Divine Freedom

Saturday, 30 April 2016 01:55 pm
cjbanning: (Default)
Let me take a break, for a moment, from talking about human free will to touch upon the freedom of God. It is probably natural that my views on the former--my rejection of libertarian free will, in particular--influences my understanding of the latter. This does not mean, of course, that I think any of God's actions are caused by anything outside of Godself. If that were the case, God would not be God. But the fact that I don't understand human freedom as consisting of the ability to have done other than what one has done in some sort of absolute sense (i.e., a sense that is incompatible with the causally deterministic nature of the universe as we understand it) almost certainly does influence the way I talk and write about God's freedom, which must in some sense be analagous to human freedom for the phrase to have any meaning.

One of the classic questions about God's freedom is whether God could have chosen not to create a world dependent upon Godself, yet outside Godself such that God is not dependent upon it. Many Christians would claim that the only possible orthodox answer to that question is "Yes." Insofar as that is the case, however, I can only accept it as a paradox, a divine mystery. Certainly God cannot act against God's own nature, and so I cannot imagine God, in "the free, overflowing rapture" (Moltmann) of perichoretic love which is the Trinity, doing other than creating a world separate from Godself. Perhaps that is due to the finite nature of my own human mind. Perhaps.

A human analogy might be my "ability" to rob a bank. Clearly I am physically capable of attempting to rob a bank in the sense we usually use that term. Yet my unique blend of moral courage (I know robbing banks is wrong) and moral cowardice (I'm afraid of getting caught) is such that it is inconceivable I could ever rob a bank because it is contrary to my nature. We could say perhaps that I have a "hypothetical" ability to rob a bank, and God has a hypothetical ability to not create the world. But there is no possible world in which those hypotheses could take place without first rendering either God or I unrecognizable. (And while my nature is mutable across possible worlds, God's is not.)

The above is something of a preamble to another question I encountered in Roger Olson's Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith, which I am currently listening to on audiobook. The question was, "Can God change the past?" and Olson seems to imply he thinks the question ought to be, "No."

But why? Unless we are to become open theists, then God is eternal, and the difference between future and past is as meaningful to God as the difference between left and right is to us. We might as well ask if we are able to make changes to our left as well as to our right. Unless one is a character in a side-scrolling video game from the 1980's, such a question is either absurd or meaningless.

Of course, one might well question the use of "change" at all. From God's perspective, viewing all of time and space as a unity, any intervention God might make would not be a "change" at all but a seamless element of God's creation as executed according to God's divine plan. After all, every element of the world is a consequence of either God's deliberation action or else our own human free will, which is itself a gift from God, being the exceptional sign of the image of God within us. So the very idea of God desiring to "change" anything which exists is revealed to be contradictory, and certainly God cannot act against God's own desires.

Some will argue that this understanding of divine freedom renders prayer meaningless, but such an argument misunderstands the place and purpose of prayer. As I preached to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in my 2012 sermon on the prayers of Hannah and Penninah, the revealed purpose of petitionary prayer is not "to flatter a capricious deity into giving us what we want" but to enter into relationship with the Triune God, to put our hopes and fears before the Lord that God's will may be done.

A Primer on Free Will

Saturday, 23 April 2016 05:40 pm
cjbanning: (The Bishop)

Many discussions about human free will often find themselves mired in confusion. Much of the difficulty stems from the fact that the phrase “free will” itself can mean different things in different contexts. In particular, philosophical and theological debates over free will tend to take place on related but nonetheless very different semantic territories.


Here are some different basic descriptions of free will we will discuss:

  • Causal free will: more commonly known as “libertarian free will,” the ability to make a decision whose outcome is in some sense independent of the causal history of the universe, i.e. to have one’s deliberations be uncaused by any factor outside one’s own will.

  • Theological free will: the ability to make a decision  whose outcome is not predetermined or preordained by a theistic deity, i.e. God.

  • Logical free will: the ability to make a decision whose outcome is not restrained by the truth value of given propositions concerning the future.


A large, but not all-inclusive, part of debates about free will is determining which, if any, of these or other formulations of free will must be descriptive of the situation in order for “true free will”--what I will refer to as free will simpliciter--to be present. If a given formulation doesn’t hold in a situation, we say that the situation is deterministic in regards to that formulation. Thus we can have causal determinism, theological determinism (predeterminism), logical determinism, and so forth.


To hold that a given formulation of free will need not be descriptive of a situation in order for free will simpliciter to be present is to hold a position called compatibilism. For example, some Calvinists are compatibilists in that they believe that humans can have free will despite their actions being in some sense preordained by God, while I, as well as most professional philosophers, are compatibilists in that we believe that human free will does not require human decisions to be physically uncaused by natural antecedents.


