Aquinas on Free Will

Aquinas distinguished between two kinds of volition. First, there is the inevitable attraction to those things that you deem perfectly good or desirable. You always will choose what you perceive as perfectly fair, for instance.  Aquinas would say you are not truly “free” to choose otherwise.

Second, there are those things that are deemed partially good or partially desirable.  In those cases, human beings have the capacity to evaluate the pros and cons of each – to deliberate. It is in the weighing of those pros and cons that humanity exerts something akin to freedom.  Of course, we each deliberate as best we can with the facts at our disposal, subconsciously applying our preconceptions and biases.  Although we make a "choice", it is not "free" in a manner for which we can be held morally responsible. 

“Aquinas did not talk about “free will”; the term libera voluntas is found only twice in all his works, and then only in a nontechnical usage.  Rather he spoke of free choice or decision (liberum arbitrium).”[1]

If we do not have free will, and if God is aware of this fact and is reasonably fair-minded, then universal salvation is a reality.  If it is heretical to think so, then St. Aquinas's position is too.    

[1] Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 8, p. 108

October 21, 2018 - Be Humble or God Won't Love You

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?"  They answered him, "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left." Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They said to him, "We can." Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Mark 10

This overarching theme of this blog is that God is unconditionally loving; in other words, He will love us regardless of what we do or don’t do.  This sounds like the ordinary Christian position, but it is more uncompromising:  God requires nothing – no behavior, no contrition, and no belief – in order to love us. The result is universal salvation and it is almost universally rejected.  God knows we don’t like universal salvation and so innumerable stories and parables criticize us - those who demand that God judge and condemn.  Remember the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story? Remember Jonah and the Ninevites? Remember the lost sheep and the lost coin?  Remember the vineyard workers who started work earliest? Remember the multiplication of the loaves?  All these stories speak of a God whose love is so abundant that it can feed everyone with more leftover, and the people who don’t like that. Yet we always read these stories as requiring something from us: usually altruism.

In this case we read the story to mean that God requires humility.  And certainly this Sunday’s Gospel and last Sunday’s Gospel can be read as instructions to clergy to live an ascetic, simple life and not to organize themselves into hierarchies.  They can also be read as instructions to the laity to give generously to charity (although the story seems to call for something more extreme) and to be humble. And maybe Jesus became incarnate to encourage these traits in us – but it makes Jesus seem a little prosaic. More importantly, that view requires that God is not unconditionally loving; He imposes conditions. It is an inviting interpretation because it allows us to tsk tsk at unpleasant arrogant people, or to critique the Church.  And that’s easy and fun.

What is the true meaning?

It is hidden in plain sight.  Two millennia after the life of Jesus we have become numb to the extraordinary message of the Gospel. God became incarnate! Whether this is true in every respect or true just in the most important ways, this is an extraordinary thing.  And He didn’t become incarnate to establish dominion over humanity.  Scholars say the Jewish innovation was monotheism.  I believe the Jewish innovation was divine regard and love for humanity. Before Abraham’s encounter with God in which God tells Abraham he must not sacrifice his son, the divine was either wholly disinterested in human affairs, or imposed a transactional relationship: you do this for me, and I’ll send rain, or fertility, or let the sun come up again. Today, we hear something extraordinarily different:

For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Think about that.  Or think about how good it is to be humble.

October 14, 2018 - Christianity in a Nutshell

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good? 
No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother." 
He replied and said to him,
"Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
"You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, 
"How hard it is for those who have wealth 
to enter the kingdom of God!" 
The disciples were amazed at his words.

So Jesus again said to them in reply,
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
"Then who can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said,
"For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. 
All things are possible for God." 
Peter began to say to him,
"We have given up everything and followed you." 
Jesus said, "Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come."

Mark 10

Several interesting things are happening in Sunday’s Gospel.

In the first paragraph, Jesus encounters a man who wishes to know how he can inherit eternal life. He asserts that he has followed the law impeccably. Jesus suggests he needs to do two more things.  The first is to give away all that he has to the poor.  The second is to follow Jesus.

A transactional or dualist approach to faith makes quick work of this passage: God requires that you follow the commandments, give to the poor to improve their economic circumstances, and finally follow Jesus’ example of going around doing kindnesses and being humble.

Alistair McIntyre turned moral philosophy on its head in his 1981 book, After Virtue, by pointing out that while modern moral philosophy is almost always about making the right moral decision in hard cases, in Aristotle’s time, moral philosophy was about cultivating good moral habits and becoming a habitually good person.  Aristotle was not particularly interested in the moral quandaries modern moral philosophers pose for themselves.  Aristotle wanted to know how to be a good, virtuous person.

We can be reasonably sure Jesus followed the Aristotelian model. When Jesus tells anyone to give their money to the poor, it is never to change the economic circumstances of the poor.  Judas thought the opposite and, after the episode with the nard, he was so scandalized by Jesus’ refusal to connect faith to altruism he betrayed him to his executioners.  Jesus is advising the man how to be a whole person. Part of being a whole person is to keep material possessions in perspective and, for the truly committed, to cast them off entirely.    

What does it mean to follow Jesus in this context?  Almost certainly Jesus meant that this man should drop everything and literally follow Jesus in an ascetic life.  This is a uniform prerequisite for the most dedicated spiritual pursuits in every tradition.  The Buddha, for example, named his newborn son “Tether” and abandoned him and his wife forever in order to lead an ascetic life.  Elsewhere, Jesus and Elijah tell prospective disciples to leave their families, leave their livelihoods, and even leave the dead unburied to follow them.  It is not a life for everyone.  It is not a morally responsible choice for everyone.

Then Jesus offers his famous “camel through an eye of a needle” metaphor.  We must never fail to read this passage to the end. Jesus recognizes that no one is good, no one is without sin, no one has successfully ransomed his own life or been worthy of the divine sacrifice represented by Jesus’ incarnation and death.  This is not a threat of hell.  As usual, it is a promise of salvation for every single human being that has ever lived and an invitation to us to rejoice in that rather than to begrudge it being given to those  who we feel might not deserve it.  None of us deserves it.  Our human desire to commodify God’s love and deeply resent its non-exclusivity is the point of a raft of parables and stories:  the multiplication of loaves, the workers in the vineyard, the prodigal son, Jonah, Job, the man blind from birth, the wedding feast, and the Beatitudes to name just a few[1].  Read Luke 4:14-30 carefully: what causes Jesus to be nearly thrown off a cliff in his hometown is not that he declared himself the messiah; it is that he declared that people other than Jews would receive salvation! But we will always skew the interpretations to make God’s love conditional and limited again.  I believe it is that human instinct that got Jesus crucified. Are we really Christians before we come to terms with this?

[1] This is the subject-matter of my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation.