In this post, I’d like to work out a thought – no, an image – that I think expresses a deep truth about human freedom, divine sovereignty, and human condition in relationship to God. The image is that of Helen Keller.
We are familiar with her story: blind and deaf from a very young age, Keller was at first scarcely able to communicate with the outside world, not even having the conception of a sign language. Eventually, through the perseverance of her teacher Anne Sullivan, she learned not only a form of sign language (through Anne Sullivan’s fingertips signalling on her palm), but also to speak and write fluently. The story is triumphantly beautiful: the blind and deaf child is set free from her isolation. She is saved.
I say that this story shows us something about the universal human condition, as Man stands in relation to God. Helen Keller’s condition is our condition. And her liberation can be our liberation; her salvation can be our salvation.
Salvation! – what a hot topic within Christian thought. In particular, much ink has been spilled over the role of human versus divine agency in effecting that curious liberation and emancipation that Christians call salvation. We are told that salvation comes by grace through faith. Apparently that is supposed to mean that salvation comes by God’s power, yet still requires the voluntary faith and cooperation of the one being saved. Yet how much involvement do we really have in the process? The usual questions arise: if God is truly all-powerful and desires to save us, then how could any human resist His will? Can God be overruled by our small and misguided human will – as though the patient were to order the doctor around? Or, if is God completely in control, does He choose not to save everyone? How can God’s omnipotence and Man’s freedom be reconciled? Who, in the end, is in control?
These questions are much vexed, and I don’t hope to offer a comprehensive answer here. But I wonder whether the image of Helen Keller might offer us a glimpse at how God can be sovereign (that is, all-powerful) and, simultaneously, we can be free, grace and faith meeting in the act of salvation.
First I’d like to take a lengthy digression to consider the Biblical treatment of the themes of blindness and deafness, and eventually motivate these theological reflections. If you are only interested in the philosophical ruminations, you could skip this section.
Blindness and Deafness in the Bible
Blindness and deafness show up frequently in the Bible. A typical instance is Acts 28:27, where Paul paraphrases Isa 6:10 as follows:
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.
– Acts 28:27
Blindness, deafness, and dullness of heart are a common motif throughout the writings of Isaiah, and indeed much of the Old and New Testaments. Often, as in this instance, these three conditions show up as a diagnosis of the poor spiritual state in which Israel currently languishes. A parallel is thus drawn between the three conditions, so that the physical conditions of blindness and deafness come to explain the spiritual condition of dullness of heart. As a blind person stands in relation to the sighted, so the heart of Man stands in relation to the heart of God. As a deaf person stands in relation to the one who hears, so the heart of Man stands in relation to the heart of God. And just as blindness and deafness are conditions that bind, imprison, close a person off from what lies outside, so too does dullness of heart bind and imprison a person, closing her off from what lies Outside. These conditions are all limitations on human freedom, in some sense of that word.
And it’s worth mentioning at this point that, whereas we think of the physical categories (blindness, deafness) as applying only to a small minority of people, the spiritual condition of Man is universal. It is not just a few unfortunate people who are spiritually blind and deaf. Rather, blindness and deafness are a general representation of the spiritual dullness common to all Israel, and how much more so, to all humanity. We are all spiritually locked inside our own heads, with no way to communicate to Whoever might be desperately trying to reach us from outside.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
– Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach
Now, the blindness and deafness motif is not just involved in the pessimistic diagnosis of Man’s condition: it is also involved in the hopeful prognosis. Just as blindness and deafness are used to describe the present human condition, so too, through their reversal, the blind receiving their sight and the deaf receiving their hearing becomes an exultant motif for Israel’s (and humanity’s) eventual healing and restoration. And this future hope is not just healing, but liberation, emancipation, salvation from a condition that binds, imprisons, closes a person off from the inside and isolates her from what lies Outside.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert…
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return
and come to Zion.
– Isa 35:4-6,10
Jesus, for his part, is well aware of the theological claims he is making when he articulates his own mission and identity in the categories of restoring sight and hearing to the blind and deaf. In the passage that follows, Jesus’s enigmatic response to John is saying nothing less than I am the long-awaited salvation come from God:
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.
– Mt 11:3-5
So in summary, there’s a clear Biblical connection between the story of the blind and deaf – Helen Keller’s story – and the story of God and Man and Man’s eventual salvation.
Back to Helen Keller.
So what does this image have to offer us? How may we understand better the questions of grace and faith, sovereignty and freedom?
