Archives for posts with tag: free will

(An edited version of this paper has been published at

By Hugh Bryant

Archbishop John Sentamu retired on Trinity Sunday. There is a lovely tribute to him in the Church Times, which ends like this.

AT THE end of one of many public meetings held when he arrived in Yorkshire, he invited questions. The last one came from a little boy, whose parents must have delayed his bedtime so that he could see the new Archbishop. “Why do you believe in God?” the boy asked.

The Archbishop beckoned him to the front, and, noticing that the boy’s shoelace was undone, knelt down to retie it. “When I was a boy,” he said, “someone told me that Jesus could be my friend. So, that night, I knelt by my bed and asked Jesus to be my friend. And do you know something? He is still my friend.” You could have heard a pin drop, as grown-ups wondered whether that could be true for them, too.

How well do you know Jesus? At Whitsuntide, Pentecost, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, as Ruach, πνευμα, a rushing wind (with tongues of fire). Ruach and πνεύμα are Hebrew and Greek words which mean a wind, which by metonymy come to mean ‘Spirit’ in the sense of the Holy Spirit. A divine wind.

As Christians we understand God as the Trinity. God the Creator: God as human: God the Spirit, replacing the human God when He has gone back to ‘heaven’, back into the Godhead. ‘The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us’. 

It’s a way of understanding the third act of the drama. Act one. God created the world. Act two. God was born in human form, as Jesus, lived and died. Act three. Jesus was resurrected from the dead, but then eventually he left to join the Godhead, or more familiarly, to ‘sit at the right hand of God in heaven,’ and was replaced by the Holy Spirit.

To explain the mystery of ‘God in three persons’ is a rite of passage for every preacher in training assigned to preach the parish sermon on Trinity Sunday. But perhaps a greater challenge arises in connection with Ascension and Pentecost. 

There may be many faithful people who are content to hold ‘in tension’ apparently contradictory ideas about ‘heaven’: that it is in some sense ‘up there’, but at the same time that God is not delimited in time and space, so there is nowhere, up or down, where God is particularly at home. 

I used the term ‘Godhead’ deliberately. If God is in ‘heaven’, it begs the question where exactly He is. So an alternative way of thinking on the Ascension would be that Jesus was somehow subsumed into the ‘godness’, the heart of being, the Godhead (cf. the ideas of Paul Tillich in John A T Robinson, Honest to God (1961)).

It is said that Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, reported back that he had ‘looked and looked, but I couldn’t see God up there’. But it wasn’t simply a matter of his seeming to confirm Marxist atheistic dogma. Gagarin was a Christian. He believed in God: it was just that he hadn’t found him in space.

We make a rather easy move, I think, to dismiss the very long tradition that high places, being ‘on high’, say, on Mount Olympus, or above the clouds, are somewhere reserved to the divine. In the Old Testament, the Deuteronomist is concerned, in identifying divinity with the One True God, that the former places of worship, worship of idols such as Baal or Asherah, described as ‘high places’, should be eradicated. But Yahweh lived in heaven, and he was worshipped on the Temple mount, a high place in itself.

If what we are looking towards in God is ultimate power, truth and authority, again this is most simply imagined spatially: God reigns over the earth. The Enlightenment challenge is almost the same as Yuri Gagarin’s. If God is, if heaven is, ‘up there’, then why is He not observable and susceptible of scientific analysis? Because, indeed, He isn’t. Wittgenstein put this propositionally, that metaphysical statements could not be verified in the same way as ordinary empirical ones. 

So whereas we can agree about what it is for something to be a chair, or a nut cutlet (the humour of which, in concept, has not lasted so well since it convulsed the lecture theatres in the 1960s), we cannot say what would verify the truth of a statement about what it is for something to be good, or for someone to be the Son of God. 

‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, Wittgenstein wrote at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He meant that his theory of meaning could not cover metaphysical concepts, and therefore he had nothing to say about them. But again, like Gagarin, Wittgenstein was a believer. He went to church throughout his life.

So we can infer that Wittgenstein, and presumably Gagarin, did not take the fact that their chosen means of verification had drawn a blank as proof that there was no God. Just because in earth orbit in VOSTOK 1, Gagarin did not perceive God with his senses, and just because Wittgenstein could not identify a way to verify metaphysical statements, neither of them took those failures as evidence of falsehood. 

