Blind to Certain Lights

Posted on July 22, 2014
Filed Under Theological | Comments Off on Blind to Certain Lights

Free will is experientially undeniable. Even if we sometimes feel as though we can’t help ourselves with a specific action, most of the time we generally recognize some level of choice available to us in every situation. Often we don’t like many of the choices that we have, or we consider the choice inconsequentially different. You may be free to put on either your left sock or your right sock first, but who cares? Yet it is impossible to totally separate the inconsequential choice from the momentous. I used to live close to two grocery stores that I considered nearly equal in price and selection. I wound up shopping at one more than the other mostly out of habit and a minor preference, but I would still shop at the other from time to time. Any time I needed to go shopping I could easily have chosen one or the other. But what if choosing one particular store led to me being involved in a fatal car accident? A choice which I perceived as of no consequence and felt fully capable of choosing differently would be the definitive choice of my life.

That is why I say free will is undeniable in our experience. Whatever might be logically provable from certain suppositions, in our daily experience we would be less than honest if we said we felt we had no choice. The very feeling of having a choice could be an illusion, could be the brain chemistry equivalent of a dice bouncing around before it settles, but then so could the entire experience of consciousness. Regardless, as conscious, communicative beings, we would lie about our own perception and experience if we said we did not make choices, or at least perceive ourselves to make choices.

A God who is perfectly free to create (not bound by any prior rules of physics, but the author of those laws as well) and also all-knowing must by definition have predestined us for whatever we find in our lives. If he wanted a different outcome he could have used different inputs. This seems so manifestly necessary that I can only imagine arguing about the suppositions: is God really all-knowing? Was he really free to create or is he bound by some higher principle or power (impersonal or otherwise)? My belief in God’s omnipotence and omniscience is entirely by faith; I don’t claim to have any proof for it. But if you accept those principles I don’t know how you could avoid the conclusion. So how does one live under such a philosophy that is so evidently contradicted by experience?

Hopefully believing a proposition which is contradicted by experience is no new adventure for the Christian. Our faith is built on the belief that a man came back from the dead, a hypothesis thoroughly disproven by centuries of reproduceable results on billions of test subjects. The dead stay dead. Nothing is more scientifically certain. The most elementary teachings of our faith require that we believe in the truth of a concept with no readily apparent proof. So if I believe in resurrection while everyone I have known or known of in my lifetime will die, it is no more contradictory for me to believe in predestination while I experience free will.

Some people will not tolerate this kind of intellectual convolution and will require all explanations to align with experiences, at least as long as those explanations rest on ideas they are used to accepting. Many people will affirm the resurrection without allowing that they are believing in a scientifically disproven concept. The weight of the traditional religious teaching brings its own credence, at least in matters that don’t require direct observation. Miracles far away are fine, they say; things in my life are subject to my inspection and comprehension. I understand that people do accept the resurrection of Jesus and still believe themselves to be thoroughly scientific; I just don’t understand how people with a thinking capacity maintain both beliefs.

For those who can tolerate abstract intellectual inquiry, the tantalizing question is, what could reconcile the inevitable conclusion that God determines all things with the experience of choosing freely? Is not one a lie and the other a truth? But it is quite possible for both views to be true, depending upon the perspective employed. There is a legitimate distinction between truthfully describing what you see and truthfully describing what is. The best illustration I have for this is the concept of colorblindness. A person who cannot see red, cannot see it; and such a person would be lying if they claimed to see the color red. But it is sometimes possible for a person who cannot see red to know that the color is present. They may learn, for example, that the highest light on a traffic signal is red; and although they may not see the color of the light, they can tell when it is lit. So too with stop signs. Or perhaps also someone identifies a distinctive sweater as red, and thereafter the colorblind person knows the name of the color which is visible to others in that sweater. In the case of the traffic light, the colorblind person would technically be lying if they said they saw the red light, but also lying if they said that they did not know that the light was red. A colorblind person licensed to drive will not get out of any traffic tickets by stating they could not see the redness of the signal. But there will be other cases where the colorblind person has no context to inform them of the color of a thing, and they will in all honesty overlook it or fail to perceive it.

