malleable will

Study, work and life have been keeping me from blogging much, but I had a ‘free will’ thought to scribble down, so here goes.

I just moved my finger back & forth from pointing straight up and straight ahead.  This was caused at one level by the muscles in my fingers.  Why did my muscles do what they did?  Well, at one level, because of another muscle, my brain and the tasks it was performing – namely, thinking about free will and bodily function.  What made me think about this?  Well, lots of things, including things I’ve heard, read, or thought about previously.  Does any of this mean I did not, in a very real sense, freely choose to move my finger?  Of course not.

I’m something of a ‘both/and’ thinker.  This makes me, perhaps predisposed to think of free will as involving a tension between dual realities.  On the one hand, restrictions on our abilities and ‘freedom’ to act result in behaviour that is quite predictable.  I don’t have the freedom (naturally!) to make my finger change length or composition.  On the other hand, I deny that we are slavishly bound to genetic or neurological factors, such that we remain free acting agents, meaningfully responsible for our actions.  No judge worth her salt would be too persuaded to find someone innocent if they explained shooting someone in terms of the neuro-chemical causality behind the movement of their trigger finger.

Yes, it is a bit more complicated than this simple outline.  But to be honest, all of this debate I find rather silly.  (And in my research this year on human nature and sin, I interviewed two non-religious university level neurologists who agreed!)  I’m becoming less interested in exacting philosophical speculation about how to describe (or defend) human ‘free will’.  I’m more and more interested in the transformation of our will.

Whatever state human ‘will’ naturally comes to us, however much our wills are shaped by nurture/culture, it remains simply true that to greater or lesser degrees, we can grow, train and retrain, exercise, shape and reshape, guide, bend, manipulate, coerce, force, coax, form, reform and otherwise transform our wills.  Just as steel can be formed for various purposes, so also our wills are malleable and can be shaped to help us achieve a goal.

Some goals will be unrealistic for human nature – such as to fly, spin webs like spiders or what have you.  But others are not only realistic, but also freeing.  For example, we have all kinds of genetic and cultural pressures constantly and quite ‘naturally’ pushing us toward certain kinds and amounts of uses of substances (food, sex, drink, language, etc.).  But rather than be a slave to these natural inclinations, we can train and retrain our wills and plan in advance how and how much we will use them.

To change the metaphor away from the metallurgical one of hammering steel to the athletic one of swimming in a stream, take a young adult who ‘going with the flow’ of his or her peers who are also ‘going with the flow’ of cultural trends reflected in music videos and a thousand other expressions of the abuse of alcohol.  Hook them up to whatever kind of device it is that measures their choices.  Send them to a party with their mates.  Have someone offer them their favourite beer.  Hooray! You were able to predict their choice by observing this or that neurological activity.  Yay for technology!  Humans are so predictable! But you didn’t need that device to predict their choice at all, did you?   Now take someone who is deliberately and intentionally oriented to stand apart from a culture of binge-drinking.  They will exist in that same situation in a very different way – or indeed, they may likely freely choose to not go.  Indeed, they may not find that particular kind of space as fun.  And you know what?  If we hook them up to the machine, we could just as equally (if not more easily!) predict their choice as well.  The point is not whether or not we can predict their choice, but what choice they will make.  One that takes them toward slavery to alcohol (under the cultural disguise of being ‘free’ from any rules on how much they can drink!); or one that is a participation in a personal trajectory that is being built toward a different kind of freedom (and yes, one which may indeed involve a very different kind of ‘slavery’!).

So again, I’m becoming less and less interested in philosophical noodle-wrestling over what ‘free will’ means.  Rather, I think we all should be interested in what kinds of goals are good for us and others, and what kind of practices and networks help shape us (and our wills) to make progress toward those goals.  It all reminds me of some dusty old quote: “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  A verse that is followed by a breathtaking consideration of just that kind of transformed living: humility, community, service, teaching, leading, care-giving, un-hypocritical love, wise judgment, affectionate love, walking a mile in one another’s shoes, etc.

dust in the wind?

“All we are is dust in the wind”, said Socrates.

In reading about sin and human nature for my mini-thesis, I’ve dipped into the nature/nurture and determinism/free-will discussions.  I tend to think that the biblical view of humans takes both sides of these conversations quite seriously.  We are limited by our nature/genetics in what we are capable of, and yet we are capable somehow of transcending our current neuro/bio/physio-logical states.

In other words, the biblical view of humans is that we are continually taken from pretty raw material (the dust of the ground) and formed and freed to be human by the Spirit (the breath of life).  Perhaps Socrates would agree.

religion-free ethics?

A quick reflection and question as I dig into my Master’s mini-thesis which will use sociological methodology to discover how non-religious people think about ‘wrongdoing’ or ‘sin’, both in terms of what they believe about wrongdoing, and what they ‘hear’ when Christians talk about it.

At any rate, one secular book I’m flipping through is Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion by Phil Zuckerman.  He repeats the familiar line about non-religious people being as-good-as (or better than! p. 122) religious people.  This is supported (over and against the detached-from-reality musings of C.S. Lewis “between his sips of tea”) by the empirical testimony of a series of post-religious-now-secular people.

All talk of “how unhelpful the word ‘religion’ is in conversations like this” aside, I want to reflect on the socially-constructed aspects to ethics.  Yes I just said that.  Whatever anyone thinks, positively or negatively about God’s ability to break into the human discourse and direct, dictate, shepherd, shove, manipulate, move, coax or command it this way or that way, we all acknowledge that ethics is at least a human conversation.  There is a moral Zeitgeist.

In light of this obvious reality, it would seem methodologically problematic to be comparing the ethics of a) Christians, who are deeply immersed in the moral Zeitgeist of western – or in this case American – culture, with b) post-Christians, who remain influenced by the previous immersion in the ‘religious’ moral conversation which, at least in principle, has Christ and Scripture as it’s locus and telos.  In short, because (in this case) American Christians are more influenced by American culture than many realise, and American post-Christians are more influenced by Christian teaching (of a very particular kind of authoritarian, moralistic flavour, I suspect) than some may realise, the comparison seems problematic.

To really prove the thesis that non-religion maketh man more moral than religion (granting this problematic usage of the term ‘religion’), wouldn’t you have to find a specimen that was living in a religion-free context, so that the specimen was fully free of religious motivations, assumptions,  habits and practices and that the pure, untainted non-religious ethic could shine in all it’s unadulterated glory?  Rather than compare Christian to post-Christian, I think the thesis would find better data if it compared Christian to pre-Christian.

Thus concludes my rambling on this thought.  Back to reading!

jesus within the good samaritan parable?

I’m currently doing a research essay on how the parable of the Good Samaritan has been preached in different times and contexts.  Interpretation and preaching have traditionally centred on how the story presents three characters, one of who is the exemplary Samaritan.

But in the research, I’ve found that some rightly point out that the Innkeeper is a fourth.  Apparently innkeepers were known to at times over-charge, and so the greed of the innkeeper provides another contrast to the generosity of the Samaritan who offers to repay any expense the innkeeper incurs in caring for the man (whose nationality or race are – deliberately? – never revealed).

Now, I’m probably not the first to see yet another person in the story, and I’ll have to check the commentaries, but the following lines suggest it to me:

On the next day [most MSS include ‘when he departed’], he took out two denarii, and gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.”

It is the phrase “when I come again” that tipped me off.  Was that a glimpse of the parousia just there tucked away?  I wonder it we glimpse Jesus himself in the person of the Samaritan; and by implication the church in the Innkeeper.  The ministry of the church is indeed (among other things) to welcome the lonely, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to visit the imprisoned.  Do we glimpse Jesus here, equipping the Church (giving of the Spirit?) to do their work, and promise a ‘repayment’ (reward according to deeds?) for how much extra they do?

of marriageable age

My last post got me thinking about other factors involved in who is ‘allowed’ to marry in different times and places in human history.  One factor is age.

I want to note here that a) what many Christians would say on this issue would reflect (perhaps as it should in this case?) the cultural attitudes around them, b) there is probably no official ‘Christian’ or biblical numeric answer for it, and c) this is an area of morality which seems to be characterised by both binary, ‘either/or’ thinking (either pre or post puberty) and gradient, ‘from-to’ thinking (from less mature to more mature).