I suggest a few things.
- God is so big, and we are so small. For God is sinless, and we are under the power of sin. God therefore stands in relation to us as the sighted to the blind, or the one who hears to the deaf.
- God’s will is correspondingly huger than our will. Some of that is by His essential nature, but I’m especially interested in the additional limitations we currently face because of our captivity to sin. Part of the current human condition is a limitation on our effective freedom.
- Okay, I’m skirting around the issue of carefully defining the sense of “freedom” meant here. If freedom means “freedom from external constraint”, then I don’t think anyone will give me grief. If freedom means “libertarian free will”, however, the analogy is less clear. I still think it applies, though. Our current condition (including the current habits resulting from past choices, or the kind of personality we happen to have, be it by accident of birth or external circumstance) presents a real limitation even on our libertarian free will.
- Since we are so very small, so limited even in our power to choose what is right, God therefore stands in the relation of (practically) total sovereignty over us, just as (in a very real sense) Keller’s parents and teacher were (practically) totally sovereign over her. (I’ll grant there’s some complexity here. God is not sovereign only because we are sinful. But I have a hunch that the sense of God’s being totally in control of everything, which is the sort of sovereignty that has so alarmed the theologians and philosophers, is in large part due to our being so very small, so very blind, so very deaf in relation to Him.)
- It wasn’t because Keller was of no account that she lacked freedom. Truly, she was infinitely precious to her various guardians. So, too, it isn’t because God doesn’t care about us that we are currently unfree.
- Nor was it that Keller lacked anything in her essential nature. “Somewhere in there”, in her essential nature, was a complete person, alive and kicking, desiring to communicate and connect and perceive and see and hear. She was only effectively and not essentially limited in her abilities. So too, it isn’t that our freedom is annihilated by our current spiritual darkness and imprisonment – it isn’t that we don’t have free will at all, or that we ever completely lost it – but rather that our free will fails to be effective.
- Nor was it necessarily Keller’s fault that she was unfree. This is what is meant by original sin. We can be born into a state of affairs, entirely outside of our control, that limit our freedom (but don’t annihilate it).
- It was Anne Sullivan that set Helen Keller free from her isolation. So too, it is God who sets us free from the bondage of our wills.
- The sovereign, unilateral action of Anne Sullivan did not undermine Helen Keller’s freedom. Rather, it required Keller’s active cooperation. Ultimately, Sullivan increased Keller’s freedom. So too, the sovereign, unilateral action of God is not to undermine our freedom, but requires our active cooperation, and ultimately makes us free.*
- There are actions we can take that increase our freedom, and actions that reduce our freedom. There tends to be positive reinforcement either way. Following the trajectory of obeying God will continually increase our freedom; following the opposite trajectory will have the opposite effect. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). The great paradox is that our freedom is only accomplished by cooperating with God’s will. The patient is not mightier than the doctor, after all.
Perhaps, then, there is some hope in this beautiful image of the God who is trying to get to us, somehow, though we have grown blind and deaf. We have a hope in the sovereign God who is surely and steadily breaking into the world, rousing the deaf ears and the blind eyes, and restoring our essential freedom buried inside of us to its intended effectiveness. Oh may we respond to the confusing, insistent dance of His fingertips as they signal across our palms!
(*EDIT. I’m afraid that, in my haste, I may have obscured the main point: given the condition we’re in, given that our wills are all locked up inside of ourselves (with all that pride, all that selfishness, all that fear and shame and anger), our salvation would take nothing less than someone’s effectively sovereign intervention on our behalf. God, with the intervention of His will, is trying to help those who can scarcely or never will freely. And that intervention must be sovereign, because we can’t do very much of anything. The example of Helen Keller offers a possible way to understand this. It would be nothing but ungrateful to deny that Anne Sullivan deserves the credit for “saving” Helen Keller. Keller herself would surely say the same. It was only by Sullivan’s persistence, even whilst Keller was confused and frustrated and actively rebelling against her teacher, that Sullivan managed to break into Keller’s world and make Keller understand. That part of the process was Sullivan’s long and lonely Calvary, whilst Keller, in her condition at the time, really couldn’t do very much of anything, except impede her rescuer! On the other hand, no one would deny that Keller’s free choice to cooperate mattered. In its own right, it was the most important moment. For this was the breakthrough: the day Keller understood all that cryptic signalling, and began to seek to be further taught.)