The sovereignty of God is a color to which we are all blind. Sometimes there are clues by which we can detect or infer the hand of God directing events, and this can be a beautiful and blessed vision indeed; but we are by nature incapable of seeing how God directs all things, how every atom of creation is an unfolding revelation of his will. We can’t see it; we would lie if we said that we did see it, everywhere and all the time. And we tell the truth when we say that we chose — the truth as we see it.

We are not held to account for what we cannot see, except insofar as we have learned better. Just as the driver is responsible to stop at the signal regardless of whether they see the color red or not, there are times when we can see what God has done and if we fail to acknowledge that we condemn ourselves. But in the main there is nothing dishonest in us speaking and acting as though we choose for ourselves. This is the light that we have; this is the portion of the spectrum that we can see. The Bible sometimes speaks as though we have a choice in our affairs, or even indeed that God himself is undecided about things. But the Bible also speaks of God as having decided things far in advance, before any precedent was set. There needn’t be any contradiction, if the statements about choices and changes are written from our perspective, dealing with what we as people could see and observe, while the statements about predestination are written to describe a truth that is out of our sight.

Although this framework for reconciling the sovereignty of God with our perceived free will allows us to speak honestly about our perceptions and deal honestly with the Biblical teaching about God, it does suggest that in the ultimate sense the perception of free will is a misperception, even a lie you might say, and that we are totally predestined. The roll of a die in the palm of the hand most of us cannot understand, so we consider the outcome random, arbitrary, unplanned; but we can also acknowledge that there are very definite physics governing how the corners of the die bounce of the curves of the hand, and that if one knows how the die is shaken one could predict the number it will turn up. To think of ourselves as being like that die–too complex for us to understand, but entirely known to the sly and canny creator who can manipulate the dice to exactly his will–that is a terrifying thought.

It is also an outrageous thought. If we are totally known and predicted, how can we have any agency? How can we be considered “responsible” any more than any other inert thing, acted upon by physics? Yet when this very complaint was anticipated by Paul, he did not contradict it at all but confirmed it (see also Isaiah and Jeremiah). We can indeed be considered in the eyes of God to have as much agency as a lump of clay; and in that perspective we are no more to be faulted for our own destruction than a piece of clay is blamed for being refashioned from one thing into another. But the thing about being colorblind is that you can’t see red just because you know it is there. Even if it is true that God shapes and makes us into exactly what he wants – whether for death or eternal life – it is still true that we perceive ourselves to have a choice. You cannot see yourself differently. There is no point arguing that if God predestines us, then he is responsible for our choices–because if God does predestine us, then included in that is the self-perception that we are making choices, and we can only honestly discuss what we see. Just as you cannot run a red light by claiming you did not see it, you cannot excuse immoral and rebellious choices by claiming that you really had no choice. You in your own perception saw the choice and made it. What God did with what he saw and knew and controlled is up to him; what you did with what you saw and knew and controlled is on you.

It is an utterly hopeless place to be; your fate is entirely out of your hands. You will see a choice, and choose wrongly, and for that you will suffer; but all of it was known and planned and even designed by God in advance, and there is no possibility that it might be differently, any more than you can play the same movie twice and get a different ending. The book has already been written

At the same time it is the only place of rest and freedom, because if God has secretly written what will be, and what your fate will be, then there is literally nothing for you to do but to trust him. This does not mean that you give up on breathing and eating and all the other aspects of your existence – because that is the first thing that God has already given you. You accept your involuntary breaths and your voluntary choice of food as equally gifts from God, and you take your choices as you find them. Yet you trust that your final fate is entirely in the hands of God, and not subject to any mistake you could possibly make. And if you can even find yourself at a point where you can consider this, you have considerable assurance that God has indeed chosen to preserve you; for rebellion against God is fundamentally nothing other than refusing to allow him to have his own way.

