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Monday, June 11, 2012

Fate, Free Will and the Will of God


So, do we choose God (as it would seem to indicate in Joshua 24, “As for me and my house…”)? Or, does God choose us (like Paul tells us in Romans 8 with his talk of predestination)?
Predestination, that’s a funny word. Used religiously- “Predestination in its broadest conception is the doctrine that because God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely sovereign, he "from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass," (Westminster Confession).[1]

“Whatsoever comes to pass…” That’s profound- so if that’s true, if God laid this all out before the foundation of the universe, do any of us ever really choose anything at all? When I was young, I had a Radio Flyer (a little red wagon), and my brother and sister and cousins and I would play all sorts of games with it. In one, we tied the wagon to a bicycle, two of us would climb in the wagon and one would get on the bike and pedal like mad. Eventually it would end in a spectacular crash of the bike rider’s choosing. So, is the universe structured in such a way that our fate is pulling us into our particular future, the way the little red wagon got pulled by the kid on the bike?

Why do we do what we do? We don’t even have to get religious to give some serious thought to that… behaviorist, and philosophers have debated this one for ages. Is our behavior determined by nature alone? That is by our genetic make-up coupled with the chemical reactions that take place in the body from moment to moment? Take love for instance, do I love my wife because I choose to, or do I love her because as a man I am genetically predisposed to look for “certain features” that she happens to possess and in response to her presence my brain produces dopamine, and norepinephrine, then later oxytocin to promote feelings of excitement, attraction and attachment. Do I love her because society has developed the institution of marriage and due to its pressures and expectations I have been conditioned to love her, and to continue so to do? Or do I love her because I chose to love her?
Or, as a different and perhaps less weighty example, why is blue my favorite color? Do I like the color blue because I am genetically predisposed to like it? Is it because I’m red/green color blind and it was the only one I could consistently identify on those impossible kindergarten “Know your color tests” that the diabolical Mrs. Taylor  tormented me with-  Why did you color the fire blue, Paul? Why is the grass red, Paul? Why is that picture of Santa all brown, Paul? (oh they were the bane of my existence)… And to make matters even more confusing why was my favorite color red before kindergarten if I can hardly even see it?
Are the answers in my DNA or in my history (including the sum total of societal influences that have accumulated to this point)? Is it a combination of the two, or is there still something else at work? And what does all this say about God? I ask this because if we are to accept that God is all knowing and all powerful, then God knew that one day there would be a Paul Appleby, like it tells us in Jeremiah, “… before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
In the beginning, God set up the universe, in all its starting conditions in one way. One way and no other. In so doing, God decided the physical make-up of all that is, down to the last molecule. And the first words of the Good Book tell us, “In the beginning, God…” God was the history of the universe. So if God is all knowing and God is all powerful, then when God set up the universe in this way and in no other, down to the last molecule, God presumably knew how it would all unfold. Every action down to the most minute detail, just like a man lining up dominoes knows how they will all fall as he tips the first one.

Not only that, but, before that first domino fell, before the first atom began to spin, God knew about Mrs. Taylor, and knew about Paul Appleby. He knew about my former love of red and now blue, and knew about the love I would one day have for my wife. If he was in control, totally in control, of the very first circumstances of the cosmos and if he really knew all there was to know of the future, then he could have made any of it come out differently. Had he decided that the visible light spectrum would start 100 nanometers lower, then my favorite color, instead of changing from red to blue, might have changed from orange to a now unperceivable ultra-violet. Had he decided to change even the slightest detail, the strength of the first breeze, the length of the first rain, the number of hairs on the head of the first man- these changes could potentially have had untold future consequences, leading to a present day world beyond our imagining. 