Obviously by the time that the early twentieth-century Vienna School of philosophers including Wittgenstein, Carnap, Neurath and its founder, Schlick, had been written up by A.J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (1936), the doctrine of ‘logical positivism’ had assumed an atheistic face, or at least an anti-metaphysical one. Bertrand Russell, who was Wittgenstein’s tutor at Cambridge, was militantly atheistic, as was Ayer.

Logical positivism is heavily influenced by mathematics. It distinguishes between ‘first order’, logical truths, such as that the same number cannot be both positive and negative at the same time, and ‘second order’, contingent truths that can be inferred or observed from first order truths – that something is a red cow, for instance. This has no room for the Platonic or Aristotelian ideas of metaphysics – μετά τα φυσικά, things after, or on top of, physical things. So there is the Platonic concept of Ideas, essences. Not just that something is a table, but that it has the qualities which make it a table, the essence of tablehood. 

Plato understood a dualism of body and soul. The soul of a person was that person’s essence, what it is for someone to be that particular person. So it was a short step to a concept of immortality, based on a transmigration of souls, a nether world, Hades, where the souls of the dead go across the river Acheron, and from which the blessed emerge into Heaven above, into the Elysian Fields.

The logical positivists had nothing to bring to this understanding. In a binary world or any other world conceived mathematically, it was impossible to find room for souls.

But more recently, Oxford philosophers of religion, most notably Richard Swinburne, have looked again at the apparent conflict between logic and metaphysics. Quantum theory has produced mathematics described as ‘fuzzy logic’. 2 + 2 does not necessarily equal 4. Logical proofs can be constructed so as to demonstrate that a soul could exist independently of a body.

But even if one allows that metaphysical entities can exist, how do they ‘work’? What are we to make of the concepts of ‘salvation’ or ‘redemption’, in a sense of reunion with God? If sin is άμαρτια, literally, ‘missing the mark’, salvation lies in being recovered into the divine safe haven where the Godhead is.

Except it isn’t a ‘haven’, in most Christian understanding. It is ‘heaven’. But first let us go back to sin. The ingredients include, of course, not just sin, but

sins, bad acts. It seems to me that this might also lead to an examination of theodicy. Why would a good God allow bad things to happen?

It is argued that, for instance in the Book of Job, when Job rails against the injustice of God, we are almost led into concluding that God is not in fact all-good. But suppose one brings in the traditional answer to this ‘problem of evil’, which is that humans have free will: we can choose freely to do what is bad, evil, as well as what is good.

In so doing, we are opposing the good God. If what we do goes against the goodness of God, it is taking away from, missing, the love of God – and it is therefore sinful. But it doesn’t make God into a bad God – indeed, just as Jesus wept, at the death of Lazarus, it may even sadden God.

But consider St Paul’s discussion in Romans 7, which arguably muddies the waters by positing limits to free will. Paul sins not because he has chosen the bad over against the good, but because he ‘couldn’t help it’. In other words, he feels himself not to be a free agent. So perhaps free will isn’t an explanation for apparent divine cruelties.

Traditionally, theologians have argued that sin and bad conduct are not the same. To follow the Ten Commandments will make one morally good, but one could still be sinful, it is argued. I am not sure, however, that Pelagius was entirely wrong. It may be that one cannot earn one’s way into heaven by good deeds; but to the extent that one’s good deeds draw one back into God’s entrance yard, they may bring one closer to salvation.

But what about the cross, and Jesus’ ‘atoning sacrifice (ίλασμον)’? It seems cogent that, again, a good God would not want his own son to be offered as a human sacrifice. 

We are back to the question of knowing God. How do you know that God loves you? By being aware of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross. ‘Greater love hath no man …’ There are examples of sacrifice – people standing in front of a gun pointed at someone else; standing in for someone else who is going to be harmed. The stories of a Maximilian Kolbe or a Jack Cornwell. 

But specifically, taking upon oneself the burden of someone else’s sin? Being punished for someone else’s transgressions? What is really happening? A suggested model is the Jewish idea of a ‘scapegoat’. 

Sacramentally or symbolically, the sins of the congregation are laden on to a goat (or a sheep or any other docile domestic animal to hand): the poor animal is then cut loose to fend for itself, and probably starve, in the desert outside. How exactly are the sins ‘loaded’ on the poor animal?