Free Will Can’t Save God

Posted on July 2, 2014
Filed Under Theological | 2 Comments

Here’s the problem with Calvinism, or the doctrine that God has determined in advance who will be saved: it means that in the end those who perish apart from God never had any chance. Nothing they could do or could avoid doing would have made any difference. They had no chance and no choice. How could God punish or destroy or judge a person who never had any choice? It isn’t fair. It isn’t justice.

Here’s the problem with Arminianism, or the doctrine that God chooses to allow each person to chose whether to accept his offered salvation: it’s no better at the fairness problem.

Think about what goes into a choice. The first component is opportunity. There are people in this world today who will never in their lives have to choose between Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. Some of these people will die within days of being born, or before being born. The doctrine of free will clearly indicates that everyone has a choice, and to reinforce this often the idea is offered that there is an age of accountability. If you are young enough you are found innocent by default; later, if you haven’t made the right choice, you bear the consequence. But that doesn’t really resolve the problem. If you say that the age of accountability is 12 years, for example, then it seems clear that the person who lives exactly 12 years has less opportunity than the person who lives to 98. Even if you believe that spiritually the choice is available from the moment of conception, the stillborn have less opportunity than the aged.

The second component is expectation. If a nasty-looking strange man offers you a surprise you are not likely to accept, whereas if your own loving father offered you a surprise you would likely be happy to accept. Unless of course your father was nasty – abusive and cruel in ways hard for those of us with loving fathers to even imagine. All of the descriptions of God (as a father, a shepherd, a husband, a king) rely on us having some positive context for those descriptions. People have said that they have difficulty thinking of God as a loving Father because they did not have a loving father when they were young. There is a lot more to be said about knowing God than just this one image of the heavenly Father, but certainly no matter what you could say about God the person who has had positive experiences with more of those types and examples will be more positively disposed towards him than the person whose experiences were strongly negative.

The third component is comprehension. By expectation I referred to the general emotional reaction a person might have to the message of the gospel; by comprehension I mean how thoroughly or comprehensively they understand it. Ask a young child to chose between complete forgiveness of a mortgage debt or a piece of candy and most of them will choose the candy. Perhaps one or two have heard mom and dad talking about the mortgage and know enough to ask and understand what mortgage forgiveness might mean, how much bigger it might be than candy; but you can hardly fault a child for choosing the candy. So if there is any depth to the riches of the mercy of God, surely one who understands it better is more inclined to choose it.

The fourth component is capability. We tend to think of our own lives as basically a series of choices we made. We might exaggerate the influence of our choice in things we enjoyed and exaggerate the influence of other peoples’ choices in things we did not enjoy — sure, our view isn’t perfect — but we are at least convinced that we keep making choices and we have definitely made some good choices and some bad choices. But even those of us with tame and comfortable lives know that sometimes we don’t feel like we have a choice. Whether its a matter of eating too much dessert or oversleeping an alarm or saying unkind words, sometimes we regret a thing before we even do it, as well as afterward. But we do it. It is axiomatic to the free will belief that people do have a choice, so I won’t suggest that in the final analysis people have no choice whatsoever. However, it seems to me that a fair-minded review of every lifestyle we have ever known will show that some people just had an easier time choosing to exercise, to diet, to mind their tongue. Some were better at math. Some were better at mountain climbing. Some were better at being good. Even if salvation comes down to just one choice that needs to be made only once for one instant (and is thereafter permanent and irrevocable) – even so, why should this one choice somehow be precisely as easy for all to make? There is no other choice in living experience that we can point to and say it is that way.

Nobody ever chose their parents. Nobody ever got to pick the character of the most influential people in their early childhood, or their material circumstances. If people must choose, then it is as though God scatters golf balls far and wide all over the course and tells everyone they need only to sink their first shot. Those close to the hole assure us it’s easy.

