Back when Isaac Newton reigned supreme in the world of physics, it was popular among scientists and philosophers to think of the universe as a vast machine grinding along on an inevitable path that could be fully predicted into the distant future if its present state and motion could be fully described.
Then came the 20th century, and people like Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger said, “Not so fast! There’s randomness and uncertainty built right into the structure of the universe!” Albert Einstein, who himself had a major part in unseating Newton as the final arbiter of the nature of physical reality, didn’t much like quantum theory precisely because of that element of random chance, prompting him to say famously that God “is not playing at dice.”
What do these new developments in physics say about God? If the universe is not machine-like and deterministic, but has uncertainty built right into it, doesn’t that mean God isn’t in control?
Some scientists and secular philosophers say that our recent discoveries about the nature of the universe show that there cannot be a God because the random, non-deterministic nature of quantum physics is incompatible with an omniscient and omnipotent Creator God.
But as a long-time fan of science, astronomy, and cosmology, my growing conviction is that God purposely designed the physical universe with a certain amount of randomness and freedom. In fact, I now think that a fully deterministic universe, with God as its puppetmaster, would be unable to achieve the goals for which God created it.
God is not a puppetmaster and dictator, controlling every move of every atom in the universe. Rather, God is an architect, manager, and friend to the universe and everything in it.
Human beings are non-deterministic
Though some people argue the opposite, it is clear to me that the human universe is not deterministic.
God created human beings with free will and freedom of choice. And if that freedom is real—as I believe it is—and not a mere illusion, then this means we can make choices that God does not decide and determine. Further, it means that our freely made choices change the course of events not only in time here in this world, but to eternity in the spiritual world.
This means that at least one segment of the created universe—humanity—is not deterministic, but has an element of “randomness” to it that God doesn’t control.
So why can’t other created things be non-deterministic?
If God can create one part of the universe non-deterministic, why can’t God create other parts of the universe that way, too? Why can’t God create the entire universe so that it is able to do things on its own initiative?
We are continually discovering that God’s creation is far more complex and intricate than we ever could have imagined before. Perhaps modern physics, with its quantum mechanics and uncertainty principle, is simply showing us that God is able to think and create in ways that go far beyond the old mechanistic determinism of Newton & Co.
The element of randomness and non-determinism that modern physics sees in the physical universe is an analog of the free will that God has given to human beings as a core element of our very humanity. And if quantum theory is correct, that randomness is just as fundamental to the physical universe as free will is to human beings.
Free will vs. God’s omniscience
The main argument against free will is that it is incompatible with God’s omniscience. Here’s how the argument goes:
If God is omniscient, then God knows everything that’s going to happen. And if God knows what’s going to happen, then God knows what I’m going to choose. So if God already knows what I’m going to choose, I don’t really have choice at all, because it’s all determined in God’s mind beforehand.
This argument has two fatal flaws:
- God does not see things beforehand. God sees things from outside of time.
- Knowing is not the same as causing.
To take the second first, I know that if I hold a book up in the air and let go of it, it will fall to the floor. But my knowledge doesn’t cause it to fall; gravity does. Similarly, God’s knowledge of what our choices will be does not mean God causes us to make those choices.
The first is a little trickier to wrap our minds around. We live our lives embedded in time and space here in the material universe, so it’s very hard for us to think outside of time and space. We think of an omniscient God as knowing things before they happen.
But that’s not how it works.
God simply sees all things that to us are past, present, and future from an eternal perspective outside of time. So God’s seeing things that to us are in the future doesn’t cause that future any more than my looking out the window and seeing a tree causes the tree to be there.
Our choices and actions unfold in time. God sees them all from outside of time.
We make the choices. God simply sees the choices we make.
Is God in control of the universe?
But if human beings, and the universe as a whole, can do things that God didn’t make them do, doesn’t this mean that God is not in control of the universe? Doesn’t it mean that God really isn’t omnipotent and all-powerful?
If we think that God being “in control” means that God minutely decides every single thing that happens in the universe, then God is not in control of the universe. Humans, at least, have free will, and can decide to do things that God doesn’t want them to do. And it now appears that the physical universe, too, can act in random ways.
But if we’re going to expand our understanding of the universe, then we must also expand our understanding of God’s power.
What is omnipotence?
In the old mechanistic view, “omnipotence” means that God decides every single thing that happens in the universe. In traditional Christianity, this idea has led some churches, especially Calvinist ones, to say that humans don’t have free will. These churches say that God had already decided before Creation which of us will go to heaven and which will go to hell—and that there’s nothing we can do about it.
Meanwhile, skeptics and atheists like to propose “omnipotence paradoxes” such as, “Can God create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it?” They think these so-called paradoxes are logical proofs that an omnipotent God can’t possibly exist.
But these ways of thinking are based on a very flat and limited view of omnipotence.
Here is a better view:
God’s omnipotence means that God is able to accomplish everything God wants to accomplish.
The so-called “omnipotence paradoxes” assume that omnipotence must include the ability to do contradictory things. But as Jesus said:
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. (Mark 3:24–25)
Doing stupid, contradictory, and self-defeating things is not omnipotence, but impotence.
Real power, and real omnipotence, is the ability to get things done.
And if one of the things God wants to get done is to create beings that have some freedom and a sense of autonomy from God, then that is part of God’s omnipotence.
The power to create a non-deterministic universe
The old way of thinking about God binds God to obeying our limited human conceptions of how the universe works, and what “power” and “omnipotence” mean.
But God is far beyond our human conceptions of things. And God does not require our understanding or our intellectual assent to go about creating the universe in the way that God wants to create it, in order to accomplish the purposes God has in mind.
What if an integral part of God’s purpose involves creating a universe that is not deterministic, but has a will of its own, and is able to act on its own initiative? What if God wants us to have free will, and wants the rest of the universe to have its own type of freedom, too? Who are we to say, “No, God! You have to control everything!!!”
