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Research at Pepperdine University

Exploring "God, Freedom, and Human Dignity" with Ron Highfield

Ron Highfield book cover image
Seaver Professor of Religion, Ron Highfield, published his new book God, Freedom, and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture in February of this year. Pepperdine Research caught up with him to discuss his research and inspiration for his recent book...

In your book, you address big themes and fears that have haunted the human psyche for quite some time.  What inspired or motivated you to write this book?  Has it been something you have been thinking about or planning for a long time?

Ron Highfield: This book finds its origin in my two teaching/research interests, (1) the intersection between Christianity and secular culture, and (2) theological reflection on issues facing the church today. As I wrote my previous book, Great is the Lord (Eerdmans, 2008; 467 pages), which falls into category (2), I kept thinking about the problem of the relationship between God and human freedom and dignity. This issue has been discussed by theologians and philosophers for 2,500 years. I began to see that this problem makes itself felt in popular culture as unspoken fear that the existence and activity of God may pose a threat to our freedom and dignity. I wrote this book to show the ways in which this fear shapes how secular culture views God and to show how the Christian view of God overcomes these fears. I argue that instead of being a threat to human freedom and dignity God is their securest foundation and the greatest hope of their glorious fulfillment.

How does this book differ from your past scholarship?

RH: In many ways God, Freedom & Human Dignity continues my theological research program of the last fifteen years. It addresses a significant theological problem at a high level in dialogue with the best theologians and philosophers, ancient and modern. It differs in at least three ways: (1) I address the problem of the way secular culture (rather than the church) thinks of God and humanity, (2) the target audience is those influenced by this secular vision and the theological students and practicing ministers who minister to them, and (3) these limitations influence the smaller size of the book (227 pages) and the less ponderous and less argumentative style of the book.

Modernity and its psychological influences are central to your argument about the internal struggle humans face in confronting and accepting God today. The crux of this struggle lies in the human need for (and even exaltation of) autonomy when it is juxtaposed with or seemingly undermined by a belief in God.  Could you discuss your concept of a "me-centered culture" and how you see people grappling with religion in a different way now than in past decades?

RH: By designating our culture is "me-centered" I don't mean that it is especially selfishness or narcissistic; rather, I mean that it teaches us that we should look exclusively within the human self for our dignity, for guidance in our pursuit of happiness and for how to treat others. It views self-expression and authenticity as sacred rights. The "me-centered" culture instinctively recoils at the idea that we need guidance in these areas from external authority. It views calls for adherence to moral law and obedience to God as threats to autonomy, dignity and freedom. It reacts to restrictions on our search for happiness as the worst sort of hatred and cruelty. Clearly, presenting the Christian message to our contemporaries confronts us with challenges not faced by Christian thinkers even fifty years ago. In part, I wrote this book to explore ways of communicating the meaning of Christianity in this new context.

What kind of research are you currently working on?

RH: I am currently working on a book on the Christian doctrines of creation and providence. This book will continue the trajectory began in Great is the Lord. Having treated the Christian doctrine of God, I am now thinking about what it means to call God "the Creator" of the world and "Lord and Governor" of history. In dealing with the idea of creation I want to take the focus off the "science and the Bible" debate and replace it with thorough reflection on what I call the "God-creature" relation: what does it mean to say that God gives being and form to the world? What does it mean to say that creatures depend on God for their existence, form and life? These profound questions have not received the attention in recent theology and popular religion that they deserve. In this book I want to show the intimate connection between the ideas of creation and providence. The concept that ties the two together is the "God-creature" relation. Providence is a kind of continuing creation that aims at bringing the world to its appointed end. In one sense the divine act of creation includes all time and not merely a timeless beginning of time. In the course of this book I will deal with the relationship between divine providence and human freedom and with the problem of evil.

What is the proper end of an academic vocation? Or how do you understand your research?

RH: Contemporary higher education ("the academy") seems to be very confused about why it exists and what end it should pursue. The standard rhetoric (usually directed at threats from outside the academy) argues that the academy should pursue "knowledge for knowledge's sake." This ideal sees the scholar as an objective and disinterested servant of truth who should receive complete academic freedom in the sacred name of truth. On the other hand, as a matter of practice, scholars adopt many other ends: political agendas, battles for cultural dominance, career advancement, reputation, money and other private goals. In my opinion the "knowledge for knowledge's sake" view is at best a methodological guide to keep us honest and fair in our research. Understood in this sense I honor it. But scholars are human beings and all human beings serve ends beyond mere exercises in method. "Knowledge is power," said Francis Bacon truly. And good people should direct power toward good ends. No human activity deserves to be exempt from ethical scrutiny. Hence scholars are obligated to direct their research toward good ends. Every scholar, whatever his or her religious stance, should direct scholarship toward the good of humanity. As a Christian scholar I have a particular understanding of human good, and all my theological research is directed toward that good: that human beings should come to love God and their neighbors. For me, keeping this end in mind unifies my role as a teacher of the young with my role as a researcher in search of truth.

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Ron Highfield is a Professor of Religion at Seaver College, where he has been teaching for 24 years. Highfield earned his PhD from Rice University and is a Member and Elder at the University Church of Christ.

APRIL 2013