* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Being Chosen: The Incompatibility of Predestination and Free Will

The remainder of the book of Exodus (chapters 35 through 40) goes into meticulous detail about the construction of the tabernacle and the lampstand and the container for the stone tablets God rewrote for Moses -- everything that the Israelites considered necessary to create a sacred place where sacrifices could be offered and worship could take place.  Since we've already discussed the importance of consciously choosing what we are going to make "sacred" in our lives, these chapters do not offer much more spiritual meat.  Of course, they would be great resources if you happen to have some gemstones and precious metals lying around and you're looking for a project.  

There is one short paragraph at the end of Exodus 34 in which Moses is described as glowing after he has been in the presence of the divine.  It may be hard to imagine what that looked like, since no one these days seems to get close enough to God to come away from the experience with radiation poisoning, but there are people who visibly exude authority, power, even spiritual depth. Some of this may be good acting, but some people genuinely "shine" when they walk into a room.  They attract attention because of the intensity of their presence.  It's much easier to imagine Moses radiating an intimidating sense of authority and power, even spiritual understanding that surpassed the average Israelite.  After all, Moses was chosen by God.

This may be an opportunity to compare the integrity of radiating from the divine within us with the fleetingness of radiating because we got close to some external source of divine power.  However, I believe that by this point the premise is clear that what we call "divine" is a part of ourselves that we often keep hidden and of which we may even be unaware.  The divine is something we can discover and develop within ourselves rather than an external intelligence who acts to aid or hinder us.  The idea of Moses being "chosen" does provide an opportunity to address one of the logical fallacies about God many people hold to be true, namely the connected concepts of omniscience and predestination.  This topic has been addressed by many others, but that's no reason to avoid it here.

Not all people who claim the label "Christian" believe in predestination, and there are some people who believe in a form of predestination and don't consider themselves to be religious at all.  They call it something else, like Fate, but they mean more or less the same thing, that some force has already chosen a path for our lives.  There is a prevalent belief that if one lives according to this predetermined plan, then one will be happy and successful, and if one goes against this plan, it leads to misery.  In the sense of the Christian concept of God, this idea of predestination springs doctrinally from two sources.  The first is the belief that God is omniscient, or has complete knowledge of everything.  The second source is a handful of scriptures which specifically mention predestination.  We'll take a look at the actual biblical passages first.

Although there are many scriptures which suggest that trusting the guidance of the divine is better than ignoring it, there aren't many scriptures that specifically say that everyone's path has been determined in advance by a divine being.  One oft-quoted passage comes from the first chapter Jeremiah: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. Taken in context, it is clear that this is intended to credential Jeremiah specifically, not as a universal message to everybody.  As a part of his final words to his disciples, Jesus is quoted in the book of John as saying, "You did not choose me, but I have chosen you."  Again, in the context of that phrase, it's clear he's talking specifically to the men gathered around him at the time.  So, it's important to recognize the context of biblical passages, even if one chooses to believe that the Bible is completely infallible.  

The clearest support for the idea of predestination comes from the letters of Paul and Peter, who make mention of the concept that before time began, God already had chosen those who would believe in him and have salvation.  Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Romans (8:29-30):
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son . . . And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.  
In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote:
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
Other mentions of predestination by Paul and Peter are along the same lines.  God supposedly selected at least some people ahead of time to be called into religious service.

Again, I want to be very clear that this perspective is not one I espouse as an atheist.  It's one of those concepts that I found difficult to accept even when I considered myself to be a "believer," and there are many different interpretations for the concept even among Christians.  While there are some ways to interpret this that make some theological sense, let's start at the other extreme.  There are some who reason that if God knows all things, then God knows the future of every person.  This would mean that God already knew, before you were born, what job you would have, who you would marry, what your kids would be like, what kind of relationship you would have with your parents, who you would vote for in every election, and, of course, whether you would go to Heaven or Hell when you die.  By this reasoning, God already knew that I would be writing these words and that you would be reading them, before time began.  This perspective eliminates any illusion of personal choice or freedom.  Not only does it make the idea of "saving" or "redeeming" anyone ridiculous, it eradicates the entire concept of personal responsibility.

"Wait a minute," you say, "just because God knows what I'm going to choose doesn't mean I don't have a choice!"  You can't have it both ways.  If God is infallible and knows all things perfectly -- past, present, and future -- then no person has any choice about anything.  If God knows what will happen, every decision has already been determined in advance.  This can be comforting on a certain level.  Whether your job is crappy or sublime, it isn't because of anything you did -- it was foreordained by God.  No matter what kind of spouse or parent you are, there's nothing you could possibly do to change -- it was all determined in advance.  This also means that there's no point in getting bent out of shape about other people's behavior or decisions, since God's foreknowledge prevented them from doing anything differently.  When someone bombs an embassy, drives drunk, drowns a child, overdoses on drugs, or flies a plane into a skyscraper, God knew all along that they would do that, and therefore they had no real choice in the matter.  If they had a choice, then God would have been wrong, and a perfectly omniscient God cannot be wrong.

