Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I just finished my first read of Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy.

There was a lot in there, and a lot I haven't digested or that I disagree with on first blush. The last of the five books discusses the endless debate over free will versus Divine foreknowledge. The orthodox position is to believe in both: free will and foreknowledge, and the almost equally orthodox struggle is trying to figure out how the two of them can possibly be compatible (especially as foreknowledge, in some positions (such as Calvin's, I believe) is equated with predestination).

Boethius (in the voice of Lady Philosophy) gives a very interesting and frankly compelling argument as to why Divine foreknowledge is not the same as predestination. He points out that our earthly knowledge or foreknowledge of an event doesn't mean that it is inevitable. He asks us to consider a person watching a man walking as the sun rises. Because we see both things, we know that they are happening, but the sun rising is inevitable while the man walking is not. Since God comprehends everything in the Eternal Present (Boethius argues), his foreknowledge of our actions no more compels us to act than our present knowledge of the man walking compels him to act.

I enjoyed this analogy (even if I'm not sure I agree, I still like it very much) and considered another one:

I know my best friend as well as I know anyone. I can reliably predict whether or not he'll like a book, what will make him laugh, and where he'll sit around a restaurant table. He can predict the same things about me (actually, he's rather better at it). No one on the outside looking in, however, would suggest that when we're around each other we lose our free will, no matter how good we get at predicting each other. Almost the reverse: being around someone who knows you and cares for you deeply can be remarkably freeing. I am given more choices because I trust that no matter what I do or say I will still be loved.

All respects to my best friend, the God of my faith loves and knows me infinitely more, and is also infinitely more wise. Is it too much of a stretch to conjecture that He has that much more foreknowledge of my actions, and that I am simultaneously even more freed?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Moby Dick

I finished reading Moby Dick recently, and among other things it got me musing about faith in God, revelations of the Divine, and the natural world.

In the novel, the obsessed Ahab sees the white whale who took off his leg (the titular Moby Dick) as a living representation of something diabolical:

"All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines."

I have religious friends to whom every little event --- a traffic light turning green at just the right time, or a sunny day for their vacation, or their cold getting better after a prayer --- every little event is a Sign or Work of God. God is the "unknown but still reasoning thing" that "puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the [pasteboard] mask."

It's awfully tempting. I do have faith (most of the time!) in a personal God who cares about my doings and has power in the world we see around us. Like Ahab, I feel as if I am straining to see "the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask" of this world. Sometimes I think I've found those features, too --- perhaps not in the traffic lights, but maybe in other events: a chance meeting, a shooting star, an unexpected phone call. And this is not particularly unorthodox.

But Ahab, as his mate Starbuck points out, is mad:

"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."

Starbuck is right --- it is crazy to impute all of this "inscrutable malice" to a whale, a part of nature, and the book is fairly clear that Ahab sees this malice only because of his peculiar monomania about it. A whale is a whale and pursues his own whale nature. We might as well strike the sun for shining. So why is seeing malice in the world so crazy when seeing God in the world is so orthodox?

But in Melville's world past (and present) where many people thought (and still think!) about God as I have outlined above, it was (and still is) a narrow leap to make. Honestly, the fact that I (and many others) find that leap so illogical- and immediately start arguing against it- "Ahab, stop- there is naught behind the wall"- is the argument that most compels me towards atheism. Because if I refuse to see malice- devils- demons- behind the wall, why should I see the Divine?

Nevertheless, I do see it- the Divine grace. Every day I see it. And while I believe in evil in the human heart, I don't believe in a reasoning evil, a demonic evil, striking through the mask and thrusting through the wall. This might be either because of my theological naivete or again because of my ultimate optimism about the goodness of the universe.

I'll have to mull it over and take my pick- and wonder, what's the orthodox Quaker take on this?