God doesn’t want to control everything
There is a very good reason God’s omnipotence is not what we commonly think it is: controlling every single thing in the universe.
God’s omnipotence flows from God’s love. And God’s love wants to love other beings outside of itself. In other words, God’s love is not inward-looking and self-absorbed, but outward-looking and interpersonal.
If God were to control and direct every single thing in the universe right down to the smallest details, the universe would be a mere extension of God. It would be part of God. It would be God.
There would still be no other beings for God to love and be in relationship with.
So God created beings that can act on their own initiative, from a freedom that is a core part of their being. God created beings that God doesn’t entirely control because God doesn’t want to control everything. Instead, God wants to be in a relationship with the beings God has created.
A universe with a will of its own
For the universe, and humans in it, to be in relationship with God, and not just an extension of God, they must have a will of their own. That is the core element that makes them not God.
This “will of their own” reaches its peak in human beings. We have a conscious moral and spiritual free will that enables us to think, feel, and act as we choose. No, we’re not radically free. But we do have a zone of freedom within the boundaries set by our genetics and environment. And within that zone of freedom, we can make choices that determine the course of our life.
Animals do not have the spiritual awareness and moral free will that humans have. But they do have a certain freedom to act that doesn’t seem to be entirely determined by instinct and environment. Pet-owners know that each pet has a particular character and personality. Each one seeks out the things it likes, avoids the things it doesn’t like, and does things—sometimes surprising things—that express its own individual character.
In the plant realm, the ability to live and grow from a seed into a plant, each of its own kind, and to respond to the conditions of soil, warmth, and sunlight, expresses something of that free will and freedom of choice.
Even in the mineral, or non-living realm, the uncertainty principle and the basic randomness of the underlying physical structure of reality is an analog of human free will. Why does a crystal grow this way instead of that way? It may not be quite as deterministic as scientists previously thought.
God’s sovereignty over the universe is not one that involves God dictating and determining every last move that the universe makes. Instead, it involves designing a universe that acts on its own initiative, while drawing on God’s power and God’s design in doing so.
God stays engaged with the universe
This does not mean that God just “winds up” the universe and then lets it run independently, as Deism holds. Rather, God gives the universe a certain amount of freedom, and yet stays in continual relationship with the universe as it moves forward with that freedom.
The universe carries out God’s will, not because it is deterministically programmed to do so, but because the universe has the capability to do so given to it by God, and it exercises that capability on its own initiative, but still drawing on God’s power and God’s design—or more abstractly, God’s love and wisdom—to do it.
Without God giving the universe that power and guidance, the universe could do nothing at all, nor could it even stay in existence. God maintains the entire universe in existence from one nanosecond to the next by flowing in with God’s love, which powers the universe, and God’s wisdom, on which the universe draws to guide itself as it moves forward.
God as CEO
To use an example from contemporary human society, consider the CEO of a company in relation to all of the company’s managers and workers. The CEO sets the goals, tone, and direction of the company. The managers and workers draw on those goals, that tone, and that direction, acting on their own initiative to carry out the company’s goals as set from the top.
Without a CEO at its head, the company would fall into division, disorder, and chaos.
But if the CEO were to personally do and run every single thing throughout the entire company, its ability to provide its goods and services would be severely limited.
Companies need managers and employees who can understand what the company is doing—or at least what needs to be done in their particular corner of the company—and take the initiative to get that work done.
God runs the universe more like a CEO than like a puppetmaster or dictator.
(For you Swedenborg readers out there, see True Christianity #153–154 for a great discussion on this theme.)
God creates other beings to love
In creating the universe with a certain independence of will, thought, and motion, God has created a universe that God can love as another being who is not God.
If there is randomness and indeterminacy in the universe, as physicists now think, that’s not a flaw in the system or a strike against God’s omnipotence. Rather, it is a key part of God getting something done.
And what God wanted to get done was to create a universe with beings in it who can be in a mutual and freely chosen relationship with God. This means they can’t be fully determined by God, but must be able to act on their own initiative, with a certain amount of freedom, in order to have a self that is distinct from God’s self, from which they can be in relationship with God.
Creating by putting limits on what comes from God
According to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), the way that God created the universe as an entity distinct from God was to put limits on substances that flow out from God’s infinite substance. In the very act of imposing these limits or boundaries, God created something that was no longer God because it was finite, and not infinite as God is.
Here is how Swedenborg puts it in a very philosophical passage:
There is an idea in circulation that finite things are not large enough to hold the Infinite and therefore they could not be vessels for the Infinite. On the contrary, points that I made in my works on creation show that God first made his infinity finite in the form of substances put out from himself. The first sphere that surrounds him consists of those substances, and forms the sun of the spiritual world. By means of that sun, he then completed the remaining spheres even to the farthest one, which consists of inert elements. He increasingly limited the world, then, stage by stage. I lay this out here to appease human reason, which never rests until it knows how something was done. (True Christianity #33, italics added)
Gotta love that final line. That pesky human mind! Always wanting to figure things out!
But the main point here is that the very act of creation was one of putting limits on substances that came from God. This caused them no longer to be God, but to be the created universe instead. And putting limits on those substances flowing out from God so that they are no longer God also means that God made the created universe not to be under God’s total and minute control, but rather to be a semi-independent being that can act on its own initiative.
It is only semi-independent because no created thing can exist without God continually holding it in existence, and yet God gave created things a will of their own, from which they act with some level of freedom and self-determination.
Humans are the fullest expression of God’s love
In the segment of the universe we know about, humans are the only beings that are consciously free and in a conscious relationship with God. That’s why humans are the only beings who fully achieve God’s purpose in creating a universe that can be in relationship with God.
Because humans are the only created beings who have the higher levels of spiritual reality that give us the ability know about God and spiritual reality. In order to be in a fully mutual relationship with God, you really do have to be able to think about God and have a conscious relationship with God. Humans also have the highest level of spiritual reality, which gives us the ability to love God. The ability to know and love God is precisely what makes it possible for us to be in an eternal relationship with God in heaven.
