Lecture 4: Called to Freedom

Senior Professor Michael Welker gave the fourth of his six Gifford Lectures earlier this evening. The video of Welker’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version is available at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Victoria Turner will offer her initial reflections on the lecture. Turner  is a first year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, New College.  We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Welker’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Earlier this evening Welker gave his fourth lecture on the call to freedom. He started by recapping some of the points that he had made in the previous lecture on justice as a multimodal spirit. Welker went on to state that in this lecture he would “survey the elementary forms of this multimodal spirit of freedom before turning to its moral and political manifestations and, finally, to its relationships with religion.”

The first major section of his lecture was concerned with what he termed “elementary forms of freedom.” As Welker mentioned, western societies not only understand a human person “as a subject gifted with reason and will . . . but also as a radically unique emotional-physical individual.” Furthermore, western societies have placed an emphasis on the individual dignity of human persons. Welker went on to question whether or not these affirmations of radical individuality, freedom, and equality were “utterly untenable utopias” given the concrete realities of inequality that many individuals experience within today’s societies. As he stated, “many people in our world today are in fact largely unfree, oppressed as they are by physical (hunger, crushing poverty, chronic illness) and spiritual distress (fear, persecution, terror).” He furthermore stated, “it is not just those living in distress and fear who enjoy hardly any freedoms but also those who, though indeed living in environments allowing a person to live largely free of distress and fear, have nonetheless manoeuvred themselves into situations of acute lack of freedom as a result of, for example, addiction or ideological seduction.” He went to speak about the “minimal and modest” forms of freedom that “enable a person largely to negotiate hindrances or live with unavoidable impediments.”

However, he made a point to state that these minimalist and modest forms of freedom “must not distract us from situations in which people are genuinely denied broader freedoms to shape their own lives especially in social and political situations.” As he went on to state, “the spirit of freedom that remains mindful of the spirit of justice can in fact facilitate what we might call fruitful unrest with respect to such abuses of power and denied freedoms.” He closed this first section of his lecture by stating that, “the multimodal spirit of freedom makes it possible to appreciate what we have called the more modest personal freedoms without losing sight of formative moral and political freedoms as well as the inherent dangers that arise when freedom in society at large is undermined.”

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Welker then moved on to talk about the role that morality and moral communication have in this “call to freedom.” As he stated, “people in complex social relationships cannot live without morality.” Moral judgement and discernment and its communication between individuals in communities and societies is an indispensable aspect of this call to freedom. He explained further, “viewed formally and minimalistically, moral communication consists precisely in this network of according or denying respect, that is, of the promise of respect and the threat of its denial.” At this point Welker spoke in more detail about how morality and moral communication related to plural societies made up of various social systems (e.g. various organizations and institutions such as “politics, law, the media, the marketplace, science and scholarship, education, family, religion, healthcare, and defense systems”). He then stated that “the division and balance of power that such entities develop within affirmed pluralist societies function in a multipolar and multimodal fashion to stimulate and foster freedom at various levels.”

Through these various institutions and organizations that operate as a “more or less successful system of mutual correctives” a high degree of social freedom is valuably exhibited in and amongst individuals. However, this high degree of social freedom also carries with it the subversive possibilities. As he went on to state, “one obvious subversive power in this sense is the ‘accumulation of indoctrinated masses that are seduced by populist leaders,’ which many populists welcome  and which, as seen in my first lecture, is ultimately responsible for the miseries of totalitarianism.” The “erosion of civil powers” is another subversive possibility. He went on to state, “it is not least the deforming intrusions into civil organizations by the social systems that constitute a subversive threat.” As he explained in dialogue with Jürgen Habermas, there is an “imminent danger of a ‘supervisory state’ but also to the destructive relationships between the electronic mass media and civil powers. Mass media manage, as Habermas puts it, to impose their power structures on the public sphere by a careful selection of topics, the repression of other topics, and the creation of illusory participation.” These subversive powers can and do problematize moral communication in pursuit of justice and freedom, but at this point in his lecture Welker asked, “what role does religion now play in this extraordinary complex description of the power cycle within free pluralistic societies?”

