Choices, choices, choices
I seem to be constantly having to choose – this food or that, this time or that, this place or that, this programme or that, endless choices. All of life is a process of choosing between competing claims and we have to come to decisions every few moments. This is no bad thing. Better than having no food, no home, no job, no money – when one’s choices become much more limited.
With all the choosing that goes on in one’s life I suppose it sounds silly to raise the question of whether we have free will or not. After all, we choose, don’t we? Well, do we? Sometimes I wonder.
For example, when I play chess and start the game with pawn to King four (or ‘e4’ if you prefer) – have I ‘chosen’ that move? Yes, of course I chose that move. I made it, didn’t I? What more do you want? Yet perhaps that opening move sprang out of the thousand other times I have made the first move in a game of chess. Maybe I have a habit of opening with the King’s pawn. Maybe I feel safe when opening with a move I have done hundreds of times before. Maybe the move arose from some deep unconscious desire that I do not recognize.
Or take the fact that I met this guy in a bar and we started chatting and we took to each other and finished up having dinner together and forming a real friendship. Surely that was a choice wasn’t it? Or was it? Or, more relevantly, how far was it a choice? The fact that I really like guys with curly hair actually stems back to childhood when this older boy took me under his wing and helped me to cope in the playground at school. I have liked curly hair in men ever since. It is an unconscious preference. Then this guy looked me straight in the eyes when he talked and I always like people who deal directly with me – I suppose that goes back to my elder brother who always dealt on the level with me – he looked me straight in the eyes. Perhaps that too is an unconscious preference.
In fact there are some scientists who assert that all our choices have antecedent causes and that in many of our actions and attitudes we are simply playing out the programme that has been built into us through our genes, childhood and life to date.
The problems really start when we talk of our moral choices. Can we say that moral choices are really our own choices – that they are not pre-conditioned? Well, yes and no. Some are and some are not. For example, the fact that you cannot stand liars may well stem back to a time years ago when you suffered particularly badly because of some person in your life lied about you or to you, and caused you much pain. Ever since then you have hated lies and people who lied. Nowadays you cannot stand liars – but is that a real moral choice or does it have its cause way back in your life?
And it gets stickier! What about sexual choices? We now know – are reasonably certain – that orientation is a fact, not a choice. But we all have the choice of what we do with our sexuality. We could remain celibate. We could have successive relationships. We could indulge in simultaneous relationships. It is our choice. Well, it is, isn’t it? Or maybe it is not wholly a choice – maybe there too there is an element of influence from the past? Maybe we have known a perfectly normal gay couple, committed to living together, living in harmony and love. Maybe we have had some experience which has slanted us in the direction we are now taking. Well, I hear you say, we are all influenced by the past, but we still choose.
That’s why I say – when it comes to choosing we do and we don’t. Certainly we have less freedom of choice than most of us usually imagine we have. We are far more conditioned and programmed than we realize.
One of the interesting discussions in the open at the moment is how to treat paedophiles. Are they sick or are they evil? Do you lock them in a prison or in a hospital? Do you treat them, or do you make them sew mailbags? How responsible are they? How much choice did they have about what they did?
As a Christian I have to grapple with this matter of free will, because it is at the basis of all our social life – indeed, of all our life. It affects how I decide what to do today, tonight, and tomorrow and every day.
I want to share the outcome of my attempt to make some sense of the subject. These are my ideas, and no doubt they are wrong in some respects. You may well differ. Write and give me your ideas if you like.
I have to start somewhere other than freewill, because for me all of life relates to God. I have to start at the knowledge of God, which comes to us mainly through the life of Christ. I believe that when we look at that first century Jewish teacher we actually see what God is like in his essential nature. What do we see?
We do not see a distant God. Of course he (or she or it) stands outside the cosmos, which he created. But he also is intimately involved with every aspect of it. It is his creation. The picture of a distant God is incomprehensible to me – and I believe for any Christian. Everything that happens is, I believe, totally within his power and purpose. Nothing – absolutely nothing – happens without his intimate and total involvement.
So he is with each of us on the inside and on the outside of our being every moment of every day. He does not violate the innermost being – for he has created us to be free (to a certain extent) – but he is intimately aware of all our feelings, fears, attractions and everything else. He surrounds us. How could he not be deeply involved with his creation? He is implicit and involved at the molecular level and every level above.
The problem with that view faces us when something like cancer appears in a loved one, or one’s partner has aids. If God is powerful how can he be loving? If he is loving how can he also be powerful and still let this horrible thing run rampant in the world?
The Christian answer is no answer. It is simply that we must trust his goodness. We must believe that good is ultimately the only thing that matters.
So this is where freewill comes in. We can choose to believe that there is no god, that life is meaningless or whatever. Or we can choose to believe in God the Father of Jesus Christ. That good is on the throne, however mystifying the world may seem to us.
I can accept this as an argument because I can see how it happens with little children. A very young child, on being told that his father cuts off the arms and legs of people, would be utterly appalled. But actually his father is a skilled surgeon and while the child has to trust his father now, later on he will understand that his frame of reference for understanding was too small when he was a child. So with us – we have to trust now, in the face of flood and famine and disease and suffering, and later on when our frame of reference is larger we shall understand.
But even if we have to trust, what about freewill – do we really have an option to decide one way or the other? Yes, I believe that we can choose to trust for the following reason.
We are told that we are made in God’s image and I take that to mean that we can choose to be creative and positive. That we can choose the good path against the evil path. That we can choose to be hopeful instead of fearful. We live our lives on the basis that we can and do make rational choices. If someone drives on the wrong side of the road we take them to court and probably to prison. We run our society on the basis that people can choose to live according to the law, that they are responsible. If they break the law they are liable to be punished. So why not believe in God on the same basis – believe that we should trust the God we cannot see?
The powerful supporting argument behind trusting the God we cannot see, is that countless millions who have gone before us attest to the reality of the experience of God when they have given their lives to him. They speak of the presence of Christ in their lives. They speak of receiving a strange peace and joy in their hearts. Can they all be wrong? They talk of being guided in their lives. They actually seem to enjoy worship (well, some of the time, anyway !) Must they all be dismissed as charlatans? Or misguided fools? Surely not! Only special pleading would enable me to ignore that massive bank of witnesses.
As for me I choose to serve the Lord.