The lower levels of the created universe—animal, plant, and mineral—each have their own analogs of freedom that enable them to act with a more limited self-determination within their own domain. They, too, are beings distinct from God and in a relationship with God, even if that relationship is not a conscious one.
Nature acts on its own initiative to do God’s will
What I am suggesting is that God specifically designed the universe to act on its own initiative, according to its own “will” and its own rules as given to it by God, and that this is a necessary part of accomplishing God’s eternal purposes.
And yet God is continually present with all of those atoms, in relationship with them, and giving them a direction and goal that prompts them to act on their own initiative to carry out God’s overall plan. In other words, it’s not a matter of the universe spinning out of God’s control. Rather, it’s a matter of the universe acting on its own initiative in such a way that it carries out God’s goals.
That is the true beauty and power of God’s omnipotence in relationship with the created universe. God doesn’t have to be a puppetmaster pulling all of the strings that make the universe dance. God has created a universe that is able and willing to accomplish God’s purposes by acting from the forces and according to the laws with which God created it.
The universe and its many and varied parts is like those managers and workers who act on their own initiative, according to their own knowledge and experience, to provide their company’s products and services to its customers according to the vision and goals set by the CEO.
What about natural disasters?
This throws some light on the perennial question of God’s presence and role in natural disasters.
Is God sitting in some heavenly control room pushing a near infinity of buttons at near infinite speeds to bring about each specific earthquake, tornado, hurricane, or other natural disaster that happens on earth?
I don’t think so.
Rather, God designed the universe with a certain set of laws and a certain level of autonomy so that the universe acts according to its own “internalized” rules, and from its own freedom or randomness, to produce various events, including natural disasters.
However, even if God doesn’t personally orchestrate every natural disaster, God is present in those natural disasters, using them to carry out God’s greater purposes—which involve our eternal happiness and wellbeing.
As terrible as natural disasters are for the human communities that experience them, they also bring about some of the greatest and most heroic human actions in giving help and aid to our fellow human beings. As we survey the death toll and mobilize to give aid to the survivors, we develop a deeper sense of compassion and a greater dedication to the welfare and happiness of our fellow travelers here on earth.
And that is one of the ways we grow into angels of heaven.
What God designed the universe to do
God designed this universe with a specific purpose in mind.
That purpose is to provide a setting in which we can grow, through the many challenges that nature and human society throw at us, into beings of love, wisdom, compassion, and the ability to care for our fellow human beings and for the world in which we live.
When, through the trials and challenges of life, we choose to give love, compassion, and service to the people and the world around us, we are acting on our own initiative to carry out God’s primary purpose in creating the universe. That purpose is to build an eternal community of angels in heaven who live to love and serve God and one another and to give each other joy and happiness, each in our own unique way.
(Note: This post is based on a comment or two following up on the article, “Are Deaths from Natural Disasters an Unavoidable Side-Effect of God’s Creation?” Many thanks to readers Rami, Richard Neer, and Alex, who sparked the discussion and asked the questions that prompted me to crystallize these thoughts in my mind and write them down.)
For further reading:
- Containers for God
- If God Already Knows What We’re Going to Do, How Can We Have Free Will?
- How did God Create the Universe? Was the World Really Created in Six Days?
- On Pluto, Atoms, and Other Things (such as Heaven) that Just Keep Getting More Complex
- How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People? Part 1
- Is Hurricane Sandy God’s Punishment on the Wicked?
- God Is Unconvincing To Smart Folks? – Part 1
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth
Excellent article, Lee. This article came at just the right time in my life and is much appreciated.
Thanks. Glad that one hit home for you! Quite a bit of it represents new developments in my own thinking and understanding of things.
Hi Lee, thanks for the engaging read.
What I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around is how God facilitates His plan for each person not simply through autonomous processes like the ones you described, but through the autonomous free will of other people.
Imagine a scenario in which you drive up to a certain place at a certain time and discover a parking spot that immediately results in crossing paths with someone that winds up changing your life in a way that can only be seen as providential. The number of factors that were involved in this precisely timed intersection of two people are incalculable. The way other people were driving, the people who were crossing the street several miles back, the layout of the neighborhoods, even so much the conditions of the streets.
All of these incredibly minute details appear to have factored into (if not culminated with) something far more significant that would occur later, and all of them are the result of freely willed decisions that other people made. Someone backing out of a driveway that required you to slow down ever so slightly, the decision of someone to leave their parking spot, and all the details that resulted in them being there in the first place. The decision to put a stop sign or a bike lane in a specific place, or the very fact that a business exists on that street and the sequence of events that resulted in you knowing about it.
The reason I’m articulating all these little details is not to suggest in some way that God doesn’t have power to direct the unfathomable number of them, but rather to point out that all of them reflect the neutral free will of other human beings, and I’m wondering how God works through the free will of so many people for the benefit of all people equally. God has a plan for me, but He also has a plan for all of the other people who unknowingly are factoring into mine, and I’m wondering how the life-course of all people is balanced equally.
At the same time, God works within the boundaries of free will and the natural autonomous laws of the universe, and while I hope I’m not repeating something I asked earlier, does this put limits on the extent that God is able to intervene in our lives? Imagine you need a job, and there’s a person who, should you cross paths with them, could offer you one. But you never do, because the big and small decisions of your lives prevent that from ever happening. Would God have *liked* for you two to meet, but it wasn’t possible without breaking free will? Or maybe you or the other person was influenced to be at a certain time and place, but resisted? Or maybe God’s plan for both of you was different, and the opportunities awaiting you are to be found later, and elsewhere. This calls into the question the idea of something that was ‘meant to be’ versus ‘needs to be.’
Maybe another, more succinct way to phrase what I’m getting at: I realize God can and does work through free will so as to open a door for us and direct us on our plan, but I’m wondering if those doors and plan are based on the decisions of other people. So much of what happens in our lives involves being at the right time, but God will influence people only as much as they’re willing to be influence, so does that limit God’s ability to provide and answer prayers? As I said in an earlier post, I don’t believe that avoiding hardship is at all the point of why we’re here, but I’m wondering if some hardships occur because there simply was no way to avoid it without violating free will and natural law.
