Sunday, May 2, 2010

Providence and Freewill

Milton in the combox at Notes from a Common Place Book made a comment in passing in regards to God's decree and God's allowance of all that comes to pass. Without clarification such a statement could easily lead to misunderstanding and result in quite serious negative consequences. Let me make clear, my intent is not to put words in Milton's mouth, for I do not fully know his position. I do wish to briefly reflect on this subject here and for those interested we can have a conversation about this topic, and so as not interfere with conversation at Common Place Book (rule #1: never mess with ZZ Top!).

So let me just start by noting that it is important to make clear that by providence we are not to understand that everything that happens is a direct expression of God's will. To put in other words, an important distinction needs to be made between what God wills and what He permits. If this distinction is not made one falls into a dark theological fatalism, a theology of raw and arbitrary Power. We can see this in Reformation theology, in constructs such as limited atonement and predestination. A failure to understand real liberty within creation, without at the same time denying or diminishing God's freedom to will and sovereignty, leads to fatalism. As an aside, this is where a mere reliance on “physics and logic” and "theology by analogy" can easily mislead.

If one does not make this distinction every event is seen as a positive act of God's will and purpose, as if without such events God's plan would somehow be incomplete or not come to pass. There is no room for mere accident. We frequently see such unfortunate pronouncements made during the aftermaths of disasters and human suffering.


Milton T. Burton said...

I simply said that God either wills or permits everything that comes to pass. They I went on to elaborate:

An event is about to happen, and God has four possible positions in relation to it:

1. He caused it to happen.

2. He did not cause it to happen but He wants it to happen so He will not interfere.

3. He doesn't want it to happen and could change it, but for reasons of His own He will not interfere.

4. He doesn't want it to happen and He will intercede to keep it from happening.

The only two possible alternatives to these scenarios are that He is opposed to it happening but is unable to prevent it. Or that He is indifferent. The first of these is the view held by that rabbi who wrote "Why Bad Things Happen To Good People." I find this to be an absurd limitation on the omnipotence of God which has been a cornerstone of Christian doctrine from the earliest days of the Church. If the second is correct, then we all need to go out of business for we live in a universe of unspeakable malevolence.

Apophatically Speaking said...

What I mean to point out is the very important distinction between what He wills and what He permits. Some would say there is no substantial difference between them.

Milton T. Burton said...

I thought I made my view of that distinction quite clear. So what is there to discuss?

Apophatically Speaking said...

Apparently, we seem to agree. Which is a good thing! I hope disagreement is not a prerequisite for a discussion of this topic.

We can discuss this the distinction between what He will and what He permits?

Milton T. Burton said...

Short discussion: He permits whatever He has not actively willed. I think from the passage about the sparrow that there is nothing about which He is indifferent.

Milton T. Burton said...

Of course I have to admit that both neuro-science and psychology are continually lowering the bar and pointing out that we have far less free will than we would like to think we have. This is what Faulkner meant when he said, "They talk about the dead past. The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

Milton T. Burton said...

Of course if one holds that God is indifferent to nothing, then one must admit that He has some sort of interest in football. The ramifications of this I refuse to contemplate.

Apophatically Speaking said...

Milton, what are we to make of a statement such as this, "In a universe governed by God, there are no chance events"? Is there no place for accidents, or for "events of nature"?

Would you explain what you mean by, "we have far less free will than we would like to think we have".

Milton T. Burton said...

If one believes that God forsees all things that come to pass, one must conclude that he either wills or permits them. If this is the case, then the final decision as to whether or not something is "allowed" to happen always lies with Him.

As for the second half of your question, I wish you would do a little reading in neuro-biology and save me a lot of writing. But if you would meditate on the Faulkner quote above you will understand even better. What we call the present is but the sum total of all the events that have gone before.

Milton T. Burton said...

Or we can recall Shakespeare's "There is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we may."

Apophatically Speaking said...

So what then is the distinction between what He permits and what He wills?

Milton T. Burton said...

What He wills is the result of His own willed actions. What he permits is either the result of the forces nature (processes which He created but whose moment-by-moment actions are independent of his active participation) or the actions of subsidiary wills.

Milton T. Burton said...

Here is the way it all really works:

THE WATCHERS • by Milton T. Burton

I was coming out of the Wal-Mart Supercenter yesterday when an earnest-looking fellow who appeared to be in his mid thirties came up and tried to hand me some kind of lurid religious tract.

“I can’t accept that,” I told him.

“Why not?”

“I”m an Alpha Prime.”

“Huh?” he asked in obvious confusion. “Alpha what?”

I decided to take the time to explain it all to him. “Prime,” I said. “Alpha Prime. Surely you know as well as I do that there are only three types of people in this world. Alpha Primes, Control Agents, and Subsidiaries.”

“Subsid. . .”

“That’s right,” I replied. “And I know you’re not an Alpha Prime because we always recognize one another. And you don’t look focused enough to be a Control Agent, so it’s pretty obvious that you’re just a Subsidiary.”