I understand the beauty in the thought that only God could choose to make a Man capable of choice. Surely if we were in the Garden with that power, we would have made a Man that would have always, always loved us. I understand how it is meant as an honor to say that the all-powerful God chooses to give up his choice and allow us to choose. It is a lovely poem and a beautiful and evident explanation of how we came to be in this world full of so much awfulness, if there is a God of love. We chose it (we all make bad choices sometimes), but we can chose better.

It’s just that you didn’t choose your parents, and along with them a whole stream of experiences in your life that you didn’t choose to have. You might have chosen how to react to those experiences, but you couldn’t choose altogether on your own which experiences you would have; and some experiences are much harder to deal with than others. And all those experiences you didn’t get to choose are pulling on you just as much as the experiences you did choose. And what is that grand Choice of Salvation if not the sum of all those experiences – the ones you chose, directly or indirectly, but also the ones you never chose at all?

Here we hit the real dilemma. If our choice in the matter of salvation is significantly influenced by our experiences (including those resulting in part from choices we did not make ourselves), how is our choice of salvation anything other than a destiny we were born into? Sure, we made a lot of our own choices along the way, but each choice we made was influenced by the choices we already made–and the choices are lined up like dominoes back to that time when we first made a choice. And all of those choices are set in a context we didn’t choose; our parents first of all, but the very existence of the world, its rules, and the consequences of thousands of years of choices made before we were born. What different choices would you have made if your parents were murdered while you were young? What different choices would you have made if your parents were drug addicts? The universe we live in is to us an unfathomably complex result of countless choices, and it is only natural that we should have a clearer and higher view of our own choices. But thinking for a moment of a world bigger than our small share of it, who could possibly understand all those interacting choices except God? And so when God sent your soul to meet your body, did he not know what choices you would make based on the experiences you would have?

And if that is not true, and our choice in salvation is completely untouched by our experiences, so that no bad experiences can ever rob us of perfect freedom of choice – how is that different than predestination? Isn’t it like taking a fair coin and flipping it? Sometimes it comes up heads, sometimes tails. Who can guess in advance – who but God? And if you Choice of Salvation is not basically just a summing up of your experiences, how is it different from predestination? If each person makes their choice in some divinely offered moment of pure spiritual possibility, free from the baggage of life’s ancestors’ choices, and every soul makes a choice untouched by earthly experience – how is that different than God making the choice when he makes the soul?

The concept of free will, at least as I understand it, is that each person experiences both good and evil in their life, and is presented with a choice of which they will pursue. Those who choose to chase God – though they may err along the way – find life. But surely those who experience more evil than good arrive at the moment of decision differently than those who experience more good than evil. If so, God cannot be just to judge them both equally, can he?

So then God must offer a sliding scale, which credits how much good a person gives in accordance with how much good that person receives. But if God adjusts the scales to properly and completely account for everything a person experiences and everything they were born into through no choice of their own, then surely every person makes the best choice they can under their circumstances, right? So either the only ones who do not choose well enough are those who were born evil (right back into predestination) or else, in the final analysis, everyone is saved because they reflected as much good as they received, all things considered.

Now universal salvation does address the problem of predestination. I think to get to universal salvation we must reject so much of what the Bible reveals about God (and what nature reveals about the Creator) that I would have a hard time understanding how to discuss the matter further. If we are all going to be saved, why put us through this circus of misery in the first place? Why not start off in bliss? Why allow creation to run so far amok? If things were allowed to become this bad, how do we really know that they will ever be set to right?

But if we allow that some will be judged, I cannot see how God is not to be blamed for every one not saved. If he is indeed all knowing, and if he is indeed the creator, than in the moment of creation he new precisely how each exactly how each molecule and atom of creation would interact. He knew every hormone, every mis-wired neuron, every accidental collision, the exact strength of intensity that each body would feel in desire, anger, sorrow, and hope. If we were not predestined spiritually, still at least I cannot see how we were not predestined physically. It seems to me that free will just moves God back behind the curtain – behind a haze of interacting factors so complex we cannot see through it. But he is still there, pulling all the strings. Or else he is not there at all.


