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Revisions to ‘Freedom All The Way Up’

August 4, 2017

Freedom All The Way Up: God and the Meaning of Life in a Scientific Age has been available (through Amazon, your local book store, etc) for the past couple months; however, I finished writing it over a year ago (it takes a year to get through the publication process), which means I have had a year to continue thinking about these matters. For those who have read, or will read, the book here are three revisions I would make:

  • My discussion of agape-love was deficient in a particularly significant way. I continue to agree with my definition of agape-love as ‘self-sacrificial self-giving for the blessing of God and of others, particularly those who are vulnerable, as well as strangers and enemies’. In Chapter 5, I said that there are two fundamental forms of blessing that constitute agape-love towards others—seeking justice and giving gifts. Now, however, I believe I failed to properly include the work of Jesus on the cross; that is, there is a primary sort of blessing that constitutes agape-love which I failed to identify, but which I now believe is essential to agape-love—reconciliation. Estrangement is humanity’s fundamental problem (estrangement from God and from each other through our self-focused inclinations); that is, I would identify estrangement as the fundamental form of hamartia (the Greek word in the New Testament usually translated as ‘sin’, but more literally meaning ‘missing the mark’). So Jesus’ life and death, his mission, was to overcome estrangement—to reconcile humanity with God and with each other, which in effect makes ‘offering reconciliation’ the fundamental form of Jesus’ agapic mission. Other forms of blessing are biblical too, such as seeking justice, physical healing, bestowing dignity, provision of needs, advocacy, and so forth, but I would now say that agape-love prioritizes reconciliation above all other forms of blessing, since, if we achieve reconciliation with God and with others, then the other sorts of blessings will more-fully follow. This addition of reconciliation as the principle objective of agape-love is a critical refinement to my original discussion (and I am very annoyed with myself for missing this in the book). Moreover, it adds another layer to the radicalness of Jesus’ agape-love, for if we truly understood the implications of deep reconciliation, then not just our individual relationships would be dramatically altered but our whole social, economic, and political structures as well. Consequently, I would now redefine agape-love along these lines: agape-love is ‘self-sacrificial self-giving for the blessing of God and of others, particularly those who are vulnerable, as well as strangers and enemies, principally through reconciliation, then also through justice and gifts’. (This could still do with some refining, but for now this makes my point.)
  • For the sake of comprehensiveness, in the book I should have discussed more of the social science research on the meaning of life. In particular I am thinking of the sort of work done by the Positive Psychology movement and by the Greater Good Science Centre at UC Berkeley. The Centre (which does great research) identifies ten elements of well-being for a meaningful life: altruism, diversity, compassion, awe, gratitude, mindfulness, forgiveness, happiness, and social connection. These are perfect examples of forms of ‘internal transcendence’ (IT). Of course, others could still be added—off the top of my head I can think of ‘solidarity’, ‘creativity’, ‘communicativeness’, ‘hope’, and ‘perseverance’.  It would also have been beneficial to have referenced the three methodological approaches to ‘well-being’ famously identified by Derrek Parfit in his book Reasons and Persons (namely ‘mental state’ approaches, ‘desire-fulfillment’ approaches, and ‘objective list’ approaches). None of these discussions would have changed any of my argument in the book; rather, they simply would have better illustrated my points in Chapters 7 and 8, particularly with regard to my argument that ‘uber-values’, such as ‘well-being’ or ‘flourishing’, are incoherent if not based in an uber-Mind (ie., God).
  • I would like to have given more attention to humanism and ‘the human spirit’. These two terms are essentially different labels given to the sorts of IT qualities described above—though my sense of how people use the phrase ‘the human spirit’ particularly emphasizes the qualities of perseverance and hope that enable people to rise inspiringly to the challenges of life. Nonetheless, because there is no—and can be no—single canonical definition of ‘humanism’ or ‘the human spirit’, these terms can be applied to any subset of IT qualities, including subsets that exclude altruism, self-sacrifice, and reconciliation, which are essential to agape-love. That is, ‘humanism’ and ‘the human spirit’ can overlap some IT qualities that are part of our imago Dei qualities, and can overlap some agape-love practices, but they are not the same as agape-love, and, because of their linguistic flexibility, can easily omit essential elements of agape-love. In effect, IT humanism and ‘the human spirit’ are attractive concepts, evoking life-encouraging feelings, even plugging into some of our God-created imago Dei qualities, but they are no replacement for God’s agape-love as the fundamental meaning of existence. (In effect, these observations do not change any of my arguments, other than to lead me to slightly refine what I said on p.218 of the book, so that now I would put it this way—that the qualities associated with IT humanism and ‘the human spirit’ can strengthen parts of the existential superstructure of life, yet they simultaneously undermine our existential foundations by removing God’s agape-love as the purpose of the universe and as the foundational meaning of our lives.)
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Vinoth Ramachandra

IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement

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