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Here in the last section of Welker’s lecture he offered a sober assessment of religion’s role in the multimodal pursuit of freedom. As he mentioned, “for religious persons, and certainly for those seized by it, [religion] represents a divine gift that not only shapes them in many ways but also equips them with many gifts and powers.” However, Welker was quick to point out that the “institutional and moral power of religion” has not and can not be seen as a “guarantee of unconditionally good morality and as an impetus for promoting the spirit of freedom.” Welker then went on to talk about the importance of self-criticism and ecumenical/interreligious dialogue. As he stated, “what is most necessary, however, is a self-critical and informative examination of the creeping processes of alienation and secularization within religions themselves, in which context the disrupted relationship many religions have with the spirit of freedom cannot but play an especially crucial role.”  This being the case he succinctly stated toward the end of this section of his lecture that“it is only to the extent that religions are seized and shaped by this very spirit [of justice, freedom, truth, and peace] and then allow these bequeathed powers and spiritual gifts to assert themselves in a self-critical fashion that the spirit of freedom can become active within and venture from them.” Religious institutions and communities cannot be seen to be guarantors of freedom, but religion has the possibility to be a powerful participant in the actualization of freedom(s) when it self-critically allows itself to be shaped by this multimodal spirit of justice, freedom, truth, and peace.

Welker concluded his lecture by reiterating that the multimodal and multifaceted spirit of freedom includes modest or elementary forms of freedom, but he was quick to point out that these elementary freedoms should not cause us to “lose sight . . . of the relationship between the spirit of freedom and the spirit of justice.” He then stated that this requires us to “seek political and moral means of shaping the agenda of freedom within society . .  . in order to better deal with the more compact forms of social subversions of freedom.” Speaking again about religion Welker stated that “one must critically and especially self-critically examine the dangerous confusion between freedom, on the one hand, and institutional power and power aggrandizement, on the other” and he claimed that this “multimodal spirit of freedom, justice, truth, and peace facilitates the articulation of a natural-theological realism and an exemplary ethos.”

2 thoughts on “Lecture 4: Called to Freedom

  1. In God’s Image: Anthropology- Called to Freedom.

    – Victoria Turner.

    Prof. Michael Welker is delivering the 2019/20 Gifford Lectures on Anthropology: In God’s Image. Unusually and unlike virtually all Gifford Lecturers in recent memory, Welker is attempting to stick to the rules of the Gifford Lectures, which state that “lecturers are to discuss natural theology as a science, that is, ‘without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation.’’’ I wish to make a few observations about his fourth lecture held on Thursday 4 November 2019, which discusses the idea that to be human means to be called to freedom.

    Welker firstly described freedom as a complex notion that is often subjected to distortions, imposed as illusionary freedom by the powerful. Calling upon the argument of the feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, that the reality of gender, ethnicity and even slavery are entrenched into Western systems, Welker contends that these systems deceive us into believing that they provide a freedom of thought and freedom of choice. He pointed towards chauvinistic and xenophobic language as examples of how society can entrench language that reduces freedom. This reminded me of Anthony Reddie’s recent discourse on how the Brexit campaign adopted the notion of ‘Whiteness’ to explain British, Christian identity. This limited model of Britishness normalised racist thought processes in Britain and its media and restricted the voices of those who were consequently ‘othered’ (A. Reddie, 2019). I strongly agreed with Welker’s assertion that a society’s concept of freedom must be weighed by how it treats the weak or oppressed among us.

