The God of the Philosophers: Ethics & Free Will

One could spend a thousand lifetimes on religious questions which have no answers. Such questions are worth bringing up but not even attempting to exhaust, and so I want to briefly write about two of them: morality, and intertwined problem of free will and predestination.

 

Morality

In all of these pages I never saw a reason to justify how morality could exist in the absence of God. But as I was finishing this book, I happened to listen to many hours of debates between atheists and believers on the existence of God, and was amazed to find the faithful all saying that if God didn’t exist, there could be no morality.

When I first began thinking about this problem years ago, my conclusion came fairly quickly: I immediately realized that what held me back from attacking or hurting someone was not fear of doing what God had told me not to do, but rather it was the look of fear, and later pain, that such actions would cause. It seemed irrelevant whether or not such actions had been prohibited by anyone.

But if you want to prove your God by reason, such simplicity cannot be the end. The more philosophically-minded believers in these debates forced themselves into various corners with their arguments. One of them went like this: since there is no “universal morality” if God doesn’t exist, whenever an atheist calls any act of religiously-inspired violence evil, he is calling upon a moral standard that can only exist when there is a God, and therefore the atheist has just proven that God exists. Even worse was one speaker who, based on these premises, stated that while as a human community most societies have come to the conclusion that rape is wrong, if there isn’t a God, we can’t even say that.

Yet it is irrelevant whether there is a “universal morality” which says rape is wrong—the decision of human communities which say it is wrong, is enough. And if other communities decide rape or violence are okay, they will eventually be confronted by those who think otherwise. This is simply what happens. This is life in the world. And as history shows us, even if there is a divinely-inspired “universal morality,” it certainly hasn’t kept us from being terrible to each other from the beginning.

This is especially so because, until not too long ago, politics and statecraft were all played out on a religious stage which believed in divinely-given moral codes, and yet suffering and death and war were no less for all that. Some will point to the horrendous events in the twentieth century as evidence that secular violence is so much worse, but let’s be honest: what medieval or ancient or other theocracy from the past would not have used missiles, bombs, concentration camps, and the rest, had they had access to them?

 

Free Will

One of the great paradoxes of religious thought the world over is this: how to believe in an all-powerful and perfect God or gods, to whom we owe everything and whom we must depend upon and worship and propitiate, while also believing that human beings have free will and free choice. On the one hand, free will is essential, since it means that our piety and decency—or our evil and depravity—are not forced but chosen. Whatever favor or disfavor we find with God, then, has been justly earned. Yet the idea that human beings can choose to be good or bad leads very quickly to more disturbing ideas, ones in which human action and will are given place over an increasingly weakened and minimized God. The more we believe that we can act independently of the divine and the divine’s guidance and grace and influence, the less God or the gods seem to matter.

For instance, the ancient world especially is filled with worries that piety—prayers, offerings, sacrifices—“hovers between the fear that the gods are real and the demeaning assumption that they can be ordered around.”[i] Or, in the similar words of an Episcopal Bishop during the American Civil War, one should not approach prayer “with the expectation that God could be bought off like some ‘mercenary.’”[ii]

In other words, if you think too much about them, it appears that prayers and rites are mere buttons to be pushed, or the simplest magic: if I do this, God won’t punish me; if I offer this, I can buy God off. God might be transcendent, but if I just say the right words or do the right things, I can affect how he acts towards me. Somehow God or the gods, for all their power, are just puppets.

If this were true, Socrates worried that the rich and powerful—who likely only became rich and powerful by being unjust—could buy the gods off even more with large and lavish offerings:

it would not be proper for the gods to take more pleasure in large sacrifices than small, because then they would often prefer those made by bad people to those made by the good, and it would not be worth living if the offerings of the bad were more pleasing to the gods than those of the good.[iii]

But even if we deny that the gods are swayed by human notions of extravagance, and that the intention behind piety is all that matters, another nagging question comes up: if the gods are transcendent, how can humans really offer them anything they might be lacking; and if they are in need of something only lowly humans can give them, how can they be transcendent and perfect? As Walter Burkert writes:

As soon as reflection found expression among the Greeks, the pious claim attached [to sacrifice] became ambivalent. Such a sacrifice is performed for a god, and yet the god manifestly receives next to nothing: the good meat serves entirely for the festive eating of the participants…. But all that reaches the sky is the fatty vapor rising in smoke; to imagine what the gods could possibly do with this leads unfailingly to burlesque.[iv]

An Athenian speaker in Plato’s Laws, who takes it for granted that the sun and moon and stars and earth are evidence for the existence of the gods, says of unbelievers who think too much that “this is where the reasoning of such people end up.”[v] Yet all of these concerns (whether of the believer or nonbeliever) as to the nature of piety and the relationship between human actions and divine response, are all where “reasoning” ends up—that is, with perplexity, contradiction, and doubt. All sides here are simply thinking too much. Because no satisfactory answer has ever been given to this problem, and every religion both points to the efficacy of human action, but also the perfection and transcendence of God.

