Theology nerds have favorite concepts that theology is applied to. For me, I enjoy the problem of evil and free will. The problem of evil, or “theodicy,” wonders how bad things can happen in a world if there is a good god that created it or is maintaining it. The conversations around that will make your head spin. The other concept, free will, is what I will be addressing today.
Here, in the United States, we are a melting pot of cultures, which is both beautiful, due to the diversity and interchange, but also problematic, when trying to define what American culture is. Defining culture is problematic at best in a more homogenous culture, but here, it is nigh impossible. However, if anything, I would argue that one, if not the only, defining characteristic of American culture is its individualism. This is not a critique, but a statement of fact. Libertarianism is the political version of this, but in aggregate we are a very “don’t tell me what to do” culture. It is this tendency to shift away from a collective, shared society, which causes a hypocritical element within the U.S. Church.
Hypocrisy typically has a negative connotation, because it almost always implies premeditated rationalization. To put it differently, when we are being hypocritical, we usually know that we are acting that way. This is often verbalized as, “I know the Bible says, but…” Or, “I know Jesus said, but….” “But” when looking at free will and the U.S. Church, I argue that because individualism is so ingrained into our culture, and thus into our subconscious thoughts and actions as American citizens, the hypocrisy of our theology surrounding free will is not intentional. Let me clarify.
Since Americans do not want to be told what to do, this influences their theology. Ask almost any American Christian (not all, for sure), and they will tell you that G*d allows free will. Even those who espouse predestination argue for forms of free will. For those that feel that we have to make a choice for Jesus, they will say that conversion cannot be coerced. For the predestination people, their daily lives, how they live as Christians, are governed by free will. However, our actions betray our words. When human beings suffer, we tend to blame G*d. Even within the Catholic Church, where there have been movements that glorify suffering, the majority of the Catholic laity would not agree. The reason for mentioning theodicy in the beginning of this post is because when we are confronted with evil we have a propensity to blame G*d for either doing it to us or for allowing it to happen. Either way, we blame G*d. But to blame G*d for direct action against us, or inaction that results in our suffering, still faults G*d for our problems. This flies in the face of free will and a loving god.
If, as we so often say, that G*d allows for free will, then the suffering that we endure as part of the human condition is our fault, or the fault of others. By not living for others and governing my own actions in such a way that glorifies G*d, is what creates pain and suffering in the world. Free will says that G*d cannot force a human being’s hand toward any action or stop us from acting at all. Free will allows us to do good or to do evil, and to refrain from both.
Free will is not all encompassing, or maybe I should say all powerful. Our free will is limited by the actions of others. As a child, I could choose to act in whatever way I wanted, but if I broke against the social norms that my parents were trying to instill in me (not scrapping my teeth with my fork) my behavior was corrected. I could still choose to disobey my parents, but then I would have to deal with the consequences. People who maximize free will by not allowing the choices of others to limit their actions are typically understood as psychotic, and then their free will is still limited, because they are placed in a prison or mental institution. Submitting to social norms is both an act of autonomous free will and a limiting of free will by society.
This same limited type of free will also limits the actions of G*d. As I have said in previous posts, if G*d cannot lie, go out of existence, or be unloving, then there is a precedence for G*d being unable to do certain things. If G*d allows human beings to have free will, and G*d is not going to change the rule book on us, then G*d’s actions in our lives and in the world are then necessarily limited. Understanding free will in this way does not remove G*d from our lives, nor does it create a deistic deity that leaves us alone.
Understanding G*d as the embodiment of love, knowing G*d as ever-present, lends itself to say that G*d is always with us, guiding us towards the right decisions, that will be best for us and others. G*d tried to keep it simple: love G*d and others as you love yourself. Through prayer and contemplation we are able to feel the ever-present influence of G*d in our lives, guiding us towards the best of decisions. Knowing G*d is always there, knowing G*d, even in the midst of darkness, when the best choice is just the less worst choice – that is our comfort. The Holy Spirit, understood as a councilor, is who we seek guidance from to help us move forward in our lives. G*d always wants the best for us, and by seeking G*d and being sensitive to G*d’s influence, we can go through life in love and confidence, knowing that our actions are our own, and that G*d is helping us every step of the way.