If this is true, then God also knows far in advance who will believe in him and who won't.  He knows who will go to church for a spiritual experience and who will use religious institutions as fiefdoms of personal power.  He knows who will become Buddhist, who will be Wiccan, and who won't be anything at all.  You can't change what God knows.  There is no point in trying to evangelize if God already knows who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell.  If God is perfectly omniscient, there is no real hope for the hopeless, and there is nothing that the "chosen" can do wrong.  It's great if you consider yourself to be one of the chosen, I suppose.  There is simply no way that this definition of predestination can coexist with the concept of free will.

So maybe God's omniscience is not a past-present-future kind of thing.  Maybe God knows all things that can be known.  So, people still have freedom of choice in every moment, but as soon as the decision is made, God knows.  People always have the opportunity to change course, to reconsider their beliefs and their actions, and thus free will is restored while God's omniscience is preserved.  But what about the idea of predestination?  If God has "chosen" some people, predestined an elect group out of the whole of humanity, then there would still seem to be some limit to human choice in spiritual matters.  You can choose where you're going to work and whom you're going to marry, but God has already decided where you'll spend eternity?  Any level of predestination suggests a certain amount of futility on the part of those not "chosen" while justifying a certain amount of superiority among those who consider themselves to be "chosen."

If you are going to choose to believe in an eternal soul which can be rewarded or punished, and if you are going to choose to believe in a benevolent external intelligence who oversees spiritual matters, there are not many definitions of "predestination" that make sense in the context of a larger belief system.  Incidentally, some Christian theologians conclude that God has predestined everyone for salvation.  Some Christian ministers have been ostracized for preaching a "gospel of inclusion," teaching that all people are destined for Heaven.  It can be comforting to believe that God is working things out according to a plan, that when tragedy strikes, there is still someone in control of everything who loves you.  I would suggest that it's still important to examine how that belief plays out in terms of taking personal responsibility for your decisions and the way that you treat other people.  When concepts like predestination become tools for justifying one's bad behavior or dehumanizing other people, though, they become disconnected from anything divine.  I am confident that our eventual examination of the biblical character of Jesus will bear out that assertion.

Moses was considered to be the divinely-chosen leader for the Israelites.  The leaders of the early church also viewed their positions as divine appointments.  There are plenty of people today who believe that God has "called" them into positions of authority, and who can argue with that?  People in churches do not always view their pastors with the same level of respect, but there is literally no way to refute the claim that a divine power is behind the scenes working to place specific people in positions of authority.  There is also no way to definitively prove that such activity is taking place.  It comes down to a matter of belief without conclusive evidence. 

From my perspective, it makes more sense to conclude that every person embodies divinity, that every person is worthy of my respect, and that I am likewise worthy of respect.  I don't believe in fate or predestination, but I do believe that there is an inner drive that gravitates toward the things that will nurture and fulfill me.  Part of me wrestles with that pull, because the things that I am drawn toward do not always line up neatly with societal expectations or lessons I learned in childhood.  Sometimes I am afraid of where I will end up if I follow that inner drive.  But when I am willing to acknowledge that guidance from within and quiet the obstinate chatter of my fears and the perceived judgment of the world around me, it can look very much like a path is laid out before me.  It is a path of my own design, determined by my own passions and abilities. 

If someone wants to believe that those passions and abilities were bestowed upon me by some outside source, I gain nothing from arguing against that belief.  My own understanding of who I am simply doesn't require any external source.  I am confident that anyone -- regardless of faith tradition or spiritual beliefs -- who fearlessly seeks that guidance from deep within will eventually find it.  I would only qualify that with the assertion that the character of the divine within us embodies an awareness that all people have value and are worthy of respect, ourselves included.  It isn't predestination.  It is always a choice.  And it is, in the deepest sense, true. 


  1. I started reading back through some of your earlier ones that are not scriptual. Sometimes it takes me awhile to get through what you write, but that's ok. I'm always grateful when I stick with you..

    Anyway, I'm thinking on reading this one agin that people may have a purpose or a destiny without it really being because of God or whatever. Some experiences in my life have been very clear pointers to where I think I should be and what I think I should be doing. I also think some people can have an ideal destiny that they avoid and never get to see happen. I like the idea that there is a right path and a wrong path, but maybe you would say that's just an illusion? What would you say about that?

