Breaking the Cords of Fate

“We seem almost compelled,” remarks Hugh McCann, “to think there is some competition here: that when it comes to free will there is no way that both we and God can both have legitimate prerogatives, no way that one can be free without the other being reduced to subservience.”1 If God freely wills my decisions and actions, how can they be genuinely mine? If I freely will my decisions and actions, how can divinity be causally involved? The either/or seems intuitively obvious: either we are responsible for our decisions and actions, or God is; we can’t have it both ways. Yet McCann believes we may have it both ways, if the creatio ex nihilo is properly understood. His solution is, to say the least, provocative: “[God] does not make us act; he makes us acting, so that the freedom that goes with genuine action can still be present.”2 God makes us acting. He repeats this phrase multiple times. It’s easy to see why one might read it in a determinis­tic fashion. If the world and its inhabitants simply pop out of God’s imagination as a finished product, like a a celluloid movie spooled onto a projector reel or a novel coming off a printing press, then historical existence would be nothing more than script, each character performing his or her part as pre-eternally decreed. We would be no more free than those living under the fatalistic decisions of the Moirai or Norns. How can we do otherwise if God has already written the story? McCann might have made matters a bit clearer if he had added one word: God makes us freely acting. The point is: God creates us in our liberty.

Underlying McCann’s proposal are four interconnected claims:

(1) God does not exist on the same metaphysical plane as his creatures. He is the transcendent source and primary cause of all beings and all happenings:

God belongs to an order of being entirely his own, one that transcends completely the order of secondary causes.3

Consequently God does not need to cause events from within the world, as one being alongside other beings. He causes by gifting existence at every moment of the world’s existing.

(2) God does not bestow existence through a mechanism of cause-and-effect but directly and immedi­ately:

There can be no event-causal means—not even the operation of his own will—which God employs as creator. Rather, his will is, in itself, immediately effi­cacious in the task of creation, so that all that is, including rational creatures and all that they do, find their being in the very act through which they are created.4

For this reason, the relation between the uncreated will and the creaturely will cannot be understood mechanistically. There are no divine decrees or causal nexuses that determine history. God and human beings are not bound together by cords of fate:

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.5

(3) In his eternal act of creation, God brings into being the universe and its unfolding history as a whole, not in temporal piecemeal:

God is timelessly eternal and is engaged in a single creative act in which the world in all its history is produced. . . . Since it is never anything but the being of the world that is the product of creation, the world need not pass away at each instant in order to be ‘created’ thereafter. The existence of the world at any given instant is continuous with its existence at all others, and is owing to the same activity of God.6

This in no way suggests that temporal becoming is unreal or ephemeral. It only highlights the radical difference between divine and creaturely modes of being. Every historical event is an ex nihilo making within the one eternal act of making.

(4) God brings the world into being from the infinite depths of his spontaneity and creativ­ity. He does not need to deliberate. He does not need to think things through. He does not act according to a blueprint:

If God truly creates the universe, then there is no plan from which it is created. If there were, his activity in producing the world would be reduced to rote, plodding execution, lacking both the spontaneity and the instinctive grasp of how things should go that characterizes true creation. Notice that it does not follow from this that creation is a matter of an otherwise sterile God simply pulling the universe, as it were, out of thin air. Like all artisans, God brings the resources of his own being to the task of creation, and it is perfectly acceptable to think of him seeing in the world a reflection or unfolding of the fullness of being that constitutes his own nature. But that unfolding involves no prior blueprint. Rather, the plan of the universe emerges just as the plan of a work of art does: in the creation of the thing itself.7

If we think these four points together, perhaps we can begin to see the plausibility in the double agency position. Or perhaps not. William Vallicella is not convinced:

The problem, however, seems to remain: if our exercises of will are brought into being and maintained in being by divine omnipotence, then how on earth (or in heaven) could such exercises count as libertarianly free? If God creates my decision to review McCann’s book, then it would seem that God is the free source of this decision and I am not. McCann’s solution is to maintain that, just as my free decisions have no temporally antecedent event-causes in the natural order, they also have no logically antecedent divine event-causes. My decisions are free because they are neither naturally nor theologically determined. God does not operate upon us, making us do this or that, “he operates in our very willing, so that his will is done through ours, but without any kind of forcing” (106). The relation of divine to human willing is like that of a novelist to his characters, not like that of a puppeteer to his puppets. The novelist cannot make a character do something; he can only make him doing it. The will of the novelist and the will of the character do not conflict but coincide.8