Contrariwise, to hold that a given formulation of free will must be descriptive of a situation in order for free will simpliciter to be present is to hold to incompatibilism. To be incompatibilist in regard to causality, for example, means that one believes that either causal determinism is false (allowing libertarian free will to exist) or else human beings do not have free will. Theologically, some Calvinists are incompatiblist in that they deny the existence of human free will, while Arminians and Catholics are similarly incompatibilists in that they reject the doctrine of predestination.


One might, quite reasonably, conclude that these debates are largely about semantics. Unless free will simpliciter exists somewhere as a form in a Platonic heaven, then this is only really a debate about how we, as language-users, ought to define the morpheme pair “free will.” To a large degree, this is correct. That is not to say, however, that all definitions are created equal. It is certainly not to say that all definitions match equally well with our intuitive understanding or ordinary use of a given phrase.


cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
As part of his "Questions That Haunt" series, Tony Jones has taken on the question of theodicy and come to a startling conclusion (emphasis his):
I know this: No one — not the Jews, not the Romans — was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. God was was ultimately responsible. That blood is ultimately on God’s hands. God could have stopped it; God didn’t. And so we’re all left to wonder about God’s responsibility for that act of evil, and for all acts of evil.
First off, I find Tony's disavowal of human responsibility for the crucifixion perplexing. It doesn't follow obviously from anything else he says (as far as I can tell) and, at least for me, seems to me to undermine the power of the Incarnation, the entire point of which was for God's Begotten One to enter into our human suffering and become vulnerable to human evil. Even if we were to agree that God were ultimately responsible, it's not at all clear to me how that absolves Judas of Jesus' betrayal or Pilate of Jesus' condemnation.

The question of God's responsibility, however, is much more interesting and challenging. Here's some more of Tony's logic:
God is ultimately liable for the evil in the world. On my theory, God could reclaim omnipotence at any moment, step in, and stop evils and horrors. The fact that God doesn’t, implicates God.

Does this make God less than perfectly benevolent? Maybe. Maybe God also abdicated “benevolence” at creation, or at least perfect benevolence. Or maybe God’s all-in-allness means that our conception of “goodness” and “benevolence” is swallowed up in God’s fullness.
I think much of this is at least partly right. Certainly it is probably a mistake to think of God's omnibenevolence as just like human benevolence, only better. But I think a lot is also caught up in the word "could." Could God step in and stop evils and horrors? At first glance, it seems like to deny this is to deny God's omnipotence; of course, God could, because God can do anything and, being the highest authority, answers to no authority higher than Godself.

But God is answerable to Godself, to the perfect goodness of God's own nature which requires God to respect the dignity and free will of God's creatures created in God's own image. This is no more to speak of a limitation on the part of God than it would be to say that God "cannot" create a stone so heavy that God "cannot" lift it. In both cases, the true limitation resides in the ability of our language to describe that which lies past its limits. Instead, to speak of God's "inability" to act contrary to God's nature is actually to speak of the very perfection of divine freedom; there is no division in God's will and thus no force which could possibly coerce God into acting against Godself.

Of course, without getting needlessly metaphysical, the above does assume there is some sort of enduring character to God's goodness, that God cannot and would not simply decide today that respecting human dignity and free will is a good thing and decide tomorrow that it is bad. This, then, is against what Roger Olson calls "nominalistic voluntarism," the claim that "“Whatever God does is automatically good and right just because God does it":
[The nominalistic voluntarist believes that] God does not have an eternal nature of character; he [sic] is pure power and will. God is whatever God decides to be. The result is that the “good” is whatever God commands and God does not command anything because it is good. It is good only because God commands it.

[. . .]

