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Monday, April 30, 2012

A TRANSCENDENT GOD, FREEWILL, INCARNATION, MIRACLES: Fitting Them All Together


Shortly after I started full-time teaching, a colleague sent me a hurried email, seeking my help in answering an A-level (pre-university exam) student's questions on the interaction between various Christian doctrines about God, cosmology and free will.
I present here a slightly tidied-up version of his email, together with my response.

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THE EMAIL

As part of a lesson, we were discussing an issue that I thought you might be able to input into. The basic question is this:


It has been suggested that the problem of evil (both natural and moral) can in some way be explained by freedom.  [This points to a kind of] God [who] lets the universe unfold, a God who allows humans to evolve in freedom.  Roughly speaking [this equates to] the free will argument. The God in this instance appears to be apart from the universe - not interfering.
 
We then came to the question of miracles.  Now it can be argued that the miracles in the Bible are mythological, recorded for reasons known best to the writers.  If however they are not,then what does this say about the God who allows people to be free?  In other words, is this not a case of an interfering God who impinges himself upon an unsuspecting people?  Is this not inconsistent therefore with the God of the free will argument? In fact isn't the very 'miracle' of Christ the prime example of a God who does interfere in the world in the most definite way?  And again if this is so then how can this be consistent with a God who is apart?

The question hangs upon theodicy and transcendence.  I would appreciate your views, as a practicing Christian,  on a subject that I might relay your reply to [a student] who has been struggling with this one.
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THE RESPONSE

What follows is a purely personal answer, and one which needs to be taken a step at a time. I have tried to use inclusive language but I always think of God as a He – this does not necessarily imply a lack of female attributes. It is going to be quite long, and possibly boring, if all the questions raised are going to be tackled honestly. I will rely on you to extract the level of detail that might be helpful to your student.

The issues are all inter-related, but I will try to isolate them one step at a time.

Step 1: FREE WILL

"It has been suggested that the problem of evil (both natural and moral) can in some way be explained by freedom.  A God who lets the universe unfold, A God who allows humans to evolve (possibly) in freedom.  Roughly speaking the free will argument."

As a Christian believer, I fully endorse the idea that moral evil is the consequence (but not the inevitable consequence) of human freewill. My son has a humanoid toy called Robo-Sapiens that can be programmed to do exactly what its owner wants but which has no free will to make its own choices. Free will logically has to allow the possibility of bad choices which in turn will have bad consequences, but the only alternative would be for us to be robots.

Some philosophers have said that this makes God the author of evil. In common with (presumably) all Christians, I believe that the moral responsibility for evil rests with humans, who universally abuse their gift of free will. We believe this because we do not believe that our God-given freewill logically has to result in bad choices. Indeed, we look to the example of Jesus, who we do not believe ever did wrong despite facing all the temptations we face as ordinary people.

The human abuse of free will for selfish purposes is the cause of all moral evil, but it unquestionably results in a great deal of the natural evil in the world. For example, a flash flood can occur naturally, but climate change resulting from pollution can increase the frequency of such disasters, while selfish land speculation (e.g. selling a dry river bed for poor people to build houses on) can vastly increase the suffering when flash flooding occurs.

Even so, there is natural evil that does not seem to result from any human choices, e.g. earthquakes. Many Christians look to the story of the Fall to explain this (Genesis 3). You do not have to take the story of Adam and Eve literally to observe that sin (abuse of freewill) has a three-fold consequence:  firstly alienation between people and God, secondly alienation between humans and their environment, and thirdly alienation between individual people. (Some commentators would add alienation between the parts of the individual – body, mind, soul). Within this framework, many Christians interpret natural disasters, broken relationships and health breakdowns as symptoms of this alienation. You could call it God’s judgement for this era of human history: handing people over to the consequences of their choices like a stern Deputy Head Teacher, but with the ultimate objective of reconciliation.

Step 2: TRANSCENDENT OR IMMANENT?
"The God in this instance appears to be apart from the universe.  Not interfering."  
  • At one extreme you have the god of the Deist movement: setting the universe in motion and then moving on to somewhere else. Some modern Christians hold a similar view to this, but they are far from historical orthodoxy. 
  • A more moderate position is that taken by Karl Barth: God is the Wholly-Other; concerned with the salvation of individual souls, but utterly transcendent (above and beyond the created order, and beyond direct human experience).
  •  At the opposite extreme, pantheists believe that God IS the universe: that God inhabits every atom and gives reality; that God is limited by the sun total of human experience; perhaps even that God is growing up with the universe (process theology).

