Your questions are certainly the sort that have produced long dissertations and it sounds like you’ve read a few of them! I confess that I tend to be someone who wrestles with and approaches these philosophical issues a bit differently. Before I get into that though, I was on the phone with Margaret Manning Shull earlier today, whose mind is deeply philosophical, and she had some helpful thoughts to add. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a long conversation together over a nice cup of coffee? I am thankful for colleagues who bring such varied gifts to the table!
Margaret was helpful in noting that there are two ways in which you are approaching the question of freedom here and the problems arising from the subject. There is the metaphysical aspect of free will, which as you note, is helpful in defending the philosophical question of God and the problem of evil. Then there is theological question of human freedom and will as it relates to sin. If you want to read more about the philosophical problem, Margaret notes that C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis’ Philosophy of Religion might be helpful, particularly the section on the problem of God’s foreknowledge and human responsibility/freedom.
Here also are a few helpful quotes Margaret often gives people who write into RZIM with this question. This is from a book by Christian physicist Sir John Polkinghorne speaking of the free will defense in the larger category of the problem of evil: “It is claimed that evil is no more than a kind of deprivation, the absence of the good rather than the substantial presence of the bad-rather as darkness is simply the absence of light. (There are photons, particles of light, but there are no scotons, particles of darkness.) After the terrible events of the twentieth century this seems to me to be an impossible stance to adopt. In fact, when one considers an appalling episode like the Holocaust, though one can see individual and societal factors at work (the implacably evil will of powerful leaders; a society in which an unquestioning obedience to the State had been strenuously inculcated; ordinary human cowardice that meant that people looked the other way when the cattle trucks laden with their human cargo rumbled through the village railway station on the way to Auschwitz), nevertheless there is a weight of evil involved in these dreadful events that makes me, at any rate, not quick to be dismissive of the possibility that there are also non-human powers of evil loose in the world (i.e., demonic activity). If that is so, it does nothing of itself to resolve the problems of theodicy, since the question of how these satanic powers originated, and why they are permitted to continue, remains deeply troubling. Whatever view one takes about the nature of spiritual evil, it seems that evil’s reality is just too great to be argued away as simply the privation of the good. Yet, having acknowledged that, the light/dark comparison does serve to remind us of the existence of very much positive good in the world, so that the problem of evil has to be held in tension with the ‘problem’ of the existence of value and good. The world is both beautiful and ugly, inspiring and terrifying in turn.” --From Exploring Reality, Yale University Press, 2005.
Ultimately, the origin of evil is mysterious. Many have argued that evil is a possibility within a free universe, created free by God. Freedom, like anything else, has good and benevolent possibilities and evil and malevolent possibilities. God desires a truly free universe, so in desiring freedom, God opens the possibility that God’s creatures would use this freedom in ways that are good and evil. And the Spirit is ever at work enabling our participation in and opening us toward the infinite freedom of God. I think it’s helpful to note here that the infinite freedom of God can’t be compared to human’s finite freedom without some significant qualifications. This doesn’t solve the problem, but it does provide a more satisfying answer than the alternatives. I think the pastoral, imaginative question to park on with others is ultimately one of wonder: What if this loving God created the world, and everything in it, including human beings, in freedom, mercifully breathing his Spirit upon us in ways that enable and open us to claim and know and participate in the fullness of gift of faith and life in the fellowship of the infinite freedom of a triune God?
I realize this is where many see two forces (freedom and sovereignty) that necessarily remain at odds and present the sort of problems you mention in your post. While I absolutely see the value in some of the philosophical and theological contributions to these problems, in the end I think there are still mysterious aspects that must be claimed–and hopefully claimed in a way that isn’t despairing but comforting. A professor and mentor from seminary notes how easy it is to look at the question of human and divine freedom as “problems to be solved” but this sets us up to think in both narrow and possibly inaccurate terms. First, ultimately, even if we want to see these as “problems,” it is misleading to think that we as finite beings can solve them. But more so, what if instead of seeing in these perceived theological tensions as problems to be solved, we see them as mysteries given–mysteries given by an expansive, loving, all-communing God. This is a far more comforting, and I think, accurate mode of thinking.