This makes God truly monstrous because God, then, has no virtuous character. “Good” becomes whatever God decides and does and, ultimately, becomes meaningless because it has no essential connection with anything we know as “the good.”
Drawing then on the scriptural truth that "Ever since the creation of the world, the eternal power and divine nature of God, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made" (Romans 1:20), I affirm that the enduring nature of moral goodness is discernible, if imperfectly, by human beings through the dialectic of human reason and history, as I note in my blog post on Liberalism and Moral Absolutes and perhaps most fully in my essay History and Christ. While our understanding of what is good and evil is always evolving and improving through history as it is led by the Spirit, good and evil themselves do not change, and certainly not at the whims of a capricious deity. So when the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia asserts
As to whom we are to obey, there can be no doubt that first we are bound to offer an unreserved service to Almighty God in all His [sic] commands. No real difficulty against this truth can be gathered from putting in juxtaposition the unchangeableness of the natural law and an order, such as that given to Abraham to slay his son Isaac. The conclusive answer is that the absolute sovereignty of God over life and death made it right in that particular instance to undertake the killing of an innocent human being at His [sic] direction.
I simply cannot go there with it. If God had allowed Abraham to kill Isaac at God's direction, God would have revealed Godself to be a moral monster unworthy both of worship and of obdeience. Following a line of throught I encountered (if I remember correctly) in Elie Wiesel's Messengers of God, I tend to assume that Abraham knew this too. By going ahead and carrying out God's outrageous command, Abraham was calling God's bluff, so to speak--putting the Lord God Almighty to the test.

Does this understanding of the relationship between God and goodness require us to posit some independent existence for goodness in some Platonic heaven in order for God to perfectly embody it? Of course not, and I plan soon to write a post on Wittgenstein's metaethical mysticism to gesture towards how we can talk practically about enduring good and evil without getting needlessly caught up in metaphysics.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
1. Godhead. The apophatic denial of God's non-existence.
2. Trinity. God is one Being in three Persons.
3. Chalcedonian Christology. Hypostatic union: Jesus Christ is two natures, one human and one divine, united into one Person.
4. Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as complementary sources of revelation.
5. The Sacraments. The seven sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, ordination, marriage, healing) are the means of sanctifying grace, rites in which God is uniquely active, visible signs of an invisible reality.
6. Ex opere operato. The seven sacraments are efficacious in and of themselves, by the very fact of the actions’ being performed, because Christ is at work in them in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.
7. Baptismal Regeneration. The salvation of baptized persons (including those baptized by blood or desire, as well as by water) is uniquely mediated through the sacrament.
8. Real Presence. Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist. (Radical transignification.)
9. Perseverance of Eucharistic Presence. Real Presence is not dependent on the act of drinking or eating and continues in the consecrated hosts beyond the celebration of the Eucharist.
10. Adorableness of the Eucharist. Worship may be properly rendered to the Blessed Sacrament.
11. One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the Church of Jesus Christ.
12. Apostolic Succession. The spiritual authority placed on the apostles by Christ is passed through history via the institutional rites of the Church, i.e. the consecration of bishops. The one Church of Christ subsists in the apostolic churches as governed by the historic episcopate.
13. Ordained Presbyterate. God specially calls some people (of all genders, races, and sexualities) to undergo the sacrament of ordination; to represent Christ and the Church of Christ, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.
14. Free Will. God has willed that human persons remain under the control of their own decisions. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within a human being.
15. Sin. The existence of corporate evil—sexism and racism, transphobia and homophobia; poverty and hunger; totalitarianism and fascism—such that human freedom is curtailed and diminished.
16. Sola gratia. Since human freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can the Church bring the relationship between God and human beings into full flower.
17. Resistability of Grace. The free wills of human beings may cooperate with God so as to prepare and dispose themselves for the attainment of salvation; human wills can also refuse complying, if they please.
18. Universal Potential for Redemption. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are for the benefit of all humankind, not just an elect.
19. Kingdom of Heaven. Through grace, humans are called to use their free will to pray for peace, fight for justice, and build God’s Kin(g)dom on Earth.
20. Intercession of Saints. It is proper to pray to the Saints and ask for their intercessions.

4th Easter

Monday, 26 April 2010 03:19 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

"The Lord is my Shepherd," the psalmist writes, "I shall not want." These words may not seem to describe our lives today: we are constantly wanting. The new video game console which is faster, better, with better graphics and cooler games. The pair of shoes on half price at the mall. The fast food cheeseburger which all by itself constitutes half your recommended calories for the day. We are a culture which is constantly wanting, but--as the immortal Rolling Stones song tells us--we "can't always get what [we] want, / But if [we] try sometimes well [we] just might find / [we] get what [we] need."

So unless the psalmist lived a much luckier life than any of us here--where "luck" is measured by a standard of egoistic hedonism--we have to assume the psalmist meant the statement "I shall not want" not as a description of an operative state of affairs but as a moral imperative, the "shall" in "I shall not want" being the same "shall" as in "Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." The psalmist, like the Rolling Stones, is reminding us that we get what we need.