***

All of the following quotations suggest that human effort is so strong that it can control, or just limit, God’s abilities in some way. Such free will and freedom to choose is so necessary to so many religions, but it isn’t hard to see why such notions make those very religious people uneasy:

A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.” The old man said to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.”[vi]

Evil is done by oneself alone;
By oneself is one defiled.
Evil is avoided by oneself;
By oneself alone is one purified.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself;
No one can purify another.[vii]

Verily never
Will Allah change the condition
Of a people until they
Change it themselves
With their own souls.[viii]

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.[ix]

But who understands clearly how the sum of salvation is attributed to our will, about which it is said: “If you wish, and you hear me, you shall eat the good things of the land”? And how is it “not of the one who wills or of the one who runs, but of God who is merciful”? What, moreover, does it mean that God “renders to each one according to his works”? And: “It is God who works in you both to will and to accomplish, for the sake of his good pleasure”? And “This is not from you, but it is a gift of God, not because of works, lest anyone boast”? And what do these words mean: “Draw near to the Lord, and he will draw near to you”? And what is said elsewhere: “No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”? What is this: “Make straight paths for your feet, and direct your ways”? And what is it that we say when we pray: “Direct my way in your sight”? And: “Make my steps perfect in your paths so that my footsteps may not slip”? Why, again, are we admonished: “Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit”? And what is it that is promised: “I will give them one heart, and I will place a new spirit in their bowels, and I will remove the stony heart from their flesh, and I will give them a heart of flesh so that they may walk in my precepts and keep my laws”? What does the Lord command when he says: “Was your heart of iniquity, Jerusalem, so that you may be saved”? And what does the prophet ask of the Lord when he says: “Create in me a clean heart, O God”? And again: “You will wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow”? What is it that is said to us: “Enlighten yourselves with the light of knowledge”? And what is it that is said of God: “Who teaches man knowledge”? And: “The Lord enlightens the blind”? Or what we say when we pray with the prophet: “Enlighten my eyes that I may never fall asleep in death”? What does this all mean except that in each of these cases both the grace of God and our freedom of will are affirmed, since even by his own activity a person can occasionally be brought to a desire for virtue, but he always needs to be helped by the Lord?[x]

This could go on and on. But it has been said simply enough: there is no way “within the bounds of ordinary logic, to declare God at once omnipotent and omnibenevolent.”[xi] But instead of admitting this, for instance, and instead of studying the above lengthy quotation, Christians for two thousand years have been arguing and warring with each other over whether faith alone is necessary, whether God’s grace regardless of our actions is the only determining factor in our lives, or whether human works can matter at all to God.

 

Predestination

Because on the other side are those who cannot admit to limiting of God at all. There is very little difference between a Calvinist who believes that the elect and the damned were chosen by God before anyone we were born, and a practitioner of Pure Land Buddhism, who says,

that one’s own power is insufficient to take one to liberation and so it is necessary to trust in the power of Another. In some forms of Pure Land piety the worshipper completely surrenders to Amita, but in all forms the practitioner turns over final responsibility for his or her liberation to Amita.[xii]

Both have arrived in a philosophically consistent world where God is infinite and unlimited. But the price they’ve paid is in rendering human action, and soon after that life in the world, irrelevant, even evil. Having accepted some form of this worldview, the greatest minds of the Protestant Reformation, and many great minds before and after, have wasted themselves in trying to adequately answer the natural next question: If my place in heaven or hell was chosen before I was born, what does it matter if I do good or bad, or simply spend my life on the couch watching TV? The only real answer—“That the elect and chosen will live a good life precisely because they were elected and chosen” needs no response, since it is no answer.

Augustine held similar notions about predestination. Arguably one of the greatest minds in Western, if not world, history, there is no better object lesson in the perils of simply thinking too much, and basing your religious convictions on the conclusions deduced from the fundamentally limited capacities of language and the intellect, than the unfortunate pit Augustine’s logic led him to. In order to not limit the majesty and perfection of his God, he also concluded that God predestined human beings to heaven and hell. His view is summarized by Jaroslav Pelikan:

Why then did God create those whose fall he foreknew? To manifest his wrath, and to demonstrate his power. Human history was the arena for this demonstration, in which the “two societies of men” were predestined, the one to reign eternally with God and the other to undergo eternal suffering with the devil. But double predestination applied not only to the city of God and the city of earth, but also to individuals. Some were predestined to eternal life, others to eternal death; and among the latter were infants who died without baptism.

