Divine Will and Human Freedom by Richard Muller (A Review)


Richard A. Muller is (rightly) one of the dominant names in the field of Reformation and Post-Reformation scholarship. His studies on Calvin as well as the broader Reformed tradition—especially his magisterial, 4-volume, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (PRRD)have irrevocably changed the contemporary conversations surrounding these figures.

One of the aims of his studies is to resituate figures like Calvin and the later generations of Reformed Scholastic theologians in their contemporary and historical context, in order to correct anachronistic judgments surrounding their thought. Calvin is no longer simply a remarkable, lone genius, but one of a company of 2nd Generation Reformers who learned from and in conversation with others (even if his genius was still prodigious). The Reformed Scholastics who followed weren’t simply arid logicians, taking Calvin’s biblical Spirit and locking it up in the chains of Aristotelian syllogisms and Greek metaphysics. They were scholars, teachers, and preachers in their own right, who exhibit both continuity and discontinuity with Calvin, while codifying and nuancing their Reformation inheritance in conversation with the Patristic and Medieval traditions that came before it. And so on.

That same aim animates his most recent offering Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought. As the subtitle indicates, Muller is taking up the perennially thorny issue of divine sovereignty and human freedom in light of the issues of possibility, contingency and necessity. More specifically, he has an eye on the issue in the theology of the 17th Century Reformed Scholastics who formed the focus of the PRRD. 

(For those interested, I’ll just be blunt and say this can be some tough sledding. I’ve read the four volumes of Muller’s PRRD cover to cover and I found this to be more difficult than any of them. I think that’s largely a feature of the difficulty of the subject material, not Muller’s writing, but I thought it worth mentioning.)

Correcting the Historical Narrative

To clarify the issues involved, Muller has to keep more than a few conversations straight. In the first place, he wants to make it clear that when we talk about the issue of necessity, contingency, and freedom in the Reformed Scholastics, their categories and positions don’t just map neatly onto contemporary arguments surrounding libertarianism or compatibilism in post-Kantian or even contemporary analytic philosophy and theology. You can’t just say “Francis Turretin was a compatibilist” and have it mean the same thing as “Daniel Dennett is a compatibilist” or even “Jonathan Edwards was a compatibilist” (on which, below).

Second—and this takes up a much larger and central portion of the book—Muller aims to engage with a couple of recent historical interpretations of both the Scholastics and their relationship to the tradition that preceded them. The first comes from the scholars such as Arvin Vos, Martin Bac, Roelf Te Velde, and others associated with the volume Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Thought (a helpful volume of the translated primary sources definitely worth consulting). To give a very bad summary, they have put forward a narrative that goes something like this:

Ever since Aristotle, the Western tradition has struggled with a latent determinism in its view of human freedom. This was passed on in the Christian tradition as exemplified by Aquinas. But it’s only with the arguments of Duns Scotus that we get the revolutionary breakthrough in logic and ontology connected to the associated with the idea of “synchronic contingency”, which allows for a more robust sense of creaturely freedom, ontological indeterminacy, and so forth. Unfortunately, Calvin managed to get stuck in a more Thomistic determinism again. After him, though, the later Post-Reformation Scholastics took a more Scotist turn and recovered some of the Scotus revolution regarding contingency and freedom. We need to understand this if we’re to grasp the way their view of dependent freedom doesn’t fit the libertarian/compatibilist binary of modern thought.

This construct has been subject to important criticism by Paul Helm from more than a few angles. Helm is unconvinced there really is a large structural difference between Calvin and the later Calvinists, that the concept of “synchronic contingency” does what the RTF group thinks it does, or that it really solves any of the dilemmas around contemporary notions of compatibilism and libertarianism.

Muller wants to triangulate a position somewhere between the two of them, but that takes making an argument in three stages which comprises the three sections of the book.

First, he spends about 60 pages giving you the nuanced version of the “state of the question” in contemporary historiography that I just gave you two paragraphs on.

In the second section, about 90 pages, Muller jumps back to the early sources and tackles the question of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Scotus. Essentially, he argues (and I think shows) that reading Aristotle as a hard determinist is a mistake. Second, in any case, the Christian tradition after him didn’t read him that way, especially Aquinas. In which case, unsurprisingly, Muller finds Aquinas isn’t the metaphysical determinist the RTF group reads him to be. Third, Scotus did introduce some changes in understanding the relationship between the will and the intellect, God’s relationship to time, and the language of “synchronic contingency”, which are significant to the question. That said, the daylight between Scotus and Aquinas on this question isn’t as radical as all that. Nor does synchronic contingency get you as much by way of a different ontology of possibility as you might think. In fact, we need to understand it less as a different ontology, and more as a specific set of logical distinctions which help us think through whatever ontology we’re already working with.

