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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Theodicy and free will

Reading a 2003 paper by Karen Kilby - Evil and the limits of theology. In the very beginning she states something with which I agree ...

Christian theology ought neither construct theodicies, nor ignore the kinds of problem theodicies try to address. It ought instead to acknowledge itself to be faced with questions it cannot answer, and to be committed to affirming things it cannot make sense of.

Religious people create explanations, excuses, really, for why a good God lets bad stuff happen to us ... one of those excuses I especially despise is CS Lewis' assertion, contradicting scripture, that God doesn't send people to hell but that they freely choose to go there themselves. His idea is based on the belief that God's highest priority is non-interference with our free will. I think the free will defense of suffering is incoherent, not to mention unbiblical, and here's just a bit from Kilby on free will ...

Almost all contemporary theodicies are closely bound up with a widespread but unfortunate theological assumption about the implications of human free will. This concept is in one way or another central to almost all contemporary theodicies, whether directly or clothed in broader notions of soul-making and character development. God cannot bring about a world in which a good exercize of human freedom, correct moral choices, loving actions and relationships, a positive turning towards God, are possible, without giving human beings (and perhaps other moral agents) a freedom which inevitably they can use to do ill.

Lying behind this almost universal feature of contemporary theodicies is the assumption that divine and created agency are and must be in a kind of competitive relationship. The more God does, the less we are able to do. The more God acts, the less free we are. If we are to be genuinely free to do good things, to relate to each other, to respond to God, then at some level, at some point, God must back off. Human freedom requires God’s non-involvement, at least at the moment of choice, and this great good of human freedom is also where one major source of evil comes in.

All this is for the most part taken as self-evident in much of modern thought. An action cannot be free and determined at the same time; it is either free,or it is caused, but not both. Such a contrastive approach is not in fact, however, the only option when it comes to thinking about how God relates to God’s creatures. One might alternatively say that the more God, as creator, acts, the more fully we come into being, and that the more God is involved with us the freer we are. It may be true that to the extent that my actions are determined by created causes, they are not free, but it does not follow that God’s role in my action plays the same part. Again, it may be true that as a parent I have to back off to give my children appropriate freedom, but it does not necessarily mean that God must move away from us in order to allow our freedom. On the view that I am sketching, to think that this is the case is to confuse God with a created being, to suppose that God is acting on the same plane as us and that God’s action inevitably competes and interferes with the actions of created beings. On the view that I am sketching, although my mother may need to keep her distance in order to allow me as an adult to develop fully into myself, God rather needs to keep as close as possible to allow this same development.

It would go beyond the scope of this paper to examine the premodern theological sources of this kind of thinking, in St. Thomas and others, or look at its contemporary exponents such as Herbert McCabe or Kathryn Tanner, or to explore whether a non-Pelagian understanding of grace is possible without such a view. It is possible, however, briefly to point to two reasons for preferring this view to the alternative.. First, it usefully helps to preserve a distinction between creator and creature, between God and humanity, not by making God distant and alien to us, but by insisting that God is more intimate than we can even conceive. And secondly, it avoids the danger which the contrasting view can very easily fall into of distancing God from much that we in fact deem most valuable and hold in greatest respect in our world. This is something that Nicholas Lash points to in a series of questions in Believing Three Ways in One God: ‘Does not God make cities as well as stars? Is God’s self-gift, the Spirit’s presence, less intimately and immediately constitutive of promises and symphonies than of plutonium and silt?’ If we assume that what is most freely human must be done somehow away from and independently of God, then we will have to say that whereas the natural world is clearly God’s creation, all that civilization produces has to do with the creator in only a very distant and derived way.

What we have seen, then, is that the role of human and possibly other created beings’ freedom is central in almost all contemporary theodicies, and this freedom can only play such a role, for the most part, because it has an assumed independence from God’s control — God limits God’s intervention in order to allow us our freedom. If one assumed that when we act most freely God is in fact also most fully bringing about our actions, then the introduction of our freedom into the theodicy discussion cannot help — it only makes matters worse. Why, if God can bring about our free actions, and in particular our good actions, does God ever allow our freedom to go wrong?

The argument here could of course be played in reverse. Many a modern thinker might respond to the noncompetitive understanding of divine and human agency just outlined as follows: that is all very well — if it makes any sense at all. But what then about evil? How can you possibly explain where sin comes from if you say that God is so intimately involved in free human action? Where I have pointed to a problem with theodicies in that they must presuppose a competitive understanding of divine and created action, others will see the fatal weak point of the proposed non-competitive view of God’s agency precisely in the fact that it cannot contribute to a theodicy, in that it can only fall silent when confronted with how things have gone wrong ...


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