I don’t claim to know how God manages to juggle all of billions of factors that influence all of the billions of people that bring about this or that encounter or experience. I’m just glad I’m not the one that has to figure it all out! 🙂
One thought that does come to mind, however, is that in the spiritual world there is not what we call space, but rather closeness or distance based on common loves and common interests, or lack thereof. Meanwhile, we humans on earth, though we’re generally conscious only in the physical world, also exist in the spiritual world even if we’re not aware of it. So the interactions that take place consciously for angels and spirits take place mostly unconsciously for us. Perhaps when we have that “chance encounter” that seems like it was just a fluke, what’s happening is that the spirits of the people involved are intersecting in the spiritual world, which subtly prompts them to take paths and actions in the physical world that brings them together here.
In general, God does not make big, overt intrusions into the physical world to rearrange things to make things happen. Rather, God acts into the human heart, and perhaps also into the hearts of animals as well, subtly prompting us to say and do things that lead us into the situations and to meet the people that we need in order to move forward on our spiritual journey. That inner prompting doesn’t violate our free will because when we feel that urge, we can (and often do) say, “No, I’m not going to say or do that.” So back to your question, it’s quite possible that God subtly prompts us to drive faster or slower, or to take a little detour, or to go back home to get something we forgot, in order to “move us into position,” so to speak, for some “chance” encounter that will change our lives.
And yes, the decisions of other people do affect our life and our path. Some of those influences cause us pain and suffering that we must endure and recover from. Others cause us joy and inspiration that speed us along on our path. That’s part of being human, and of living embedded in a human community. We are not islands unto ourselves. And though each one of us chooses heaven or hell for ourselves, our actions can and do have lasting effects on the people around us.
However, I would also point out that if God prompts one person to do something that would have a profoundly good effect on us, and that person says, “Nah, I think I’ll have a bag of potato chips instead,” God may simply move on to someone else and prompt them in the same direction. God has many different ways to get things done. So yes, we can limit God’s ability to carry out God’s will for us by our non-cooperation. But that doesn’t mean we stop God altogether. God just moves on to Plan B. And I’m sure there aren’t enough letters in the alphabet to cover all of God’s contingency plans.
And finally, on your last question in your second comment, when Swedenborg speaks of God permitting bad things to happen, a major emphasis of his is that God will not prevent something bad from happening if it would violate our free will, and in tandem with that if the long-term effects of preventing it would be even worse than those of allowing it. These two are in tandem because our spiritual rebirth, or “regeneration” in traditional terms, can happen only when we are in a state of freedom. If God were to prevent us from acting the way we want to act, or prevent bad results of our actions, that could harm our spiritual rebirth in various ways, including suppressing our ability to freely choose heaven over hell, and taking away an opportunity to learn what our evil thoughts and desires lead to by preventing us from experiencing the results of acting upon them. We humans commonly learn only by hard experience of the painful and sometimes disastrous results of our bad impulses and bad decisions. Preventing all of the harm we humans do to each other would also prevent us from learning why God gave us the prohibitions and commandments God did.
Hi Lee, thanks for your reply. I think I’m here with these questions because this insanely paranoid part of me twinges with a feeling that God’s help is only as good as people are willing to do His work. Or even just so much as them making neutral decisions that don’t put them in a position to do His work.
Someone goes hiking in a remote area, slips and is immobilized from their injuries, and prays for help. God would like to send a passerby through that area, but it just happens, understandably, that there’s no one who freely chose to live or be in that area at the same time. Or maybe there is someone available, but they’re not able to help to the extent that God would like to see them helped. Or maybe if no one helps and they suffer and die as a result of their injury, it was meant to be, as God would have prevented them from going hiking in the first place if this tragedy wasn’t meant to happen (unless they can resist that influence)?
I feel like a terrible soul feeling this way and asking this, but I’ve always had a problem with a minority of nay sayers affecting my faith and confidence in things, and I guess I’m just looking for some kind of confirmation that God not only designed everything and everyone with a purpose in mind, but is ALWAYS- no matter how, where, and what the wind blows- is able to accomplish that purpose as fully as is intended, even if that purpose involves just letting things happen autonomously.
I would say that God is able to accomplish God’s purposes in human lives exactly as much as humans are willing to have God work in their lives. There is a statement somewhere in Swedenborg’s writings to the effect that God always flows into us at the precise level we are willing to accept. Any less than that would mean that God is stingy, and doesn’t fully love us. Any more than that would violate our free will and take away our autonomy, not to mention being painful to us because it’s more than we can bear. So God always gives us exactly as much as we are willing to receive, spiritually.
Further, God doesn’t want to give us any more than we’re willing to receive, precisely because that would give us pain instead of joy. It would be like shining a high-powered flashlight straight into our eyes, or giving us “warmth” via a blast from a flamethrower. Too much light and heat, both physically and spiritually, is painful or even fatal to us. And God wants to give us happiness and joy, not pain and death. So once again, God gives us exactly as much as we’re willing to receive. This is true both individually and collectively—both in the lives of individual human beings and in the lives of whole communities and nations.
So although it may seem as if “God could do more,” God won’t do more unless we’re ready and willing to have God do more. Our relationship with God must be a mutual one.