Finally, he turns to the period of the Reformed Scholastics themselves (Twisse, Rutherford, Turretin, Voetius, Gomarus, etc.) in order to analyse their thought. Roughly, he shows that while there is an increased nuance and sophistication terminologically between Calvin and the Scholastics, it’s not as radical a difference between them as all that. What’s more, the Scholastics shouldn’t primarily be thought of as Scotistic in theological orientation on this issue (or others such as the univocity of being, etc.). Instead, while the Reformed had a fairly consistent and coherent picture of dependent freedom, their philosophical orientation was eclectic. They could use some of the distinctions of the Scotists even while many maintained something close to a Thomistic orientation. (Also, go look up his excellent article, “Not Scotist.”)

One further historiographical wrinkle to which I alluded before. For Muller, all of this goes to showing the fact that there has been a break, not only in modern thought on free will, but within the Reformed tradition itself. He has elsewhere argued that the sort of dependent freedom of the Reformed Scholastics is structurally different than the “compatiblism” of Jonathan Edwards, whom he takes to have altered the Reformed consensus in his translation of Reformed theology into a different, Idealist metaphysics. (On which, you can read his debate with Paul Helm here.) This “parting of the ways” in the 18th Century is fairly important given how many American Calvinists essentially read the tradition—especially on this issue—through the lens of Edwards’ works.

I hope you can sense that I’m condensing a very complex, careful argument that’s caught up in parsing a number of very fine distinctions. Now, without noting all the variations between individual Scholastic thinkers, I’ll try to lay out a slim outline of a composite “Reformed Scholastic” approach.

Clarifying the Reformed View

Muller’s view, insofar as I have it, is that when it comes to the Reformed Orthodox view of human freedom we have to speak of something like a “dependent freedom.” But we can only do this once we set it in light of basic theological convictions regarding God’s sovereignty, concurrence, causality, and relation to the temporal order he has made. For the Reformed there are various layers of necessity and contingency that you have to keep clear.

There is the first layer where we speak of the power of God. Here we speak of the distinction between absolute and ordained power. God’s absolute power is his infinite potency to do whatever is logically possible (ie. anything besides making a married bachelor, etc.). His ordained power is a way of talking about the power he has decided to exercise in doing whatever he has chosen to do. Note, though, God’s ordained power does not exhaust the limits of what he could do according to his absolute, or infinite power, if he so chose.

Connected to this is the freedom of God to either create or not create (freedom of contradiction, or the freedom to do or not do something), and once he’s decided to create, the matter of what he creates (freedom of contrariety, or the freedom to choose between options). God is free in both regards and so there is an initial layer of contingency, non-necessity involved in the whole order since God could have done otherwise. Nothing except God must be what it is. The world order is radically contingent in that sense.

Second, and this is where the idea of synchronic contingency at the divine level comes in, even having chosen to create this particular world, God remains the sort of being who could choose (or could have chosen) otherwise. He still has that potency or power. Now, once God decides to create Jones as a 5’2″ Norwegian, Jones will be a 5’2″ Norwegian. But Jones could have been and in a (non-temporal) sense still could be otherwise, when we consider God’s current potency or power.

Next, we drop this down to the human level, or the level of secondary causality, and the Reformed want to affirm a few things. First, humans have a faculty of choice involving the deliberation of the intellect and the will’s acceptance of that judgment. Different Reformed are more or less Thomist at this point, but freedom involves a rational choice, even an element of spontaneity. Human choices don’t simply follow from previous events like natural causes (rocks falling according to gravity, etc.). There is no physicalist, mechanical, fatalistic determinism at the level of the world-system you find in the later modern period or down on into today’s genetic determinism. Rational freedom, then, is a unique sort of cause within the contingent order God has made.

Second, at the level of secondary causality, humans also have both the freedom of contradiction and contrariety–they have the power to do or not do, as well as choose between options. Jones can choose to eat ice cream, and choose between Rocky Road or Cookies & Cream. And once he has chosen Rocky Road he still has the unrealized potency to choose Cookies & Cream. This is not to say he could choose them both at the same time, or somehow metaphysically switch his choice. It’s to say something closer to the idea that if you put Jones in the exact same situation, bracketing the divine decree and just looking at the human level, he might choose Cookies & Cream. It’s not that for any choice, if you drop him into it and squeeze him, so to speak, there’s a mathematically guaranteed outcome.

