I even got the chance to spend a little extra time with Markus, since I rode down to O'Hare with him the other morning when he was catching his flight back to Germany and to his regular professorship at Goethe University in Frankfurt after his semester's work at Marquette. So we talked Luther, the 2003 Luther movie starring Joseph Fiennes and its tendency toward unnecessary melodrama, about students, marriage and sexual ethics, about running (I didn't know until this moment that he'd run distance, too, when he was younger), and about our own guessed-at next year. He won't return to the States for a year this time, and I'm hoping that - wherever I end up - I have some chance of seeing him again next February when he's enjoying the company of the rest of the Marquette gang.
Nevertheless, even though I'm talking iPhones with Leslie and Jim, the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition with Mom, or revisiting Little House on the Prairie and learning the ways of Yo Gabba Gabba! with my nieces, I still got tracked down by a student asking for help with a classic philosophical/theological problem. I thought I would jot this one in here, that maybe I could have it "on file" for the next time someone writes about it:
I was one of your students approximately 2 yrs ago.... I was reading a Wikipedia article on Islam and it spoke to the complex idea of divine preordainment coupled with the free will of man and the only thing I could think of that ever helped me get a grasp on the concept was an analogy you had given in class. The reason for the email is that I can only vaguely recover the concept.... you described god as having a book of time in which its pages represented the actual events of history and the future... the analogy is good for the divine preordainment but the free will part is still slips my mind. I know this isn't the easiest question in the world to answer but I was just hoping you might be able to give it a shot.And so I responded:
I think I remember the idea you're talking about here. First off, I'll point out that most Christians don't buy the idea that God "pre-ordains" our lives. I can understand Islam maybe being more caught up in that theology because (as I understand it) Islam seems to emphasize the will of God as central, in roughly the same way that Christianity emphasizes the love of God as most characterizing who and what God is. In Christianity, it is only the "Reformed" tradition that holds to a strong theology of "predestination;" that is, those churches we generally call "Calvinist" churches, coming out of the theology of John Calvin in the 1500s. I don't think that that theology offers the best explanation for the problem.
But how do we still juggle the idea of God's power, or of God's sovereignty -- the idea that God in some way governs the universe -- with the idea of human freedom? The illustration I used was aimed at helping us understand the problem by reminding us of something key to an adult or informed idea of God: that God is "outside" of time and space. If God is the Creator of the universe that we live in, a universe characterized by matter and energy, space and time, then we have to remember that God is beyond or more fundamental than such aspects of our universe. That aspect of God can be hard to remember simply because it is unique and beyond our experience: everything we know or can easily imagine exists within the universe. God, on the other hand, has no environment whatsoever: no precedent, no context, no cause, and no antecedent.
So we can imagine the history of the universe as a book: with everything written out that ever happens, from the beginning of time and until its end. God brings the story into being like an author, setting the stage and getting things moving from the very beginning with "the Big Bang" and the establishment of the fundamental laws of nature. By some mechanism, it seems (this is another question), the universe moves toward the production of beings that are somewhat like God, in "the image of God," in that they are personal beings, capable of relationship and possessing some sort of real freedom of will, while at the same time remaining animals, mammals, and subject to all the sorts of things that can impede and erode that freedom, like trauma to the brain or the development of addictions of one sort or another.
These persons are like characters in this book of the history of God's universe. But God does something different than your normal author: God gives the characters freedom. They can determine certain aspects of their own part in the story. They are not utterly free: they cannot choose to live in another time, as another person; they cannot make themselves be born in circumstances other than the ones into which they were born. But the natural limits to their freedom does not negate that there is some real freedom that is possessed here. Freedom is real, even if it is not absolute or without limits. (That's often a hard idea for our freedom-obsessed culture to come to terms with.)
So God continues to be sovereign. The rules have been set. This is this universe, and not another. It is a universe with goods that are reflections of the perfect Good that is God. Human thriving or misery rises and falls depending upon our choosing to be harmony with that Good, in the same way that human thriving or misery can rise or fall depending upon our choosing to live in harmony with the laws of physics.
God, being outside of time, sees the end of our choices: how we helped bring our own story to its conclusion. To God, right now we are being born. Right now, we are reading this letter and thinking about this idea. Right now, we are drawing our last breath. All moments are "now" to Someone who is outside of time. It's the same for us and novels or movies: once I've read the book or watched the movie, the whole of the main character's life are "present" to us. So, being "outside" of the time within the story of The Lord of the Rings, I can see Frodo Baggins before the burden of the Ring is thrust upon him; I can see him in the midst of the Quest; and I can see him at the conclusion of the great story.
But unlike a human author, God does not have to "make" the characters' choices for them and determine their end: the freedom to act in the great story of history is God's gift to each individual. We are free, although not entirely on our own, and not with a freedom that belongs solely to us or that we ourselves created: we are free because we are given a share of God's own freedom. There is no other source of freedom, in the same way that there is no other source of being or existence, or of love. And that, it seems to me, is the easiest way to understand the co-existence of the ideas of divine power or sovereignty/rulership (but not predestination) and the idea of human freedom.