About issues of life and death such as suffering an immobilizing injury on a remote trail, it’s good to keep in mind that what happens to us in the afterlife is based on the whole pattern of our life, and its cumulative effects on our character. And as long as we’re going in a generally good direction at the time of our death, we will have happiness in the afterlife. So even if we might have made further progress in our spiritual growth here on earth, and perhaps attained a higher heaven and deeper bliss, if we die at an earlier age we will still have the greatest amount of joy that we can accept based on how far we had gotten here on earth. And the joy that even the lowest angels in heaven experience on a day-to-day basis far surpasses what even the happiest of people living here on earth do. So the difference is about like the difference between enjoying a triple luscious chocolate fudge cake and a quadruple luscious chocolate fudge cake. They’re both pretty darn good! (Assuming you like chocolate fudge cake. 😉 )
As for the general paranoia, though I certainly hope these answers help, the only way we gain a solid assurance and faith is through ongoing life experience, and finding that month after month and year after year things do work out, and the world doesn’t fall apart at the seams. Or if our world does fall apart at the seams, finding that if we keep at it, we move beyond that particular crisis toward something better than what we had before. Faith develops over time, not instantly. And it develops based on seeing God working in our life in small and large ways over the years, and continually guiding us forward on our path.
And usually we see God’s hand in our lives only in hindsight. That is one of the meanings of this passage in Exodus:
We don’t usually see God’s “face,” meaning seeing what God is doing before and during the time God is doing it, but rather God’s “back,” meaning what God has done after God has “passed by,” meaning seeing what God has done after the events have already happened.
One of the reasons for this, Swedenborg says, is that if we saw what God was doing while God was doing it, we would either get angry at God and resist God’s work in our life because it goes contrary to what we think we want for ourselves (much of which really wouldn’t be very good for us in the long term), or we would think we are smarter than God, and would keep lousing up God’s work in our lives by trying to one-up God. So God “covers us with God’s hand” in our present, while God is doing things in our life, and only takes that hand away when God has already done what needs to be done. Then we can look back and see, with some perspective, what God did and why God did it.
Hi Lee, I don’t mean to unnecessarily emphasize this point, but with regards to my scenario of injury and no one available to help, I’m actually wondering if this an example where God wants to help but cannot because of the cause-and-effect free choices made by others; that there’s just no one available to send without violating free will, and nothing that can be done without violating the laws of nature. That’s what I meant when I referred to the twisted idea that God can only help you to the extent that other people are willing to cooperate with Him (when it comes to working through other people).
Sometimes we avoid disaster. Sometimes we fly headfirst into it. Sometimes someone comes along to help, other times we’re left alone and reach the end of our lives. I understand what you’re saying about the afterlife, but leading up to that, are rescue and tragedy both things that were meant to be when they happen? That if falling and dying was not something God wanted, you wouldn’t have been there in the first place? I’m wondering if that borders on a kind of fatalism, if true.
At the most fundamental level, I believe that God wants things- and people- to behave freely. Beyond that, when it comes to the specific things we freely do and what freely happen, I’m trying to understand how God looks upon them.
Does He move us into position? Do we move ourselves into position, and He looks upon them with the desire to help, but cannot? Or maybe God does not desire to help (at least in the way we might think) because we’re meant to experience certain things?
I won’t try to prolong this discussion with you, and really, it’s really too overwhelming to think about- I don’t need (nor can I) know every little detail of how things works. I’m just trying to get a handle on the principles that ensure God’s will is always done- even when that involves people refusing to do it.
Since we’re not God, on specific situations we may never know exactly what Gad was doing, and why. Our finite minds simply aren’t capable of comprehending everything God does, and how and why God does it. And on these issues, I can’t give you a nice answer that is going to satisfy all of your fears. As I said earlier, that comes with time.
But in terms of general principles, here are a couple more to consider:
First: God’s will is more complex than just wanting to have a certain end result for each person. God’s will involves engaging with and supporting the free will of each individual, and of smaller and larger groups of human beings collectively. You may be engaging in a false dichotomy between God’s will and our will.
Yes, in a sense, when we refuse to do what God wants us to do, we are blocking God’s will. But that blocking is all one-sided. We put ourselves in opposition to God and God’s will, but God doesn’t put God’s self in opposition to us. Rather, God respects our will and allows us to have it, even while working to lead us in a different direction.
It’s a subtle distinction, I know. But even when we choose evil, there is a sense in which we are not blocking or thwarting God’s will, because God’s will is that we freely choose whether or not to be in a mutual relationship with God, and whether we will choose good or evil. So if we choose evil and hell, or simply not to do something God is prompting us to do or would like us to do, it is still part of God’s will that we should be able to make that choice, even if it’s not the choice God would have made for us.
This is an extension of the general principle that we may turn our backs on God and reject God, but God never turns God’s back on us and rejects us. Even when we choose to live eternally in hell, God continues to love us and to allow us to have as much pleasure in our evil and sordid life as it is possible for us to have.
So when we refuse to do what God wants us to do, in a simple sense we are blocking God’s will in that we are not doing what God wants us to do. But in a more complex sense we are not blocking God’s will, because we are using the ability God gave us—an ability that is essential to our very humanity—to choose the life we wish to have and to enjoy.
Second: The concerns you are speaking of, such as God wanting to save someone who has become immobilized in a remote area, and might die, are closer to human concerns than divine concerns. We humans as a body are heavily focused on life, health, comfort, and pleasure here in this world. So we assume that God would want to save the hiker who fell off a cliff and broke his legs, and will die if no one happens to pass by and notice him there. But although God is not insensitive to our physical health, life, and wellbeing, that’s simply not the perspective from which God looks at the situation. God looks at the situation from an eternal perspective. Meaning God is concerned primarily about the hiker’s eternal life in heaven or hell, and only secondarily for the hiker’s temporary, physical life.
In other words, the criteria God uses to determine whether help is needed are entirely different than our criteria. We see someone physically injured, in pain, and in danger of dying, and immediately and naturally think, “That person needs help!” But God may not see it that way at all. God is evaluating whether this is or isn’t a good time for that person to die, what will be the eternal consequences for that hiker and for everyone else who has any knowledge of that hiker, and so on. The physical death of the hiker is fairly far down the totem pole of God’s priorities, whereas it is right at the top of our priority list.
In short, our priorities are not necessarily God’s priorities.
I understand what you’re saying, but are God’s hands ever tied? That free will prevents God from doing what’s ideal, but rather ‘the best possible thing under the circumstances?’