We are in the realm of classical drama. Achieving catharsis (‘cleaning out’ your soul) comes through pity and fear, according to Aristotle. Watching someone suffer, to some extent you suffer ‘with’ them. What does that ‘with’ mean? The difficulty is that I cannot know what it feels like to be you, or to experience what you do, and you can’t feel what I feel either.

Maybe this ‘atoning sacrifice’ is not a transaction – an eye for an eye, say, buying off, placating, a wrathful deity – but rather more akin to complementary medicine; healing, by way of a sort of inoculation. If we take in some minor badness or do it, it can protect us, vaccinate us, against being overwhelmed by total badness. In doing this sacramentally, in entering into someone else’s sacramental sacrifice, as the priest perfects the sacrifice, so we the congregation are blessed by an approving God, or, even, ‘saved’.

This kind of salvation does not, though, imply intimacy. It does not lead one to say one ‘knows’ God, or more particularly that one ‘knows’ Jesus, in the same way in which one would know one’s Aunt Florrie. The revelation experiences in the Old and New Testaments – the burning bush, the dove coming down from heaven, the ‘gardener’ at the empty tomb – none of these are at all comfortable. People who ask how well one knows Jesus cannot really be referring to those examples.

On the other hand there is the Pauline idea of Christians being ‘in Christ’, or ‘in the Spirit’. Among others John A. T. Robinson has, in his ‘The Body’ (John A. T. Robinson 1952, The Body – a Study in Pauline Theology, London, SCM Press) argued on the basis that ‘in Christ’ means ‘in the body of Christ’, i.e. in the Church. I do not think this sits particularly well with those passages where e.g. John, in Revelation (1:10) says that he did something when he was ‘in the spirit’.The NEB is stretching the Greek too much by translating έγενομην έν πνεύματι as ‘I was caught up by the Spirit.’ It clearly does not mean, ‘as a member of the church I… [did something].’ Another way to make sense of this is to invert the meaning, so to be in Christ means, to have Christ in you: and in that Christ has gone, has ascended, it is the Holy Spirit that will fill the believer in Jesus’ place. The Spirit is the Comforter, the spirit of truth, the Paraclete or advocate, the barrister at the court of life.

At the first Pentecost the Spirit manifested itself miraculously, burning – or not burning – the disciples’ hair as the burning bush similarly burned without being consumed, for Moses. The men of all the provinces listed in the Book of Genesis, from Parthia and Cappadocia and all, found themselves able to speak each other’s language.

We don’t have such astonishing experiences, however. What would it mean for one of us today to be ‘in the spirit’? 

Sermon for Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, 11th November 2018

Isaiah 10:22-11:9, John 14:1-29

Drawing Hands (1948) lithograph by M.C. Escher

This is Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity. That is the rather esoteric description which you find in the church calendar. It is also a very special Remembrance Sunday, the 11th day of the 11th month of the hundredth year since the end of the First World War. That conflict was so terrible, and the human consequences so great, that many people lost their faith in God. How could a good and loving God allow such terrible things to happen?

To some extent that is a question, or was a question, that didn’t really touch individuals. It was really about the great affairs of state. To what extent could God guide the great leaders of the nations? How could a good God for instance countenance the use of poison gas? Theologians have wrestled with those difficult questions ever since, and the answers reached have tended to argue that there is evidence of God’s benign activity in the world as well as all the awful things; that the bad things are not God’s fault, as we have been created with a degree of autonomy, free will. God has not created us as robots; there would be no meaning to the ideas of the right and the good if it were not possible also to have evil, and that, in their relations with the Almighty, people can either be faithful, doing what God wants, or they can be sinful, which means separated from God.

But that was this morning, that was all about Remembrance Sunday, the hundredth Remembrance Sunday. But what about tonight? Tonight we are looking at two visions, Isaiah’s vision of the coming of the Messiah and the effect of it – ‘they shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’ – and all these wonderful new friendships, animals that usually eat each other becoming friends at peace with each other: the wolf and the lamb, and the little child leading them.

