I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose free will
Free Will, Rush
The concept of free will causes consternation between and among Christians, as well as between the larger secular society and Christians generally. Let’s call this a working paper to parse this out a bit.
I will examine free will in three parts: free will toward salvation (as Christians commonly understand and use that term), free will in ends (toward the purpose or telos of a human being), and free will in means (toward achieving those ends).
At least from what I have read, the confusion or inability to separate these three arenas has led to much of at least the layman’s confusion on these matters – and on some of the more noteworthy disagreements that have been witnessed in history between Christians.
Examining each, in turn:
I don’t really want to argue this, as it gets to a fundamental concern for many Christians. Words, nuance, background, changing definitions…all of which add confusion. I must address it, however, for completeness – and hopefully I address it in a general and neutral enough manner that we can all move on as friends afterward.
As best as I can tell, the wide swath of Christianity (I cannot speak to the extremes) accepts some combination of grace, faith and works as having a role in salvation…well, maybe not so much works, as these are considered by many to be fruits that have meaning only after grace.
So, take grace, faith, and works. Put theses in a bag and shake vigorously. Each denomination, each tradition, might consider different proportions, but I don’t believe any major denominations or traditions deny any of these.
But it goes further: from what I can tell, most of Christianity will recognize that grace comes first – and there is no free will in grace. Some of the words that I have read to try to minimize this reality of a lack of free will toward our salvation, or give some standing to a human effort to help bring it on, seem strained enough to suggest to me that even the writers have a hard time believing it.
Conversely, in the caricature of some traditions we find a complete roll of the dice – playthings of the gods, or some such, an absolutist understanding of pre-destination. If this was absolutely so, why plant new churches, why do any missionary work at all? They were all pre-destined, one way or another.
With all that said, my conclusion: no free will in salvation. Grace comes first, and it is God’s grace. Exactly how that plays out is the issue. Let’s just say that the devil is in the details…and I mean that about as literally as a statement can be that references the devil.
Anyway, hopefully we don’t get hung up on this point.
Toward Our Ends
While the word has taken on a very superficial, and even dangerous, meaning in our time, we still most often understand that happiness is ultimately what we are after in this life. I have written too much about this to review it all here, but to summarize: when considering why we take any action, the answer points toward some objective – some end.
The answers offer insights to intermediate ends, as each of these intermediate ends still leave open the door to ask the question: Why? Why that end? Ultimately, it is because I want to be happy.
Certainly, people can choose ends contrary to happiness (properly understood) – but then are they acting human, as human beings? As a society today, we seem to have moved toward the end of not dying – that’s it, nothing more. All of life, all that makes life worth living, has been put on hold to avoid what many fear as the greatest plague in history.
Does this make it a proper end – this choice? No. it is an error, nothing more. A human being has no such free will to choose its end – its telos. It is beatitudo: happiness – meaning fulfillment through other-regarding action. Any other end makes us something other than human.
Does a lion have free will toward its ends? It seems a silly question. It is no less silly a question when it comes to human beings.
Regarding the Means
Plenty of free will here. For example, there are numerous intermediate ends that one can choose toward achieving the ultimate end of beatitudo. Different careers, personal choices regarding family, social causes, how one spends free time.
The possibilities are almost limitless when one considers these intermediate ends as means toward the ultimate end. The possibilities are almost limitless as well when one considers the means toward achieving these intermediate ends.
A Brief Aside
Natural Law points to the behaviors necessary when one considers the ends proper to a thing – in this case, to a human being. This behavior for human beings has been conveniently summarized as the Golden Rule. This behavior cannot be demanded by another – I cannot use force to compel you to treat me in accord with the Golden Rule.
Natural Rights points to that which one can demand from others. Don’t hit first; don’t take my stuff. In other words, my life and my property. In some ways, it is conveniently summarized by the Silver Rule. I can use force to compel you not to violate my life or my property.
Natural Law should be guided by reason, and the guardian can only be an ethical guardian – and, in my opinion, it can only be the Christian church. Natural Rights are the realm of government – really, governance, as it need not be “government” (a state) as we currently understand it.
If you want a true separation of Church and state, start here.
So…Returning to the Means
The ends justify the means. This is true enough as long as we have a proper understanding of the proper end for human beings. Am I saying that, for example, one can use the means of force to compel another to be charitable, to follow the Golden Rule? In other words, as other-regarding action is the ultimate end for human beings, does this justify any means to make it so?
No. The means must also conform to this ultimate end of other-regarding action. And force does not fit where other-regarding action is the ultimate end. There is no regard for another human being if he is nothing more than a means to another’s end – no matter how noble that end.
Each of us
A cell of awareness
Imperfect and incomplete
With uncertain ends
On a fortune hunt
That’s far too fleet…
This demonstrates where materialists are lost – not materialist to the extent Marxists take the term, but materialists in terms of we are just the result of random atoms smashing together randomly (genetic blends).
An improper understanding of free will has led us to the point where we have the free will to decide if we are male or female (one of many such similar examples). Talk about having uncertain ends! Is this “the path that’s clear” as offered in the opening lyrics, that uncertain ends allow for a clear path?
I have a difficult time understanding free will in this context: if my ends are uncertain, toward what do I aim? A path toward what? Of course, if I am nothing more than a genetic blend – a result of a completely random process – I have no ability to aim at anything. It is all random, chance, fate, whatever. There is absolutely no free will in such a life (as those like Sam Harris readily admit).
They argue that a god which we must blindly obey (a caricature) is a tyrant, then offer in its place a god (random atoms smashing together randomly) which we have no choice but to obey.
Talk about a meaningless life, a life with no free will.