Now, that said, when we connect the two levels we need to keep in mind a couple of things. First, God created all things ex nihilo and sustains them in being at each moment. The world and the humans in it have their own reality, but not in such a way that God creates the world, sets it spinning and it runs on its own steam. In which case, for there to be such a thing as human freedom, it is created, sustained, and in at least that sense, dependent freedom. God must exercise his freedom at all moments to enable, approved, and “concur” with our freedom. This is why the idea of some absolutely independent indifference makes no sense on a Reformed understanding. It is also a key part of the metaphysical machinery we need to consider when putting divine choice and human choice together.

This brings us to the distinction often invoked between the “composite” sense or the “divided sense” of a statement to clarify the levels of contingency, necessity, and freedom attributed to it. Take Jones choosing Rocky Road. In the “divided” sense, (ie. bracketing out the divine decree), we can see it is a free, contingent choice at the level of human potency. But when you add the fact that God decreed that Jones choose Rocky Road (hence “composite”), and upholds his will at every moment, then we have to say that Jones choosing Rocky Road is also necessary. It’s not absolutely divinely necessary. But it is now necessary since it is also an act that God has chosen it.

From a different angle, it’s the difference between the necessity of the consequent and the necessity of the consequence. Necessarily, if God decrees something, it’s going to happen. But not everything that God decrees is thereby absolutely necessary. And for the Reformed, this is true in some sense at both the divine and human level. The claim is that God’s decree does not erase the nature of Jones choice as the result of a rational deliberation at the level of secondary causality, even if it will necessarily occur.

Someone like Turretin could say that God can freely choose for Jones to freely choose Rocky Road on Tuesday. And so, it is a contingently necessary free choice. It is contingent in that God could will otherwise–there is nothing necessary about God’s choice that Jones choose Rocky road. Also, insofar as God chooses that Jones freely choose Rocky Road, God does not remove Jones’ rational faculties or his internal power or potency to choose Cookies & Cream. He chooses for the event to proceed as a free one.

As long as this section is, I could keep going as I’m trimming a lot of nuance here. Still, I think you start to get the picture.

Wrapping Up

At this point I’ll just offer a few evaluative comments and wrap it up.

First, on the historical portrait, I’ll be curious to see responses, but given the documentation and the argument, I think it will be hard to dispute the historical clarification he’s given to the issue in responding to the RTF group (as well as Helm). Muller’s command of the primary and secondary literature for the classical, Medieval, and modern periods is on full display.

Second, I will say that the only point I really have critical questions about is how much he has actually distinguished the Reformed Orthodox materially from contemporary articulations of compatibilism and libertarianism. I’m not actually saying he’s wrong. I’m sure he’s probably right. But insofar as his engagement with contemporary, analytic philosophers is materially slim, I was left curious how these distinctions would be set in dialogue with the discussion of necessity, freedom, and so forth in a contemporary text like Alvin Plantinga’s The Nature of Necessity, or Kevin Timpe’s recent, widely-lauded text on Free Will.

Also, though he has written the previous articles (linked above) on Edwards’ divergence, a small section on Edwards might have been helpful to illustrate the difference as well. (Also, a small corrective note here: the one material error I saw was in his engagement with Oliver Crisp in Deviant Calvinism. Whatever you make of Crisp’s proposal on libertarian Calvinism, while Crisp does call Turretin a compatibilist he never dubs either Turretin or Edwards [77] a hard determinist as Muller asserts.)

Finally, if you’re curious about the issue of the divine will and human freedom and you want to take a deep, historical dive, this is a book for you. If you’re interested specifically in the discussion surrounding these issues in the Early Modern period, well, you’re probably an academic or a nerd, so this is a no-brainer. When Muller writes, you buy Muller. This work is no different.

