Tony Jones calls into question Rob Bell’s belief in human freedom. Rob’s idea is often called libertarian free will, and for Rob’s title — love wins — to work, it requires that God grants humans the freedom to choose to do what they want, turn to God or turn into themselves. Tony Jones contends for a more deterministic mindset and less human freedom.
Here’s the question: Are we, are all humans, free to choose God? And does Rob Bell’s theory of freedom require a de-determinizing of the human condition after death?
This is from Tony (link above):
I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve watched the videos and I’ve read reviews, and I read a post this week by Greg Boyd which attempted to show the logical inconsistencies of moral determinism.
Greg’s post is entirely theological in its reasoning. He does not seem to take into account sociological or anthropological rationale. And neither does Rob Bell when, in interviews, he repeatedly insists on human freedom. In fact, Rob’s commitment to total human freedom, even after death, seems thoroughgoing.
This is called “rational actor theory” by social theorists, and it posits that human beings are free and conscious actors who independently determine their behavior. Notre Dame sociologist, Christian Smith, for example, subscribes to a version of this theory (see his books, Moral Believing Animals and What Is a Person?).
I am not. I subscribe to a type of post-Marxist theory called “post-structuralism.” We are, each of us, bound up in structures and super-structures of sociality that determine and even dictate a large percentage of our behavior. In fact, much of our lives are spent in the self-deluded state that we’re choosing what we do. We don’t actually have much freedom at all, and our choices in life are strikingly limited.
Rob has been talking a lot about freedom, stating that love requires freedom and using anecdotes that corroborate that. How could a God who gives us so much freedom, Rob asks, not give us unlimited choices for heaven over hell?
But how much freedom do you really have? You weren’t free to choose the family into which you were born, or the society in which you were reared. By the time you’d reached late adolescence and your moral and religious proclivities were set, you’d had virtually no freedom.
Further, Rob’s claims of near absolute human freedom betray his status as a human being of enormous privilege. I doubt that a woman living in rural Afghanistan or a man living in the slums of Juarez experience much freedom.
If our lives are, as I suspect, largely dictated by unseen social structures, it may not have much to do with our eternal destinies, but it does seem to undermine Rob’s primary thesis.
The Incoherence of Ordained Morality. I would argue that the association of moral responsibility and free will is not only deeply intuitive, as the article suggests, it is also logically necessary. That is, I would argue that denying the association of moral responsibility and free will results in incoherence. For example, when a Calvinist asserts something like: “God ordains that Satan does evil in such a way that God remains morally holy for ordaining Satan to do evil while Satan becomes morally evil for doing what the all-holy God ordained him to do,” I submit they are asserting something that is beyond counter-intuitive; it is utterly incoherent. For a concept to have meaning it must have some rooting in our experience, at least by analogy. A concept for which there is no analogy in our experience is a vacuous concept. Yet, after decades of asking, I have yet to find anyone who can provide an analogy by which we might give meaning to the concept of an agent being morally responsible for what God ordained them to do. (I develop this argument at length in response to Paul Helseth in Four Views of Divine Providence).
Determinism is Self-Refuting. If free will is an illusion and everything is predetermined, then the ultimate cause of why a person believes that free will is an illusion and everything is predetermined is that they were predetermined to do so. But it’s hard to see how a belief can be considered “true” or “false” when it is, ultimately, simply a predetermined event. The snow falling outside my window right now is due to the fact that preexisting conditions determined it to be so. But we wouldn’t say that the snowfall is “true” or “false.”
Refuting Determinism By Action. You know what a person truly believes by how they act more than by what they say, for we often think we believe something when in fact we don’t. (E.g. the husband who convinces himself he loves his wife even though he mistreats her, cheats on her, etc.). On this basis I’d like to suggest that everyone who deliberates believes in free will, even if they think they do not, for its impossible to deliberate without acting on the conviction that the decision is up to you to resolve.
For example, I am this moment deliberating about what to work on when I finish this blog. Should I work on a peace essay for a book collection that is due at the end of this week or should I finish reading a book by Andrew Sullivan that I started two days ago? As I weigh the pros and cons of both possibilities, I cannot help but manifest my conviction that I genuinely could opt for either one of these alternatives and that it is up to me to decide which I will choose. In other words, I reveal a deep rooted conviction that I am free as I deliberate, and the same holds true for every deliberation anyone engages in. There simply is no other way to deliberate.
People may sincerely think they believe in determinism, but they act otherwise, and must act otherwise, every time they deliberate. The great American philosopher Charles Pierce argued that a belief that cannot be consistently acted on cannot be true. If he’s right about this – and I believe he is – then determinism must be false.
For further discussion of the Rob Bell book at Patheos, see:
Jeff Cook, here at Jesus Creed, “Rob Bell and CS Lewis“
Timothy Dalrymple, “A Framework for Understanding the Rob Bell Controversy“
Thomas F. Kidd, “For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Audacity of Love Wins“
The “Love Wins” book feature at the Patheos’ Book Club