The prohibition (‘discrimination’?) regarding people being too young to marry, is (like the prohibitions about gender, related-ness, and number of people) a protective one.  Both the people involved (including their bodies) and the institution are being protected.  In the case of age, the young people are being protected, to be blunt, from their own immaturity.   Which leads to the next point.

The conversation (ethically and biblically) is about maturity.  Clearly we all can imagine the 50 year old fool who is utterly incompatible with even the thought of monogamy.  Like a rattlesnake which has not yet learned to conserve its venom and wastes it all on each bite, he or her has not matured to a point of self-control required to sustain fidelity in marriage.  Equally clearly, especially for those of us in contexts where the legal marriageable age is high (18 in New Zealand – 16 with parental consent), we may have known individuals who were technically under the age, but seemed beyond reasonable doubt to be easily mature enough for marriage.

Traditionally, in older contexts and less ‘developed’ (depending on your standards for what constitutes ‘development’!) contexts, the age for marriage clusters around biology – puberty.  Ability to bear children was and is linked to response-ability to raise those same children.  And fair enough too.  But this mention of responsibility raises a dynamic I find both interesting and worrying…  We seem to be sponsoring immaturity.

We rightly and understandably put off and absolve young people of responsibility until they are old enough, but ‘old enough’ seems to get older and older the more ‘developed’ the context is.  In simple ‘primitive’ cultures, maturity comes earlier because the convenience of delayed responsibility is absent.  The 13 year old is a valuable asset to the family’s sustainability, and must “chop wood and carry water” if they are to survive.  Our teenagers whine about having to put the dishes in the dishwasher.  Which one is ready for marriage?

just do it – a lot

All is/ought distinctions and naturalistic fallacies aside, whilst monogamy does occur in some non-human species, apparently humans have a evolutionary and biological predisposition of sorts to polygamy.

But is this really newsworthy?  Even the most prudish of “just lay there and think of the queen” conservatives would admit off the record to the fact that being married to one person doesn’t remove all attraction to all other potential mating partners.  Yet again, science is giving us technical and detailed accounts of what we already knew.  We like sex.  We like sex a lot.  We like a lot of sex.  Which is good news for the pornography and prostitution industries, though perhaps not for monogamy.

If both the above science and near-universal human experience is correct, then monogamy necessarily always involves a kind of saying ‘no’ to a desire that is as natural and normative as it gets.  There are two interesting points of relevance here for the current global discussion of same-sex marriage.

1) Legal same-sex marriage and legal multi-marriage are logically related.  It is hardly ‘scaremongering’ to point out that polygamy is the next step in the current progression, if not one of the next steps.  There is no shortage of online pro-polygamy groups which have been arguing for its legality for years (and plenty of challenging of other ‘no-marriage-for-you’ lines un-challenged in the currently proposed legislation).  Methinks that those pushing for the law change don’t want to talk for too long on this point, so they play the ‘scaremongering’ (or religious ‘fear’) card as quickly as possible.

2) Saying no to sexual desires may not be so inhumane after all.  If indeed the natural tendency toward polygamy is there in the vast majority of humans, then the widespread monogamous habit of routinely dousing of the flames of desire for multiple sex-partners is infinitely more backwards and sexually repressive in scope and number than expecting a relatively small percentage of the population to do the same with (homosexual) desires which are arguably just as natural, though incredibly less common.

But of course I do not think that sexual self-control is repressive or backwards.  Neither do I think that sexual expression (or marriage for that matter) is some kind of thing that makes you human – and therefore is a ‘right’.  All this goes directly against messages both implicit and explicit in movies, media and advertising whose suggestion is hardly a gentle one: namely that to err is virgin, and to get it on is divine.

And the church doesn’t help much either.  Marriage is on such a pedestal that single people feel like unfortunate, illegitimate, inconvenient accessories accompanying we normal married folk.  We need to affirm those who are both single and celibate as being just as human as any other.

love of self & others

More and more, I’m convinced that love of self and neighbour/others are meant to go together.  Love of self without love of others is – literally – selfish, and love of others without love of self is not only unsustainable but false.  Leaving aside the question of justification for love of self (when we all know too well of the things we do which we don’t love – or do we grow too skilled at dismissing these things from our minds?), I found a relevant statement yesterday in Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy.  As a part his argument that ‘hunger for significance’ is not egotistical, he defines egotism in a helpful way:

Egotism is pathological self-obsession, a reaction to anxiety about whether one really does count.  It is a form of acute self-consciousness and can be prevented and healed only by the experience of being adequately loved.  It is, indeed, a desperate response to frustration of the need we all have to count for something and be held to be irreplaceable, without price.

