Thursday, September 14, 2006

Thoughts on Predestination


A friend of mine and I were talking the other day, and he mentioned he had stumbled over the concept of predestination recently. It made me stop to consider my own run-ins with this idea and the extent to which I've worked on it as regards my own spiritual life. Though I don't have it completely philosophically integrated, here's what I've got so far.

I grew up in a Christian home; I was raised in an American Baptist church, kind of on the liberal end of a conservative tradition. For example, my mom had a bottle of wine in the refrigerator, we went to all sorts of movies, no one ever said anything about playing cards – but there was definitely no swearing and no smoking.

Anyway, the first time I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and asked Jesus into my heart, I was 5 years old. I had an experience of praying to “recommit” my life to Jesus when I was 8; I think it was because I felt really guilty about something (which I can’t remember now) and I thought I was a “backslider”.

The time that I point to as my actual age-of-reason conversion was when I was 12. I had been involved in a “Bible Club” children’s ministry through the family of my best friend in elementary school, where I learned to pray and read the Bible for myself. One afternoon I was sitting on my bed reading I John, and I came across the part in Chapter 4 where it reads: “If anyone says he loves God but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (v. 20-21). That hit me between the eyes, because I really did hate my brother – and it showed me for the first time that I wasn’t loving God. I’d tried to be a good girl and not get in trouble and everything, and I thought that was enough to be a Christian. At the same time, there were terrible amounts of resentment and hatred building in my heart against my older brother because of how violent he was with my sister and me. (FYI, my older brother Steve was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 16 and has been managed on medication since then.) Anyway, having been confronted with this spiritual truth by the Holy Spirit Himself through the Scriptures, I realized I needed not just to believe, but to change and be changed – and so, that was my first conscious, engaged beginning as a Christian. I was baptized (like a good Baptist) several months later.

Here’s my first encounter with the concept of predestination: When I was 16, I changed schools and started at Catlin Gabel as a sophomore. I’d only had a few close Christian friends in my life up to that time, but now they were all pretty much gone, and none of my new friends shared my faith at all – in fact, one girl attacked me about it fairly regularly. I looked around at other classmates of mine who were smoking (tobacco and other substances), drinking, and sleeping around – and they appeared to be having fun. The thought occurred to me: Why am I sitting around being “moral”, when I could be having fun? As I started to think more about it, I began to resent the fact that I’d been raised as a Christian – I really didn’t know any other sort of life. In my church and at Bible Club, I’d heard about how you had to make a choice to follow Jesus, but I began to see that I was never really given a choice – about big things like this, things that seemed to matter and shape your life. My mom and dad (who both had demanding careers) were a little disengaged at times in my upbringing, but they were very definite about going to church and the importance of being a certain kind of person. I suppose I bought into that in order to be close to them in the midst of the chaos that Steve’s illness brought into the family dynamics. But I began to think seriously about whether I still wanted to be a Christian – and what I would be if I weren’t a Christian.

I had internalized the Baptist adage “once saved, always saved”, but instead of comforting me, it began to make me angry and a little confused. Of course, as a good Christian, I wasn’t supposed to want things that were bad for me, right? If God was so pleased with me being with Him, why wasn’t I happy and joyful all the time? Did that mean that I really wasn’t one of the “chosen”, that I wouldn’t be happy in heaven? What if there was real happiness in a place other than heaven? And if I was predestined for heaven, “eternally secure” as my Sunday school teacher put it, that means I’ve got my “fire insurance policy” and it doesn’t matter what I do between now and when I die because it’s not about works, it’s about faith, right? Does God really know what I’m going to choose before I choose it? If He does, then what does it matter?

After much serious thought and prayer, the way it came down in my 16-year-old mind was this: God is outside of time. We’re not; we have to live through time. So, God knows what we’re going to do, decide, and choose – but we don’t. (Somehow that thought had more force in my head back then than when I look at it here on the page right now.) The fact that humans can’t know the future means that if God is all-knowing, He is in fact sovereign over us.

And, I realized that I only had this one personal identity, this identity as a Christian, built on knowing Jesus. I realized that if I decided not to be a Christian anymore, I’d have to completely rebuild my self-concept from scratch – I’d have to completely scrap my whole life experience up to that point. Because I had read God’s promises in the Bible – things like “If you keep your mind stayed on Me, you will have perfect peace” (Isaiah 26:3) and “If you obey Me, I will bless you” (Job 36:11). I had seen that work in my life. I realized that if I stepped outside of that, there would be no guarantees. If I were to smoke pot or drink or go ‘round with boys, I might be happy – or I might not. With my Christian life, life with God, He was offering me a guarantee – a promise. It dawned on me that if I believed He loved me, then I had to trust Him – even if it meant giving up these other pathways to happiness, that for all I knew really would make me happy (though in hindsight, I can see that such happiness would have only been temporary).

I suppose you could draw a couple of conclusions from this: either that I was just stuck with being a Christian because I didn’t really have the courage to try anything else, or that I couldn’t leave Jesus because I knew deep down that, despite everything, He really loved me. I suppose that both are true in a sense.

