Hugh J. McCann on Divine Agency and Human Freedom

As readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy know, I am fascinated by the topic of divine and creaturely agency. How can human beings be free if God is the transcendent source of the world?  So I immediately jumped to the relevant chapter in Hugh McCann’s Creation and the Sovereignty of God. What I discovered is that he articulates a position of double agency very similar to what I have found in Austin Farrer, Herbert McCabe, Denys Turner, and David Burrell—yet presented in the idiom of analytic philosophy and action theory. Interesting stuff.

Also check out this Closer to Truth interview with Dr McCann: “Does God’s Knowledge Eliminate Free Will?

Divine Agency and Human Freedom

In God’s activity as creator we encounter no event or state that is ontologically independent of our will, and determinative with respect to it. He does not operate upon us, or from without; he operates in our very willing, so that his will is done through ours, but without any kind of forcing. There is no standing condition that is out of our control, no fait accompli prior to the very act that is our decision or volition. Or, at least this will be true provided God’s own will as creator is not subject to determining conditions, or some sort of metaphysical or ontological necessity. … God’s action as creator is alone responsible for the existence of our acts of will; yet it does not leave us unable to do otherwise, on either worldly or the eternal stage.

Neither does God’s role as creator impair the positive features of agency. The attribute of intrinsic intentionality poses no problem at all here: there is no reason why, as my creator, God cannot will that I engage in an activity to which my personal commitment is essential, in that I must intend to do it. That God should have willed it does not interfere with or in any way diminish my dedication to what I am doing. I can therefore decide to vacation in Italy, and engage in the volitional endeavors necessary to get me there, with the complete personal intrinsic intentionality requires. The feature of spontaneity may seem more difficult, but here too I think we are on safe ground. For God can also will that I engage in doings that are intrinsically active. And if those doings count as the content of his will rather than consequences of it, then I am not acted upon, nor do I undergo or suffer anything when I engage in them. Rather, when I decide to act and engage in the relevant volition, I do exactly what this feature of agency demands. I start something; I begin a sequence of events whose source in this world lies entirely in my purposive behavior, and whose eternal source operates in such a way that the event which is my creaturely action is founded in God’s action as creator, but not produced as a consequence of it. I am, therefore, created in my spontaneity, which is as genuine as it can be.

Although God’s creative fiat provides entirely for the existence of our decisions and actions, then, they are not brought to pass deterministically, even from on high. It is as Aquinas says: God, the primary agent, is able to provide for the existence of our own exercises of agency in accordance with our voluntary nature, in a way that does us no violence, and not only fully respects but actually founds our autonomy. The proper metaphor for understanding the relation between God’s action and ours is not that of the puppeteer to his puppet, but rather that of the author of a novel to her characters. The author does not belong to the world she creates, nor do her characters and their actions exist as an event-causal consequence of anything she does. Rather, their first existence is in her creative imagination, and they are born and sustained in and through the very thoughts in which she conceives them, and of which they are the content. The interesting thing about this relationship is that it is too close to permit the author’s creative activity to damage her characters’ freedom. On the contrary, it is perfectly legitimate for her to present them as free and responsible beings. Indeed, it is not even possible for the author to enter into the world of the novel and interact with her characters in such a way as to undermine or pervert their integrity as agents. Only other characters in the novel can do that—subject, of course, to the will of the author.

As I see it, our relation to our creator is much the same. We, of course, have more than a mental existence; we are real. But we too are brought to be and sustained in being entirely in and through our creator’s will. We are not self-creating in any way, and we can no more engage in decision and action apart from our creator’s will than can the creatures of fiction. God does not, in creating us, act upon us, or produce any intervening cause, even an act of will on his part, that somehow makes us do what we do. There is indeed an exercise of his creative power, but in it he simply becomes the ground of our being, holding us in existence as the content of his creative act. God does not, that is to say, alter our nature or that of our actions merely by providing for our existence. This, I claim, permits all that legitimately belongs to responsible freedom to characterize our actions, just as it does those of fictional creatures. The author of the novel never makes her creatures do something; she only makes them doing it. It is the same with us and God. He does not make us act; he makes us acting, so that the freedom that goes with genuine action can still be present. To think otherwise is to confuse providing for the existence of something and tampering with its nature. Nor should God’s action as creator lead us to worry about our integrity as agents—about whether we will turn out to have a substantive and genuine moral character, or will come across as contrived and manipulated, as somehow lacking a true and unified moral self. There is no reason to expect the latter outcome, especially when an all-wise and powerful God is producing the work. Bad authors may sometimes have to manipulate their characters; a perfect one never does. (pp. 106-108)

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