Freedom for man comes through God’s infinite resources for freedom. But the limits of that freedom are frightful. To gain such freedom is life’s fullest and final task and is therefore man’s hardest and longest struggle. God never gives freedom on the spiritual level for some simple asking. Man must suffer for it. The freedom of Jesus to have and to give his peace on the way to the Cross was paid for by the Cross. Life begins with suffering, and suffering continues throughout life. He who never knows suffering is not human. The greater the scope for freedom, the higher the cost. No life wins the prize of peace without the price of suffering. In every realm of life there is pain: physical, moral, and spiritual. The mind enters into all these sufferings. No spiritual freedom comes without the free and full acceptance of suffering, and the right, redemptive use of it. SØren Kierkegaard identified the stages in man’s spiritual growth as the aesthetic, pleasure; the ethical, struggle; and the religious, suffering.(Naturally these descriptive phrases are no summaries of Kierkegaard’s rich, complicated analysis. For a full discussion see Concluding Unscientific Thinking, Appendix, pp. 244-266, especially p. 261, or Walter Lowrie’s Introduction to Stages on Life’s Way, especially p. 10. Different translators render the Danish variously, but for our purposes the only point is the fact that the religious [and highest] stage is characterized by suffering.)

The limits of spiritual freedom reach into the depths of anguish because of man’s need for freedom from God. Klan longs to remain an infant in every sphere of life. He dreads being weaned. But God nonsentimentally withdraws the breast from the crying child. God seems cruel as he lets even Jesus cry his bitter cry of being forsaken. God leaves the child alone in unfriendly hands; and dread, rebellion, fear, suspicion, hatred, enter the child’s life. Like the eagle, God "stirs up the nest" and hurls the eaglet down the precipice. Such insecurity, such being let alone, such fright, such suffering, are man’s lot because he has to find freedom from God.

The more developed the animal, the longer the period for raising the young. A human child requires years of rearing. But who can number the years required for moral and then spiritual rearing? This life seems but the beginning, and those who die may still cry: "My God, why hast thou forsaken me." Spiritual rearing is lifelong and few know in this life effective fostering; with fuller understanding and commitment, suffering often increases. Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes to be tempted by the Devil. He was free not to escape the suffering of temptation but to meet it by divine power. We do not know whether man in this life can go beyond such a state. In any case, all golden prescriptions for peace of mind and ease of life are sleeping pills that soothe for the moment but cannot ensure the surcease of sorrow. No psychological tricks or false faiths can substitute for the God who hides himself in order for us to learn to become free by the choices of freedom.

Freedom comes in large measure by suffering as we learn to be free from God, free from others, and free from self in order to be free in, by, and with God, with and for others, and as a true self. We are free to say "no" to God, and we do. We do so, not for the most part directly, but in our interpretation of him by denying or distorting his presence, or by disguising his nature or changing his will. When by freedom from God, which is the gift of God’s humility for our learning, we say "no" to him, we get out of relationship to the reality for which we are made. Maladjustment, guilt, and suffering ensue. We say "no" to others, and suffer through trying to use them or because of being rebuffed by them. Social by nature, we thus suffer by denying our nature. Social by God’s demand, we deny God, and guilt brings us anguish. We refuse self by denying God and shutting out others. The perverted selves that we become starve, are driven, and suffer.

Or, we may suffer even when we say "yes" to God. He may hide himself from us or demand the seemingly impossible; and we suffer. Our conscience separates itself from God’s image in us, and divided we suffer. Our spirits, not yet enlightened or tempered, burn with a false fever, or become exhausted; we suffer. When we accept others, to live for them, they may fail to understand us, causing us to suffer. Or, understanding us all too well, they feel our love a judgment upon them, thus rejecting us, and we suffer. Or, as we accept ourselves, the Holy Spirit may lead us into the wilderness of temptation, and we suffer. We find ourselves and, by so doing, find that we have to deny or be denied what seems nature itself, physical, mental, social or spiritual, and we suffer.

Life is learning to become free by suffering. There is no other way. Sooner or later, freedom, when we get it, comes through the choice of suffering. Sinner and saint alike suffer: the one hopelessly and without remedy, the other in hope and healing. Nor is there escape in this life or beyond, for God controls the consequences of our choices and makes us meet them. The saint, however, does suffer with hope and with help. If any way of life could be free of suffering, selfishness would always choose it. The lot of the saint, indeed, seems harder than that of the sinner. It certainly is no attraction to self-seeking. Therefore, only goodness can lead to repentance and to freedom. The frustration of fear is only to lead man to consider the good he once knew. Even then, man is free to follow either way.