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I recognize that in principle, there’s still an existential tension between God’s omniscience and the threat it poses to the meaning of human choices. The following analogy resonates the best with me presently on this score:

God is the Author of the book in which we are all characters. From His perspective, it’s as if we were two-dimensional, living only on the page in the mind of God and any readers. As the pages turn, we live our lives and make our choices, and we reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of those choices. We can’t skip ahead in the book and see what’s to come, what certain choices will bring; we can’t turn back and undo things that didn’t turn out as we would have liked. God is the one who in that mysterious Other Dimension creates us in His mind and writes us and our lives on the page, fleshing us out and making us real, fully human, present to ourselves and to others. He can skip ahead or go back, or enter or observe our timeline at whatever point He chooses. He remains in ultimate control as the Creator and Author of human history, but because our character and nature as humans is reflective of His, He allows us the small reflection of His limitless power over the universe which we call free will. As far as we who live “in the book” (i.e. in the space/time continuum) are concerned, though this power over the course of our lives isn’t absolute like God’s, it is quite real, because God made it as part of our human nature.

It’s tempting to cop an attitude about God’s sovereignty and resent the fact that He didn’t give us ultimate power over our own lives, and then do a passive/aggressive thing of refusing to use the power of will that He did give us to order, control, and shape ourselves and our world – we shirk our responsibilities to act/contribute to the world and end up slacking (spiritually speaking), like a petulant, morose, full-of-himself adolescent. I think we make a mistake when we don’t regard free will with the dignity that God gives it. After all, God really allows us to do stuff – to build things, to invent things, to be mini-creators. Our free will, our freedom, is a good thing, given to us so that we can reach our potential as human beings for God’s glory; St. Augustine said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Freedom is not to be pissed away and squandered on things that don’t build up, nor to be pissed on and left to atrophy. It’s part of the image of God in us and should be respected as such. After all, God respects it; He lets us make our choices and succeed, or screw up, or both, without sending angels or thunderbolts or apparitions at every turn to coerce us in what we choose. When those freaky things happen, I don’t believe it’s ever to force our hand, but to encourage us toward the right thing regarding something really important – something that’s really going to matter for someone else.

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On a secular level, when God is removed from the picture (or equated with matter/the natural world), this question degenerates into the familiar debates of nature vs. nurture, genetics vs. environment, materialism vs. existentialism. From this perspective, it’s my view that our development as humans is comprised of both our genetic inheritance and what we choose to do with it. We can’t mutate our own genes at will, but neither can we escape living on planet Earth – they both affect us and shape us in different ways. It’s a cooperative, interactive thing, sort of like the way that God calls us to cooperate with His gift of grace, both to accept His love and His choice of us (John 15:16) and to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).

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Re: spiritual “dimensionality”, try this on – it’s a poem I wrote several years ago.

[On looking at plates from the Book of Kells:]

His hair is drawn at the ends
into an undisentangleable knot,
the strands reaching into the grapevines above His head,
into the borders where we, the Body,
discover ourselves
likewise inextricably woven.

You reach into, down, under
my heart and pull through -
I thread over, between, out
to curl beside you,
happy for companionship on this plane
but yet still aware
of the Light, the Eye,
the unbound dimension
whence come mysteries of
color and shape and proportion.

We know what we mean -
whether we are beautiful,
we cannot tell.

© 1995 KJL

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A corollary question to the predestination vs. free will dichotomy is this: Is it possible for a Christian believer to lose their salvation, i.e. to be a Christian one day and not be one the next? Since it’s assumed there’s a line between “saved” and “not saved”, and one crosses this line in order to enter the Kingdom of God, is it possible to step back across it into darkness, total lostness, again?

I was part of a good-sized independent charismatic church in my late twenties, and many of my friends came from Assembly of God or Pentecostal backgrounds (heavily influenced by Armenianism). Over the years that I was there, I began to see people who I thought were strong believers just get up and walk away from the faith. When my friends saw this happen, they acknowledged that the person had been saved by Christ but figured they had lost that saving grace in their lives through their disobedience and sin, and they would have to “get saved” all over again if they were going to get to heaven – i.e. go up to an altar call, pray to receive Jesus in their heart again, and start over from square one. They based this on Bible passages like Ezekiel 33:12-13, Matthew 13:19-21 and Hebrews 6:4-6 (the Hebrews passage is especially harsh if interpreted this way, since it would seem to mean that a person who falls away can’t ever get right with God again). They would talk about a “hardness of heart” to which God would just abandon people if they were stubborn enough. I, on the other hand, tended to think according to my “once saved, always saved” upbringing and if I watched a Christian walk away from God, just totally repudiate Him, it was hard for me to believe that he or she was ever really a Christian in the first place. I looked to Bible verses such as John 10:27-29, Romans 8:29-30, Romans 11:29, Ephesians 1:4, and I Timothy 2:4 to support my view. The idea that God could literally abandon someone in sin, just give up on a person, really bothered me, so I leaned heavily the other direction – though I realized that sin really does separate us from God. Jesus can’t have a relationship with someone who doesn’t believe in Him, hates Him, and/or never talks to Him, right?