But, he didn’t. God chose this way and no other. So, if that’s the case then: the discovery of fire, Davinci painting the Mona Lisa, the Beatles getting together, even our showing up here this morning are mere no accidents, but rather the orderly carrying out of a Divine plan. But if that is the case then not only is God, ultimately, the author of every good thing, like my love of my wife, and every inconsequential thing, like my love of the color blue, then he is also the author of every evil and every instance of pain and suffering in the universe as he could have prevented them, or had them unfold in any other way by simply changing the conditions that were present at the foundation of the world. And don’t give me that “free will” stuff, because if what we perceive to be an exercise of will is really no more than a result of chemical reactions that occur due to evolutionarily bread impulses and historical conditioning then what we perceive to be “free will” is nothing of the sort…

This is getting pretty deep. Since this is a blog written from a Christian perspective, let’s see what light the old Bible can set on the question at hand. It seems in our reading from Joshua that Josh and the children of Israel are really choosing something. Here they seem to make up their minds and choose God… But in our reading from Romans it seems that God chose some people for salvation before the world was made. In Jeremiah (1.5) it says, “"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." And in Isaiah 46:9-10 it says, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me,  declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, `My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,' This means that if God decides something, it is that way… And God decided to make the world, and everything in it in a particular way, in that way and no other, so if the future is knowable, and if God mapped out everything that is, then everything must be the way it was always supposed to be. Unless… Unless God can change God’s mind!
So can God change his mind? Let’s see, Numbers 23.19 tells us “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent.” (to repent means- roughly- to change your mind, and to change your behavior accordingly) But when we look to, Amos 7.3 we are told, “The LORD repented concerning this; "It shall not be," said the LORD.” Well this just made things more confusing…

You know, people have been pondering this problem, the problem of free will that is, for a while now… And most of their answers can be divided into two camps. There are those who argue on the basis of texts like Romans and the dictates of logic for predestination. In theological circles, they are (mostly) known as “Calvinists” (named after the famous reformer John Calvin) and in philosophical circles they are called “fatalists” (in that they argue for fate… see…. Fate, fatalist… it makes sense).  And a lot of people fall into this camp because… well… because it makes sense. It squares with logic. And it makes everything seem profoundly meaningful. After all, according to this view everything and everyone is a part of God’s big plan.  There are three main drawbacks to this view:
1.      It just doesn’t always square with whole witness of Scripture (as we saw in Joshua and as can be seen elsewhere).
2.      It doesn’t really square with experience (as it really seems like we are choosing things and not choosing others).
3.       It can make God out to be a monster. After all if God predestined some for salvation, it is implied that God didn’t preordain others for salvation, and by not choosing them for heaven it would seem, he created them for the sole purpose of sending them elsewhere in the sweet by and by…

For me that’s too high a price to pay for logical consistency. Bearing that in mind there are others who want to emphasize the theme of choice found in our reading from Joshua- they are called Arminians (named after the not so famous theologian Jacobus Arminius, though many of you are probably familiar with John Wesley- founder of Methodism, who was also an Arminian)… These Arminians believe that people have a free will and can really choose things. They believe that God has chosen everybody and that people are free to choose God back or to not choose God. This squares with some scriptures, like John 3.16 which says (chant along if you know it): “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It also squares with the way experience choosing things feels. And it gets us away from that whole God looking like a monster thing… The only problems with it are that:
1.      It makes the universe seem a little more arbitrary, by making all of life feel less universally/cosmically important.
2.      It forces us to ignore parts of the Bible that talk about God ordering the universe.
3.      It makes no sense philosophically, because like Calivinism it treats the will like a thing and, philosophically speaking things are entirely determined and can’t be free.
Nope… this won’t work either… what we need is a different approach.

Maybe the will isn’t a thing like a book, or a cross, or a table. Maybe the will is a force and perhaps God gave people a truly free will. I mean, truly free. That the chemical impulses we receive provide stimulus and that they can reinforce of deter a particular action, but we can actually act against them- and that our history, provides social structures and patterns of thought that we can reflect upon and accept or reject? Further could it be that God doesn’t know what you, or I, are going to do next? I mean how could that be? How could it be that if God knows everything there is something God doesn’t know? That’s like the old conundrum: If God can do anything can he make a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it? C.S. Lewis argued that, “[God’s] omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense.” If knowing the future, or what I will do at any given moment is intrinsically impossible, then the question, “Can an all knowing God know the future?” is nonsense. God could make a good guess, and could act in the future as a fellow free-agent, but if the future is intrinsically unknowable, then no, God would not know it.

