Author: Highfield, Ron
Publication details: Downers Grove, Inter Varsity Press, 2013
Summary: Ron Highfield believes that many people fear God as a threat to their freedom and dignity. If God “fills all space and time, knows everything and exercises all power,” (p12) – i.e., is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent – as we have been told to believe, then how can there be any space, privacy or freedom for us? Defiance, subservience, and indifference are our attempts to protect ourselves from such an overbearing God.
But is God really like this? Highfield claims that the God made known to us in Jesus Christ does not rob us of freedom but grants it; He does not deprive us of our human dignity but affirms it: “God’s almighty power, omnipresence and comprehensive knowledge, which seem so menacing when understood as attributes of a superhuman being, appear very different in the light of the cross. God’s power gives life and freedom, God’s omnipresence opens a place for us and touches us with infinite love, and God’s knowledge of us roots our identity in God’s eternal life. We cannot think of God as a threat when we understand that God’s very being is love and God’s every act is giving” (p13).
In the first section of his book, Highfield draws on a wide range of moral philosophers, secular poets, novelists, and religious thinkers to provide an informative and intriguing story of the development of the modern human self with its aspirations for freedom, dignity, and happiness. In this scenario, God is seen as a competitive threat to the full realization of human potential. But the real problem, as Highfield presents it, is that we have come to think of God in terms much too like ourselves – a “sort of superhuman being who is everything we would like to be” (p13)!
For me, the real delight of Highfield’s book is its second half. Here he discusses the real truth about God and the human self. Turning to the biblical witness, and the rich theological tradition, he first writes of the “self-giving God of the gospel.” This God is not jealous of us – for he is the very ground of our existence – he made us to love us! He is Trinitarian, and therefore he is not self-centred: “When we think of divinity as an enviable superhuman God, we cannot be thinking of the Trinity we meet in the Bible. The superhuman God does one thing: he wills himself. He seeks to dominate and absorb everything…The God of Christian faith does nothing for God! …The members of the divine Trinity love themselves only in their love for each other” (p125). In Highfield’s discussion we discover that the omnipotent God “does not overpower but empowers us for our own free action” (p140); his presence does not displace us but awakens and acknowledges us; and his knowledge of us is really a very personal and profound love for us, which allays our fears and invites our trust.
Understanding who God really is, and what he is like, brings about “a new way of being human” (p151). It is to this truth that Highfield now turns: “God’s relationship to us is the most fundamental fact about us” (p 148); our first act of genuine freedom is “accepting God’s love for us” (p 179). Entrusting ourselves to the Father of Jesus, we discover ourselves as his adopted children. All defiance, subservience and indifference dissipate. God’s love for us becomes “the ground and measure” of our dignity (p191); “God’s love makes us lovable” (p117). “The Christian picture of humanity empowers us for true selfhood, perfect freedom and the highest dignity conceivable. In Christ we find an identity rooted not in others’ changing thoughts about us, but in God’s eternal knowledge of us. The Spirit leads us toward perfect freedom of life in harmony with our truest self” (p 113).
This is an excellent book – both informative and inspiring. I especially enjoyed the way the author draws on a wide range of sources in our culture (moral philosophers, poets, novelists and so on); together with the rich Christian tradition (especially the extensive referencing of Kierkegaard, but also many others); and of course from the biblical witness to the gospel of the Trinitarian God. This book rings with the exhilarating truth that the God made known to us in Jesus Christ is far more wonderful than we could ever imagine.
Reviewed by: David McGregor