Is it possible for God to always ensure, say, you get to work at the same time and have the same parking space each and every day? Because that would involve a very specific ordering of the works not just on that particular day, but perhaps weeks, months, or years prior. Not that I don’t believe God could do this, but I’m still trying to understand how all these trillions of details can be ordered for each person while keeping their preserving their respective paths (unless of courses each thing and everyone is connected in this mind-bogglingly intricate dance).
But just to bring perspective to my first question, ‘under the circumstance’ doesn’t mean that God is prevented from doing something He wants, because those circumstances of free will and natural cause are the truth of our physical existences.
God’s hands are not tied. But as I said, God’s priorities are different from our priorities. It’s not that God theoretically couldn’t ensure that the same parking space is available to you at work each day. It’s that this is not something God has any interest in doing.
As I said in the article, God’s omnipotence does not mean God can and will do just any old thing, including contradictory things, or in this case, trivial and unimportant things. Rather, God’s omnipotence means that God is able to do everything God wants to do. And what God primarily wants to do is to love us and give us happiness. Not just temporary happiness, but eternal happiness. And that means giving us the freedom to choose what sort of happiness we want to have—even if the “happiness” we choose is not really happiness at all, but a sick pleasure gained from indulging in evil desires and actions.
God’s will and God’s omnipotence will never violate human free will because human free will is essential to God achieving God’s goals for the universe and for the human beings in it. This means that “the circumstances” into which God acts are integral to what God does. “The circumstances” don’t prevent God from doing what God wants to do. “The circumstances” are the free will choices that we humans make, which is part of what God wants to do.
The main point of the above article is that God has intentionally stepped back a bit from the created universe in order to give it a will of its own and the ability to act on its own initiative, even if the power to do so always comes from God. It is part of God’s omnipotence that God was able to create a universe that God does not totally control. If God had made a universe that God totally controls, then that universe would have been a mere extension of God, not something God could be in relationship with. And God wanted a universe that God could be in relationship with, and love, not a universe that was a mere extension of God.
So the idea that our not cooperating with God in some areas and at some times, or that the universe doing something that is not “ideal” from God’s perspective, means that God’s will is not being done is itself faulty. God purposely created the universe so that it could do things that are “not ideal” by God’s lights. The ability to be “not ideal” is essential to God’s purposes in creating the universe, and humans in it.
Further, even when the universe, or a human being, does something that could have been better, God is still in relationship with the universe, and with that human being, maintaining them in existence, loving them, and giving them everything they need to continue on their chosen path—while still continually beckoning them toward a better and higher path. It is God’s joy to be in relationship with, to love, and yes, to be loved by (if they choose to return God’s love) the beings whom God has created. Real, mutual relationship does not involve one party dictating and controlling everything the other party does, but the two parties each acting from their own will and beliefs, and interacting with one another on that basis.
So “the best possible thing under the circumstances” is that human beings especially, and even the world of nature, act on their own initiative, based on their own character, and in the case of human beings, based on their own freely made choices, and become distinct beings with a self of their own, with which, and with whom, God can be in relationship.
If we were all perfect, we would be a mere extension of God, meaning there would still be no other being for God to love. The very fact that we are limited, finite, and imperfect, including morally and spiritually imperfect, is what makes us not-God, but our own self, so that God can love us as someone other than God’s own self. This does not necessarily mean we have to be outright evil. But it does mean that we will inevitably fall short of perfection, and will always be moving toward God and perfection (if we choose heaven), and never actually reaching God and perfection, but rather continuing to be in an ongoing relationship with God and perfection (which are the same thing).
In short, the very fact that we are imperfect and not ideal according to God’s own internal standards is part of God’s omnipotence in achieving God’s goal in Creation.
Do you think the future development of AI superintelligence will help us discover God?
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and question.
Personally, I doubt AI will have much direct impact on “discovering God.” AI, no matter how sophisticated, has no soul or spiritual component—popular futuristic science fiction to the contrary notwithstanding. AI therefore will have no ability to directly encounter God and spirit, as human beings do.
However, every computer technology developed so far has been put into service for religious purposes, such as making it easy for anyone to search multiple translations of the Bible, aiding religious scholars in their research, writing, and publishing, and making it much easier and less expensive to disseminate religious materials and ideas to the broad public. I presume that AI, as it develops, will similarly be put to work on religious projects as well—for example allowing researchers and ordinary people alike to ask more complex questions based on religious manuscripts and church history than were possible before the advent of AI.
However, to discover God you need human beings, who have the capacity for the higher levels of spiritual awareness that only humans come equipped with. AI is inherently physical in nature and can interact only with physical reality. God is inherently spiritual in nature. Any direct awareness of God can happen only on the spiritual level, which means in the human mind and spirit.
This, at any rate, is my current thinking on the subject.
Hi Lee, I followed your suggestion and read this rather philosophical article of yours. You asked me if I could situate it in other philosophical literature I know. Actually the place where you are writing from, or should I say the specific kind of language (discourse) you use, stands very much on its own, to my view.
There are philosophers of religion who discuss free will of course, loads of them, and quite a few at my own university – but they never do so from the place of being in a continuous exchange with the thoughts of Swedenborg, and neither do they refer so explicitly to the bible. This makes the language that you speak sit between many chairs – you aim to translate words as will and freedom as they are used in science and in philosophy in a way that makes them express thoughts from an inspired source such as the bible, and those from a spiritual reader of the bible like Swedenborg.
There are quite a few ideas I like very much in this piece, like the one that there is contingency and freedom in the universe, which still can be understood to be creation. I also like your inclusive position towards animals, plants and ‘inanimate’ structures.
I question though whether you can identify the undeterminedness of quantum particles with human freedom – but perhaps you didn’t mean to do so, but just see them as analogous.
