Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 7: The Light Touch

If I define salvation as divine volitional unanimity (i.e., wanting the things that God wants) what are the implications?

First, I would like to clarify that volitional change isn’t beyond human capabilities. We can and do change. Frankfurt’s point, rather, is that we rarely experience seismic shifts in the things we love or care about. Generally, what we love simply comes to us, unreflectively. I never chose to love my children, but I find I do. Deeply. And this volitional necessity affects my choices, on a daily basis.

The point is, yes, we can change. It is just that change, at this volitional level, is difficult and time consuming. I can’t, in an instant, choose not to love my sons.

Thus God finds us in a variety of volitional situations. Yet, God wishes us to love the things He loves and to feel free in this love. Divine volitional unanimity. But in a weak volitional world, God cannot simply place choices before his creatures: Choose me and live! Reject me or die!

No, God is going to have to affect the love, what the agent cares about. But to influence the agent at this level is tricky.

Here’s the dilemma. If God acts too aggressively from an external perspective we will feel coerced. And this violates our Frankfurtian sense of freedom. We don’t act freely when we feel we are externally coerced.

Let me be clearer. If God were to disclose His presence to us He would place humanity in a difficult volitional situation. For example, you love A. But God, the Ultimate Power Who Will Reward and Punish, hates A. God wants you to love B. What is a person to do in this situation? You don’t want to do B. But, given the situation before a revealed Deity, you comply. You’re damned if you don’t comply. But in this compliance you don’t act freely. You don’t love B, you don’t want B. So, in your compliance, you don’t realize free will. You experience coercion and force. There is no volitional unanimity, no freedom.

In short, God cannot reveal Himself. If He does so, He cannot save. His Revelation undermines His ability to move us toward divine volitional unanimity.

Further, God faces difficulties if He attempts to work internally (e.g., by the internal promptings or support of the Holy Spirit). If God overworks it from the inside the person will feel overthrown, as we do when we fight against an impulse within us; where we wish to expel or dismiss an impulse. Thus, God must us a light touch inside of the agent as well.

To summarize all this: If salvation/sanctification is focusing on the volitional structure of humanity God is facing a very difficult task. As best as I can tell, this task seems to demand that God use a very light touch as He interacts with humanity. More strongly, this volitional approach seems to demand that God remain hidden from us. Why? Because the issue isn’t about choice. It’s about volitional unanimity, which creates a different set soteriological dynamics.

Now we can see why eschatology bears a heavy load in this model. Given that God is using a light touch to save/sanctify humanity, he needs more TIME. In the resurrection event, God defeats death and pledges to devote the requisite time to work out the salvation of all humanity. That is, the volitional approach demands some kind of post-mortem persuasion and even universal reconciliation.

Finally, this model also adds a novel perspective to theodicy debates. Why is there so much suffering? Why is God hidden? According to this perspective two answers suggest themselves. First, given that God must use a light touch, He cannot intervene in robust ways. Second, and related to the first point, God must remain hidden. These perspectives don’t answer all the issues related to theodicy, but they are, as far as I can tell, new slants on some old debates.

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12 thoughts on “Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 7: The Light Touch”

  1. "These perspectives don’t answer all the issues related to theodicy, but they are, as far as I can tell, new slants on some old debates."

    My first reaction: I agree with you insofar as these perspectives essentially put a weak volitional spin on free will theodicies, which normally operate from a strong volitional point of view.

    But the biggest problem with the free will defense is the questionable value of free will. Sure, it makes sense that God might remain hidden or act gently if it were deeply important to preserve free will, but given the amount of suffering in the world, there had better be something REALLY REALLY good about free will in order to justify letting this mess go on.

    A weak volitional model just widens this crack even further, because now God fails to act boldly not because God wants to preserve our free will, but our *illusion* of free will.

  2. Matthew,
    In this model, "free will" is volitional unanimity which means that we're not really talking about, for lack of better terms, metaphyisical free will. Again, Frankfurt says that metaphyiscal free will borders on incoherence. So, when you say free will is really, really good, it this volitional unanimity model it is: I creates a coherent Self that persists over time.

    But that doesn't get to you question. All this perspective does is just backs up the theodicy question. That is, rather than theodic concerns being focused invervention (why does God allow this to go on?) it backs up to issues of creation (if this is the way we are made--vulnerable to horrific suffering--why did God create in the first place?)

    I have no answer to that. My model only speaks to his non-interventionism. Why God created is beyond me.

    And continually troubles me.

  3. So you're suggesting that God doesn't intervene because that would break the illusion of choice, and the illusion of choice is necessary for volitional unanimity to develop?