As A Hedge

Posted on June 26, 2014
Filed Under Elsewhere, Theological | Comments Off on As A Hedge

The blogs I admire most tend to have a strong element of personal transparency balancing the instructive or assertive elements. Bailey at My Holy Joy fits that preference. I admire the honesty of writing. It’s been especially interesting to observe the transformation of her perspective from stridently conservative to determinedly open and, lately, a bit of a reprise.

Several of Bailey’s recent posts deal with maintaining sexual ethics in a romantic relationship (I’ll link to only one, but there are others). I can relate to the feeling of looking for a better set of guidelines after experiencing a hard turn in a relationship. But I don’t think that’s really the best lesson to learn from failing to keep the ethics you believe in.

I can see two themes in Bailey’s recent writing. The one I’m pretty sure is meant to be primary is the idea that it doesn’t accomplish anything good to do things you feel are morally doubtful just because you can. Libertine is not liberty. You may find at some point that some standards you thought were good are definitely causing harm, either your own harm or another’s; but if you’re not really sure that they are wrong and can only say for certain that they are awkward, giving up on those standards for convenience will probably be a cause of regret. If that’s a fair interpretation of what Bailey’s getting at I’d agree with it.

The other theme I see mixed in is the idea that if only some rules were kept, sin and regret would be avoided. In a technical sense I suppose it can’t be argued that if you have a rule “Don’t do X,” and you do X and regret it, then keeping the rule would have avoided the regret. But people don’t transgress their own moral standards only as a philosophical experiment in Christian liberty. Bailey seems to have first decided that some of her standards were legalistic and chosen to disregard them; other people may never decide to reject the standard but still be drawn by desire beyond their boundaries. Other people do maintain those standards that we can easily point to (“do not touch“) but, while maintaining this purity of doing, speak evil and destructive words. Avoiding sin is not a matter of devoting yourself sufficiently to some standard of righteousness – God knows that whatever standard of righteousness you profess, you will compromise. Not one man will stand before God righteous in his own eyes, because the Lord of truth will reveal only one who is righteous – his own son.

In the New Covenant God revealed that the purpose of even his own law was not to prevent sin, but to make it manifest when it occurred. God has not willed that we be righteous by keeping law. When the stewards of the law of Moses found it hard to keep the added more rules as a buffer to help people never even come close to breaking the law, and it did not work. Thinking that you need to be more strictly devoted to your personal laws when  you are disappointed that you did not keep them is like thinking you need to be more diligent about washing your mirrors when you see that your face is dirty.

I think we are better learned if we find in our failure the evidence of our need for grace. What are we saying when we resolve to follow a better law so that we will need less grace? Aren’t we saying we resolve to need God less?

Not that we pursue sin with abandon because of grace. You cannot do this, for if you pursue sin you are not recognizing it or treating it as sin, and if sin is not so much sinful than it doesn’t require so much grace to forgive. We despise grace by either devoting ourselves to the law or to lawlessness.

I like how Rich Mullins wrote about regretting sin in his song “Growing Young.” His treatment sounds less like “I’m going to do better next time” and more like “I will sing of my forgiveness.”

Depth perspective

Posted on May 4, 2014
Filed Under Theological | Comments Off on Depth perspective

They say that drowning people don’t shout for help or wave, and may not even splash that much. Maybe most people who drown are just below the surface when they die. You can get caught up in something and dragged into the deep, and perish there, arms reaching up vainly; but you can also slip just low enough that your upturned face doesn’t quite break into clear daylight, and your arms spread wide hold you there, almost, but not quite, breathing air.

I was pulled from a pool once in such a condition. But that was many years ago.

Truly the deep is well named. There is a flood of misery covering the earth, and black horrors in it, and ghastly creatures live there. And what mighty storms rage upon it! Yet one may drown in the merest sunny pool of calm water.

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