Also I doubt whether willing and choosing in human beings is the same. I tend to think with Max Scheler that there are levels of what he called ‘value-feeling’, and that the more spiritual our attraction to something is, the less it is a matter of rational choice. I can choose a pair of shoes, but wanting to be close to a loved one is, for example, less a matter of choice. The desire to ‘walk with God’ is even less so. I think the work of Scheler (please look him up, several of his works were translated from German in English) could very well be brought into a conversation with Swedenborg, like Bergson and William James can too.
And then, I think all my life I have had doubts about this dogma of our culture that we are at the top of a hierarchy. Would not the tree, who lives so slowly and silently, yet seems to ‘know’ be superior to us. Should we not better see animals, trees, and natural phenomena as our teachers, rather than as our subjects? I think we would then better reach into the love which you point out rightly to my view is the source from which God created the world. It would also change the way we deal with nature to be more respectful and loving. I think many so called indigenous cultures, without doubting their own special place as human beings, treat other creatures as spiritual teachers, and we ‘modern’ peoples could learn that from them.
Happy to be in conversation with you again, after some absence. I always kept your email on Kant and Swedenborg in my inbox to reply some time to that!
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the article and my question. Swedenborg certainly did draw on many prior philosophical and theological traditions. But his philosophy and theology does seem, as you stay, to “stand on its own.” I’ve had various people say that Swedenborg’s system is an example of this old “heresy” from Christian history, or that old lesser-known mystical or philosophical school of thought. But every time I’ve looked up those “heresies” or schools of thought, I’ve found that though there might be some amount of overlap in their Venn diagrams, the core area of Swedenborg’s “circle” does not overlap, but holds its own unique perspective on the subjects and issues involved.
For my part, as is obvious, I do draw heavily on Swedenborg’s theology and philosophy, having been steeped in it from my youth—as also in the text and narrative of the Bible. However, living as I do a few thousand years after the various books of the Bible were written, and a few hundred years after Swedenborg wrote his scientific, philosophical, and theological writings, I also find myself going in what I think are new directions from my foundations in the Bible and Swedenborg. Some of those new directions are expressed in this article. In particular, I doubt Swedenborg saw the physical universe outside of humanity as having any kind of autonomy from God. I don’t think the science of his day could have supported that concept, as present-day science can.
I do sometimes get curious, however, whether other thinkers have expressed similar concepts. I would continue on this path anyway, regardless of what anyone else thinks, because that’s what I’ve always done from the time I was very young. But I still wonder from time to time whether I’m actually plowing new ground or whether this ground has been plowed before. And I think about whether it would be worth organizing and publishing some of these explorations of mind in a somewhat more permanent book form. If it’s already been said by others, there’s not much need of that. Hence my question to you of whether you’ve encountered these ideas before in your readings in philosophy and religion.
And yes, as I said in the article, I think of quantum indeterminacy, not as actual freedom in the human sense, but as an analog of freedom. My general view is that each part of the created universe has a level of “freedom” that is consonant with its level of existence, or more specifically, with its level of consciousness. I don’t believe quantum fields are actually conscious, so they don’t have the capacity for the sort of free will that human beings do. Quantum indeterminacy seems to describe the level of “freedom” that is possible to that segment of creation, due to its inherent nature.
About free will, this may or may not address your question, but I distinguish at least two major types of freedom: freedom of choice and freedom to act according to one’s will.
The second is, I think, easier both to grasp and to accept philosophically. I believe it is the primary type of freedom that God has, and also the primary kind of freedom that angels, and to a lesser extent, evil spirits have. I don’t think of God as choosing to do one thing rather than another thing. That would imply that God’s will could change, which I don’t think is possible. Rather, I think of God having the freedom to act according to God’s will. And we humans have more or less of that freedom depending upon the nature of particular society we live in, and on how much our will is in accord with or in contrast or conflict with the general will of that society.
Freedom of choice is much thornier both philosophically and theologically. It is primarily, I think, a human freedom, though it may not be entirely absent from the non-human parts of Creation. This is the one that everyone argues about, as to whether it is real or a mere illusion. Swedenborg’s theology, and mine, require it to be real at least for humans for the universe to make sense. And we certainly experience freedom of choice as real.
In general, I would say that although truth, knowledge, and rationality certainly have something to do with freedom of choice, in that they provide guidance about likely outcomes of various choices, really, freedom of choice is primarily a matter of love and of will. It is in our “heart,” or our will, that we ultimately make the choices that determine our direction from that point forward. And in Swedenborg’s telling of it, we make our biggest choices when we are under the greatest spiritual stress, called traditionally “temptation,” or in somewhat more contemporary terms, times of severe spiritual trial and testing. When we are tempted or tested to the point of despair, the direction we go at that point, whether up or down, is a true choice of our will. The “choices” that we make under more ordinary circumstances are more likely the other type of freedom: the freedom to act according to our will.
I did look up Max Scheler, and read the relevant parts of the article about him in the source of all information: Wikipedia. What it says there about his views on “Love and the ‘phenomenological attitude'” does have some interesting parallels to Swedenborg’s views. Is there any particular book of his that’s been translated into English that you’d recommend for my reading as covering some of this material?
William James, of course, grew up as the son of an iconoclastic Swedenborgian. Though he did not become Swedenborgian himself, he was heavily exposed in his youth to Swedenborgian thought of an anti-ecclesiastical variety.
And it appears from a quick Google search that others have explored some of the similarities of Bergson’s thought to Swedenborg’s.
About nature, during my time in seminary over twenty years ago one of the other students there was a Native American who was drawn to Swedenborg especially by Swedenborg’s concepts of correspondences, or spiritual meanings, in the world of nature. In particular, Swedenborg commonly drew a spiritual connection between trees and human beings, as he did with many other living and non-living beings in nature. While I’m not sure that trees actually have wisdom themselves, I do believe that they, and the rest of nature, express great wisdom for those whose eyes and minds are open to see it.
And finally, I presume you’re talking about my high school philosophy term paper on Kant and Swedenborg. I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts on that any time the spirit moves you. That was a long time ago! A lot of water has flowed over the dam since then.
