Can God determine our actions? One need not think more than a second or two. Of course he can, we answer. If CIA brainwashers and television advertising can cause us to act in specific ways, then certainly God can. Let’s rephrase the question: Can God determine our action without violating our freedom and autonomy? Here the spirits divide. Advocates of the free will defense against the problem of evil believe that divine agency and human agency are mutually exclusive. If God causes my actions, then they are not my actions. I am reduced to the status of puppet. In the words of Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” Free action requires genuine autonomy and freedom from invasive manipulation. Libertarian freedom or determinism—they seem to be the only options before us. Or are they?
In Creation and the Sovereignty of God, Hugh J. McCann asserts a version of double agency that seeks to split the difference. Consider the relationship between an author of a novel to the characters she creates:
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 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. (p. 107)
A good story draws us into its world, and once we are in that world, we do not experience the characters as playing out a script, as the robots do in Westworld. They enjoy an integrity of their own. They live out their lives in credible and consistent fashion. Even when a character surprises us, it is the character, not the author, that surprises. Only poorly written stories shock us out of the narrative and return us to the “real” world. Some novelists, such as J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, go to remarkable lengths to create imaginative universes that are compelling and utterly convincing.
I draw your attention to this sentence from the above quotation: “The interesting thing about this relationship is that it is too close to permit the author’s creative activity to damage her characters’ freedom” (emphasis mine). McCann seems to be suggesting that a fictional character, and the narrative world in which it dwells, enjoys a genuine measure of freedom because it lives within the imagination of the novelist. It’s not an external object that can be manipulated or meddled with. The relationship is too intimate, too immediate for interference. Dorothy Sayers would disagree with McCann here. His proposal underestimates the “element of pure craftsmanship” that is necessary to the creation of a good story. “Nevertheless,” she concedes, “the free will of a genuinely created character has a certain reality, which the writer will defy at his peril” (The Mind of the Maker, p. 54). A fictional world is not the real world, of course, but McCann still finds the analogy illuminating:
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. Here, too, however, the relationship is too close to undermine our freedom. 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 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. (p. 108)
God does not cause our acts, as in causal-deterministic models, nor does he place us on a deistic stage upon which we autonomously live out our choices, as in libertarian models. God makes us acting. He is as intimately related to his creatures, as the storyteller is to his tale or the singer to her song. As James F. Ross has so beautifully worded it, “The being of the cosmos is like a song on the breath of a singer” (“Creation II,” in The Existence and Nature of God, p. 128). Just as God does not create entities without their properties and powers, so he does not create human beings apart from their free agency. Everything we do manifests the divine will. God’s creative “Let there be …” simply is our historical existing. McCann thus seeks to move philosophical reflection beyond the ever-ellusive causal joint that ostensibly binds divine and human agency. Perhaps we should not even employ the notion of causality—hence his suggestion that we think of the relation between God and creatures as analogous to the relation between intention and content:
The existence of creatures belongs to God’s act of creating them, rather than being a consequence of it. … We are not products of God’s creative willing, but the expression of it. If something like this is correct, the gap between creation and creature is closed. There is no distance whatever between us and God, hence we need not invent a causative process or nexus to fill the imagined void. Yet we are not made parts of God, or descriptive modifications of him—any more than the content of a thought would be a part of a predicate of a thinker. Rather, the relation is analogous to that between a story and its author or a song and its composer. The world has its existence in God, but God is in no way composed or constituted by the world. A second upshot of this view is that any remaining vestiges of conflict between God’s activity as creator and the operation of secondary causes is wiped away. They are not even the same sort of process. God’s creative activity is not a determining condition of the being of the world, but an endeavor in which he himself serves as the foundation of reality, the source in which we live, and move, and have our being. That, of course, is as it should be, and it is in keeping with the idea that God is completely involved with his creatures, that his providential care extends immediately and comprehensively to all that exists. (pp. 44-45)
God is closer to us than any cause. He creates the world ex nihilo, and this creating is a causing unlike any that we know, not a nomic determination of events and states of affairs but the conferral of being itself.
