Tuesday, March 22, 2011

God's Will is Not a Triangle

William M. Connolley at the English language Wikipedia
[GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)]
 via Wikimedia Commons
I used to be to be an open theist.

I'm not anymore, and I decided I should do a series of posts as to why. Let me be clear, I think open theism is a valid interpretation of the Christian creed and narrative. I just think it's wrong.

One of the more prominent open theists is Greg Boyd. Though I often disagree with him, I think he's a fantastic theologian, so I follow his blog. Recently, he did a review of The Adjustment Bureau, and used it as an opportunity to discuss his views on divine sovereignty. During the review he said the following:
Indeed, both groups often wallow in the “mystery” (nonsense, in my opinion) of how determinism and free will are “two sides of the same coin.” ... free choices can’t be predetermined for the same reason triangles cannot be round and bachelors cannot be married.
That is basically true when things are put in those terms, but it's also a bit of a straw man. Specifically, in using the terms determinism and free will, Greg Boyd sets up two terms which are, it is true, definitionally opposed. This isn't, however, what those who advocate a "mystery" approach to the relationship between divine and human will are talking about. The divine will controls what happens in the world, we also, in some sense choose. To speak of our choice being logically determined by God's will is to miss the point of the mystery.

To understand this, let's look at one of the parallel examples Boyd gives - the round square. Generally speaking, Christian theologians have held that it would be impossible for God to create a round triangle. God is omnipotent true, but that doesn't mean He can do what is logically impossible. Or, put another way, the round triangle is nonsensical. It doesn't even make sense to ask if God could make it. The definition of triangle excludes round, and vis versa.

On face value, the same thing happens when we talk about wills. If I will to walk down the street, and you will to stop me, only one of us can get our way. Insofar as we understand wills, they can only be compatible if they are both going in the same direction

If God wills that I stop typing right now, and I will that I continue, only one of us can get our way, presumably God, since He is the omnipotent one. How then, is this any different than the case of the triangle? To answer this, I'll have to draw on the resources of Medieval Philosophy.

You see, the Medievals had a very robust doctrine of God's transcendence, perhaps sometimes a bit too robust. The question was, if God is so transcendent, how do we talk about Him? Various answers were given to this, and Thomas Aquinas's is one of my favorites.

Aquinas, borrowing from Aristotle, spoke of the different ways words can predicate. That is, the different ways in which a words can be applied to things. The first of these is univocal predication. When we univocally predicate, we apply the same word to two different things in the same way. When I say I am an animal, and the cow out by the roadside is an animal, I mean the same thing by animal.

Equivocal predication involves things like homonyms. We equivocally predicate "bank" of the side of a river and the financial institution.

Finally, there is analogical predication. A lecture I heard from historian of philosophy Thomas Williams put it this way. Imagine we're at a party, I take you over to someone and introduce him as "my rommate." Now imagine, instead, there is a picture open on my computer screen of a person, you point to it and as "who is that?" and I tell you "my roommate." The same predicate is being used in both cases, but it is being used slightly differently. In the first, the word directly refers to my roommate. In the second, it refers to a picture and through that picture to my roommate.

According to Aquinas, whenever we predicate things of God, we do so analogically. Our understanding of things is derived from the world, and so the meanings of our words derive from that world. God, on the other hand, transcends that world and cannot be spoken of rightly with the same words we speak of that world about. At the same time, that world was created by Him, and nothing exists apart from Him, and so we can speak of him in this analogical way.

The problem with the round triangle is that roundness and triangleness are two things existing in the same space, we're speaking of shape univocally when we talk about them. But things don't work that way with God, or His will. God's will is like our will, but just how that functions is a mystery. That what happens in the world is God's willing, and also our willing, is not impossible, because we do not mean the same thing when we speak of will in each case.