As you can probably tell, this isn’t necessarily going to square the circle of reconciling divine foreknowledge or the decree with human freedom. Nor would I expect it to. The causal joint between the two layers, divine and created, is one of those places I am comfortable admitting mystery. Still, I found it immensely helpful for situating myself in the historical discussion, as well as gaining a better grasp of the issues in the Reformed tradition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster

theological theologyJohn Webster has long been known for practicing and advocating “Theological Theology.” The point is not, as some might rightly worry, to practice a form of theology that exists solely for itself–“academic” in the worst sense. Instead, it is to practice theology that is confident enough in the importance of the theological task that it doesn’t need to be constantly borrowing its thought-forms, programs, and methods from other disciplines in order to prove its relevance. It means doing theology in a theological way that proceeds in a manner that fits its transcendently, unique subject matter–the Triune God as he has revealed himself in his works in the economy of creation and redemption.

It’s only fitting, then, that when R. David Nelson, Darren Sarisky, and Justin Stratis arranged a festschrift for him, it should take the title Theological Theology: Essays in Honor of John WebsterBut it’s not only the title that matches Webster’s programmatic judgment about the nature of theology–the whole of the work itself exhibits theological sensibility that Webster has cultivated over the years.  The volume really is a treasure-trove of theological theology precisely because its contributors are theologians of the highest caliber who, by and large, have managed to avoid the faddish nature of so much contemporary reflection.

And really, the line-up is quite impressive, including top shelf theologians across a variety of disciplines, theological traditions, and methodologies. Luminaries include: Robert Jenson, Stanley Hauerwas, Kevin Vanhoozer, Matthew Levering, Katherine Sonderegger, Bruce McCormack, and many more.

With over twenty essays and a biographical chapter on Webster himself, the book is impossible to review if we were to do a thorough engagement with each piece included. Instead, I’ll simply note a few of the essays I enjoyed most.

First, I’ve never had the pleasure of reading any of Ivor Davidson’s work previously, but his essay on “divine sufficiency” exhibits an elegance and judiciousness that makes me want to go dig through the archives for more. Davidson reflects on the reality that the theologians context is primarily in the presence of the all-sufficient God. Due to the perfection of the divine life, the Triune God is not only sufficient in and of himself, but is sufficient for us, making us sufficient for the theological task as we find ourself caught up in his sufficiency in the great things of the gospel.

Katherine Sonderegger has a tight little essay on the sinlessness of Christ (which was engaged profitably here), well worth the time. In it she engages the tradition broadly, ranging from Aquinas’ rather nosebleed conception, to modern “fallen” humanity interpretations we find in Karl Barth and Edward Irving, to liberation interpretations.

If you want a good primer/example on the “theological interpretation of Scripture”, in his chapter, Kevin Vanhoozer presents a lively engagement with the Acts 19. Through it, he presents a vision for a non-reductionistic, multi-faceted approach to the interpretation of Scripture which takes its unique ontology, cosmology, and teleological end into account in such a way that begins to responsibly bridge the gap between systematic theology and biblical studies.

A fantastically provocative (yet unfortunately brief) piece by Francis Watson challenges the notion that there even is such a thing as historical criticism. In brief, one of our age’s most renowned biblical interpreters takes the notion of “historical criticism” to task by exposing its history and the ideological and rhetorical function it plays within the academy, beyond its presentation as an interpretive best practice. I’ll likely return to this piece at greater length in a future post.

Francesca Murphy delivers an erudite and insightful entry on the way Aquinas’ appropriation and modification of Aristotle informs the shape and content of his section on the life of Christ in the Summa. In many ways, Murphy demonstrates the surprisingly modern shape of Aquinas’ life of Christ, especially the attention Aquinas pays to its historical structure, contrary to what we might expect in a scholastic treatment.

Again, I can’t begin to do justice to the variety of essays in the volume except to say that this is a valuable addition to any theological library–especially those of seminaries, since it’s quite pricey until the paperback comes out. More importantly, it is a fitting tribute to a theologian of Webster’s caliber.

Soli Deo Gloria

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans (TGC Review)

searchingforsunday_229_350_90Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015. 288 pp. $16.99.

Disclaimer: Rachel Held Evans is an “internet friend” of mine, meaning we’ve never met in person but over the last couple of years we’ve laughed online, shared prayer requests, and encouraged each other in difficult moments. We’ve also argued, publicly disagreeing in articles and on Twitter about important issues. So I hope this review is read in that spirit: one of affirmation and critique from a friend.