This shift also might help us see that some of these conversations are unhelpfully set up to continually talk ourselves into problematic corners. I like Sir John Polkinghorne again on this. He says, “Bringing the world into being was a kenotic act of self-limitation on the Creator’s part, so that not all that happens does so under tight divine control. The gift of Love in allowing the genuinely other to be is necessarily a precarious gift.” Even more than this, I’ve found Jeremy Begbie’s unconventional contribution to the conversation and “problems” of freedom most helpful. Begbie is a systematic theological and classically trained pianist. He has an incredibly insightful chapter called “Room of One’s Own? Music, Space, and Freedom” in his book Music, Modernity, and God. I highly recommend this book for you, if for no other reason than that it might offer a shift in perspective to bring up when you find yourself in conversations that seem to be endlessly moving in circles!
Jeremy uses music to unleash new ways of thinking about realities that we have (especially in modernity) relegated to problematic, zero-sum philosophical and theological realms. He begins the chapter with a quote that notes, “Too often…we have simply assumed that two elements operate in a zero-sum relationship to one another, without asking ourselves whether they might be better understood as bearing a ‘musical’ character.” He then unpacks the difference between the way we see reality versus what is possible when we are hearing reality, arguing that many theologies that have grappled with the manifold issues surrounding freedom have been hampered by particular ways of imagining the “space” in which freedom is believed to be realized. If you take red paint and yellow paint and put it together, you can no longer see either red or yellow because now you can only see orange; they are competing for the same visual space. But when you hear one note played alongside another note, you hear both notes distinctively even as you also hear them as one note in the same space. There is space for both aspects. The theological ramifications of this when brought to the trinity are obvious–when we try to depict or reason how God is three distinct persons who are competing for the same visual space, we find ourselves caught up in an impossible “problem.” The character of sound, however, offers a different means altogether of hearing and knowing this divine gift and reality. To the question how can God and humankind can be free together, the ramifications are similar. In most of our approaches to this question, we utilize a visual understanding of reality and a space they cannot occupy together. Begbie writes, “For God to be in my space means that I will be either displaced or diminished in some manner. The more God’s power is affirmed, the more human agency is rendered inconsequential. The more of God, the less of us (and vice versa)… it is little wonder that some of the most virulent currents of modern atheism trade heavily on the belief that worshipping God entails a self-abnegation that insults, indeed robs us of our dignity.”
Begbie wants to argue that the modern conception of reality keeps us locked in these deeply troubling problems, which then lead to troubling theology. “If freedom is understood as being essentially about absolute self-determination, a polarity tragically arises between, on the one hand, a conception of God’s unmerited saving grace as an untrammeled, unrestricted divine causality at work in the world (at its worst, turning God into a tyrant), and on the other, a notion of human ‘decision’ envisaged as an entirely unprompted, self-generated response to God (an expression of ‘my personal space’) such that divine agency becomes effectively dispensable… God’s love becomes conditional upon the fulfillment of certain prior actions, the imperatives of obedience become logically prior to the indicatives of grace, and human agents are presumed to have it within themselves to effect at least the first stage of their own repentant faith in God (as if standing outside their own space, seeing clearly the problem between them and God, and then taking the first step towards reconciliation).” We can clearly see the gross misrepresentation of scripture’s witness to the character of divine grace here, and yet the “problem” of freedom and divine agency remains. If we move from the visible to the audible, however, a very different world unfolds. “Once we are freed from the supposition of an area of super-space in which God and the world are both situated, the ontological and conceptual machinery of contrastive transcendence will seem far less apposite, with its tendency to posit transcendence and immanence as polar opposites and then to elaborate various compromises and mediations between them. The way is opened up for far more biblically grounded accounts, congruent with God’s covenantal commitment disclosed in his triune self-revelation.”
This gives you a broad glimpse at a perspective that might open up news means of having the same conversation. For me, it’s been a comforting gift in the question of human freedom and a freeing encounter with a God who stands creatively in this trinitarian space, radically for the world, offering our own finite human freedom a space to both resonate and encounter dissonance (sin) as we participate in the infinite freedom of the triune God.
Thanks for writing Helen–and Diana. I appreciate the question and your heart to wrestle with the theology in ways that bring the good character of God before a hungry world. The Spirit moves ahead of you!