Jun 1, 2023
“We can say that God wills the events that constitute the world, even though God does not in any way cause those events to occur.”
In a recent issue of our blog,Thoughts While Shaving, we explored the Will of God. Today, I propose to take a deeper dive into the same subject…but from a different perspective.
Following any catastrophe – a tsunami in the Pacific, a mass shooting at a shopping mall…or the death of a young child – you’re certain to hear a chorus of voices reassuring us that it is “God’s will, part of his unfathomable master plan.”
Such reassurances ring hollow! – They ring hollow because they cannot possibly be true, unless one of the following is also true:
There is no objective ‘evil.’
God wills ‘evil.’ at least under certain circumstances.
God lacks the power to prevent ‘evil’ from occurring.
Unattractive, but it gets worse. One doesn’t work. If values are not objective, then there is no reason for God to plan; there’s nothing for him to plan for. And if God plans anyway, there’s no standard we can use to evaluate that plan or any of its specific effects. We cannot even decipher the existence of a plan.
Three doesn’t work either; and if God’s power is limited, then we cannot hold God responsible for events that may be beyond his control. Bummer!
Two does work, but it comes with a price tag. Under what circumstances might a benevolent God will evil?
For centuries, philosophers, theologians and, to some extent, even scientists have wrestled with two basic conundrums: the very familiar ‘problem of evil’ and the very unfamiliar ‘problem of good.’
The Problem of Evil asks: how can it be that God is good and ‘the creator of heaven and earth’ while the universe God created is nonetheless riddled with evil?
The Problem of Good, on the other hand, asks: if there is no God or if God is not all-good (which is the same thing), how is it that we experience and recognize objective good in our world? What makes subjective good objective good?
More generally, where do values come from if not from a transcendent source in which they inherently exist? Psalm 16 refers to God as “my only good” and a medieval Irish poem asserts, “Naught is all else to me save that Thou art.”
Even Friedrich Nietzsche understood that the world cannot be the source of its own objective values (and Ludwig Wittgenstein agreed with him). Nietzsche chose to reject the idea of objective value rather than accept the notion that reality might have a transcendent dimension. So, where does this leave us?
I suggest that this apparently unresolvable nexus of problems is really the result of two fundamental errors: (1) a misunderstanding of the nature of creation and (2) an under-appreciation of the role of redemption. I propose that God is both the creator and the redeemer of this world and that this fact, properly understood, resolves all the apparent dilemmas regarding good and evil…and values generally.
First, creation. For starters, let’s examine the Genesis account:
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…God said, let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good.” (Gen 1: 1-4)
Genesis does not say that God dreamed or imagined or fabricated the heavens and the earth; it says that God ‘created the heavens and the earth.’ When you create something, if that something is real, it takes on an existence independent of yourself. Otherwise, you’ve created nothing.
A great work of art, on the other hand, always transcends its author, painter or composer, and you eventually come to realize that “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.” (Bob Dylan) And this is exactly as it should be! If you create something that does not transcend you, that is not independent of you, that has no life of its own, then you have merely projected yourself into another space or another time or onto another medium.
Sadly, this is how many people view life. They see works of art as mere reflections of the experiences (or prejudices) of the artists (Deconstruction). They see their children as extensions of themselves, a chance to make up for their own mistakes, a last desperate attempt to cheat death and grab onto some species of immortality.
It follows that these same people see the created world as God’s sandbox where God can play to his heart’s content with his ‘action figures’…or in more modern terms, as God’s video game where he can freely program his avatars.
But that is not creation and that is certainly not what we mean when we say, “God created the heavens and the earth.” Nor is it even remotely consistent with the rest of the Genesis account:
“Thus, the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. On the seventh day, God completed the work that he had been doing; he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it, he rested from all the work he had done in creation.” (Gen 2: 1 – 3)
The creative process results in a real and independent world, but God does not abandon that world. He does not leave it entirely to its own devices. As we shall see later, he continues to play a role, albeit a non-deterministic role, in the unfolding of events.
God created the world, and he infused that world with essential goodness (“God saw that it was good” – Genesis 1: 10), i.e., beauty, truth, justice. This is the solution to ‘the problem of good.’ But God also infused the world with existential freedom. Yes, events are informed by God’s values, but they are ‘created’ out of their own inherent freedom. This is the solution to ‘the problem of evil.’
In the words of Deuteronomy, God says: “I set before you life and death…therefore choose life.” (Deut. 30: 19)
But the world does not always choose life…and neither do we. In fact, to be honest, we rarely make the best possible choices. Sure, we are influenced by our sense of right and wrong, and we do want to make the world a better place, but we are distracted by our various attachments. (These ‘harmful attachments’ are roughly summarized as the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Scary words! But who among us has not fallen prey to every single one of these vices at one time or another?)
When we are distracted from God’s values and begin to pursue other ends, we are guilty of idolatry – we are worshiping a false God. So, in fact, all ‘sin’ is one sin: idolatry, the worship of something that is not God, the substitution of worldly ‘pseudo-values’ for the real, transcendent values that come into the world through God.
Therefore, the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) begins, “I am the Lord, your God…you shall not have other gods beside me.” (Ex. 20: 1 – 3) Likewise, the Great Commandment (Matt. 22: 35-40), “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
God is the world’s creator and the world’s redeemer, but he is not the world’s micromanager. He is “our father” but not a helicopter parent.
So, what about redemption? While the concept of creation can be challenging, the concept of redemption (or salvation) can be downright difficult. To understand either, we need to understand some basic things about the nature of the world.
First, the world consists of events and only events. It does not consist of subjects and objects, nouns and verbs, etc. These verbal categories are abstractions from actual events. They are categories imposed on our thought process by our language; and not all languages impose the same artificial categories.
The Hopi language, for example, is more event centric. Likewise, ancient Indo-European (IE) languages often included a robust “middle voice’ (vs. our active and passive voices); the middle voice forms the foundation of an event-centric syntax. But today, most of us do not speak Hopi…or proto-IE.
Because of our language, we imagine that the world consists of syntactic elements that somehow come together to form events, but the reverse is true: the world consists of events, and we abstract syntactic elements from those events.
Second, events in the world not only incorporate God’s essential nature, eternal values, but they also incorporate God’s existential nature, radical freedom. Without such operative values, the world could not be ‘good’; but without that freedom, the world could not be ‘real.’
Third, because God is “the maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible” and because “through him all things were made” (Nicene Creed), God must be present to every event, and conversely, every event must be present to God.
Fourth, every event arises in the context of its own ‘actual world,’ i.e. the unique constellation (nexus) of events out of which, and in response to which, the novel event emerges. Every event necessarily incorporates an inheritance from its actual world.
Every event judges its actual world in light of the eternal values that inspire it. Guided by those values, every event seeks to transform (i.e. improve) the actual world it inherits. Transformation of the actual world is what an event is!
Fifth, since God is present to every event and since every event is present to God, God is an element in the actual world of every event and every event is also an element in God’s actual world (i.e. the nexus of all other events).
Like all unique events, God judges his actual world in light of the eternal values and seeks to improve that world accordingly. But, you may ask, “How can God improve his actual world without compromising its existential freedom?”
Traditionally, philosophers have understood events either as the product of past events (mechanical determinism, e.g. cause and effect) or as the product of future events (teleological determinism, e.g. God’s will or plan). It is hard to believe that these models could have held sway for so many centuries. They do not even begin to account for the novelty or variety of the events we encounter in the course of everyday living.
(The ‘truth value’ of an unverifiable proposition is the extent to which it resonates with our life experience. Neither mechanical determinism nor teleological determinism resonates very deeply.)
We propose a different model: every novel event is shaped by the eternal values that inspire it, the actual world that informs it, and its own existential freedom. Only a non-linear, non-deterministic model like this can hope to account for novelty and variety on the scale we experience.
So how does any of this help explain the role of redemption in the world?
God is an event…an unusual event to be sure…but an event, nonetheless. (Remember: the world consists of events and only of events. Everything that is real is an ‘event’ and God is real. Therefore, God is an event.)
God is present to every event, and every event is present to God. What we refer to as ‘time’ (or spacetime) is merely an artificial way of ordering the events that constitute the world. Since God is present to every event and every event is present to God, God cannot be ‘ordered’ with respect to any other event. In fact, because they are co-present with God, events ultimately cannot be ordered, even with respect to one another.
God simply cannot be understood in terms of time…and therefore neither can the world. Like the values that constitute God’s essence, God must be a-temporal, i.e. eternal. Therefore, since all events are ‘present’ to the eternal God, the events that constitute God’s actual world must also be a-temporal, eternal.
So, God is the context in which all other events arise (creation) and at the same time, those other events are the context (actual world) in which God operates (Incarnation/Eucharist/Parousia). Therefore, God embodies both the eternal values that inspire all events and the actual world that consists of those events.
Now remember what we said earlier about events: “every novel event seeks to improve the actual world it inherits.” God is an event, and so God, too, seeks to improve his actual world; but how does ‘improving the actual world’ translate into ‘redeeming the actual world’…without compromising the existential freedom that characterizes that world?
To understand this, we need to turn briefly to Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine). Augustine noted that because God is Being and God is Good, Being must be Good and if Being is Good, non-Being must be not-Good. Therefore, what is ‘not-Good,’ i.e. what is evil, must be a deprivation of Being, a hole in the ‘donut’ that is the world.
Therefore, as God embodies his actual world, he seeks to harmonize that world with the eternal values and in so doing, he ‘redeems’ that portion of every event that is good, i.e. that is real. However, it turns out that that is 100% of the event itself, since the aspect of an event that is ‘not-good’ is ‘not-real’ and therefore not part of the event in the first place.
When we think of a donut, we think of the torus and the hole; but when God thinks of a ‘donut’ (metaphorically), he thinks only of the torus. God is Being; there are no ‘holes’ in his world.
Think of the nexus of events that constitutes the world as a stack of Swiss cheese slices. Every slice includes some cheese, but every slice also includes some holes. Some slices are almost all cheese, other slices are mostly holes; but in either case, we eat the slice and enjoy the flavor and the nourishment it offers. Mid-bite, we care nothing for wholes & holes. Likewise, every event is redeemed by and in God.
So, God embodies every event (his actual world) and seeks to improve that actual world according to the eternal values. However, while other events might be distracted from the eternal values by secular ‘pseudo-values,’ the eternal values constitute God’s essence. So, God cannot be distracted, God cannot commit the sin of idolatry.
God harmonizes the events that constitute his actual world according to the eternal values that constitute his essence. In that way, God acts to improve the actual world he inherits. Ultimately, the events that constitute the world come to instantiate perfectly the eternal values. That is what we call the ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’
But the Kingdom of Heaven is not passive! As we noted earlier, God is an element in the actual world of every other event, just as every other event is an element in the actual world of God.
God’s ‘primordial nature’ consists of the eternal values, but God’s ‘ultimate nature’ includes the events in his actual world, harmonized according to his eternal values, into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom (God’s ultimate nature), therefore, is part of the actual world of every other event. Every event incorporates the Kingdom as part of what it inherits from its actual world. The role of the Kingdom in the evolution of an event is what we refer to as God’s “Providence.”
So, the distractions of the world notwithstanding, every event enjoys inspiration via eternal values and guidance via the Kingdom of Heaven. This is what The Lord’s Prayer means when it says, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Thy will! The events that constitute the world, harmonized to instantiate the eternal values, are God’s will. In that sense, we can say that God wills the events that constitute the world, even though God does not in any way cause those events to occur. The events that come to constitute the world may occur in any way whatsoever, but once having occurred, they are harmonized with each other (peace) and with the eternal values (justice) so that they become ‘God’s will’ and so that “God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15: 28).
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.