This preamble was necessary background to the explanation that orthodox Christianity holds a distinctive position that has been called panentheism: God has a presence in the universe, constantly sustaining it from millisecond to millisecond, and yet maintaining (his) distinct divine essence. In other words, like oil in water, the divine nature does not become confused with created things – it is always recognizable, separate, and in some sense greater. (Many have argued from this that what we call natural laws are no more than observations of the way God most commonly works: If he performs a miracle, he does not interfere with some kind of laws that have a separate existence of their own; he merely chooses for once to work in a different way from the one we are used to. However, I am not going to rely on this argument here).

Thus from my viewpoint as a Christian, you are creating a false dichotomy in saying (as you appear to be) that the granting of free will to humans necessarily implies a God apart from the universe. Which brings us onto the next issue.

Step 3: INCARNATION

"In fact isn't the very 'miracle' of Christ the prime example of a God who does interfere in the world in the most definite way?  And again if this is so then how can this be consistent with a God who is apart?"

The thing that distinguishes Christianity from the other monotheistic religions (but not, curiously enough, from Hinduism) is the assertion that God has dared to defy Plato by breaking through into human history. I interpret this on two quite distinct levels:

 In common with most Christians, I have been drawn into what has been scorned by some thinkers as the “scandal of particularity” – the belief that there is something qualitatively unique about the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, I for one accept that the God who is in one sense universal - transcending all times, places and human cultures – chose to “interfere” in human history in one specific time, place and culture.

Far more significantly, for many Christians, the birth of Jesus (and even more his death) are symbols of what I referred to above as panentheism – the belief that God is in the world, not just as a vague “ground of our being” or a may-the-force-be-with-you kind of energy-field, but as a distinct and sentient being who lives, experiences, suffers and ultimately finds transcending joy and peace alongside of and within human life and experience.

Either way, most Christians would say that the prototype for all or any “interference” by God was at the moment of creation – even if you restrict God’s role to simply “causing” the Big Bang. Indeed, Catholics would see both creation and the birth of Jesus as kind of informal sacraments – simply different ways in which the invisible presence and power of God are made detectable to fleshy beings like us. In a sense it is the Creation that is the real archetypal moment of God breaking into history, as (whether or not they believe in a god) most astrophysicists agree that time and space themselves are no more than by-products of that moment of creation. The incarnation is simply phase 2 of creation – a point of transition at which God injects not just his essence but some aspect of his personal consciousness into his handiwork.

Step 4: THE MIRACLES OF JESUS
"We then came to the question of miracles.  Now it can be argued that the miracles in the Bible are mythological, recorded for reasons known best to the writers.  If however they are not then what does this say about the God who allows people to be free.  In other words is this not a case of an interfering God who inpinges himself upon an unsuspecting people.  Is this not inconsistent therefore with the God of the free will argument."

I prefer “symbolic” to “mythological”, since the latter word nowadays carries a clear undertone of falsehood which it did not carry when it was first coined as part of the infant science of literary criticism.

Scholars have spent nearly 2,000 years arguing over the extent to which Jesus knew he was God or had God’s power in his hands. Whether or not his miracles literally happened is just a part (and actually only quite a minor part) of this argument. Even in their biblical context, Jesus’ miracles are quite clearly used as a literary device to convey a theological point.

I personally like the theory of kenosis (Greek for “emptying”) which says that the aspect of God which assumed flesh in the birth of Jesus chose to empty itself of the divine attributes – glory, majesty, power, etc. This is perfectly mainstream Christology, and it is a strange fit with ideas that he consciously wielded divine power at will.

The purpose of his divine assumption of human flesh, if we cut through the many generations of competing atonement theories, is ultimately that the reverse process should occur – that humanity should assume the divine nature. The curse of Eden is then reversed: the deceitful warning of the serpent (“God knows that if you eat the apple” – symbolic of the rebellious exercise of freewill – “you will become like gods”) is ironically fulfilled, with the consequence that humanity is eternally able to use its freewill wisely and unselfishly to the universal good.