Suffering with God for others, as a genuine self, nevertheless finds hope beyond suffering. The joy is set before those who choose the Cross. The suffering is for a moment and brings an exceedingly worthwhile reward: faith’s final freedom in love. God has a sabbath prepared for his people. Life on earth is a school for love; perhaps it is only the kindergarten before we learn to read the divine communication directly. Learning continues beyond man’s physical death. Heaven is no empty symbol to be despised by modern man. Heaven is man’s home. It is the fulfillment of life beyond God’s school of suffering. Heaven is love’s final freedom when faith rests in God.

And love’s suffering has help on its way. In the struggle there is a companion who knows the depths of the Cross. Often, the loneliness of the Gethsemane struggle is life’s bitterest cup. Yet man is not alone even in that loneliness. He is not Godforsaken. Even when God hides from us, faith that has once found God suffers on in the agony of its aloneness, knowing that even then it can commit its spirit into stronger hands. And often after the fiercest struggle, God sends ministering angels. The life of faith, too, has its long hours of trusting joy and its shorter moments of transfiguration. To exaggerate suffering, even as pedagogy, is to dim the reality of the Gospel. For faith, suffering is real and must be accepted, but suffering is not all of life nor life’s deepest meaning and experience.

What, however, is the measure of faith’s freedom in this life? Who can tell? Let the heart of each one answer from his own experience. Let each one look as far as he can at human history. Jesus gave the formula: "according to your faith." According to your faith, your lived faith, you will have freedom. Freedom from God is our inescapable stewardship. God never becomes guilty of "momism." We can choose through faith in God, as best we know him, to find freedom of life. The kind of freedom we reach depends in some measure on the kind of faith we have. Faith in God as love can give us trust’s assurance, even at times the Bible’s "full assurance of faith" and the "joy and peace in believing." False faiths deceive and mock; but even wrong faiths yield some fruit, for all faiths are mixtures of truth and falsehood, tangled up with a finite and sinful self.

We are born, in any case, into a sinful situation and accept before we know it a self-centered drive which is partly nature, partly social heritage, and partly situational, as frail man trembles in an overpowering world that is not only precarious but threatening to the depth self in terror-striking dimensions. Some spirits are damaged in the bringing up. Faith’s fullest acceptance seems not to redo what family and society have hurt. In such cases, suffering hunts hard on suffering. Who can tell what others alone can know? Who can share the pain of the unbidden suffering? Who can rationalize the human story of Job? Who can give the equation of Jesus’ peace and pain? We hurt ourselves, others and God, because often we suffer, not knowing why.

Freedom is therefore to face life at its center. Freedom is to put aching lives into the hands of God to be used in his service, and at times to feel the touch of his hand and see the smile of his approval. Freedom is to reach out to others for companionship, seeking their good, even when the self within cries for approval and recognition. Freedom is to find creative interest in the normal activities of life, even when suffering would blanket the mind and suffocate the spirit. Freedom is to accept oneself, suffering and all, and to go on living, even when one’s picture of oneself is smashed and one’s confidence in doing genuine good seems broken. Freedom is to have faith in God, others, and self when doubts assail and life seems to declare the doubts to be justified.

No man can speak for humanity. Life is too complicated and the response to life too varied for generalizations. Our next task will be to consider the possibilities of the social freedoms that can be attained, to use and to enjoy. For these we must live with wisdom and effectiveness. But to believe that external conditions for freedom will give persons true freedom is to court disaster through superficiality. There can be no social freedoms until persons win victory in their own lives. Such victories are of faith, life’s positive, evaluative response to reality. Such freedom is most deeply the gift of God. Man is spirit and must learn by freedom that only where the Spirit of the Lord is can liberty be found.

Full freedom is a gift that must be both received and learned. Freedom can be given only to freedom, and no self can become free except it learn of what true freedom consists. No lessons cost more or last longer. Life is for these lessons. Life is for learning love. Love alone is fully free both to choose and to live. Faith affirms, and finds, that there can be growth in freedom as there is maturation of love. To teach this kind of freedom is well nigh impossible. Those who try must communicate the truth that the Christian Gospel of freedom has a Cross at its center, a Companion in suffering, but also faith’s hoping and faith’s finding.





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