What follows is a reflection spurred on by a blog post from Richard Beck, who always challenges me to think more deeply than I am ever comfortable with. His post can be found here, but it is not for the faint of heart—it talks about things like universalism, and (oh my!) Rob Bell.
Sometimes I think we hang on to the concept of free will at our peril. (Maybe I should have warned that my post might also not be for the faint of heart, Don’t shoot. I’m just thinking out loud.) Is it possible that the idea of free will is a defense mechanism that tries to keep our own self at the center of our universe, a way of fending off the true God who rightly owns that cosmic real estate—among his other vast holdings (for example…everything)?
Now any self-respecting discussion of free will inevitably leads to someone saying something like this: “God gave us free will because he wanted us to be free to love him. Without free will we would just be robots and robots only do what they are programmed to do.” That is probably right, and I am not arguing that free will does not exist or that it is not an important component in what we know as love. But there a couple of things that bother me with the concept. First is the idea that love is a choice and only our will is needed to act on it, and second is the idea that we are not robots. I’ll address the question of choice before getting into whether I think we might actually be robots.
I always thought there was something bloodless about the notion “love is a choice,” despite the fact that smug little epigram has the air of a self-evident statement. You hear that admonition when someone says, for example, “I don’t love my wife/husband any more.” The response is often, “Suck it up, bucko. Love is a choice, you simply have to make the choice and eventually it will be true.” I’m sure that sometimes works. It is occasionally possible to overcome a lack of passion through gritting your teeth and accepting your obligation—what philosophers call “deontological ethics.” But think about it, do you want to be loved by someone who does it out of a sense of duty—especially if they refer to it using ridiculous words like deontological, which sounds as painful as a root canal—or do you want to be loved by someone who loves you as you, not out of duty, but passionately and completely, head over heels? You know, the way God loves us. I thought so.
Just so we are clear, I am not dismissing the value of duty or obligation. I am merely pointing out their insufficiency compared to love. See the story of the prodigal son.
Our choices are always going to be motivated by our desires. Why act at all except out of some sort of desire? Even when we make the choice to go against some seemingly urgent but wrong desire (Step away from the dessert buffet.), it is because of a deeper and more significant desire that we hold to be ultimately more important. The problem is that we no longer, as Jacques Ellul described Adam, have a heart which “beat[s] in rhythm with the heart of God…” (To Will and To Do, 1969, p.5) Our affections are not just out of synch, we are obliviously playing John Cage, while God is playing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. We are conditioned and determined by sin and the consequences of our own and other’s actions. Very few, if any, of our desires are in accord with the heart of God. So even if we have free will, we will be exercising that will to execute the programming instructions of disordered desires. What could possibly go wrong?
Here is where we begin to understand our robot-like nature. And no, that was not what God had in mind originally. We did it to ourselves.
St. Paul described the problem about as well as anyone ever has. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” Rom 7:19. There is very little “free” will in our behavior. No, we are not robots, but we do act like robots, conditioned like Pavlov’s beagle to behave in all kinds of ways, no matter how much we try to fast-forward through the commercials. Even when we do something that has the appearance of being good, we are often so conflicted in our motivation that we suspect we did it for selfish reasons. And we probably did. Bad robot!
According to behavioral psychologists and some neuroscientists we may think we are free, but we are mistaken. That’s more biblical than you might expect. Thanks to the Fall, our own sin, advertising and the determinisms (physical and spiritual) of the world, we are held in captivity. Paul again: “I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” Rom 7:23. We cannot clearly conceive right desires, much less act upon them. It is only through the direct intervention of a loving God that we can even desire to be free from those captivities.
God describes that intervention in terms that sound like a heart transplant: “I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” Ez 11:19. (The Lord really loves a good metaphor; at least I hope it’s a metaphor.) Beck argues, “God can’t just change our affections overnight without that being experienced as a volitional assault upon us.” Volitional assault is psychologist-speak for a violation of our free will. I suppose he could, but that would be as messy as a heart transplant. The process Beck describes sounds more like God sort of sneaks the changes in over a long period of time so that we don’t reject the new tissue and flatline just as he is ready to close up the incision.
I could argue that it is still a violation of our will, regardless of how long God takes to do it, but that’s not my main concern here. Theologically correct or not, I can think of a few wills that need to be violated, mine included.
Whatever process the Lord uses, and however long it takes, I welcome it. At least I have reached the point where I want to welcome it. In becoming free, even by small increments, on most days I can increasingly cooperate with God in his project to turn this bad robot into a human being. It is a process, not an event that occurred in the moment of asking Jesus in, nor when I was baptized, nor at any of the other ritualized milestones of spiritual life. It is ongoing and not likely to end soon, but in eternity I suspect the transformation will seem to have occurred “in the twinkling of an eye.”