Saturday, 7 May 2016

Choosing Free Will

This post may be a slightly rambling one. In it, I shall try and figure out some personal theology for your viewing plesasure, if that’s your sort of thing.   I’m afraid you’ll have to bear with me on it, or maybe go and read a webcomic or something instead.  It’s entirely up to you. 

My little theological crisis comes from two different sources: a Facebook discussion and a news article. 

The news article was regarding some psychologists who have supposedly proven that free will is merely an illusion.  It will not surprise you to know that I don’t accept this; the concept of free will is, after all, the basis for all human society.  All human interactions are based on the assumption that each individual is responsible for their actions, can be held accountable, rewarded or punished, and if free will is an illusion, and we are in reality running on predetermined (albeit incredibly complicated) rails, all of that falls down.  Even if we did accept it, we would have to act as though we didn’t, which would be hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty on a global scale, and simply not sustainable.

The concept of free will is also tightly bound up in Arminian and Wesleyan theology; the idea that we are able to freely accept or reject the offered grace of God, as opposed to the predestined and irresistible grace of Calvinist thought.  There are atheists who argue against free will, since it requires a non-physical element to a human being, which to them is impossible.  I consider it a rather self-defeating argument though.  After all, if they’re right, then I have no choice about whether I believe in the non-physical or not, and no ability to change my mind, and if they’re wrong, then I’m correct in my belief, and therefore have no reason to change my mind.

The Facebook discussion was with regards to the clash of rights of freedom of sexual expression and freedom of religious expression, and the fact that nowadays very often the former always seems to trump the latter, regardless of circumstances.  A friend of mine said that he thought that this was the correct way round, since people choose their religious beliefs, but don’t choose their sexuality.  I certainly agree that people don’t choose their sexuality, I’ve certainly never chosen mine, but I did object to the idea that people choose their religious beliefs.  I have never thought, “I think that from today I shall believe in God.”  Having given it much hard thought, and considered various points of view and my own experiences, I have come to believe that there is a God.  I didn’t decide to, it was a logical conclusion and in keeping with my own experiences.  I am as prone to confirmation bias and my own preconceptions and prejudices as anyone else, but it is the conclusion I have come to.  I do not choose to belief that 2+2=4, or that the sky is blue or that fencing is fun.  It is my experience that it is so.  I could claim to believe otherwise, even try and act as though I believed otherwise, but I would be lying to myself and everyone else.

You, intelligent and observant reader, will have spotted a potential conflict in my reasoning, and one that I have also realised.  If I do not choose to be a Christian, then how can I have exercised the free will that I believe allows me to accept the grace of God?

I suppose it’s possible that one could come to believe in God, and most of the other orthodox teachings of Arminian Christianity, but still not accept the prevenient grace of God, but then I would have to wonder if you really, genuinely believed them.  If you had pondered and thought and come to the conclusion that these teachings made sense, that you did believe that God had become incarnate, suffered and died and taken your just punishment on Himself, could you really then reject the offered salvation any more than you could, in a maths exam, do a sum and then right at the end, after all your careful working out, decide to give the wrong answer?  I mean, obviously you could, but under what possible circumstances would you do so, other than through a wilful and self-destructive stubbornness?

I have always resisted the traditional Wesleyan position that while humans exercise free will to choose to accept salvation, they are only able to do so because God gives them faith, while he does not do so for others.  To me, this is the same as saying that God chooses the damned and essentially the same as predestination, and I prefer the idea that every person comes to faith by themselves, or not as the case may be, making me at least a hemi-semi-Pelagian.  At least if I have to choose a heresy, it’s a good British one!

But where does that leave me?  Have I chosen to believe, or have I chosen because I believe?  Ultimately I suppose that belief doesn’t necessarily lead to the acceptance of grace, one can still choose or not, even if to me the conclusion seems almost foregone.  One can throw God’s gift back in His face, even desperately try to convince oneself that one’s conclusions are wrong, that there is no God, no choice, no free will, but it sounds like far more work than just accepting.

In writing this, it also strikes me that this is the kind of knotty, almost entirely pointless problem that gets in the way of the real Christian duties, an irrelevant question, the answer to which we won’t be certain of until after it ceases to be an issue.  A ‘how many angels can dance on the end of a split hair’ sort of thing.  Nonetheless, it is one that has occupied a fair amount of processing power on my walk into work.

Is free will an illusion?  Ultimately, I don’t think it matters, as long as we do what we are supposed to be doing, but in the end, I am forced to conclude that it is not.

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