For some reason he seemed to find this mildly alarming, so I moved in closer, put my arm around his shoulders, and gave him a reassuring squeeze. “You see,” I said, “the sole purpose of Control and its agents is to keep us Alpha Primes from detecting the Pattern. That’s the reason they try to annoy and distract us as much as they possibly can. But I’m onto them.”

“You are?”

“Right,” I said, giving him a conspiratorial wink. “I saw the Pattern a long time ago.”

“The Pattern?”

“Right again. Let me give you an example. I’m sure you’ve seen that insurance ad that features the British rock guitarist, Peter Frampton… Right? It’s on TV all over the country.”

He gave me a hesitant nod, his eyes growing ever wider.

“Well, surely you realize that there is no such thing as a Frampton.”


“Absolutely not,” I said firmly. “Can you imagine anything more absurd than a Frampton? I mean, have you ever actually met one yourself?”

He shook his head. “No, I can’t say that I have...”

“Of course you haven’t. You see, the Control Agents just gave that guy the name because they realize that ‘Frampton’ is one of those words that we Alpha Primes are genetically predisposed find utterly loathsome.”

Here I stopped speaking and gave his shoulder another squeeze and then continued in a knowing whisper. “And if we’re all bent out of shape about ‘Frampton’, then we’re sure as hell not going to notice the Pattern, now are we? And that’s any Control Agent’s whole purpose in life. Obscure that Pattern. Get it?”

“I… I don't really know,” he said dubiously. “But I really have to go.”

“But you haven’t given away all your tracts.”

He shrugged. “I haven’t had much luck here, anyway.”

“Luck?” I asked. “Why, my friend, there’s no such thing as luck.”


I shook my head gravely. “Of course not. There’s only the Pattern. For example, have you ever been about ready for bed and then realized you just had to have a soft drink or something? So you find yourself dragging your shoes back on and driving a couple of miles to the convenience store and dealing with some Pakistani idiot who can barely make change. That’s because you had to be in a certain place at a certain time, either to cause something or to prevent it. A car wreck or whatever.”

“Well, I…”

“No doubt about it,” I said and gave him a resigned shrug.

“The grim truth is that we’re all slaves to the Pattern, whether we realize it or not. Even the Control Agents. But you should be grateful that you Subsidiaries only get the small assignments. We Alpha Primes get the big jobs. Why, I once had to fly all the way to Budapest and eat a liverwurst sandwich in a certain cafe to prevent a dormant volcano from blowing up in Iceland. And I hate liverwurst.”

At this he bolted and sprinted to his car and then sped quickly from the parking lot. No doubt he was eager to fill his friends in on what he’d just learned about the Pattern. I regretted that I hadn’t been able to tell him about the Watchers, but there’d be plenty of time for that later on. I’d memorized his license plate number, and I have a helpful friend in motor vehicle registration.

It was a lovely day.

Apophatically Speaking said...

You are a riot.

Being of low wattage I regrettably fail to understand what you mean to say, "What we call the present is but the sum total of all the events that have gone before." (Sorry, Falkner's ain't turning my light on, either.) For one thing, I fail to understand its relevance to our present topic.

As to freewill, are you qualifying "free" in any way? You seem to do so, but I am not sure. Be it as it may, any substantial alteration would lead towards some sort of determinism, in which free isn't really free.

As to your comment re: nature and subsidiary wills, I am in agreement. However if nature and subsidiary wills are relegated to some obscure, seldom visited outpost, then we most assuredly part ways.

Thanks for your time.

Sophocles said...

Hi Apo!

Hey, as per our previous conversation, I told you I would notify you if ever I was in your parts.

I will be at St. Anthony's in Florence this Thursday-Friday(June 10 and 11).

If you would like to meet, let me know. My schedule will be fairly tight but I could always meet a fellow blogger. You can reach me via e-mail on my blog for my phone number.

If you are unable, perhaps another time as I do make semi-frequent trips to that monastery.

In Christ,

Apophatically Speaking said...

Hi Sophocles,

Regretfully I will be out of town this week. Thanks for thinking about me, I wish I could join you there. Hopefully next time! Keep me posted as to your stay (perhaps you can write a "review")

Sophocles said...

No problem. I'll let you know next time I'm in the neighborhood.

Several years ago I was asked to post about my visit there and I did here:

Removed from that writing now for some time, I'm sure I would probable write something different.

If I'm able, I will post on it but life is crazy busy for me. I have to have a jolt sometimes to write posts.

Any way, God willing, the next visit!

In Christ,

Apophatically Speaking said...

Great story. How was this trip? I want to go soon too.

Sophocles said...

It was great! Short but great as always. I drove in early Thurday morning before they receive the pilgrims/guests and fell asleep in the courtyard until one of the monks woke me up.

I left the next day after trapeza(the meal).

I basically went to see my spiritual father there and confess.

God willing, I plan on going every 3-4 months to stay connected and to experience the palpable grace there.

I have benefited tremendously and if you do go, try to keep an open mind and to stay for as much time as you are able, getting into the rhythym of the monks' routine.

I will definitely let you know when I next plan to visit!