    He suggests that we invoke our shared morality, provided through the multimodal spirit, to clarify where freedom is being abused by the institutional power systems who are meant to uphold this freedom- such as politics, education and the church. The abuse of our government denying the right and freedom of many of the Windrush Generation in 2018 is an example of how the institutions that, by definition, are meant to protect us need to be constantly criticised and behaved by the public. In a Barthian fashion (minus Christology), Welker distinguishes between religion as an institution and religion as the multimodal spirit. Extending my previous Brexit example, the institutionalised church refused to publicly take sides in the Brexit discourse, despite one side promoting xenophobia. The church allowed an exclusivist mentality to permeate through its congregations instead of working against these power structures that reduced the freedom for many in Britain. Faced with decline, the church was also caught up in this false nostalgia of the past and consequently decided to join the status quo of politics rather than be a beacon of light. Welker appealed to humanity’s need of the spirit to help us discern and pursue the reality of freedom through self-critical introspection in all areas of power. The spirit both teaches and tears down, and our job is to join that work.

    However, I’m still left questioning who’s freedom and what justice is being upheld by this multimodal spirit? The relationship between the human spirit and divine spirit is individualised in each person (we all have personal multimodal abilities), yet it can also create a collective good (we have a shared morality provided by the same spirit). This means that there is no essential difference between the spirit of the colonisers and the colonised. I fail to see how this theology can provide justification or comfort for those whose freedom has been stripped from them. By taking away the Cross you also take away the relational God, who’s coming into the world enabled him to become part of the collective suffering. Christ stands amongst the least, distinguishing himself from the powerful and becomes the perpetual ally of the outcast. It is a shame that the Gifford outline restricted Welker’s ability to expand upon Christology, especially considering he has written extensively on the subject.

    However, invoking Rodinger Bittner, Welker explained that these power systems can also control our actual ideas of freedom too. For instance, the International Freedom Rankings understand the concept of individual freedom through a society’s closeness to Western ideals. Although seeing the value in this argument, Welker critiques this abstract thinking of freedom as subjective, believing it distracts us from alleviating suffering. Welker is tentative to tear down the ten institutionalised entities that he claims uphold society, although he is wary of one becoming dominant over the others. The claim that society needs these power structures and that humanity holds shared values can be questioned through examining cultures who view society collectively rather than individualistically- more specifically African Ubuntu theology comes to mind, religions that deny the idea of self and intrinsic good- such as Buddhism, and systems that promote human advancement through piety and modesty.

    Although Welker pointed towards the need for exploring other ideas of freedom, they were not explored sufficiently. Welker has done his part by drawing upon the personal experience of growing up in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, polarising the freedoms given by West and East Germany, to explain how discourses on the subjectivity of freedom do not help those living without it. Nevertheless, this comparison cannot do justice to the diversity of thought, and the diverse comprehensions of freedom present throughout our societies. A better diversity of experiences and voices need to join this conversation. Feminist, postcolonial, black, liberation and indecent theology has not only deconstructed power systems but also rigid, rational, scientific Western thought processes. Western ontologies take away the freedom of the other to think within their own indigenous paradigms. By deciding to strictly uphold the restrictions of the Gifford lectures and allow a Western system of thought to dominate the notion of natural theology, rather than critique its relevance to the globalised reality of Christianity, Welker has allowed the Western discourse to dominate perceptions of freedom. I believe Welker could have upheld Lord Gifford’s principles and explored different modes of thought by utilising more recent social scientific methodologies, such as sociology, phenomenology, and anthropology (not just theological anthropology). This method would still be using scientific methods to explain religion but would incorporate and justify the existence of thought processes other than Enlightenment rationality.

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  2. I see my lecture mirrored only to a small part in this summary, which brought in impulses of several of my other lectures. I did try to investigate a multitude of notions of personal freedom and gave a lot of room to very sceptical voices on self-congratulatory Western liberal democratic value systems. On the other hand I affirmed the frail potentials of moral and societal freedom embedded in individualistic, social societal, multi-systemic pluralist societies. I also listened to some feminist, anti-colonial and anti-sexist positions. Perhaps these voices should have been given more strength and space. But I also challenged in connection with contributions from law and sociology at great length the inability of established religions to deal adequately with concepts and practices of freedom. It seems that this spectrum of endeavours did not come over clearly enough.
    Michael Welker

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