Category Archives: Free Will

Be perfect

Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.

(Matthew 5:48)

The Christian long game is essentially to work towards inner perfection, which then goes together with changes in behaviour. Eastern Orthodox traditions tend to get this right, with an emphasis on ‘theosis’, or becoming more like God.

How does one change one’s inner self? One important tool is through actions of thought. Collectively, these are called prayer in Christianity. It is important to note that ‘prayer’ is not a simple kind, but rather embodies different practices, many of which have as their goal the achievement of inner perfection.

This is to say, prayer is often not about changing the world ‘directly’, but changing oneself, which leads to things that change the world.

So, movement towards Inner pefection is typified by an increase in a kind of inner peace, a gradual change in one’s habitual thoughts, and these are then accompanied by changes in behaviour such as Jesus references before the quotation above.

So, certain kinds of prayer are different practices by which one can gradually refashion one’s habitual thoughts (and, therefore, actions or effects in the world).

As a rough categorization, these involve kinds of listening, meditation, visualization, contemplation, recitation that approximates what is known as ‘mantras’, and so on. This is complex, with some practices probably not achieving a significant result amongst some or most practitioners, while others have significant results.

So, within Christianity there are many practices. The question for an individual Christian is, which ones are the most relevant and effective for me at this point?

Willpower and Ernest Holmes

Q. […] What is the right way to use willpower?

A. Because the will is a directive, not a creative force, you should use will to keep your mind and your thoughts focused. Do not use will in an attempt to force things to happen. (The Law, having been given direction, is what causes things to happen.) Will is an instrument of the intellect, not of the imagination. Use your will in making decisions and your feeling and imagination in bringing power to them. Remember that when imagination and will are in conflict, imagination invariably wins. This is because emotion strikes deeper in the wellsprings of being than does the intellect.

(Ernest Holmes, Questions and Answers on the Science of Mind, 2011, p. 59)

Wise words. Much frustration is caused by misunderstanding one’s own ability to cause things to occur – thinking there is a direct link between will and certain things occurring. Instead, will – more strictly understood – can be used to direct our focus. By developing an ability to focus, results can flow.

Having your theological cake and eating it too

A basic argument used against the existence of the Christian God is the problem of evil, and in particular natural evil (resulting not from a person’s choice but natural forces). If God could stop these things, why wouldn’t He?

One conclusion from this problem is to say that God doesn’t exist. Therefore, there’s no seeming contradiction that requires explanation between a benevolent, omnipotent God and the existence of natural evil.

A second conclusion is to say that natural evil doesn’t (really) exist, but rather what seems sub-optimal is actually ’the best of possible worlds’ (the Panglossian response).

A third conclusion is to say that we simply don’t understand how to reconcile these because we don’t understand things well enough, but in the end an omnipotent-in-the-classical-sense, benevolent God can be reconciled with natural evil (perhaps by considerations following from the introduction of indeterminacy into the universe, related to the good of free will).

The obvious response to the third conclusion is that it is mysterianism – not an answer but a shrug.

The obvious response to the second conclusion is that it’s banal.

In both of these, the theologian tries to have his cake and eat it too. “Sure, there seems like an obvious contradiction in what I’m saying, but we can just shuffle along, and ignore it.” I hope that modernity, and especially an invigorated religious marketplace of ideas (that includes atheism), doesn’t allow this response to continue.

This is because the obvious response to the first (atheistic) conclusion is that it’s overreach. What is shown, rather, is that God isn’t omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent in the classical sense of these words.

I think the appropriate response to the problem of natural evil is to say that, whatever God’s omnipotence is, what people see in the everyday world, or in the Biblical stories for that matter, is a God who works through things, people, and time in order to achieve results. He is a designer who doesn’t ‘wave a magic wand’, but rather crafts a vessel – He works with the material of the universe.

What is important here for Christians is that the argument from natural evil isn’t about the existence of God unless they make it so! This, the premier atheistic argument, is really a self-inflicted theological wound on the part of Christian theologians, because the argument is so obvious and the responses are almost always weak.

So, this leads us back a step. Why have Christians posited an omnipotent-in-the-classical-sense God in the first place? It doesn’t seem to do with everyday experience, or with the Bible (unless you count a few occurrences of a term translated as ‘almighty’, which is not the same as saying God is omnipotent in the classical sense).

The answer is that it comes from ancient Greek philosophy, which in turn seems to rely on a certain kind of line of reasoning. I want to suggest that the reasoning in question is weak, and indeed one of the chief weaknesses of ancient philosophers in the Platonic Greek mould was an in-appreciation of how tenuous human reasoning is. Even Aristotle, who sought to reform the practice of logic because he could see how often it went astray, underestimated its weakness (as some of his results show). Aquinas also underestimated it.

What can we do instead of basing our conception of God on a tenuous line of philosophical reasoning? The obvious answer is to build a conception of God’s omnipotence up out of everyday experience. From the Christian perspective, we know He has an incredible (literally, ‘miraculous’) power to coordinate events on an everyday basis. We can get a better idea of this by simply observing how things work. This is the same idea that motivated many scientists, who thought they could better understand God by observing how the universe worked.

There are some who say anything less than an omnipotent God in the classical sense isn’t worthy of worship. I don’t think these people understand what worship is supposed to do in a Christian context. The goal of Christianity is friendship and prince-ship (as sons or daughters of God – if God is a ‘King’ and you are a spiritual son of God, that makes you a Prince). The point of ‘worship’ is to establish a relationship with God, start to become more like Him, and (if we so choose) to love Him. There’s nothing about the classical concept of omnipotence that is required for this.

Having said this, there is something to the third response outlined above. We don’t know everything about God, so it’s probably a good idea to have some humility about how it all works, and have as our first response an openness to the evidence which can inform it. In other words, we’re probably closer to the beginning of our knowledge about the universe and God, than near the end – i.e., there is probably much to learn, and do.

What is the basic idea with God and the right?

In Christianity, what is the basic idea about God and the right?

The basic idea is that God is or is aligned with the good, and seeks to bring into existence a universe in which the good is manifested.

This involves the idea that there is an ordering of the universe (and functioning of the beings in it) that is good (or closer to the good than otherwise).

Furthermore, according to Christianity, we can act in ways that get us closer or further away from this, and God can guide us in so doing.

There is debate about the exact relationship between God and what is right (is it right because God says so, or does God say so because that’s what’s right). Yet, it is sometimes easy to obscure the above basic aspect. Whatever the exact relationship between God and the right, according to Christianity the good is not something willy-nilly or an arbitrary thing.

I.e., according to Christianity, if what is right is right because God says so in some sense (as some think), then God saying so is part and parcel of His being as Goodness.

Furthermore, according to Christianity we have faculties which enable us to see what is good or right, and so if God were to say something contrary, we would be able to see that.

In this sense, then, the debate in the Christian context over the exact relationship between God and the right is to an extent academic.

The point of free will

Humility keeps us cognizant of where we have power, and where we don’t – and why it’s useful to align ourselves with God’s will, according to Christianity.

On the other hand, Christianity emphasizes that we have free will, and therefore ultimate responsibility over our own actions.

The key here is that we have ultimate responsibility over our own actions. It also (correctly) notes that we have little ability to control anything beyond that. Instead, by choosing to do so, Christians can align themselves with God, who can then pull off amazing (‘miraculous‘) things beyond the power of any given human (or so the idea goes).

So there is an interesting balance, between us not being in control (God is) and us having ultimate control over our own actions. ‘Ultimate’ means that there is, in a moment, an ability to be self-conscious and control our action. However, in many cases we simply decide to do something (eat food that isn’t good for us long-term) because we decide to prioritize the moment, for whatever reason. What’s important to note here is that we can also begin to work toward changing the circumstances, such that some context doesn’t occur as much, or at all, say.

The goal in Christianity is to align ourselves with God’s will, but Christianity recognizes that free will isn’t sufficient. As noted, often we will prioritize short-term over long-term. This is where the development of will-power comes into play. There are various Christian practices aimed at increasing one’s will-power, and these are often called ‘ascetic‘ practices. The word ‘ascetic’ originally was applied to bodily training (for example, going to the gym). In the Christian tradition, it has come to be applied to spiritual training, and in particular to spiritual training aimed at increasing will-power.

Why is will-power important? You can think of the equation as free will x will-power = practical freedom. So, although we have ultimate freedom, often our will-power is so weak that we constantly make short-term decisions. It’s not that we don’t have the ability to decide, but that we haven’t trained our ‘spirit’ to make decisions that tend to benefit us long-term instead of short-term.

The first step in claiming the implicit power of free will is to simply be aware that it exists. Once one remembers one can choose, one can begin to put into place the actions which lead to things like increased will-power (through various spiritual practices, such as certain Christian ascetic practices).

(In this sense, the awareness of free will is the basis of all virtues, which are more or less habits of the mind, because free will ultimately is what allows us to make the decisions which might lead to the creation of those habits of the mind.)