Suppose I give you a bicycle for the convenience of travel. Suppose, however, that the bicycle is broken: flat tires, missing spokes, a chain that slips frequently. Nevertheless, you figure out a way to make it go. The ride is bumpy and you often have to stop and fix the chain. You fear that one day the wheels will just come apart as the spokes yield to the weight. Nevertheless, in fits and starts, you bumble along the road. This, I suggest, is an apt model for the human will.
The will is not absent, but it’s broken. It’s more broken in some people than others.
For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God– through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Rom 7:15-25)
St. Paul’s famous lament, “The good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice…” is a heartbreaking echo of every human heart. It is particularly frustrating in a culture that elevates the power of the will above all things in its strange perversion of liberty. We have a will, and it plays a role in our life. However, it is not the primary defining aspect of our humanity. Man as a moral agent is frequently little more than a fiction.
I have been writing about problems in the legal/forensic model of salvation. Juridical images have a place (primarily within preaching). They can easily become moralistic, describing the human condition as being largely about correct choices and the consequences for the bad ones. Indeed, in the legal/forensic model, moral agency is pretty much the only aspect of humanity that matters. Morality is about decisions. There are rules, warnings and consequences. We are then free to choose and suffer accordingly.
I will observe, parenthetically, that this same judicial model has come to govern almost every aspect of modern culture, particularly in liberal democracies of the capitalist world. For in those societies, there are winners and losers. It is quite comforting for those who have succeeded to assume that the failure of others is the result of their wrong choices. Indeed, the consequences of those choices, it is often thought, serve as a good lesson for all. America defines itself as a nation of moral agents, often presuming that it is the most moral of all nations.
However, the landscape of the nation points to one of the flaws of the juridical approach. There is, and always has been, an intractable portion of the population who fail to succeed. If you do historical studies you will find that the problem has existed in America since its earliest colonial days and has never disappeared.1 Successive political regimes have described the phenomenon in a variety of ways, but none have ever managed to make it disappear. Christ’s observation, “The poor you have with you always,” remains unchallenged. This intractable poverty is more than economic: it represents a failure of moral agency. Anyone who works with the poorest segment of society has to admit that there are some people who can never seem to manage their lives in a manner that avoids trouble and failure. Their own frustration is heart-breaking.
Moral agency generally divides people into winners and losers with the winners feeling somehow justified in their choices and decisions. But what if the will is like a broken bicycle? What if, in the lottery of life, the winners simply inherited a less-broken bicycle and only travel on well-paved, well-maintained roads? What if circumstances fail to reveal the brokenness of some while magnifying that of others? What if none of us is completely responsible for anything?
The ontological approach (I apologize again for the term) does not see human beings primarily as moral agents. First, we are beings. We have a will, but it is broken. The doctrine of the Church, as articulated in the 5th Council and its surrounding theology, describes our human nature as having a will (the natural will), but also notes that the natural will is impaired in its application through the mode of willing known as the gnomic will. The intricacies of this understanding do not have to be completely understood. If you want to try, then read St. Maximus the Confessor. He is the great Doctor of that Council.
The subtleties of this understanding go a long way towards describing the true frustration of the human predicament. St. Paul articulated it with his groaning, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The brokenness of the will is a problem of being, not a failure of moral agency.
Certain versions of Protestantism recognize the brokenness of the will, but remain committed to moral agency as the primary lens for understanding our relationship with God. For them, man is thoroughly corrupt, incapable of truly willing the good. That some seem to succeed while others fail is attributed to the sovereign will of God. Some are chosen, some are not. It has been a very compatible theology for the landscape of modern capitalist democracies. The Elect do well – “God shed His grace on thee.”
The ministry of Christ seems to have gone past the question of moral agency. Those who championed their choices (Pharisees) did not fare so well in their interactions with Christ. However, He seemed particularly drawn to those who occupied the broken layers of humanity marked by poverty, disease and bad choices. A woman taken in the act of adultery finds compassion. A woman living out-of-wedlock, having failed five times in marriage is engaged forthrightly and finds salvation. Christ seems to look past the moral brokenness and into the very heart of their existence. He answers with mercy even the failure of religious belief, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”
We are not autonomous moral agents running around shaping our lives and world by our choices. Our choices, having been exalted by modern philosophical theories, have reached an apex of absurdity. Justice Kennedy gave voice to the delusional view of modern moral agency:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…
Human beings are first and foremost human beings. Our very existence is a gift from God. Existence itself is good and is intended to become even better moving towards true eternal being in union with God. We are human beings who have a will (broken and dysfunctional). But we ourselves are not a will. Modernity tends to think of human beings as a will that has a body. Of course, many human beings (infants for one) either have an impaired will or are not able to manifest the will as choice and decision. These odd creatures are a bother to moralists. They are flies in the ointment that are generally relegated to some less-than-fully-human status. It is not surprising that in the secular version of the juridical world, such people are easily put to death as non-persons.
Our existence is always contingent – it is a gift from God and only continues because it participates in His existence. Sin moves us away from that participation and thus towards non-existence. The primary category of sin is death, or non-being. This death manifests itself in us in many ways, including those that are described as “moral.” It is of note that the Tradition describes us as being in “bondage to sin and death.” This is the primary image of Pascha (Passover), and thus of our salvation. God sends Moses into Egypt to lead His people out of bondage. He does not go there primarily to improve their role as moral agents. Christ enters our world in order to lead us out of bondage to sin and death. The healing of our will is, over time, part of the fulfillment of that Exodus.
How good is your will? It’s of use from time to time, but also seems to be pretty dysfunctional at other times. It is not the core of your being. God Himself is the core of our existence. The traditional focus of the Christian life is growth in union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Christianity is not a moral improvement society. There are many to be saved who will seem like the worst moral failures among us. In His compassion, Jesus loved them greatly. They have suffered much, often at their own hands.
The excellence of moral agents, like the wealth of the successful American, is not a matter for boasting. Everything is a gift. We have earned nothing. The gifts of God are given to us for the purpose of giving Him thanks and to share with those who have less. The excellence of a moral agent is measured in deeds of compassion and self-offering, not in the fastidious adherence to a code of conduct that is often little more than middle-class conformity.
God give us grace!
Footnotes for this article
- An excellent review of this history can be found in Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash.