Monday, July 10, 2017

On God's Will, Free Will, With a Bit of Science Thrown In

Recently, on a Facebook page dedicated science and faith (which I manage), there's been some discussion of whether science allows for us to have free will. Is there a place within scientific research for true human agency, where our decisions actually affect the world and our lives? Or is life, and particularly our actions, fully determined? Some, like Francis Crick, conclude that science, and especially the cognitive sciences and genetics, indicate that we are "nothing but a pack of neurons."

That's fairly bleak, but a similar kind of anti-free will thinking can enter into Christian conceptions of life. It's the conviction that somehow God has an iron-fisted will that determines our life like automatons.

These two modes of thought led to some questions that raced through my head when I preached yesterday on Proverbs 3:5-6. 
Are we free in any sense? What does it mean to "trust in God" and "submit to him," or as another translation (NRSV) puts it, "acknowledge him"? 
To answer those questions, I stepped back to my core conviction and worked from there: Our lives flourish when we follow God’s will. Sometimes our misconceptions of how to follow God’s will get in the way of God’s simple wisdom for us. It strikes me that this verse and others like it (e.g., Psalm 37:5-6) lead us to a gracious and interactive God whose will is (at some level) simple.
(A sidebar: We often let misconceptions that get in the way. First of all, we think that God’s will is decided by us individually, outside of community; and secondly, that God’s will is a detailed roadmap instead of following a Person, Jesus Christ.
My mind then journeyed to two images: First of all, a rigid view of God's will, as well as the deterministic view of our live as "nothing but" our neurons, that set us on a railroad track view of life. Either we somehow find this rigid will of God, get ourselves on the track and stay there. Woe to those who get derailed! Or we're stuck on a very similar track by our biology and it's "nothing buttery," and we're not getting off. 

Neither option sounds much like the "abundant life" that Jesus talked about (John 10:10) nor the "broad place" that psalmists celebrate as God's redemptive work (e.g. Psalm 18:19). 
Image two (I'm a jazz drummer): the God who improvises with us by the Holy Spirit, and we are called to follow God’s will in a dynamic, improvisational way. 

This is God who didn't let the the persecutor of the church, Saul fall off the track and get derailed, but who met him on the Road to Damascus, changed his name to Paul (Acts 9:1-9), and then led him in dynamic ways in his mission journeys. (Read the final eight or so chapters of Acts to see how many unexpected twists and turns God takes Paul on). It's this gracious God who doesn't set us on a narrow track, but in a broad expanse in which we can listen and try out and even make mistakes. As Psalm 18:19 declares, "He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me because he delighted in me."

From God's perspective, the Eternal One who is able to transcend time while still being intimately involved it, we might say it all looks a perfectly organized scheme. But from our perspective, we experience the One who "works all things together for good" (Romans 8:28), even in and through our mistakes, our attempts, and our decisions. It's the God who leads us in a truly free life. This is at least part of what Jesus means when he tells us that he will make us free indeed (John 8:36).
And all this strikes me as both good science and brilliantly liberating theology. And it's a great life to lead.


Thomas Jay Oord said...

Good stuff, Greg!

Greg Cootsona said...

Thanks! I did think of you when I wrote it.
(I also just found a typo in the final sentence, which I'll now correct: "liberating" for "liberation.")