When I began to study Catholic sacramental theology, I discovered a different model for understanding the phenomenon of how a person is saved, i.e. enters and stays in the Family of God. In this light, I found a different picture emerging from the Scriptures. In interpreting the Apostle’s teaching regarding the interplay between God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will, the early Church fathers and theologians don’t pit one idea against the other; they acknowledge that both concepts are valid and important. They base their interpretations on a couple of key concepts:

Great emphasis is placed on baptism as the beginning of one’s life in God. Catholics interpret the verse “Baptism now saves you…” (I Peter 3:21) in the most literal way possible. This is the way into the boat that takes you to the other side; this is the gate you pass through to come into the city. This is why Catholics, Presbyterians, and Lutherans baptize babies – it takes the place that circumcision had in the Jewish faith. It’s the initiation into the community, the tribe, the people of God. (And I’ll point out a cool fact which this interpretation suggests: Christ transformed this older Jewish initiation rite into something that women as well as men can receive.)

I learned a lot about my baptism when I became a Catholic – they regarded it with much more seriousness than I had up to that point. FYI, Catholics don’t ever re-baptize people; they figure that if a person has already received a Christian baptism (in water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), they’re good to go as far as that’s concerned – God has already opened a channel of grace into their lives through that sacrament because the sacraments work of their own accord – they actually convey what they signify, in this case the removal of the stain of original sin and the rebirth of the soul in God (John 3:5-7).

Don’t think that I’m saying that baptism gives you a free ride into heaven, no questions asked; by no means. The Apostles also placed great emphasis on obeying Christ’s teachings and living a holy life. St. James insists that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:13-17); Paul talks about building one’s life in Christ out of various materials (I Corinthians 3:10-15) and “working out your salvation” (Phil. 2:12). Though original sin has been removed, a thing called concupiscence (that’s Augustine’s word) remains in our souls and bodies, in our being as humans. It’s the warp/distortion of our spiritual senses caused by hell’s fire, the smoke in our lungs, the holes/disconnects in our mind, the fogginess of our vision, the pull of gravity on our guts – what St. Paul complained about in Romans 7. This needs dealing with - all the time, because sin is serious, and hell is real, and we can still screw up real bad if we’re not paying attention.

However, that’s what getting saved is all about – it’s the process of repairing the damage, becoming holy, putting on the new man, being transformed more and more into the image of Christ. Catholic teaching points to the fact that in the Bible, various Greek verb tenses are used to describe salvation (“you have been saved” [Eph. 2:8], “us who are being saved” [I Cor. 1:18], “we shall be saved” [Acts 15:11]) – that’s past, present, and future. What Reformation theology regarded as a two-step process (first justification, then sanctification), Catholics regard as one single pathway called salvation. St. Paul also talks about the Christian life as being like an athlete in training (I Corinthians 9:24-27), a process of getting into shape so you can compete and win. This is what the other sacraments (confirmation, Eucharist, confession, etc.) and any other practices that help a person live holy and be like Jesus are for.

So, it’s a combination of both concepts, a synthesis: Our journey has a beginning in baptism, which God wills and brings about (with or without our cooperation), and then He expects us to follow through and grow in Him, to persevere toward the goal, and to establish His Kingdom and His Presence wherever we are – because the promise of redemption doesn’t belong to just us, to just our souls. Christ came to redeem all of Creation, the whole planet, including us - body and soul (Romans 8:19-23). So, our work as Christians is to join with Christ in “redeeming the temporal order” (Pope John Paul II’s phrase, I think).

So, if salvation is a process and not a line in the sand that you cross, then you can see why Catholics are reluctant to judge whether someone is “saved” or not. We look at people and consider where they are in relation to the Truth, what kind of grasp they already have on spiritual reality, and then try to encourage them toward a fuller understanding of the truth of Christ. This idea is foundational to all our interreligious dialogue – the idea that there is some salvageable good in nearly all religions and cultures, and people need to be encouraged to embrace that good more fully so they can progress toward more comprehensive transformation and redemption in Christ.

That's what I'm about on this blog, really. Just trying to whisper to other souls in the darkness: "Goooooo toward the liiiiiiiight. Gooooo toward the liiiiiiiight..."

[Hat tip to www.catholic-forum.com for the above image of St. Augustine.]

3 comments:

andrew jones said...

wow - big post

i am also taking another look at predestination and prevenience and other words begining with pre.

John said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.
Please check out these related references on the nature of Truth & Real God.

1. www.dabase.net/dualsens.htm
2. www.dabase.net/dht7.htm
3. www.dabase.net/noface.htm
4. www.realgod.htm
5. www.aboutadidam.org
6. www.dabase.net/twoarmc.htm

Patrick said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You
Patrick