McCann is well aware that the analogy between author and novel ultimately fails—characters in a novel only enjoy fictional existence, whereas we enjoy a very real existence. But what does it mean, asks Vallicella, to say that we are real? We are not real in the way that self-existent divinity is real; our reality is qualified by radical contingency. “We are real, but wholly dependent on God for our entire being at every instant.” The maverick philosopher then draws a conclusion which I find curious:

But then, it seems to me, we do have a mental existence after all: we exist as merely intentional objects ‘in’ or rather before the mind of God who is, of course, a pure spirit or mind. The upshot is that on McCann’s scheme we cannot be subjects capable of an I-Thou relation with God any more than characters in a novel are subjects capable of an I-Thou relation with the novel’s author. We are as it were sucked into the divine mind and reduced to the status of merely intentional objects whose entire being is our being for God.9

If I’m reading him rightly, Vallicella’s objection applies not only to McCann’s position but to the classical Christian teaching on the creatio ex nihilo. Creatures exist because God intends them. What else does divine creation mean? In him we live and move and have our being. Vallicella appears to have been misled by McCann’s employment of the analogy of author and novel. When McCann first wrote on this topic in 1995, he too found the analogy unhelpful:

We are not, after all, like characters in a novel, whose transactions occur entirely within its boundaries. There, no doubt, the author may make her characters free or determined as she pleases, since in neither case will they offend against her or us. Their freedom will be as real as they are, and the critics will not complain that it is bogus, in that all along it was the author who made the characters do what they did. But with us it is different. When we choose, we transact with our creator. Even in this world He is said to reward or punish our deeds, and in the Christian as well as many other religious contexts we have an eternal destiny for which we are responsible. And we might wonder how this is possible if we are not the ultimate cause of our choices. If we can only decide as God wills we decide, it seems unfair that He should allow us to suffer for our choices. We cannot resist his will. So why, as Paul has the Christians at Rome asking, does He still find fault? (Romans 9:19).10

Between his 1995 essay and the publication of Creation and the Sovereignty of God in 2012, though, McCann came to appreciate the instructive value of the analogy. The analogy, of course, fails. As Aulë discovered when he secretly created the Dwarves, even the Valar, despite their extraordinary powers, are incapable of creating truly autonomous and self-determining beings. Ilúvatar explains:

For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle.11

Unlike their fictional equivalents, real human beings fulfill the three criteria of libertarian freedom: absence of nomic necessity, spontaneity, and intentionality.12 That we possess libertarian freedom demonstrates that we are more than mental constructs. Our actions are the immediate expression of God’s creative activity but not produced by it via cause-and-effect. The uncreated Artist bestows the gift of freedom as a particiption in his free­dom. His sui generis agency does not compete or interfere with the agency of his crea­tures. We may not be able to explain how this can be true, but we can at least see that McCann is not speaking nonsense:

To put the question in classical form, how can I do otherwise if God wills that I decide as I do? The trouble with this argument is that it fails to understand what causal determinism in the nomic sense consists in. It is true that from premises about God’s will and its efficacy we may deduce a description of everything I will ever decide or will. So far, however, this bespeaks only a logical relation between premises and conclusions, and logical relations do not obtain among events. They exist only in the realm of propositions. The mere availability of this sort of inference does not, there­fore, destroy my freedom. After all, from the premise that I decide to vaca­tion in Italy, together with a traditional belief—namely, that we can do nothing apart from God’s will—we may also infer validly that God wills as creator that I decide to go to Italy. But we would not want to conclude on that basis that I causally determine God’s will, and still less that he and I determine each other’s wills. What is needed for causal or nomic determi­nation is not just the availability of an inference from laws and causes to the effect, but the relevant sort of ontological relation as well: a situation in which my decision occurs as the outcome of a natural—or in this case, quasi-natural—process that begins with ontologically independent states and events that act upon me, rendering me a passive player in creation’s history rather than an active one. But that is precisely what does not go on in the relationship between God and his creatures. 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.13