    If this is the case, then I wonder: why can't God simply enforce volitional unanimity? Why can't God make everyone want what's good for them to want? (Bypassing, for the moment, the possibility that God has already done so, which would be a kind of a "best possible world" argument.)

    But this, I suppose, is the same question you're asking: why did God create a world in which beings could experience volitional dissonance?

    I'm starting to get the feeling that theodicy in a weak volitional world is simply a mirror image of theodicy in a strong volitonal world. That the problems are exactly the same on either side of the fence. Which seems spectacularly important, somehow, but I'm not sure how. Maybe free will actually doesn't have any thing to do with the free will defense?

  4. Matthew,
    First, know that what I'm saying is, at the end of the day, wholly inadequate. You and I are talking about the deepest mystery and stumbling stone of the Christian faith. These posts cannot handle this topic or answer it in any comprehensive way.

    Also know that I’m not personally satisfied with these answers/perspectives. I have not pushed back from the keyboard thinking, “Done! Answered the problem of evil. On with the next post.” No, I know what I’ve written falls well short of the goal.

    Basically, the meta-level story of these posts is that I am walking around the problem of evil, trying to make sense of it all. These posts are symptoms of my concern with theodicy. Thus, rather than giving answers, these post mainly point out that I’ve got some big questions I’m working on and will be working on this blog until I die.

    All that said, I think my post here has some theodic implications, if not out-right answers. That is, the weak-volitional answers to why is God hidden and why God is such a non-interventionist in the face of suffering are novel and different than strong-volitional answers. Yes, it is the true that the BIG questions remain the same in both strong and weak volitional models (e.g., the question of “Why did God create the world in the first place?” is answered the same way in both models: “I dunno.”). But this model does offer a different take on God’s activity in the world (e.g., God cannot save unless he is hidden).

  5. Matthew, Richard:

    The problem with a "Post-Cartesian Theology" is that we can't unring a bell. We can't help thinking occasionally about God's methods, free will, and God's justice because Descartes and other moderns disembody our thinking. If we categorically abstract God from tradition (learned and shared experience over time) and Biblical narrative--which is precisely what, in my opinion, is troubling and distracting about most who have tried their hand at theodicy and theology since the Enlightenment (and maybe before)--then we are on the road to docetism, nihilism, and the murder of God. Quite frankly, it will drive us nuts (it, along with syphilis, did with Nietzsche).

    Richard wrote: "Generally, what we love simply comes to us, unreflectively. I never chose to love my children, but I find I do. Deeply." Precisely, love is rather who we are and what we are meant to do, not unlike God as Hosea depicts God (11:8-9). As Paul put it: "The love of Christ compells us. . ." (II Cor. 5:14)

    Biblically, in the Hebrew Bible and in the Greek New Testament pre-destination and free will are not issues, but rather held in a paradoxical, creative, loving, relational tension: "Work out your (communal and personal) salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work within you both to will and to do what gives God good pleasure" (rough Cooper rendering of Phil 2:12-13).

    So hug your babies and keep struggling: God has given you the courage to love.

    George Cooper

  6. "These posts cannot handle this topic or answer it in any comprehensive way."

    Well sure. From my perspective, the blog looks something like: you present an idea, and I poke it to see if something interesting comes out.

    That having been said...

    "That is, the weak-volitional answers to why is God hidden and why God is such a non-interventionist in the face of suffering are novel and different than strong-volitional answers ... God cannot save unless he is hidden"

    Now that you put it that way, it *does* seem a bit different. Rather than pointing to free will as the good that is preserved by God's non-interventionism, the good becomes salvation itself.


  7. Richard,

    I think that it would be fun to have you comment on two foundational texts of Scripture in light of your comment that "In a weak volitional world [i.e., divine volitional unanimity]God simply cannot place choices before his creatures [on the scale of]: Choose me and live! Reject me and die!"

    The first is the Shema, which became "The Great Commandment" in the N.T.: Hear O Isreal: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."

    This key passage, on first pass, seems to indicate a command to achieve a "divine volitional unanimity" in one's life. But that is incoherent, given your Frankfurtian aproach.

    The second quote is a commentary on the commandments just given to God's people in Deuteronomy: "See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if your obey the commandments... ...and the curse, if you do not..."

    It seems that Scripture is not going to cooperate with anyone who wants to reduce it to a strong or weak volitional perspective. Might the situation be like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, where the point of view determines the outcome without that implying the alternate point of view is incorrect? (I chafed a bit at the comment earlier according to which Frankfurt charged the metaphysical free will controversy with "incoherence." Of course it is incoherent, in the sense that it can't be resolved, at present, but the term carries pejorative weight too.)