  2. I do think that people can have a special purpose (or purposes) toward which they dedicate their lives. I would also say that some people deny themselves the freedom of pursuing their passions, the things that most inspire them, because they are convinced that they are "supposed" to do something different -- more responsible, more practical, more realistic, or whatever. Some people may find it compelling to believe that a special purpose or the thing that most inspires them originates from God. I understand and respect that perspective, especially if it urges them to do extraordinary things for themselves and the world. My personal perspective is that an inspiring purpose stems from within a person, as a result of their environment, experiences, and the abilities they develop.

    For me, the question of where that spark of inspiration comes from is not as important as the willingness to be inspired by it. In those moments of commitment to an inspiring purpose, it can certainly feel destined or fated. I don't really see a problem with someone thinking of their path as inevitable, but I think you point out an important piece -- people still have to choose to follow that path of inspiration instead of avoiding it. In the end, it's up to each person to contribute in a unique and meaningful way to their own lives and the lives of people around them.

  3. Ok, so I'm getting that you believe people can have a destiny or a "right path" to be satisfied and happy in life, but that destiny is more about what's inside a person than being designed by God or something else super-human. That makes sense so far... I'm still going back and re-re-reading other posts, putting some pieces together.

  4. "Would it not be strange if a universe without purpose accidentally created humans who are so obsessed with purpose?"

    -Sir John Templeton, 'The Humble Approach: Scientists Discover God,' 1998.

  5. Strange, perhaps... but obviously not impossible!
    (It also produced tons of organisms who don't seem concerned about purpose at all, by the way.)

  6. One day we'll discuss just how long the statistical odds are that the universe suddenly popped into existence out of nothing... on top of the odds that life mysteriously sprang into action, within that universe. But the topic of this post is predestination, so I'll focus on that here. :)

    I'm not sure if you're familiar with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but even from a totally secular point of view, it is darn impressive. It outlines, with searing precision, the Catholic faith -- laying it open for all the world to see. If there is a work anything like it in the Protestant world, I'm not aware of it.

    Anyway, it's a tremendous resource both for the Catholic faithful and those who wish to critique it, or in your case, critique Christianity in general.

    Paragraph 600 of the CCC reads:

    "To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of "predestination," he includes in it each person's free response to his grace: 'In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.' (1) For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness. (2)"

    (1) Acts 4:27-28, cf. Psalm 2:1-2
    (2) Cf. Matthew 26:54; John 18:36, 19:11; Acts 3:17-18.

  7. OK. I am tolerant of people who choose to be Catholic (or Christian or Muslim or Wiccan), and I want their faith to be meaningful to them and lead them to contribute incredibly positive things to the world around them. That caveat being out of the way, I will proceed with my bold and blunt-edged opinion: It all seems very silly and unnecessary to me. The Catechism's explanation of predestination is a perfect example of how convoluted religion has to get to explain its own ideas.

    The problem with omniscience is that a god who knows everything cannot be a personal, active reality in people's lives. Omniscience means that a god is powerless to change anything, because everything is already known. If everything is known, then it is unchangeable. If there was a god who knew what will happen next week, he would have no power to change it, and neither would any human being. Which means that if there is an omniscient god, there is no free will. To say that a god could know what all of our choices will be is to say that everything has already been determined for us and that we actually have no choice at all. Free will requires that the future is unknowable.

    At one point in time, the fact that the sun appeared every morning was mythologically significant, as were thunder and birth and a host of other things. When people wound up with questions about the mythology, new stories could be invented to answer those questions, but it all amounted to entertaining and creative storytelling. Did people really believe that someone in a chariot drove the sun across the sky every day? Maybe, but now we think that's silly. So why do we still think that the mythology invented by the early Judeo-Christian practitioners is valid?

    One answer is that the church (by which I mean the Catholic church and many other organized religious institutions) has historically been excellent at preserving power. The idea of a Catechism is to make sure that people don't go off the rails inventing their own beliefs because then the power structure of the church would collapse. And yet, a multitude of Catholics today believe something different than what the church teaches. (I also know Jews and Christians who are convinced that reincarnation is plausible.) No matter how carefully filled in all the holes in the mythology may be, it still doesn't make complete sense to the majority of the people who claim to believe it.

    Trying to explain how God can be all-knowing and in complete control of all things while still allowing for free will winds up sounding like a convoluted physics doctoral thesis that ignores simple logic. It is incredibly convenient to conceptualize a supernatural being that doesn't have to play by any of the observable rules of nature or logic. Such a being could easily be the answer to everything, because the answer doesn't have to make rational sense. But it is also incredibly dangerous to rely on an answer that doesn't make rational sense. It can lead people to irrational conclusions and make irrational actions seem plausible.

    The concept of a god is ultimately not necessary for healthy human existence.