If in a single eternal act God creates me and the world from nothing, then at no point in my temporal existence is there an independent me for God to manipulate, determine, or compel. There is simply contingent me, deciding, acting, and blundering along in all of my libertarian glory. Hence the mere reiteration of the either/or (either we are causally responsible for our actions or God is) hardly constitutes a compelling objection to McCann’s presentation, as it is this either/or that he rejects. When God creates, he does not change or alter anything. His making is of a radically different order. He brings into being beings that in themselves are absolutely nothing at all. In the words of Bishop Robert Barron: “Creatures do not so much have a relationship to God; they are a relationship to God.”14 Considered apart from from their Creator, in other words, beings have no being; they are mere nothing—such is their radical ontological dependence. Consequently, everything that exists, including our deci­sions and actions, are necessarily comprehended in the divine will and providence. In the popular imagination, the world is pictured as as a stage upon which human beings live out the drama of their lives, free from divine interference or control. This picture is intrinsically demiurgic. But if everything that exists owes its reality to God’s continuing creative agency, then this must include abso­lutely everything, including thoughts, intentions, and actions. All flow from the divine Creator:

The important thing to realize here is that God’s creative activity is as fully involved in the continued existence of the universe as with its beginning, if it had one. That is, God’s sustaining the universe is of a piece with His produ­cing it. There is no power of things to sustain themselves in existence. Such a power would have to be a pure disposition, lacking any supervenience base and any mechanism, active or passive, by which it operated. There is no difference, definable or observable, between this sort of power and no power at all. It is the eternal creative act of God which alone is responsible for the existence of things, and the world’s surviving another second will be as much owing to God’s creative activity as its being here to begin with. It is hard to see, however, how God can be responsible for my existence at every moment without being responsible also for my characteristics. As Malebranche observed, God cannot create a physical object that is in no particular place, that is neither at rest nor in motion, etc. All of these things need to be settled in the production of the object. And in the same way, it would seem, God cannot create me with an indeterminate will—that is, a will that is neither deciding to A nor not deciding to A, that is neither committed to a given intention nor not so committed, etc. So if my existence at the moment I decide to visit Colorado is directly owing to God as creator, then so is my decision.15

The last sentences in the above citation need to be stressed. God cannot create an inde­ter­minate volitional being who then mysteriously finds within itself the wherewithal to begin willing and acting. Created beings are not self-movers in that sense; only the Holy Trinity is. God creates humanity freely acting, right from the start.16

Kathryn Tanner’s reflections on divine creation and creaturely agency may be profitably read alongside the writings of Hugh McCann. They fill in some of the blanks and perhaps offer a correction or two, though I tend to think that McCann offers a correction or two of her posi­tion. Tanner too asserts the radical ontological difference between Creator and creatures, thus eliminating competition between divine and creaturely agency:

God acts in the mode of creator whatever the aspect of created existence at issue: existing, acting, relating to others, finding a new life in Christ. From the most general to the most specific features of existence, all that the crea­ture is it owes to God as the creator of the world. . . . The relation must be said to be all inclusive or universally extensive: everything nondivine, in every respect that it is, is dependent upon God’s creative activity, which brings it forth. God’s creative activity calls forth or holds up into being throughout the time of its existence what has its own integrity as a non­divine existence, and this nondivine existence has to be considered the consequences of God’s creative calling forth and holding up as a whole, in its order and in its entirety, in every detail and aspect. Nondivine existence maintained by God’s creative power constitutes, therefore, a whole plane or level of nondivine existence, inclusive of every item or order that is or happens or becomes in the world as we know it.17

This relation of dependence upon God is, furthermore, always and in every respect a direct or immediate relation of dependence upon God. Picture the plane of nondivine existence (which is the whole of the world as we know it) suspended in existence at each and every one of its points, and therefore in its entirety, by God’s creative action. In such a picture every nondivine being in every respect owes all that it is directly to God whatever its rela­tions with other nondivine beings, the specific natures of those relations, their presence or absence, etc. . . .