I have been trying to argue from a philosophical viewpoint – in the context of the whole Christian doctrine of God – that the idea of miracle is not incompatible with human free-will. Rather, whether they literally happened or not, Jesus’ miracles are signs or symbols of the Kingdom of God – a new social order in which God’s moral values become intuitive and therefore humans will avoid sinful behaviour while keeping their freewill intact: in a nutshell. the fulfilment of human freewill rather than a contradiction of it. But this leads us on to the question of modern miracles.


Step 5: MODERN MIRACLES – ANSWERS TO PRAYER 

I want to make clear that I am open-minded about whether miraculous answers to prayer occur today. On the one hand, I have seen incidents that make it hard for me not to believe that God sometimes intervenes, and no amount of rational argument is going to shake me out of this. However, one of the very few areas in which arch-conservatives and arch-liberals agree is that we should NOT expect miracles to happen. The reasons are of course very different: Liberals say that miracles simply cannot happen because you cannot suspend the laws of nature. In contrast, many conservatives say that the miracles surrounding the life of Jesus were unique events associated with that crucial, mysterious time in history when God was physically on earth, and that their importance to us lies in their symbolism and what they teach – they are not meant to be role-models for our own religious experience. 

 In consequence, the most helpful idea of a miracle I have found is that it is a direct subjective experience of God being present and working in a situation. This leaves the way open to accept that the precise outcome (healing, rescue, inner strength, reconciliation, etc.) may be part of a totally rational chain of cause-and-effect, without denying that the lives and values of witnesses may have been transformed in the process.

A real-life example that I have heard told first hand: A drug-addict goes into a clinic to undergo “cold turkey”, and is braced for a harrowing experience. He prays with a Christian nurse for God’s help. The next day he has broken his addiction without going through any of the convulsions, fever, etc., normally expected. This experience results in a conversion experience. He in turn becomes a Christian worker, liberated, employed in telling his story and helping other addicts. Is this a miracle? I would say yes, despite the fact that his easy exit from the drug could have had purely physiological or psychological causes. The miracle lies more in the interpretation he places on his experience, and the way his life is transformed.

This approach to miracles has a sound biblical basis. One biblical account is that Jesus could do no major miracles in one particular town because the crowd was so sceptical. Unless we believe that the presence of sceptics was enough to block divine powers, we have to believe that the problem there was a psycho-social one: they refused to allow the things they saw to transform their attitudes to life. In another place it says that Jesus refused to do any miracles because all the people had turned out to see was a five-minute sensation – a similar conclusion can be drawn.

If this is spiritually open but (I believe) intellectually honest understanding of miracles is accepted, it would answer a lot of the moral questions associated with the whole issue of prayer:

(a) It does not involve interference with the “laws” of nature.
(b) It does not involve unfair favouritism to “God-botherers”
(e.g. “I know those dozens of farms around here desperately need rain, but I’m going to make it stay dry because the church has prayed for a nice sunny day for the vicarage garden party.)
(c) It does not rule out the possibility of God doing something precious in people’s lives.
(d) It does not imply the need for possibly selfish choices
(e.g. “I ought to be praying for peace in Darfur, but I’ve only got five minutes to spare and I need to spend that time praying that I pass my driving test tomorrow). 


In fact, it suggests that prayer is not a means of getting God to do what we want. Rather, it is a means of making ourselves available to God, to do what God wants. In other words, what is changed in prayer is not God’s will, but our human wills and perceptions. In still other words, the process is not us changing the world by pestering God, but God changing the world by graciously allowing us to collaborate with (him).

I know a married couple in their twenties who spent nearly three years in Darfur, living in indescribable squalor and unbelievable physical danger, working for a Christian disaster-relief organisation. This happened because they spent several months praying to God to do something about the humanitarian crisis there.


“In other words is this not a case of an interfering God who inpinges himself upon an unsuspecting people?”
Perhaps in one sense you could say that.

“Is this not inconsistent therefore with the God of the free will argument?
 I think it is the fulfilment of what humans were given  freewill for.

Don’t get me wrong: I am well aware that many religious people (Christian or otherwise) have quite self-centred and tribal understandings of who God is and what they can expect God to do for them. Ultimately, they will have to take moral responsibility for that. However, it is my personal belief that this is a stage of spiritual adolescence (sorry if that sounds condescending) that people go through, and that they are better placed for future spiritual growth by having a God they believe is powerful enough to be worth praying to than are those who rule out the possibility of real spiritual experience.