But surely divine determinism must be hidden somewhere in McCann’s proposal. I find myself wondering about this on Tuesdays and Thursdays (and sometimes on Saturdays). If one watches Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s interviews with the Texas A&M philosopher, it’s clear that Kuhn thinks that McCann’s theology of creation is ultimately deterministic. McCann argues otherwise: “Even though, as primary cause, God provides for the existence of my decisions and actions, the minimal requirement for libertarian freedom is preserved: there is no independent condition or state of affairs by which my exercises of will are deterministically caused—none on earth, and none in heaven either” (p. 104). God neither acts upon us, as a cue stick acts upon a billiard ball, nor forces us to behave against our will. “That is precisely what does not go on in the relationship between God and his creatures,” McCann insists. “The operation of his will is not an event independent of my willing; there is nothing ‘left over’ if we subtract my act of deciding from God’s act of creating it” (p. 105). I am created in my willing and acting, and apart from this willing and acting, there is no me for God to manipulate, coerce, or determine. Hence the divine act that puts my decidings and actings in place cannot do violence to me. “God’s creative determination of my decisions,” comments McCann, “does not rule out their being free, for in fact the determination and the decision are one and the same” (“Divine Sovereignty and the Freedom of the Will,” p. 594).
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. (Creation, p. 106)
At the moment God summons me into existence—and he’s willing me into existence at every moment—he simultaneously wills my decisions and actions. He creates me in my freedom. The divine determination that I shall go to the theater to see Doctor Strange just is my freely-enacted decision to see Doctor Strange. Nothing is forced upon me; nothing predestines me. If we find ourselves still struggling with this, the problem probably lies with a faulty understanding of divine creation:
God is responsible for the being of all that is, but He does not produce it by operating to change something else, and He does not produce our decisions by operating on us. … In the end, I would suggest, what truly constitutes God’s activity as creator of the world is simply His being eternally given over to serving as the ground of being for the world and all that belongs to it. And the true manifestation of that is not some descriptive condition determining the nature of things, but rather their very existence. So far as my decision is concerned, God’s creative activity does not, even on the eternal level, stand as a determining condition which settles what I shall decide. It is fully manifested simply in my deciding as I do. (“Divine Sovereignty,” p. 595; also see “Divine Providence“)
It sounds all quite schizophrenic, yet it begins to make sense, the way things sometimes do when we turn them upside down, when we remember that Creator and creatures do not exist on the same metaphysical plane and therefore cannot be coordinated in an ordinary way. How can God and I both be the subject of my willing? McCann suggests we think of it along these lines: “I alone am the subject of my decision. It is predicated of me, and its defects are mine. What God does is create the event of my deciding as I do. He is, as it were, the subject of my being the subject of my decision—which is really just an expression of the point that we have our being in him” (p. 595). Think back to the analogy of the novelist and her characters.
But could I have done otherwise? the libertarian asks. Yes, of course. But if you had done otherwise, God would have willed otherwise. But can I do otherwise? Again yes. Just go ahead and do otherwise. What’s stopping you? Certainly God isn’t. You are free to pursue whatever goods you wish to pursue, free to prioritize your motives as you choose, free to follow your desires or not follow them—everything an incompatibilist could ask. “God’s activity as creator,” notes McCann, “operates in such a way that my integrity as an agent is exactly what it would have been if the subject of creation had never come up, and we had concluded that, as many libertarians believe, my decisions and actions have no determining cause of any kind, primary or secondary” (Creation, p. 105). God is too close to us to damage our interior freedom. But if God creates the volitionary event, then that means that I cannot decide other than what God has me eternally deciding. I cannot simultaneously decide and not decide to go to the theatre to see Doctor Strange. “But since the only manifestation of His will in this regard is my deciding,” explains McCann, “all that this limitation comes to is that I cannot decide anything else while at the same time deciding as I do. That, of course, is not a limitation at all” (“Divine Sovereignty,” pp. 595-596). It sounds like a conundrum, yet it really isn’t. It only looks that way because we keep separating the divine and creaturely side of things; but there is only one event of decision and action. “Paradoxical though it may appear at first, therefore, even though our decisions are set in place by the creative power of God, we could, even on the eternal stage, have done otherwise” (p. 596).