And then in St John’s Gospel we have this great passage in chapter 14, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’. I think that ‘mansions’ is far better than the bathos of ‘In my father’s house are many rooms’ – or ‘dwelling-places’, which is the way some modern translations of the Bible put it. In Greek, ‘mansions’ is translated from μοναι, from μενω, I remain – the ‘… -main’ bit in ‘remain’. It turns into ‘maneo’ in Latin, from which there is a noun ‘mansio’, a ‘staying-place’: a mansion. The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible in the 4th century, largely by Jerome, which the Roman Catholic Church used till 1979, has ‘in domo Patris mansiones multae sunt’. William Tyndale’s translation in 1525, on which the King James Bible is based, just transliterated the same word, from ‘mansiones’ to ‘mansions’. Obviously the meaning of ‘mansion’ in English has evolved since the early 16th and 17th century, certainly since1611, when the Authorised Version came out. But it’s much more memorable than ‘rooms’, I feel – and it leads to a theological reflection.

Leaving aside the etymology, I have always loved the puzzle of contemplating how a house can itself contain mansions. It is almost as though the two up-two down cottage, in which I originally lived in Anyards Road when I first came to this area in 1990, somehow contained three or four of Eaton Park Road’s finest footballers’ palaces. If the kingdom of God is like that, a house with many mansions, I’ve thought, surely there is a strong message there, that the kingdom of God is literally beyond human comprehension, beyond the bounds of our logic!

If that was all there was in this Gospel, I think we would tend to give up on it. We would just throw up our hands in horror and say, ‘It’s all beyond me’. No one knows; and what no one knows no one tends to bother about. And that is, perhaps, Doubting Thomas’ point. ‘Lord, how can we know the way?’ What is it? Jesus answers, ‘I am: I am the way, the truth and the life’.

We can’t fully understand the workings of God. The world we live in is not one of these impossible pictures by MC Escher. Not a staircase that you climb, only to find that you are at the bottom of the same staircase. Not a hand holding a pencil, drawing a picture of a hand holding a pencil, drawing a hand… and so on. Nightmarish perfection, in which there is no beginning and no end.

We believe that Jesus was God – is God, in that he is beyond time. But crucially, he was, for a while, placed in space and time. He came to Palestine and he spent 33 years, living as a human being. He had a human family, a mother, a father, brothers and sisters. For three momentous years he went around with his 12 disciples lecturing to enormous crowds of people. If he had been around today, he would have become an Internet sensation, with millions of followers on YouTube and Twitter.

We believe that he was both God and man, because of the evidence that he went beyond what a mere man could do, most crucially, in coming back from the dead. But also, in all the other various miracles which Jesus did, he demonstrated his divine nature.

That may be a controversial proposition. If you don’t believe that Jesus was more than just human, then St John chapter 14 is not going to mean very much to you. Jesus is asserting that if you know him, then you know God.

There is another ‘dimension’ to God, if you like, which Jesus describes as being his Father, or ‘heaven’, even; it is beyond our comprehension, but nevertheless, real. I am the way, the truth and the life. If you follow me, you will get into one of those mansions, those mansions which look impossible but which are, really, to be found, on the holy mountain where the wolf lies down with the lamb.

So what does all this have to do with remembrance? In a sense, of course, remembrance is just as impossible for us as making sense of MC Escher. How can we remember, when we were not there? It isn’t so much remembrance as history, but that doesn’t make it any less real, and moreover, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, as George Santayana wrote. We could also say that history need not repeat itself, because if we know what is coming, we can avoid it.

If we look at the industrialised slaughter of the First World War and indeed the way in which the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles led to the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, we might think that these great affairs of state, those great seismic movements in history, are outside the scope of what any of us as little individuals can possibly influence; but we can reflect that, just as the greatness of God is ineffable, immeasurable, unknowable, still God has come down as one human being on God’s holy Mountain, the kingdom of heaven, where ‘they shall not hurt or destroy’. The lion will lie down with the lamb and be friends. There are no nationalities in the kingdom of heaven. But there is love.

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 9th August 2015

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Just as I don’t see God in terms of His being a benign old gentleman living at 45,000 feet with a white, flowing beard, so equally I’ve been rather sceptical about His hornèd counterpart, the Devil.

In St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he is going through all the things that a good Christian convert ought to do – and ought not to do – he talks about anger, in a context where he is saying, if you are angry, for whatever reason, you mustn’t let your anger drag on too long. Delightfully he says, ‘Don’t let the sun go down’ on your anger. Never be angry for more than one day at a time.

