Volition and Vases; a Comment on the Problem of Evil

In studying the Problem of Evil and Suffering, I have often wondered why God didn’t make our human will (volition) more like His own–genuinely free but never misused.[1] People have often suggested a form of the free will defense saying that the moral evil in the world is a result of our free will, but that’s just the price paid to have such a great good as “free will.” But that form of the free will defense seems to fall short. It doesn’t reconcile the fact that God, presumably the most free being there is (having no coercive power acting on Him), could have made our free will closer in kind to His own, so we rarely or never sin–yet God did not make our will’s like that. So God could have made things better than they are now, therefore, there is no maximally great creator God.

I think there’s a fairly straight-forward solution to this problem. Perhaps it is the case that we can have substantially different “free will”–suitable to our finite, mortal, nature–which is nonetheless good and valuable in many ways besides merely moral goodness. We may be more prone to sin and corruption, but God has more purposes at work in our volition than mere morality. Permit me to illustrate.

Surely a particular crystal vase is more fragile than some iron vase, a wood vase, or a sturdy plastic vase. In terms of fragility, the crystal vase ranks lower than the others. But a vase is not merely intended for sturdiness. A vase can serve for storage, independent beauty, coordinated decoration within some ensemble. It could function as a flower pot, or a hiding place. there are a number of different “goods” for which that crystal vase could be enlisted. We are too narrow in our demands if we judge a vase strictly in terms of its sturdiness.

In the same way, our limited and fallen human capacity for choice (volition/will/agency) may not be the sternest stuff God could have formed in us. Nevertheless, it may still be good for God to have made us with a corruptible will, since there can be other redeeming values at work in it. There may be contingent kinds of beauty, goodness, and usefulness (i.e., aesthetic, moral, and instrumental values) and these, metaphysically speaking, may require the kind of volition that we people have. God could have made our wills to be very nearly like His own so that we never sin (or if our finite nature demands it), or so that we would rarely sin. But God did not make us merely to avoid sin, He made us to create things, discover the world, relate with others, fall in love, build, grow, learn, and change. Each of these can enlist our volition in different ways so that mere “sinlessness” is a shallow ambition compared to the many uses to which our volition can be directed.

Now, I’m not saying that “sin” is okay, or that it’s “no big deal.” Sin is a very big deal, but my point is that our volition may be about more than simply moral goodness. Our volition predicated the fall of humanity, and it leaves us susceptible to further sin and corruption. But our volition also fosters invention, education, exploration, creation, and all sorts of honorable attributes of humankind. Our human nature may be a crystal vase of sorts, vulnerable in some ways, prone to spots and breakage, yet it remains useful and beautiful beyond our imagination.

The problem of evil and suffering is still a real problem, but we have one less reason to retreat in fear. The free will defense is an important and powerful response to this problem, provided we remember the various and many values involved in our human volition.

 

Notes

[1] I’m allowing for that sake of argument that we may have either (A) an identical will as God’s but which applies in a substantially different way with Him as with Us, or (B) we have a will which is, in itself, substantially different  from God’s. With either option, any shared concept, such as “volition,” applies differently to God than to us (i.e., the doctrine of analogy). God is infinite, we are finite; He knows all, we know little; He has perfect autonomous self-control, we are contingent dependent beings.

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8 thoughts on “Volition and Vases; a Comment on the Problem of Evil

  1. In religion, so much comes down to mere mental speculation. So many religions deal with suffering by blaming the victims, us. Much is done to us down here on Earth, but it is all for God’s glory. The currency of the realm is human suffering.

    1. Interesting thoughts Larryzb. It is true that we are to blame for at lest some of our suffering, but clearly there’s no direct human cause of all of it. It seems overzealous to attribute all the “fallen” aspects of the cosmos to only the sin of Adam & Eve. But I want to dignify the heart behind your comment. Suffering, sorrow, and evil are common currency in our world and we are all struggling to cope with it. I find hope and help in God, but there are no easy answers and anyone who claims to have an easy answer on the problem of suffering or the problem of evil, they are lying, deluded, or both.

  2. Hi Brother,

    You are forgetting that the ‘free will’ we have is not to be mistaken for autonomy, but to dependence. God cannot give us a will like his own simply because he is not dependent on anything or anyone. We have not been made for autonomy, but to truly choose dependence on him. In fact autonomy is the sin.

    I like to think of it not as ‘free will’, but as ‘freed will’.