But this makes divine grace irresistible, we object. What is this but an expression of Augustinian determinism? The objection, though, reveals that we are still thinking of Creator and creature in dualistic opposition.
It is true that God’s will cannot be resisted, but that is not because in the operations of our own will he has us cornered, or in any way overpowered. It is because God’s will is not the kind of thing that can be resisted, in that it does not operate by force. Indeed, where God’s action as creator is concerned, we do not even “follow” his will, in the true sense of the term. There is no point in our lives as decision makers where we are presented with a decision God has ordained for us and then are driven to accept it. Rather, we are presented with specific moral choices to make and to act upon. In making and carrying out those choices we decide and act for reasons—that is, for the sake of certain ends—and in so doing we select our own destiny every bit as much as God does. That we and our doings are known and ordained to be from eternity changes none of that, for the knowing and ordaining is nothing apart from God’s act of creating us as the beings we are. (Creation, p. 109)
The only difference between his construal of human freedom and the typical libertarian construal, McCann tells us, is that his account presents our decisions and actions as grounded in God as primary cause, “whereas on the standard libertarian view their existence is grounded in nothing whatever” (p. 109). The divine Creator not only respects our freedom; he is its ground and source. “It is true that our destinies are written,” he remarks; “but the handwriting is ours” (p. 111).
Yet we remain uneasy and unpersuaded. Another objection comes to mind: if God creates me willing and acting, then that would seem to imply that my agential purposes are subordinated to God’s purposes, thus destroying my autonomy. We may think we are acting in accordance with our own reasons and motives, but in reality we are being constrained by God to advance his own covert agenda. Our belief in free agency is illusory. We are mere dupes and puppets, no more free than the hosts in Westworld, who have no idea that an outside world exists or that they were made for the sole purpose of fulfilling the desires of the guests. McCann concedes the possibility of subordination but denies the negative consequences:
Subordination occurs only when yours or my ends are selected only because they are congruent with the other, so that if they did not suit, one or the other would have to give way. And we may grant that since God wills our decisions for the good he sees accomplished in and through them, it is possible that our ends are subordinate to his in this way. But it does not follow that they are. That conclusion would be in order only if we could be sure that God’s purposes finally conflict with our good as morally responsible agents—so that they can be achieved only at the expense of our exercising our wills in just those ways that yield for us a robust and consistent moral character, uniquely appropriate to each individual. And there is no reason whatever to think such a thing is the case. On the contrary: it may well be that as creator God has no more paramount objective than that we should exercise full autonomy in forming and executing our intentions, and come to display precisely the moral character to which they give rise. Or, if he does have higher objectives it may be that they cannot be achieved except through this expedient. Indeed, it is not implausible to think that nothing less than this is in keeping with the complete and loving involvement with each creature’s destiny that is so often claimed by believers to characterize divine providence. (p. 110)
I keep pondering upon this objection. It seems to me that McCann might have given a stronger response based on the ontological difference between Creator and creature. If, as McCann suggests, “God’s act of willing that I choose to do as I do is related to my action not as nomic cause to effect, but as will to content” (p. 155), then my reasons for my action are part of that content. Is not the possibility of inappropriate subordination thereby excluded, given that God wills the reasons that led to my decision? Or am I thinking about this in the wrong way? In any case, McCann does touch on an important point: God wills for us the very good that we ultimately will for ourselves. It is precisely this truth we do not believe, and because we do not believe, we fear his sovereignty and construct our fortresses of personal autonomy. Here is our sin and the root of sin. If we had faith, we would not fear God’s control of history nor resent our dependence as creatures and so would not worry ourselves about the possibility of God sacrificing us on the altar of providence.
A critical question remains: Does Professor McCann’s version of double agency make God the author of sin?