But also St Paul says, ‘Don’t be angry so that it becomes a sin: that it exposes you to the Devil. Don’t make space for the Devil.’

You will have read that the Church of England is now offering new words for the baptism service, which no longer require the parents and godparents to say that they turn away from sin and the Devil. (Of course, if parents would like to keep the traditional words, then they are still available to be used).

‘If you are angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin. Do not let sunset still find you nursing it. Leave no loophole for the Devil.’ [Eph. 4:26, NEB]

This week, rather mischievously, that wonderful programme on BBC Radio 4, The Moral Maze, celebrated its 666th edition. 666 in the Book of Revelation (13:18) is said to be ‘the number of the beast’, the Devil’s number. The programme was dedicated to finding out more about the nature of evil. Evil personified, I suppose, is what the Devil is.

What does it mean when we talk about the Devil? Are we doing anything more than just using a picturesque metaphor for badness, evil: is there a force for evil – the other side of a force for good?

The problem, which philosophers and theologians have wrestled with for centuries, is this. If God is omnipotent, He can do anything; and if He is goodness personified, pure good, why does He not prevent bad things, evil things, from happening? Why does God not prevent disasters, terrible crimes, illness and injustice from taking place?

Surely, if God were all-powerful, and at the same time perfectly good, then these bad things would not happen. He would prevent them from happening. Put it another way. If there is such a thing as evil – perhaps even personified in the Devil – so there is a force for evil, and God is the creator and sustainer of everything there is, then God must have created and sustained evil as well as good. But if that’s the case, then God can’t be perfectly good.

There are a number of possible ways to look at this problem. The first is, that perhaps it shows that there is in fact no such thing as evil, as a thing: rather, there are only evil deeds. It doesn’t make sense to talk about a force for evil, or a Devil, but it does make sense to talk about somebody having done something evil.

The Catholic Church has always been influenced by a saying of St Augustine (Letter 211, c424AD), cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, which translates roughly as ‘with love for mankind and hatred of sins’. More recently this idea has been re-expressed as ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’. So in Catholic moral theology there is always the possibility of redemption for a penitent sinner, however awful the sin itself.
But although that seems to be perfectly aligned with Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness, it doesn’t really solve the problem. Even if the sinner can escape blame, God must still have created the sin.

Another way round relies on the idea of free will. This goes back to the Garden of Eden. We were all made to be good; we were created in the image of God, even. But we, the human race, took it on ourselves to do bad things. That decision didn’t involve God, as it was the humans taking control for themselves. On this view, evil doesn’t in fact originate with God, but just with mankind. The problem with free will as a way round the Problem of Evil is that, although the evil act may come from inside us, where did we get it from? To put it another way, if we attribute moral responsibility to people, are they really completely free to decide what they will do? Or are they in some sense determined, pre-programmed – and if so, by God?

On The Moral Maze, Canon Dr Giles Fraser suggested a third way. This was that, as he understands God, in Jesus Christ, God is not in fact omnipotent. Indeed, God, in the form of Jesus Christ on the cross, is weak, very weak. Giles Fraser said, ‘The God that I believe in, in Jesus, is not omnipotent. He died on the cross in a way that is powerless’. Jesus in his divine nature is mighty, mighty and strong. But as a man, He is weak: He isn’t able to fix all our problems – Jesus, as being fully human, is limited in power, as we all are.

None of those three possible explanations relies on the Devil. There is certainly a sense in which evil can be personified as a kind of ‘gothic presence,’ influencing people, tempting them to do evil things. But it is really difficult to see how this can be more than a colourful idea, a metaphor. If there really were an actual being, The Devil, then God would certainly not be like the God that we now believe in, the God who manifested Himself in Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to contemplate our doing bad deeds, evil acts. It is one way of understanding what ‘sin’ is. Sin is what separates us from the love of God. So indeed, if we do things that a loving God would not want us to do – perhaps by breaking one of the Ten Commandments – then we have sinned, we have put a barrier between ourselves and God.

That brings us back to what St Paul was writing to the Ephesians. In Christ God has reconciled us to Himself: we must not drive a wedge between us. We really must follow the Commandments of love, if we are to avoid falling into sin, which is separation from God. But to believe in the Devil is strictly optional.