 

both-and, again…

This photo (found on Facebook) reflects a false, either/or view of Christian spirituality.

It assumes that a) respecting, serving, growing and happiness of ‘you’ and b) respecting, serving, growing and happiness of ‘God’ are in direct and total contradiction.  To quote Hannah Moore from the film ‘Amazing Grace’, “we humbly suggest you can do both.”

I suspect that the person making these ‘corrections’ to the original photo probably meant well, and I agree that a ‘humanism’ that defines itself as being over-and-against (or otherwise independent of) God is counter to Scripture and the Gospel.  But I deny that loving yourself is in tension with loving God or others.  Indeed, based on Christ’s epitomisation of the entire Law (i.e. Mark 12:29-31), I’m inclined to believe that Love of God, others and self are inseparable.

a working metaphor

More and more, I think one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Christian moral life is the role of active, moral effort.

By this, I’m talking not only about the mental/psychological task of working hard at discerning what is ‘right’ or ‘God’s will’, but particularly the gritty, tiring, laborious work (but not ‘works’ – read on) doing God’s will.  Training yourself to do acts of love and service instead of (at best) nothing at all or (worst of all) of acts of harm and selfishness.

Not surprisingly, if you know me, I’m finding N.T. Wright just brilliant on this.  Video here.  Book I’m currently reading here.  He helpfully navigates the territory of the debate concerning how we develop Christian character, and particularly the question of the role of our own moral effort in this process.  Is it a matter of simply trying hard enough (to make yourself good enough), as comes through in popular portrayals of Christian faith (based no doubt on a lot of actual teaching/instruction)?  Or is it a matter of resting from any trying at all, and simply waiting on God to empower, motivate and enable you, as comes through in not a few reactions to the former?  Wright argues persuasively and thoroughly that it is ‘neither/nor’.  He makes clear the ‘both/and’ view expressed by Paul and the rest of the New Testament.  Both my own moral effort; and God’s enabling presence alongside and underneath me.

As usual, the worldview one is working with is everything.  And here the tension between monistic and dualistic frameworks are evident.  If reality is, at utter rock bottom, essentially one thing, then it’s hard to have any sense of both/and.  And if reality is characterised by not only a relational duality, but a dualism where the two ontological realities are fundamentally opposed to and detached from one another (i.e. the Creator is not involved within creation at all…), then this both/and is just as impossible.  Indeed, much modern naturalism has simply cut the strings of an ‘unnecessary’ deity who had been ‘kicked upstairs’ by 18th century Enlightenment philosophy.  We inherit much of this naturalism today, as we breathe the air of an intellectual (and epistemological) tradition that fails (or refuses) to see any trace of God in the world, and strips it of its title ‘creation’ and calls in ‘Nature’ instead, leaving us with an utterly God-less view of the world.

This general (and powerful) shift in popular imagination (and let’s be honest, at the level of ultimate reality, it’s a matter of imagination, not observation) has fed into the particularly Christian (and biblical) debate about how we should picture this both/and of God’s work and our work in Christian living.

I think metaphors are the best we can do, often.  And perhaps multiple metaphors are needed to capture this.  Wright makes the point that a picture of two humans collaborating on one activity doesn’t quite get it, as though ‘walking by (or in) the Spirit’ was analogous to working alongside another human such that you put in 50% and so does God.  It’s not like that.  Any good metaphor will capture at least three things (and more):
a) the ontological difference between God and humans
b) the utter human dependency of humans upon God
c) the very real human responsibility to act and choose

I can think of no better metaphor than the person of Christ.  But unfortunately, this re-raises the whole question, for (if we affirm Christ’s dual nature as Scripture teaches) how do we conceive of the relationship between Christ’s divinity and his humanity.  Is he a human puppet for a divine hand?  Is he basically just human?  Is he mostly divine and just appeared to be human?  Much rich and wonderful theology (since the 1st century as the apostles countered Gnosticism and docetic Jesus) is devoted to clarifying and addressing these questions.

But what other metaphors might we use?