Free Will and Sin

In the conversation that followed the last post, I got a good deal of correction on the nuances of Christian actualist ontology. So part 2 may be coming. And in that fruitful conversation with David, this time about ecclesiology -- which again came down to our choice among pluralisms -- I managed to say something I haven't said before, which I owe to reading more of CD III. And over the last day, including reading Eric Reitan, it's gotten bigger in my mind, to the point where it seems worth hacking out here.

Taken as given: The root of sin is separation from God. The nature of sin is action in separation from God.

Barth speaks about sin as an impossibility, and in connection with his discussion of God as Creator and consequently Lord of creation, it occurs to me that this has radical implications for our talk about sin. In common usage, sin is disobedience to God. But disobedience is possible only to the one who does in fact hear God as Lord. It is the possibility exercised in Jonah. Such disobedience will eventually be reconciled, because the subject is precisely the hearing subject. The word of God follows upon the actions of God, constituting relationship and then faith in relationship. The actions and words of God build the relationship in which obedience is possible -- the sine qua non of obedience.

Disobedience is only possible in those who recognize God as Lord. It is dissonance, but for that reason disobedience is only an off manifestation of resonance: the beat of a creation that is being tuned for right action, or the moiré that appears while otherwise matching patterns are being moved into alignment. Both of these grow more shockingly evident the closer they are to the goal, until they resolve. This is conflict, but it is not privation.

Disobedience is not the primary effect of sin on creation, precisely because it is possible within the relationship between creature and Creator. It is merely a stage in the perfection of the creature. Nor is it properly spoken of as the result of free will. The free will of the creature is not the root of sin; separation from God is the root of sin. Free will is a feature. It is omnicapability, the ability to survive and adapt in a dynamic creation. It belongs to all creaturely being, to the extent that we may understand "will" as the appetite of a faculty. Separation from God simply results in the indeterminacy, and therefore the self-determinacy, of each and every creature.

Here we see the impossibility: the creature rendered insensible to the word of the Creator. The creature as non-responsive before God, as the non-hearing subject of grace. The instrument in which the voice of God finds no resonance. This is the impossibility that results from sin. For how should it be that the creation can stand as though independent in itself from its creator? And yet the impossibility appears.

And yet the creature that cannot perceive God is no less a subject of grace, no less a created instrument, no less a recipient of providence. No less, in fact, an agent of the Creator, though insensibly so, as may be demonstrated scripturally through God's use of neighboring peoples in the pedagogy of Israel and Judah. The Lord of creation is lord of the whole creation, and acts as such.

Does this make those who are so insensate, by which I mean people who are perfectly epistemologically content with their worldview absent God, sinners? The answer must be: not any more so than those whose worldview acknowledges God. We speak here of the effects of sin, and not sin itself. And therefore of a doctrine of original sin, but one which has no necessity for transmission. It is simply the condensation of actuality out of possibility, and the new consequent state of possibility. Of Augustine's four states, non posse peccare was never on the table. Not for Adam, and not for Jesus -- or his obedience is anthropologically meaningless. The original state is one in which posse peccare and posse non peccare were available in a wealth of different directions. The choice that constrains our choice in Adam is precisely the choice to follow the temptation to decide without and against the relationship with God. The choice to eat was not simple disobedience, as though God had said "eat not," and to spite God we ate. The choice was to make the relationship with creatures the determining ethical basis. To draw God outside of the frame of reference, and decide as though he were not in the room -- just as though I were to decide about my relationship with another woman on the basis of my wife simply not being present. As though the relationship had ceased to be, momentarily. As though it could. Which would result in separation from my wife, just as surely as it resulted in separation from God!

At that point, we have actualized a trajectory in which posse non peccare becomes highly unlikely -- until and unless the relationship is re-established. If we chase God and attempt to forge the relationship ourselves, as people for whom it could simply be resumed when we want it again, we demonstrate the persistence of our knowledge that though God may be desirable and even necessary to us, God is not sufficient for us. We are capable of acting at any time etsi Deus non daretur -- and knowledge of God passes out of our existence just as easily as sufficiency did. Righteousness is about relationship, and not being -- and so I can say that it is silly to talk as though original sin were a thing actively transmitted to every organism from Adam, as though it were a positive inheritance, rather than simply a loss over time through the transmission of culture. Hysteresis and gradual decay of signal are simpler and more self-evident realities! The moment relationship with God became a datum, one thing among others, it was halfway to being lost. No amount of selective amplification or feedback looping can preserve it indefinitely -- because it is not a thing or a signal to be transmitted at all!

This is the world in the wake of that choice, the world made impossible as a creation for whom its creator is no longer sufficient, and then no longer necessary, and then no longer acknowledged. A world whose self-belief is in any number of variations on an impossibility. And yet it remains creation. God remains its sufficient Lord, and its sufficient provider. Absent knowledge does not make an absent God. And so when God takes Abraham by the hand, to be the root of the part by which God will redeem the whole, Abraham credits him with lordship, and God credits him with righteousness. The relationship exists. And from that moment on, the relationship grows. It is not special providence, as though God ceased to provide for all of creation; it is relationship with the Provider. It is knowledge of, and the possibility of conscious participation in, the righteous action of God as Lord of creation. Nor, as new creation, is it the reconstitution of the creature into a state of original possibility or final perfection. We remain in the state in which we were called, in the actuality that has resulted from our prior choices -- but we become free with respect to it because of the possibilities available to us in God. We become capable of action and movement unavailable to us without that relationship. We become responsive to the action of God, even if we begin in disobedient or dissonant response. Continued reception of God's action for us in relationship with God tunes our will toward more obediently capable response.

I reject, therefore, the notion that some ways of life are more sinful than others. That some cultures are closer to God than others. That the relationship of God with some for the sake of the whole should mean that the way of life of the few is to be imposed upon the many. All cultures, even those of people in relationship with God, are equally far away from God, and equally close to one another. Every culture, every way of life, every situation in the world is capable of being the place in which the Lord of creation is perceived by the creature, and in which the creature becomes properly a creature in relationship to the Creator, and in which she becomes free to act. The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof. God creates and sustains and provides for every part of it, quite apart from its acknowledgment. Sin has not changed this; it has merely changed the independent scope of our will. And yet as we come to depend on relationship with God, the dependent scope of our will is greater than its independent possibilities.

Relationship with God creates the possibility of church, which is the sphere in which right human action happens in communities of right relationship between creatures and the Creator. Yet because of sin this possibility is never perfectly realized -- except in Jesus Christ, who is himself the divine-human relationship, which generates trust and human community in its wake. In whom there is fullness of possibility, peccare et non peccare in every direction, but whose actuality is chosen at all moments in the sufficiency of relationship with God. Who alone among all creatures is truly free to act as God acts, and who alone among all creatures in life truly did act as God acts, because in him the divine and human natures are united in action. In whom therefore there is no sin, because there is no separation in him between the creature and the Creator, and Jesus refused to act as though there could be.


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