And maybe we aren’t looking at fate the right way… Maybe fate isn’t something in front of us, pulling along toward our destiny like a kid pulling a wagon… Maybe it is pushing us from behind… Here, take a look at this (sets up two poles, one labeled “Freedom” and one labeled “Destiny”).  When I was fourteen years old I was a freshman in high school and I remember, after the first football game of the season we all went out to Eat ‘n Park to celebrate, and after about a million bowls of all-you-can eat chili (which as a 13 year old I viewed as a challenge) and after almost as many glasses of Raspberry Iced Tea, I had to do what any person would have to do, and I excused myself to the bathroom. And as I sat there, in that stall, something occurred to me. If I hadn’t been born in Akron, Ohio; if I hadn’t gotten a Superman cape from my Grandma on my third birthday and though that because I had a cape I could fly, and if I hadn’t jumped off our upright piano (superman style), hit my rocking horse and broken my shoulder- which sidelined me from t-ball for a season; if my parents hadn’t divorced when I was eight (as my dad was a baseball man, and didn’t care as much for the old pig skin); if I hadn’t made friends with Scott who introduced me to the game of football; if I went to a private high school instead of public school; if I had opted for the salad instead of the chili; if at any point in my life I or a million other people around me or one of the billions that came before me had made one decision differently, I wouldn’t be where I was right at that moment. If the sum total of human history and my own genetic makeup were not what they were, I would not be there, at 2:30 in the morning (yes my mom let me stay out that late, and no that doesn’t mean that any other thirteen year old who may be reading this should) in stall number two in an Eat n’ Park in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. And with that in my mind, I did the only thing I could do. I flushed and washed my hands…

When we were kids, my brother, sister, cousins and I would sometimes play a different game with the wagon. Here we’d get it to the top of the small hill in our driveway, two of us would climb in and the one in front would steer and the one in back would lean left or right. Then a third child would start to push, and we would pick up steam as we started down the hill. Maybe fate isn’t pulling the wagon, maybe, it’s pushing it. Maybe fate is the sum total of human history, including our own genetic make-up, that have brought us together in this moment. And in this moment, we’re the kid in the wagon, holding on to the handle. We can steer it a little left, or a little right and our decisions affect, in a very slight way, what our destiny looks like in the next moment, and where our fate is leading us. 

So then, if this is the case, life isn’t arbitrary, the God who put us in our wagon knew what this ride we’d be taking was and wanted us to go. And our decisions have real consequences and together our own little movements shape our own destiny and the destinies of everyone around us. Because while individually we can only move a little, together, we can move mountains. Together we are shaping the world and continuing the act of creation that God began. You may be thinking I am making us out to be more powerful than we are. That only God can shape the world like this, but you’ll remember the words of the Psalm and the words of Jesus when they say together, “You are gods, all of you.” So what does all of this mean? It means we are not in control of a lot of things. Others have shaped the world in which we find ourselves and others continue to shape it. We cannot change the past, just like you can’t do a 180 in a Red Rider. We need to accept the world as we are now in it, with its events in the process of unfolding. And we cannot opt to get out of the wagon; we’re here because this is where God placed us. But God isn’t pulling the wagon, God is part of the force pushing it, God determined how it would work, and how it would steer. Because just like our question about God making a rock so heavy that God can’t lift it is nonsense, not because God isn’t all powerful but because such a thing is an intrinsic impossibility and therefore absurd, so too our future is open, so too God doesn’t (by and large) force our hand to make us steer one way or the other, God lets us in a limited way, control where the wagon goes, and enjoy the ride. It also means that we are in control of a lot of things. We steer our wagon through an act of our own will, which is a force not a thing, and can drive it a little closer to the kingdom of God through acts of love that bring about justice, freedom, and peace, or a little farther away.

This also means that the story isn’t written yet. We know where it began; it began in an act of creation as the God of all the Universe brought this world and all that is in it into being. We know where it ends; it ends where it began, in an act of creation as the God of all the Universe redeems the cosmos, and makes all things new both on earth and in heaven. But the middle is up to all us gods to work out together. And so I ask you, oh people, who God foreknew, where shall you go from here? Choose this day whom you will serve; but as for me and my household we will serve the Lord.


[1] “Predestination” from http://www.theopedia.com/Predestination accessed 6/6/2012

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