Because all that is nondivine is the consequence and not the condition of God’s creative calling forth or holding up, one should say, finally, that God’s crea­tive intention for the world cannot be hindered, diverted or otherwise redi­rected by creatures. Lacking any defect or internal principle of cor­rup­tion, moreover, God’s creative calling forth is indeed unconditionally and neces­sarily efficacious. Expressing the idea in the oft-used terms of “willing” and “intending,” a theologian of our ilk asserts that what God wills for the world as its creator must happen in just the way God wills. . . . God creates immedi­ately, without any process in which creatures might figure, so there is nothing to get in the way; God creates without any exception so there is nothing besides the effects of God’s own creative calling forth to complicate it.18

In this Thomistic metaphysical vision, competition between divine and creaturely causality is excluded, as it rejects the notion “that God is one actor among other possible actors within a single plane of cooperating and/or competing causes of a comparable sort.” Creator and creature do not stand alongside each other, nor do they interact with each other in the way that finite beings do. To think otherwise is to make an egregious category blunder.

According to our picture, if a creature exercises any power at all, it does so on a different plane or axis, so to speak, from that along which God’s creative agency is exercised. God works to hold the whole of that created plane in existence and does not work within it. If a nondivine cause works to produce an effect, it does so only insofar as it is held up into existence in those respects by God. No matter how genuine the creature’s power, that does not render superfluous, therefore, God’s own working.19

Created causes are part of the world that God has called into existence and thus serve and the providential will of their Creator.

So far so good. McCann and Tanner appear to be on the same page. Both appear to be faithfully following what David Bentley Hart calls the logic of transcendence.

Tanner identifies three common objections to the possibility of libertarian free will within the world of double agency:

(1) If God creatively causes me to choose, the choice is no longer a matter of my own choosing.

She answers: “If God creatively calls forth somseone’s choosing, God’s creative action is not replacing that human being’s choosing. Indeed, the human agent itelf choosing is what God holds up into being. God’s calling forth of the human being’s choosing does not alienate the human being’s power to choose. On the contary, according to our picture it brings it about as something that is the human being’s own.”20

(2) If God creatively causes me to choose, he may well be making me to choose a course of action against my will.

She answers: “Since according to our premises God’s creative calling forth extends to the whole of what happens, it is a mistake to isolate a human being’s choice as what God brings about so as to suggest that God is not also bringing about the human agent in its very moving of itself to choose. When God brings about a human being in its choosing, the choice remains, therefore, a matter of the human being’s own inclinations so to choose.”21

(3) If God brings me to make a choice, then I’m not the one doing the choosing but God is choosing for me.

She answers: “If human choosing is always dependent in this way upon God’s will for it, it no longer makes sense to talk about God forcing someone to choose what he or she would otherwise not choose. The creature has no inclinations to choose except for the ones God gives. The human being may have had inclinations to the contrary a moment before, but given God’s calling forth of a change in them, the creatures has just those inclinations, which God intends, in the next moment, and no others.”22

Again, I think McCann and Tanner are pretty much on the same page. I think. I confess I’m a bit confused. Sometimes Tanner sounds more deterministic than McCann, and she struggles to explain why her construal of double agency does not fall into the compatibilist camp. “A theologian holding our picture,” she remarks, “cannot deny that, given God’s infallible working, human beings must choose when and what God wills.”23 But what does the must mean in this context if the human agent retains his libertarian freedom from nomic necessities, and why should we object?

What then does the inability of a human agent to do otherwise than God wills mean if the human agent’s choice is not necessitated by any created conditions? A theologian who holds to our picture of God as creator might claim that this is an inability like that whereby I say that insofar as I am choosing to do something I cannot choose not to so choose. This inability to do otherwise would be like the creature’s inability to do other than what God wills in that it would hold even under the most libertarian of circum­stances. All it means is that I cannot choose and not choose to do the same thing at the same time. If I am choosing to do it at T, I cannot choose not to at T. But this sort of inability does not indiate any real inability not to choose at T what I do choose. If the analogy holds, I am not free to choose to do anything at T other than what God wills that I choose to do at T, but this also says nothing about any real inability of mine at T to do something else.24

Yet the fact remains that even though at the creaturely and existential level I may possess the liberty to do otherwise, “my choosing as God wills me to choose follows with the same neces­sity as my choosing as I do when I am so choosing.”25 We freely choose what God wills us to choose—that is inescapable metaphysical necessity (and conundrum) intrinsic to our condi­tion as beings ontologically dependent upon the Holy Transcendence. The necessity is not the necessity of fate but of created freedom.

