Learning to Choose

I have a friend who is a biologist and she is also an atheist. She’s an atheist because she’s convinced there is no such thing as “free will.” And she believes this because of her science. To her, every choice we think we make is actually just certain chemical reactions to different stimuli. I know, sad, isn’t it. And yet, I know some theologians who would agree with her about “free will.”

And yet, we humans have clear examples of choices that get us in trouble and choices that get us out of trouble. So, maybe it isn’t our chemicals that are messed up but our ability to choose well.

Look at our lesson in Genesis 7:6-9:

Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came upon the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark, to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah.

Once again, we are hearing about St. Noah and his singular obedience to God. We know the story well of Noah and the Flood, but sometimes I think we think we are so familiar with the story we miss some very important insights. Maybe that’s why the wisdom of the Church calls us to read these passages during these days. Now remember, Noah is BEFORE Moses and the giving of the Law, but, already, God is talking about “clean” and “unclean” animals to His creation. Of course, this started back in the Garden as the Creator sets His Humanity in a perfect setting to LEARN how to grow in intimacy with Him and each other, and one of those elements necessary for Adam and Eve to learn and mature into this relationship was choice. God knew it was dangerous, but He was determined to make us like Himself and He is FREE! And being able to choose well leads to true freedom!

So, God commands Noah to take onto the Ark clean and unclean beasts. The “clean” animals are good for food and sacrifice. The “unclean” animals have their own purposes. But the main purpose here is to, once again, give Humanity the invitation to mature by exercising their spiritual “muscles,” their weakened wills, to choose rightly; to choose obedience over expediency or immediate gratification. This remedy to our weaknesses, our untamed passions, is meant for our salvation and maturity.

And this remedy is the strengthening of our will to keep turned towards God. For the Orthodox, it isn’t our common human “nature” that is wounded as much as it is our common human “will” that has been handicapped by a world where it is easy to sin and hard to choose right. Our weakened will is constantly hampering us in the primary work of we persons created in God’s Image to be made into His likeness. And this enfeebled will, what my grandmother called her broken “want to,” is at the heart of our constant struggles to even want to become like God. It is my will, my “want to” that has to have the spiritual “medical care” of the disciplines of the Faith to clean off the piles of bad choices I make and exercise the “muscle” of my will to long for God alone.

Today, don’t you see the power and the wisdom of the disciplined Orthodox life? It isn’t God trying to “ruin your fun” or God arbitrarily making “rules” you can’t keep. All of that nonsense can be traced back to the first lie in the Garden where the serpent only needed to create doubt in the mind of Humanity about God’s intentions and purpose to get Humanity to “jump the gun” before they were ready. No, the Father is good and He loves you. All these disciplines, though they appear hard and they can be difficult, especially in a world that calls you a fool for doing all this religious labor, are all meant to exercise and strengthen your will to want God above all other wants. Practice this Faith and allow God to strengthen your “want to” and you’ll be Orthodox on Purpose!

2 comments:

  1. I remember when I first read Sam Harris as a Calvinist thinking, here is a scientific argument for Calvinism. Sad indeed – although at the time I didn’t know Harris was a rabid atheist. But when I read that the Orthodox didn’t believe in Original Sin – it literally took me days, weeks, of thinking how death could actually explain the depravity humans display in the world. Now, it’s quite simple but death was such a given to me before that it was barely part of my soteriology.

    But the question of the will, did concern me for a very long time. But the answer was somewhere I never expected to find it, and if I remember right I found it on my own and yet I’d never heard it as an explanation from an Orthodox writer – the Baptismal Liturgy. Exorcism frees the will, baptism unites us to Christ’s immortality, and Chrismation brings the gift of the Holy Spirit – I’m simplifying of course – but this was how the will could function. What that means about the unbaptized, how their will functions or malfunctions – I am not as concerned about because there is something to work with whereas in Calvinism (and I believe consistent Augustinianism) there is nothing to work with.

    The need for freedom from death, Satan, and actual sin – these are motivations to love those outside the Church. And they have (as a former zealous evangelizer) refocused my vision of non-Christians. Instead of looking at people as zombies who have no will but to consume and act out depravity, I see people who could be free – and their will, will be a factor in their freedom.

    What amazes me about the atheists who deny free will, that they actually write books to tell others not to believe in free will. This will only happen if others are predestined. But for so many who see no need to tell others about Christ, the atheists and the Calvinists who evangelize, actually shame the rest of us. It seems for many Orthodox and other Christians that there is an underlying notion that people cannot help but be who they are so God must be forgiving (a denial of the functionality of free will), or that God will have all be saved eventually (free will is superflous), or again that God elects whom He will on the basis of His good pleasure and elect the others to damnation (another denial of free will).

    The Baptismal liturgy corrects all of these views, the will is in bondage – but not completely, the solution is drastic. Free will can function to varying degrees in Christ and for this we will be judged.

    Not trying to write my own post.

    God bless you,
    Matt

  2. Our wills have been handicapped by the law of sin (see Romans 7:14 thru 8:2). We can’t blame the current state of the world. Only humility toward God opens us up to the grace to overcome.
    1Peter 5:5-7 describes humility well. It says: “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you”.
    This is true religious labor, which is not labor at all.

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