  8. Why does the world appear as if God is hidden? Weak volitional model: So we move towards divine volitional unanimity without undue influence. Strong volitional model: So we can freely choose God without coercion. The difference between these two seems very subtle to me.

    Richard, can you elaborate a bit on just what exactly God's role in this process is, beyond being the will which ours are meant to align to? You say his role is "tricky" and give examples of what he can't do, but fail to say anything about what he does/can do. So far, in the process of salvation you are describing, it seems that we are doing most of the saving. Is this what you are meaning to communicate?

  9. George,
    I'm with Matthew, thanks.

    I'll keep setting up the pins and you keep knocking them down. And, maybe, if we are lucky, one day, one might left standing:-) I always appreciate and look forward to your feedback.

    Thinking about those OT passages...

    It seems to me that an appeal to choose/obey makes perfect sense to Insiders (in this case the nation of Israel). That is, we can presume that the volitional investments in that group are generally in place: They care about the Word of the Lord. Thus, God can operate more directly with these people. They want to hear the Voice of God. They seek it.

    The harder part is how God should respond to Outsiders. People, due to the whims of history and circumstance, are NOT invested in following God. The trick becomes how does God get those people to achieve divine volitional unanimity?

    The difference may be more subtle than I think. But in SV models I don't see a clear rationale for why God is hidden. I've never heard a coherent reason for this from a SV perspective.

    Regarding God's influence. I think God is all over the place influencing things. Some quick hits:

    1. The Incarnation has radically altered the moral history of humanity and continues to have causal impact.

    2. The Revealed Word of God. If the bible is of supernatural origin then every time an agent interacts with it there is a causal impact. Again, every time an agent interacts with that revelation there is a supernatural and ongoing causal impact upon the moral history of humanity.

    3. God's prompting, support and guidance via the Holy Spirit. I think God is also interacting with many of us on constant basis.

  10. A few thoughts...

    Salvation as divine volitional unanimity is more about saving from our "nature" rather than sin. Sin comes from a sinful nature, sure, but it seems possible to have this nature (i.e. being human), live perfectly, but still be in need of salvation. Jesus comes to mind...

    One issue in my mind is the connection between character and behavior. While character influences behavior, I'm not sure that behavior is dependent on character. I might be a mean, nasty person by nature, but act in nice ways against this nature.

    Richard, can you shed any light on the relationship between character and behavior and how it relates to this discussion? I think I see my character as something I have little control over, but my behavior as something which I have more control over, even though it is related to character.

  11. Pecs,
    I am, in these posts, reworking conceptions of sin. Basically, I'm trying to move soteriology away from the management of God's psychology. Most traditional soteriologies appear to focus on God and His psychology. Does God like this? Is He upset about that? Given that we've done X will He forgive us? If so, how CAN he forgive us given His internal constraints? To me, traditional soteriologies look like the Wizard of Oz refrain, "Lions and tigers and bears, Oh my! Lions and tigars and bears, Oh my!" as we journey through the woods of life. With every lion and tiger and bear being some hang-up we've caused God.

    Basically, I'm suggesting this: God, well, He's good. I mean, He infinite. We're finite. There is very little that we could do that could worry Him overmuch or get Him all crossways with Himself (e.g., our sin creates this predicament between God's love and His justice). Personally, I think we're giving our sin WAY too much credit for causing God discomfort/concern.

    I do believe God is concerned, but it's a concern for us. It's a parental concern, a teacher's concern, a coach's concern.

    If this is the case, then we can rest assured that God is fundamentally on our side. He's upset only insofar as He has empathy and stands up for victims against bullies. Thus, God doesn't need for us to create elaborate soteriological schemes so that He'll be okay (e.g., doctrines of election or penal subsitutionary atonement). He's already okay. He'll always be okay. We are the one's who are not okay. We are the worry.

    So, salvation, in my mind is less interested in God's psychology than it is with ours. Our minds are the target of salvation. Not God's.

    Regarding character and behavior...

    Character is our behavioral (e.g., extraverted, conscientious), cognitive (e.g., optimistic, low self-esteem), and emotional (e.g., happy, depressive) dispositions. These dispositions bias our responses (behavioral / cognitive / affective) to situations. However, in a given moment, due to a host of factors, we might act against our "character." A shy person might make the decision to become the life of the party. Or a lazy student might resolve to work harder in a given class. If these choices are made repeatedly over time and are reinforced (i.e., produce good outcomes) character can be modified. However, the process is generally slow. Your character or personality today isn't much different than it was yesterday. Put it probably is different from what it was 10 years ago. Behavior is an icecube. Character is an iceburg.

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