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WHAT PRESBYTERIANS BELIEVE

Free will factors into life’s plot twists

by Cynthia Jarvis | Presbyterians Today

Illustration of a man looking at several doors trying to decide which to enterThe narrator of Geraldine Brooks’ novel “Caleb’s Crossing” asks, “Who are we, really? Are our fates written in full by God before we draw our first breath? Do we make ourselves, by the choices we ourselves make?”

Many Presbyterians have asked those questions, too. What is it that we believe about free will?

According to theologian Robert Jenson, becoming ourselves is “something that happens, and happens exactly as the event of choice and action in which I become something that I was not before.” We are free to choose, he says, but we cannot make ourselves by ourselves. Becoming human is a “joint enterprise rather than a [singular] condition.” I need you to become the human being I may choose to be in response to you.

Does exercising free will then consist in the fact that we can make real choices or does the freedom of our will have to do with the choices we make, in each instance, to be or not to be a human being? Think of something in your life that you did because you could, but when the so-called freedom was seized, it instead seized you and left you diminished, less of a person than you might have been had you chosen otherwise: a word said, a deal made, a reckless risk taken, a brave risk not taken, a small betrayal, a selfish decision, a hidden infidelity, a mean-spirited retort. In each case, you could say that you were free to choose an action or a response to the other, and yet you knew yourself afterward to be enslaved by the choice you made.

From the beginning in a garden until now, we seem to choose a life of selfish license, personally and corporately. Eventually it begins to dawn on us that the choosing at issue in our freedom, and the freedom at issue in our choosing, is not ours but God’s. God, in freedom, has chosen not to be God without us. No matter the detours and dead ends that will comprise our existence, God has chosen us to dwell eternally in the love that God is.

Does this mean we are simply pawns going through the motion of choosing to be or not to be human in every moment? Not exactly. According to Avivah Zornberg, an author and Torah scholar, God achieves God’s purposes “through apparent freedoms to love, to hate, to kill. Yet it is the very nature of life inside a plot that one does not understand the whole structure. God is the omniscient, skillful narrator, whose plot rests, apparently without artifice, on the plausible motivations of the characters.”

Inside the plot, then, our enslaved wills experience freedom in this way. “When you encounter another person, it is as if a question is being put to you. So, you must think, ‘What is the Lord asking of me in this moment?’ If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind,” says the character of John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” adding, “But if you think, as it were, this is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness.” Well, then: Thanks be to God.

The Rev. Cynthia Jarvis is a retired pastor who has served in the PC(USA) for 45 years, 23 of those years as minister and head of staff of The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia.

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