While her first book (Faith Unraveled, 2010) tackled issues of doubt, science, and faith, and her second (A Year of Biblical Womanhood, 2012) examined problems with, well, “biblical womanhood,” the title of her third entry, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, similarly says it all: Evans shares her story about leaving and finding the church again in a new way. Arranged in seven sections corresponding to the seven Catholic and Orthodox sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, marriage), she chronicles the various glories and pains of growing up in a conservative/fundamentalist evangelical tradition and offers an apologetic of sorts for leaving(?) for the mainline when the incongruities of the former proved too great. It’s a story about death, and yes, resurrection.

Beyond that, Searching for Sunday is purposely presented as an archetypal story (xi). According to the stats, millennials are apparently leaving the church. Evans’s own story of departure and return aims to articulate some of the millennial experience to a confused church: their doubt that won’t be satisfied with easy answers; their fear of exclusion; their burnout from the culture wars and the marriage of evangelicalism with conservative politics; their fatigue once the strobe lights, hip music, and gimmicky youth games didn’t distract them from their burning questions or the pain of their LGBTQ friends. Evans also aims to point the way to a Christianity—a church—with arms open wide enough to draw them back, just as it has drawn her—questions, struggles, and all.

You can read the rest of my review over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Killswitch Engage, Edwards, and the Hell Inside Us All

disarmKillswitch Engage’s new album Disarm the Descent came out this last week. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to it already, but I know I’ve got a few hundred more to go. Needless to say, it’s text-book shredding perfection. Adam D. is a metal machine; he couldn’t produce a weak metal album if he tried. Also, for those of you worried about the loss of frontman Howard Jones (who was amazing), Jesse Leach has returned to the helm stronger than ever both vocally and lyrically. He even manages to do a pretty good job filling in for Jones on the live version of “My Curse” included in the special edition.

Now, this is isn’t a full album review. In fact, I mostly just want to call attention to Leach’s forceful lyric-writing in the opening track, “The Hell in Me.”

Now, once I stopped air-shredding and paid attention to what he was saying, I realized he was speaking of the spiritual struggle at work in us all he sings:

Fall down into the chaos
Staring into the depths of pain darkness and suffering
I will not be from this place, inside of me
Until I understand this part of me that bleeds and captures my spirit
If it’s the death of me, then I will loosen its grip.

Protect me from the hell that burns inside me
No one can see this is the hell in me
Bring light into the darkness
Awaken and stir this war within us all
Reveal my true intentions

No one can see this is the hell in me
Lead me out of the darkness
Strengthen and protect the voice that makes no sound
Suffer and bleed for me
Pulled from the hell that is in me
Set me free
Will you set me free?

Leach picks up on the very biblical image of fire, torment, and hell to speak of the way a soul is consumed from within by sin. Sin burns the spirit. Indeed, this is ultimately the darkest truth of the doctrine of hell–we carry its seeds around within ourselves. Paul testifies that the wrath of God is seen, not so much in his active judgment, but in handing us over the the darkness of our own hearts as they lust after those things which dehumanize them. (Rom 1:18-15)

In depicting our spiritual struggle this way, Leach channels the spirit of Jonathan Edwards who brilliantly laid out this truth in his (in)famous sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”:

There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments as they do in them. The souls of the wicked are in scripture compared to the troubled sea,Isa. 57:20. For the present, God restrains their wickedness by his mighty power, as he does the raging waves of the troubled sea, saying, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further;” but if God should withdraw that restraining power, it would soon carry all before it. Sin is the ruin and misery of the soul; it is destructive in its nature; and if God should leave it without restraint, there would need nothing else to make the soul perfectly miserable. The corruption of the heart of man is immoderate and boundless in its fury; and while wicked men live here, it is like fire pent up by God’s restraints, whereas if it were let loose, it would set on fire the course of nature; and as the heart is now a sink of sin, so if sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone. -Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, sec. 6

Songs like this remind me to thank God for his restraining hand. Even more, I thank God that he saw the hell in me and decided to “suffer and bleed for me”, to set me free, fully and finally from the torment of sin in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Vital by Anberlin (Or, When Anberlin Decides to be Awesome Again)

I bought my first Anberlin album back as a sophomore in high school. Blueprints for the Blackmarket was revolutionary stuff for the Christian music scene, which is what I was primarily limited to at the time,  and I’ve been a fan ever since. Now, I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of their last couple albums New Surrender or Dark is the Way, Light is a Place.  There were some stand-out tracks (“Miserabile Visu”, “Closer”, “To the Wolves”), but on the whole, I’d been worrying whether they lost the magic–or their coffee machine. With the release of their latest album, Vital, my fears were taken to the back shed and beat down to the sound of Stephen Christian’s lovely, raging falsetto, aggressive guitar riffs, and catchy drums. Anberlin delivered this time.