God provides for our needs. To explain how God provides for our needs, though, the psalmist turns to the metaphor of a shepherd. Jesus expands on this metaphor in the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist (as well as in the synoptic gospels), and St. John the Divine references back to it in his account of the apocalyptic Revelation provided to him. When we consider the metaphor further, we might gleam some further understanding of why and how we live in such a crazy world where our desires so often run counter to the reality which we find.

Think of the life of an ordinary shepherd. She wakes up early, takes the sheep from wherever it is the sheep might spend the night, in stables perhaps, and she leads them to the "green pastures" where they are set loose to graze. And that, my sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, is where all the trouble begins.

Because grazing sheep get into trouble. They need to be protected from predators, but also they need to be kept from wandering off and getting lost. Think of the sheep in Jesus' parables; they're constantly getting lost or otherwise in trouble, so that the shepherd must leave the flock behind and search for them. It's enough to drive our poor shepherd insane. But sheep need to be free to graze.

And as it is for sheep, it is even more so for people. God is raising a flock of free-range souls; the freedom of our wills is a gift from God, but so too is it a consequence of our being a reflection of God, the imago dei, created in the divine image.

God could, in God's divine omnipotence, order the universe such that our desires and our daily bread were always in harmony; God could run God's Creation like a well-oiled train station. But God chooses instead to allow us to exercise our freedom, recognizing in God's omnibenevolence that as the greater good. As Baptist theologian Roger Olson notes, "God is in charge of everything without controlling everything." Such are the actions of a good shepherd, or for that matter a good parent--or a good God.

The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church affirmed the importance of the doctrine of free will thusly:
Only in freedom can [a person] direct [themself] toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within [a human being]. For God has willed that [humans] remain "under the control of [their] own decisions," so that [they] can seek [their] Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to [God].

Hence [a person's] dignity demands that [they] act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. [A person] achieves such dignity when, emancipating [themself] from all captivity to passion, [they] pursue [their] goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for themself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end. Since [humans'] freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can [one] bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each [person] must render an account of [their] own life, whether [they have] done good or evil.
This is simply a reaffirmation, in somewhat--ahem--nicer terms, of the doctrine as articulated at the Council of Trent:
If any one shall affirm, that [the] freewill [of human beings], moved and excited by God, does not, by consenting, cooperate with God, the mover and exciter, so as to prepare and dispose itself for the attainment of justification; if moreover, anyone shall say, that the human will cannot refuse complying, if it pleases, but that it is inactive, and merely passive; let such a one be accursed.

If anyone shall affirm, that since the fall of Adam [and of Eve], [the] freewill [of human beings] is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing titular, yea a name, without a thing, and a fiction introduced by Satan into the Church; let such an one be accursed.

If any one saith, that it is not in [the] power [of a human being] to make [their] ways evil, but that the works that are evil God worketh as well as those that are good, not permissively only, but properly, and of [Godself], in such wise that the treason of Judas is no less [God's] own proper work than the vocation of Paul; let [them] be anathema.
If a person's dignity demands on their part a free choice not forced by external forces, however, then any attack against their freedom--whether by church, government, or culture--is an offense against that dignity, a sacrilege against the imago dei itself.

Our duty, then, is to oppose those structures in the world which would act to undermine the agency of our sister and brother and sibling human beings: sexism and racism, transphobia and homophobia; poverty and hunger; totalitarianism and fascism. We must stand in solidarity against that which would diminish the autonomy of the oppressed and downtrodden, against ideologies of fear, of hatred, and of control. We must not allow the voices of any people to be silenced. For the most fundamental freedom of all is the freedom to simply be who we are, who we are called to be by Christ: female and/or male and/or intersexed and/or genderqueer; gay and/or straight; white and/or of color; Jew and/or gentile. "I am woman, hear me roar"--the first line of the 1972 Helen Reddy song "I Am Woman" which became an iconic catchphrase for liberation and empowerment-- is a phrase we make fun of nowadays, but it bespeaks the truth that this freedom is not always easily won, and its exercise often transgressive. Sometimes merely demanding the right to be ourselves, and to speak with our own voices, can be radical in itself.

I am reminded of the radical freedom commended to us in the homilectic exhortation of Saint Augustine: "Love, and do what you like." The truth is, it is not possible to do one of these things without the other. Authentic freedom is always necessarily rooted in love, and authentic love is that which fosters freedom. And that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is within the love, which is boundless and abundant, of Christ the Good Shepherd for the flock which is humanity, that we find our most perfect freedom. Freedom from sin, freedom from fear, even freedom from death itself, but most fundamentally the freedom to be ourselves--all of these are the consequences of God's grace, of we and our robes being washed in the blood of the Lamb and made stainless.

Alleluia.
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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