    Best regards,

    Andrew Wright

    On Tue, Aug 15, 2017 at 3:09 AM, Intelligent Christian Faith wrote:

    > intelligentchristianfaith posted: “In studying the Problem of Evil and > Suffering, I have often wondered why God didn’t make our human will > (volition) more like His own–genuinely free but never misused.[1] People > have often suggested a form of the free will defense saying that the moral > ev” >

    1. Andrew, I agree that our free/d will cannot be identical to God’s as He is independent in a way we can never be. We cannot have autonomy in that sense as we are a deeply dependent creation, and our efforts at full-autonomy are nothing more than the sin of Adam and Eve extended across human history to today; we take the imago dei within us and mistake it for just “dei,” we make idols out of our own selves, religious humanism, wanting divine privilege which is true and suitable only for God himself.

      There may also be a subtle denominational dispute at work here. But I’ll abstain from that. I’ve argued through Arminian-Calvinist debates too much in my life already. Both are permitted within historic orthodoxy, and I won’t haggle over it here.

  3. “…God, presumably the most free being there is (having no coercive power acting on Him), could have made our free will closer in kind to His own, so we rarely or never sin–yet God did not make our will’s like that…”

    This is a thought that I have struggled with many times. It has struck me as very puzzling at times.
    ______________
    “..So God could have made things better than they are now, therefore, there is no maximally great creator God.”

    I’ve heard variations on this argument from atheists, but always thought it empty. How could we begin to presume that we have more knowledge than God? It’s pretty absurd. I think that this might be as close as I can get to any understanding of the problem of pain and suffering; i.e.; God is God and we are not. That was all Job could say.
    _________________

    “…But God did not make us merely to avoid sin, He made us to create things, discover the world, relate with others, fall in love, build, grow, learn, and change. Each of these can enlist our volition in different ways so that mere “sinlessness” is a shallow ambition compared to the many uses to which our volition can be directed….”

    I’m not sure that I see the logic here. All of these things you mention do not have to be exclusive of sinlessness. God could have made us so that we could do all of these without sinning. Perhaps the ability to choose not to sin is a greater good than being ‘programmed’ not to sin in these cases? Certainly love is not possible without choice. And the greatest good is love.

    ….Just some random thoughts…….

    1. Thank you William for your thoughtful remarks. The point about avoiding sin is that it’s possible to avoid sin yet never fall in love, never build, never grow, never learn, and never change. Nothing about sinlessness requires all those other GOOD things. God gave us volitional ability, therefore, so we would do more than just avoid sin. Our volition is to serve a range of purspoes many of which include complicating factors like loss, suffering, adversity, and so on. In this light, our volition proves to be a much more sophisticated and ornate kind of thing when we can see beyond the flat and boring life of JUST sinlessness. Yes, of course we should avoid sin. But if we stop there then we’ve really missed the whole point of Christian living. Avoiding sin is just a small part of the Christian life. Our volitional muscles, so to speak, were meant to be exercised in all sorts of ways that don’t just “follow the rules” but which also create, explore, build, relate, and create. What kind of athlete is content to merely avoid fouls and penalties, or what kind of artist is content merely to adhere to the rules he was taught in art school. Or what kind of driver is content merely to avoid a traffic tickets. Those people may have avoided sin (so to speak), but by focusing on rule-following (as if that’s the whole point of sports, art, or driving) they have a clean track record but never competed in a race, never created great art, and never drove anywhere worth going.

  4. Thanks so much for the reply John. I suspect that we are talking past each other a bit re. my last point. That said, I agree with everything that you said in reply.
    I guess the thing that puzzles me at times is your original question: why are we designed with such propensity to sin and temptation, when God could have still designed us with free choice, volition, and the ability to do all these things you mention, but maybe with just not such a horror of selfishness and all the other cardinal vices that we have to overcome? I know theologically that this is based Adam’s original sin, but we still maintain the ‘imago dei’ and God has control over our natures: we are not wild beasts and also not angels.
    For example, did God really have to make us with such a need for sex that we have the degree of abuse and destruction that we see everywhere? It’s one thing to desire to reproduce, but why make us with such powerful drives; seems excessive.

    I don’t really think about this much, but sometimes it just hits me as such a puzzle.

    I think that the points you made in your reply are discussing something quite different than how I took your original essay. So, apologies if I have gotten completely off track.

    BTW, I do all my guitar recording whilst on-call (I’m an anesthesiologist) and have to stay in an apartment next to my hospital.

    I’m a huge Kottke and Fahey fan as you could tell. I’ve done many Kottke covers as well.
    I also put a workbench in my apt., and do a lot of carving at night when I’m on call and not in the hosp…..www.LineAndBerry.com Amazing what you can get done when there’s no TV set 🙂
    I enjoy listening to various podcasts when I’m at the workbench, including a lot of apologetics. Last night I heard you speak as part of a panel on the ‘Apologetics Academy’ site, and that’s how I found your excellent website, which I look forward to following. I thought your comments were very on target.

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