I don’t know if it’s the return of Aaron Sprinkle producing, or just a need to turn a corner, but Anberlin has recovered and produced an album that tops their magnum opus, “Cities.” In many ways this album flows naturally out of moves they made in Dark is the Way–an appreciation for and tasteful use of electronics and synth, but without the falsified feel of so much vocoder-pop playing on the radio. They’ve crafted a new sound while simultaneously returning to the angsty, guitar-driven alt-rock of “Paper-Thin Hymn” and “Feel-Good Drag.”

I’ll name stand-out tracks but honestly, this is one of those don’t-skip-a-song albums where each listen through gives you a new appreciation for a song previously ignored. The opener “Self-Starter” is a typically strong lead-in to the rest of the album. The nice thing is that it’s sustained through-out, even on the ballads. I consistently come back to “Desires” and “Other Side.” “Desires”, featured above, sounds almost like a throw-back to “Feel-Good Drag” both musically and thematically. “Other Side”, with its use of synth notes dripping with longing and low-end, bass and guitar work, reminds me of Tron for some reason, only with some emotional depth. “God, Drugs, and Sex” is a slow, but rich closer that won’t beat out “Miserabile Visu (ex malo bonum)” or “Fin”, but still carries on in the same tradition.

Lyrically, the song I’ve been thinking about most is “Modern Age.”

It reads like a commentary on some of the incoherencies and angst of contemporary, postmoderns. There is a deep desire to be known, to be loved, yet most will “Fall asleep alone. Safer then the off-chance, Of getting your heart attacked, one more time.” The vulnerability that love requires is painful, and postmoderns are reluctant to get hurt, to get burned. A generation born with that misleading but looming 50% divorce rate statistic hanging over their heads, or even more, the painful reality of growing up in one of the those homes, grows up a bit skeptical of attaining the love it deeply desires. Indeed, this skepticism about love bleeds into our other relationships–Christian sings, “Have we all hid ourselves from friends?” We’re a generation that is constantly communicating, surrounding ourselves with friends, and acquaintances, while simultaneously hiding from them. Afraid of true honesty and relational risk we camouflage ourselves, create false identities, and hide in plain sight.

The chorus though, is really what got me thinking:

Don’t we all, want to be loved?
Don’t we all, write our own tune?
Let our silence break tonight
Don’t we all, learn right from wrong?
And don’t we all, want to be loved?
Let our silence break tonight

I was immediately struck by the incoherence between the desire to be loved,  learning right from wrong, and “writing our own tune.” Writing our own tune is a typically modern/postmodern way of thinking about freedom and purpose.  For our life to be truly ours, for the song we sing to be our own, we must have written it ourselves, without any help, so to speak. To be liberated on the modern view is to live unconstrained by expectations, commitments, destiny, fate, social conventions; there can be no moral grammar to which the lyrics of our vitality must conform–anything other than a wholly self-determined song is inauthentic.

The problem is that this is exactly what love and “right and wrong” are; morality is a grammar that provides patterns of existence within which love can flourish and grow. Love by its very nature requires restraints, fidelity, honesty, vulnerability, exclusivity, that impose a limit to the kind of tune we can write. The contradiction appears when we realize that if our lives are going to be anything more than lonely little melodies, if there are going to be deep and beautiful harmonies, we have to allow ourselves to be captured by a different kind of freedom–one that finds itself most deeply in a passionate commitment to something beyond ourselves. It’s the freedom of goodness, of truth, of living in line with the deep rhythm of reality and finding our place in the divine harmony God is writing. See, only then, only when we’ve surrendered ourselves to the truth, submitted to honesty, embraced a song greater than our own can we begin to give ourselves to each other without fear, to risk commitment, to dare to be truly known, to take off the mask–to love.

I’d like to say that Christian gets this, with his anthem-style call to “Let our silence break tonight.”  While there is no explicit deconstruction of this generation’s discordant values, the call itself begins to draw us out. Truly communicating is the first step towards emerging from the self-induced isolation; breaking the silence with honesty is a movement toward true freedom and love.

This is all deeper than I intended to go in an album review. Still, identifying and giving voice to the tensions of a generation is one of Anberlin’s greatest talents. Their ability to do it on a rockin’ good album is why I keep them on repeat. If you haven’t already, go check Vital out–it’s worth your time.