One question yet remains to be addressed: given the above construal of the Creator-creature relation, is God the author of sin?

(7 January 2017; rev.)


[1] Hugh J. McCann, Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 110.

[2] Ibid., p. 108; see “The World is a Novel in the Mind of God.”

[3] Ibid., p. 103.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 103.

[6] Ibid., p. 28. See “The Eternal Now That is Not Now.”

[7] Ibid., p. 173.

[8] William F. Vallicella, “Hugh McCann on the Implications of Divine Sovereignty,” p. 152.

[9] Ibid., p. 153.

[10] Hugh J. McCann, “Divine Sovereignty and the Freedom of the Will,” Faith and Philosophy, 12 (October 1995): 593.

[11] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Of Aulë and Yavanna,” The Silmarillion, chap. 2.

[12] McCann, Creation, pp. 101-103.

[13] Ibid., p. 105.

[14] Robert Barron, Catholicism, p. 76.

[15] McCann, “Divine Sovereignty,” pp. 586-587.

[16] I am surprised that McCann does not fill in the blank with a discussion of humanity’s teleologial orientation to the transcendent Good. Without this orientation, how does human action get kick-started?

[17] Kathryn Tanner, “Human Freedom, Human Sin, and God the Creator,” in The God Who Acts, ed. Thomas F. Tracy, pp. 112-113.

[18] Ibid., pp. 113-114; cf. “The Grammar of Transcendence.”

[19] Ibid., p. 118.

[20] Ibid., p. 124.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 127.

[24] Ibid., p. 128.

[25] Ibid.

(Go to “Is God the Author of Sin?”)

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4 Responses to Breaking the Cords of Fate

  1. While the theology checks out, I do wonder about the practical/pastoral implications. In the heat of the moment, does this all basically boil down to a sort of pelagianism? Like, sure, assume ultimate apokatastasis, but does double agency imply that the final responsibility is 100% on us to make the right libertarian choices to get there? How should we apply this theology when confronted with concrete temptations? I suspect that the classic “does it depend on me or does it depend on God or are we together in a rowboat” trilemma is often less of an ivory tower theological question and more of an urgent cry for help when under fire in the trenches of life.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I honestly do not know if the double agency position has any practical implications, other than avoiding false construals of the God-creature relationship.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You might recall that in the comment in the previous article I asked Zach Manis if McCann’s double agency view really secured divine providence. You might check out his answer. I’m not yet convinced by his answer. While double agency certainly asserts that everything that exists, including our free actions, come from God–and in that sense are “done” by God–why should this be described as providence, except perhaps in the sense that nothing happens that is beyond God’s ability to repair and heal. Nor is it clear to me how McCann’s position works to the advantage of universal salvation, unless one also accepts Tanner’s view that God can, and presumably would, replace one set of inclinations with another set. So color me still confused. Am I not seeing something obvious?


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        If God and our agency were set up as Calvinists would have it, with no free will at all, there would be no reason to believe in universal salvation since God would be a monstrous God who directly and deliberately willed sin and suffering anyway.
        I don’t suppose there is a strict difference in logical compatibility in terms of universal salvation between the “wind up the toy and let it go” idea of free will and McCann’s concept, but the foundation of universalism is the notion that God will never give up on saving any of mankind. It is easier to conceptualise God abandoning one of his creatures which has run off by itself too far into the darkess to be retrieved, but more difficult to see God continuing to will that the creature should freely will its own destruction while it does so. If our free will depends on God willing from moment to moment that freedom, then it must be that our continuing freedom, however badly we stray, or however grim it seems, continues to serve God’s purpose and ultimate end, and, if God is good, that (and our) end must be good also.

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