Monday, April 07, 2008

Actions, Consequences, Free Will, and Disneyland

Shanah posted a comment to the last post that I started to reply to, and my reply started to get larger than the comment box as I was composing it, and then it started to dovetail with some other thoughts I'd been thinking of posting about, and the next thing you knew, I was writing this.

Here's as far as I got in my reply to my Sweatshirt Girl:

Shanah: I think you will believe again. I'm pretty sure you believed it when plenty of terrible things had happened already. Terrible things happen because the whole world isn't full of kindness and courtesy and joy and self-confidence. The world isn't that way, and no part of it can be made that way just by believing or wanting it to be so, or even by the mere practice of kindness and courtesy and joy and self-confidence. But I still believe

What do I believe? That it can be done? How?

My family has at various times by various people been criticized for being out of touch with reality, or raising me or my sister out of touch with reality. I grew up "sheltered," which some people see as cause for censure.

It is and it isn't, because sheltered can have two meanings. One is that I don't know about all the bad things in the world, which most people would consider sweet but impractical. The other is that I do know about all the bad things in the world, and I have a retreat (a shelter, if you will) where those things are not.

It is this second kind of shelter that my family has always strived to create. We operate (or we try to) in the real world, which is full of divers terrible things. We experience those things, we're hurt by them, we deal with it. And then there's this metaphorical family space we have, called the Cove, where those things simply are not permitted. Take a trivial example: sibling rivalry. My sister and I did not fight. Ever. This is not because siblings don't fight, or because we happen to have personalities that just would not produce fights. It's because siblings fighting is bullshit, dear readers, and my parents decided that we would not have it in the Cove. And there was an enormous amount of effort expended to ensure that that kind of bullshit, and many others, were not present in the Cove. An enormous amount of effort was necessary because these kinds of enclaves are (the world being full as it is of divers terrible things) under constant attack or threat of erosion.

Of course, lots of parents decide that. People decide similar sorts of things with similar amounts of conviction all the time. Lots of them try with all their might to make it happen. And yet, it ain't always so. So what made it so in my family? Was it just luck? I doubt that. Twenty-four years is a pretty long streak. Was it conviction? I doubt that too; the idea that human decisions can just make things happen strikes me as pretty laughable. Maybe it was just great parenting skill? That's even more laughable than conviction, as all parents know. What gave effect to my parents conviction and all the effort that went with it?

What gives effect to any conviction, or any effort?

In certain Christian circles it's popular to talk about "free will," and to lots of people it's hugely important to believe (or not believe) in "free will." What exactly people mean by that can vary wildly. Permit me briefly to state what I think, with one example, which is necessary to finish the discussion above.

I think that God is potentially in total control of every aspect of existence. Since I am convinced by my own observation that I have a will, it follows that God could completely manipulate my will without my ever suspecting it if he chose to do so. I am of the opinion that, in the main, he does not so choose. Instead I think his normal MO is to take his hand off the stick to a greater or lesser degree and let me operate my will under local control, so to speak. More or less, I think I get to decide what I get to decide.

So I decide something: then what happens? I imagine the decision (my actions and the intent behind them) leaving the little anomalous bubble of local control that surrounds all people most of the time and entering the rest of existence, which God generally keeps under his direct control. It has to pass through this great medium of God-controlled "space" before the decision can reach or affect another person. In short, I think that I decide what I decide, and God decides (or at least gets the option to interfere with) what effects my decisions have.

This isn't to try to remove personal responsibility; I think it's plain that God likes the laws of cause and effect even if the world works the way I think it does and he could override them willy-nilly should he so choose (and even if, on occasion, he does). Let me give an example that's been much on my mind lately.

David is facing Goliath. His opponent a giant of a man, fully armed and armored in a hundred pounds or more of a semi-mythical metal from a bygone age (remember this is the height of the Dark Ages, and the Bronze Age ended in cataclysm two hundred years ago). David has answered the challenge and decides not to use unfamiliar war gear, declining even the loan of a sword. He sticks with what he has and what he knows: a sling, a weapon he is a proficient with, the deadliest missile weapon of the ancient world. He takes five stones.

Why not more? Not because five was all he could find; the army would have had plenty of sling shot. Rather, because if he hadn't downed the Philistine in five shots, he'd be dead. I imagine he picked the five himself rather than accepting another slinger's bag because he wanted to make sure those five were as good as possible. This is a picture of an experienced slinger at work.

So why not only one? Because he was expecting to miss.

David is plainly trusting in God to save him. Anybody facing a fully armored man with nothing but a missile weapon would have to, but he says as much in stirring fashion. And yet he is also trusting in his skill, and his choice of ammunition suggests that he has a fully realistic view of his chances: he knows he can win this fight if he can land a stone in the right spot, and he knows he's a damn good shot, but he also knows that the odds of actually making the critical hit in time against a man armored from head to shin in bronze are quite low, even for him. He trusts in God, but he also takes more than one shot.

There is a chance in this scenario that any crack slinger could win the duel - not a good chance, but a chance. And David is clearly doing his best to maximize his chances. That is what makes his statement noteworthy: that God will bring about David's victory. This would be wishful thinking if David hadn't accurately appraised the situation. But he had; he knew exactly what he was facing, and he was doing his best to skew the odds in his favor. He picked a good stone, he slung it (we may presume) as accurately as he could - expecting to miss, remember, as well he might.

But the stone hits home on the first shot, and does exactly what you would expect a sling shot to do at short range against an unarmored portion of the human body. David shoots, God hits.

David probably wasn't the best slinger in the army. For that matter, a man used to fighting in armor probably would have had better odds, even against a man as well-equipped and experienced as Goliath, than the best slinger in the army. So why didn't they fight the duel? Just because David was the king's shieldbearer? Well, maybe. But if it was so all-fired important that the king's shieldbearer fight the duel, presumably Saul would have either recalled David himself or picked a new shieldbearer for the occasion.

What really sets David apart is that, despite doing his damndest to win that duel the old-fashioned way, he was trusting in God to make his actions and his intentions mean something. This is basically how I think the universe operates.

(I don't mean to say that God helps them that helps themselves. God might not have caused that shot to hit. The response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is always to be kept in mind. What I mean to stress is that for David, doing your damndest was not incompatible with believing that God is the one who makes your damndest accomplish anything at all, and that is the way people best can expect their decisions to bring about what they desire.)

And this is basically why I think it is possible to create a world full of kindness, courtesy, joy, and self-confidence. Notice I don't say where those things reign (which would have been my natural construction). They don't reign; God reigns, because I don't think such enclaves are really possible other than in the context of the Kingdom of God.

The whole Kingdom is not like that, or at any rate the whole of Christendom is not. But despite all the terrible things in the world it can be done. I've seen it.


William said...

Well, it seems sticky when you get into issues of. "Well, if God really wants it to happen, then He will make it happen", but I imagine that kind of falls apart in the face of "No realy, all-powerful".

Likewise, I think that remembering that fact helps keep us humble. Without God, humanity drops the ball, consistantly and thoroughly.

Might be considered a little depressing, but I think the "without God, we can't do anything" is tempered by the "with God, we can do anything" idea that sensibly follows it.

Oswell55 said...

Well said, Little One who is no longer little.

Shanah Van said...

i'm a downer, i know, but somehow you turn everything i say into something good and meaningful. it's a special gift you have, sweet boy.

Malgayne said...

I think one of my great gifts is the ability to listen to a message (or perhaps more accurately a Message) and to immediately discern whether the Message is for me or not. Many have been the occasions when I have heard a message from the pulpit and said to myself "This is not for me."

I don't ever mean to suggest that we can take and leave God's truths as we choose. God, and the Truths He represents, are eternal and unchanging. What I DO mean is that the Truth lies in a certain place, and while some Messages are designed to pull people in from one direction, other Messages are designed to pull people in from the other. I imagine the Truth as some central location, and each Message as a...wind, almost. Sometimes the wind blows in one direction, to pull people in from one side. Sometimes the wind blows in the other direction. But if the people on the far side get caught in the wind, they'll just be blown further away. The Free Will discussion is a classic example.

A great deal of time is spent in sermons on the idea that no matter how hard you try, without God, you cannot achieve any meaningful success. I invariably listen to these sermons, recognize their value, and discount them completely. I'm located on the other side of the truth.

The struggle I have is that my natural tendency is to assume "I won't worry about it, it's in God's hands." This follows easily into " doesn't matter how hard I try." If I listen too hard to that Message I risk being blown further away from the truth.

I'm not sure if this is something that other people struggle with. I feel like one of my blessings is the ability to quickly ascertain whether something is bringing me closer to the Truth or further away.

Ahminu said...

The struggle I have is that my natural tendency is to assume "I won't worry about it, it's in God's hands." This follows easily into " doesn't matter how hard I try." If I listen too hard to that Message I risk being blown further away from the truth.

I fall into the same trap, myself. It's easy to slip into that idea -- oh, well God's going to show me the next step, so I just have to sit on my butt and wait. (Or maybe that's just how I deal with it :) ) While waiting -- patience -- is of course paramount to seeing where God will lead, there is that idea that you must make some kind of effort.

Though having put it into a pithy statement like that, it sounds cheap. It's hard to codify what I mean by that -- because its not the "God helps those that help themselves" -- I think that God genuinely wants us to strive for that next step, while trusting that he'll make it clear if we're moving it the right direction. At least that's what I've been working with recently, focused on my own direction :)

Any any rate, dear Natalie, I loved your thoughts on David! Made me think twice about it...

Esther said...

I loved your thoughts on David as well. Very insightful and thought-provoking. How about let's get together sometime soon?