Meanwhile, thanks again for your thoughts and reactions on this article.
Hi Lee, thanks, this comment makes clear more of the nature of your interest in my opinion. There are many reading and thought connections, and I still have to reply to the high school paper. Yes much water has flowed under the bridge, we say in the Netherlands. I will answer you more through email, to try to follow up on some of the reading suggestions I gave. Thanks for your patience! Angela.
Now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense that in the Netherlands you wouldn’t want to casually repeat proverbs about water flowing over dams! 😉 Meanwhile, thanks for your email. You are very kind.
Hi Lee. Thank you for the article.
The way I looked at the omniscience of God and non-determinism of the universe is that God knows all possible outcomes of every random chance. After all, He has perfect information.
However, does that mean he does never intercede? He does though, right? He answers prayers and knowing when something is bad for us, he denies. Just like a parent, He lets us do our thing, but considers our requests and questions, and warns us of evil. If we have the ears to hear, we should do just fine 🙂
I also really liked your phrase about God being able to do all He wills. I consider the omnipotence paradox to be irrelevant. God uses logic and as such logic is subject to His nature. So basically, God’s only limitation is infact His nature. After all, God will not lie or break promises. As for a round square, it is merely a combination of paradoxal words that have no meaning. It is not according to the logic of the Lord and hence it can not exist.
It is a bit tough to explain, but my point is that the only paradox here is to assume that is that something without a neaning can have a meaning.
Have a good day 🙂
Yes, the “God knows all possible outcomes” idea is another way people approach God’s omniscience. I don’t happen to subscribe to it myself, but it seems to work for some people as a way to uphold God’s omniscience while avoiding determinism.
As for God interceding, I think it’s generally more organic than that. It’s not as though God says, “Oops, somethings going wrong there! I’d better make an intervention!” Rather, Got is continually acting into the lower realms of reality (spiritual and material) to accomplish God’s purposes. It’s so pervasive that we mostly don’t even notice it. But sometimes something special that God does catches our attention. Such as coming into the world as Jesus Christ.
And on the final point, people can easily argue themselves into non-belief if they so desire. None of it has anything to do with reality, but some people do build some amazing castles of “logic” way up there in the ozone of ratiocination.
Awesome post! It clarified a lot of things for me. However, I’d like you to tell me more about God’s presence in natural disasters, and how He uses them to carry out greater purposes.
Thanks for your comment, and for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!
You raise a huge topic—and not one that I can do justice to in a comment. In general, though, God is present in natural disasters moving people to aid and have compassion for their fellow human beings in need, and thereby increasing our ability and commitment to loving our neighbor as ourselves. We see after every natural disaster a great outpouring of help and concern. This gets us out of our usual daily ruts and gets us thinking about others and their wellbeing in a big way. Learning to love God by loving and serving our fellow human beings is what our life here on earth is all about.
For those who suffer in the disasters, it gives a different perspective on life—one that a particular person can either grow from spiritually or grow bitter from experiencing. These are the times that try our souls—and in which we make ultimate spiritual decisions about which way we are going to point our heart, mind, and spirit, upward or downward, through the experience of these extraordinary struggles of life.
Meanwhile, here are a few more articles that may through some light in it for you:
If you have any further questions as you read, please don’t hesitate to ask.
If there really is alternate timelines – that is if the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics is true, how would Christ incarnating on Earth figure into that?
Like would He be born in multiple timelines simultaneously, or only one timeline and His incarnation somehow becomes written down in the New Testament of other timelines?
This is really what Swedenborg’s book on other planets is all about: If there are so many inhabited planets (as he and many others in his day believed), why was the Lord born on our particular planet? Because the New Testament is very clear that Jesus is the only Son of God, meaning, if we read the metaphor properly, that this was God’s one and only incarnation. More than one is not necessary, in Swedenborg’s theology, nor do traditional Christians believe God incarnates more than once.
Hindu theology would have less of a problem with this than traditional Christian theology, since it holds that God incarnates multiple times, similar to the Hindu idea of humans reincarnating multiple times. But in Christianity, both God and humans are born only once physically. In our one lifetime we humans accomplish everything necessary to accomplish in the physical world before moving on to our permanent home in the spiritual world, just as in our time in the womb we accomplish everything necessary for our lifetime on earth, and have no need to go back into the womb again.
Similarly, God accomplished everything that was necessary to accomplish in that one lifetime on earth, including “glorifying his humanity,” so that he now has a “divine humanity,” and no need to repeat the process.
As for the multiverse and multiple timelines, count me a skeptic. It’s a cool science fiction plot device, but I doubt it’s how reality works. The multiverse, in particular, seems mostly to be a way to account for how precisely our universe is tuned for our existence to be possible without resorting to a Creator. If there are infinite universes (“the multiverse”), then we just happen to be in one of the right ones because otherwise we wouldn’t be here. It’s more a substitute for God and religion than a serious scientific theory. Some folks just don’t want to resort to believing in a Creator, so they look for other explanations as to why our universe is tuned so perfectly to allow for our existence. But even many secular scientists reject it as unfalsifiable (because other universes will be forever beyond scientific inquiry), and therefore not a real scientific theory.
The idea with multiple timelines I was thinking of is where, for some reason, a new universe or timeline happens any time a waveform function collapses for any particle. Which makes copies of this world and everyone in it, and makes every possible alternate history real in some other timeline. This is different from the idea that there’s different universes with different laws of physics: this theory is different timelines with one universe. I take it this theory is doubtful if each person is unique?
But if the many-worlds-interpretation is right somehow, and time splits every time a waveform of a particle collapses, it does make the incarnation of Christ a bit more complicated.
“waveform” should’ve been “wave function” there BTW
Once again, count me a skeptic. We know of one timeline, which is the one we’re living in.
For those reading in, I should have added a link to this article that at least partially deals with your questions:
Aliens vs. Advent: Swedenborg’s 1758 Book on Extraterrestrial Life