Therefore “the doctrine of double predestination, to heaven and to hell, has … the last word in the theology of Augustine.” It was an inescapable corollary of his view of God the Creator as the sovereign God of grace. Even in his most explicit statements about double predestination, however, Augustine spoke of that grace as a mystery. He preferred ignorance to rashness, as he said in the passage just cited on the damnation of infants. It was ultimately an unfathomable mystery why one should receive grace and another should not receive it, when neither of them deserved to receive it…. It was not appropriate to attempt to discern the intention of God from the external and observable facts of human behavior. The basis of eternal predestination was not human merit, but divine grace; and even in the case of those who were predestined to damnation, the will of God was good and just, for they received the damnation which they—and the saved as well—deserved.[xiii]

This says so much, and reveals so clearly what sad and unfortunate paths religion has wandered down, when our focus falls not on the God we might serve in others, but in the God which has been so dissected and rendered so ethereal the world and other people do not matter.

Consider: Augustine came to believe in pre-destination because of an “inescapable corollary”—in other words, after concluding that the only God he could believe in was unlimited, all-powerful, all-knowing, and the rest, the only option left was pre-destination. His conclusion about God, and therefore about humanity, was reached merely to preserve a corner he had painted himself into and could not get out of.

When he apparently remembered that the Christian God he believed in also loved humanity, and for some reason chose to come into the world to damn and save those who had already been damned and saved, the only option left was to say it was a “great mystery.”

And isn’t that strange? Utter certainty over pre-destination, but complete bafflement and mystery at explaining an “inescapable corollary” of that idea? It is not appropriate—and is indeed rash—to try to discern that mystery, but is entirely appropriate to be certain about the very ideas which led you there, and to condemn people past and present to hell just because it was unavoidably necessary to believe in a certain kind of God. Somehow this conclusion was not rash at all, and could not be left to ignorance.

Why is it simply not possible for one to realize the mysteriousness at the end of a conundrum, and say I don’t know? In a Jewish context, it apparently is:

The emphasis on grace in the royal and Temple theologies threatens to deprecate the deed, to render ethics dispensable, in short, to make Israel merely a passive bystander in her own spiritual life. The emphasis on works, on mizwot, in the traditions of Sinai covenant, threatens to make God merely a mechanism for the dispensation of rewards and punishments and to make then mizwot themselves into magical practices through which Israel can manipulate her God, who thus becomes the passive partner in the relationship. By refusing to dichotomize spiritual experience into grace and works, by affirming both simultaneously, the religion prescribed by the Jewish Bible maintains the two-sidedness of the relationship of God and Israel. It perceives both activity and passivity as proper postures for both partners, and it affirms the ultimate importance both of this world and of the higher or future world. To some, the juxtaposition of the two theologies will seem to have resulted in an unacceptable contradiction. To others, it will seem to have resulted in a contradiction that is indeed to be accepted, a paradox, one that lies at the heart of Jewish spirituality through the ages.[xiv]

The philosophical problem connected with free will was appreciated by the Rabbis, but they would not allow it to restrict in any way the belief in man’s powers to control his actions. They made no attempt to solve the relationship between God’s foreknowledge and freedom of will, but offered as a practical rule of life, “Everything is foreseen (by God), yet freedom of choice is given.”[xv]

Why is paradox so hard to accept? And why is a doctrinal certainty of any kind which leads to vast amounts of human suffering and death, so easy to accept in its place? Consider all the other unanswerable religious questions, all the questions this book is filled with, and imagine how much blood, how many bodies, how many ruined lives have been given in payment to merely make our conception of God correlate with what we think of as reason?

So much of our suffering, so many of our anxieties over religion, and so many of the roads which have led us to judging others and convincing ourselves into violence, and which have made acceptance of uncertainty and paradox so difficult—all of this has only existed because we have been laboring not actually under a God of love or even of wrath, but merely of philosophy. So many people have died simply because of an “inescapable corollary.” So many people have died so we might pretend that God and religion make sense.

 

[i] Barry J. Kemp, How to Read the Egyptian Book of the Dead, 105.

[ii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 308.

[iii] Xenophon, Memorablia (1.3.3), quoted in Emily Kearns, Ancient Greek Religion: A Sourcebook, 223.

[iv] Walter Burkert, Ancient Greek Religion, 57.

[v] Quoted in Emily Kearns, Ancient Greek Religion: A Sourcebook, tr. John Raffan, 147.

[vi] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, tr. Benedicta Ward, 4.

[vii] Buddha, The Dhammapada, tr. Gil Fronsdal, 44.

[viii] Quran 13:11.

[ix] Matthew 6:14-15: 14.

[x] John Cassian, The Conferences, tr. Boniface Ramsey, 474-5.

[xi] Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Volume 1: The Classical Age of Islam, 442.

[xii] Roger J. Corless, “Pure Land Piety,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 1: Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, 248.

[xiii] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), 297-8.

[xiv] Jon D. Levenson, “The Jerusalem Temple in Devotional and Visionary Experience,” in Arthur Green ed., Jewish Spirituality 1: From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, 51.

[xv] Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, 94.

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