Saturday, July 11, 2009

God vs. Free Will

I was listening to National Public Radio, and I heard a story about a doctor in Gaza.

He had been educated in the United States, but chose to live in Gaza because he is a

Palestinian and it is his home. He had eight children, and at least three were girls. (The

report didn't break down the rest of his family.) When the Israeli army invaded Gaza

recently, an Israeli tank rolled up outside his home. He has no idea why, but the tank fired

at his home and killed three of his daughters. There were many accusations against the

Israeli's for excessive force in Gaza; and in this case the Israeli government is going to pay

him compensation for the deaths of his daughters. (If it happened to you, what kind of

compensation would you ask for?)

What caught my attention in this story was the reaction of the doctor to the loss

of his daughters. He told the NPR reporter that being a Muslim, he believed that all of

this happened because Allah wanted it to happen. He had been chosen for this. He said

that as sad and horrible as this tragedy is, something good will have to come out of it

because that is how Allah works. He said he was taking the money from the Israeli's

and starting a foundation for women and girls to assist them in education and other needs

they may have. He said the blood of his daughters will be the seed of this new foundation

which will help others. He was not bitter, nor did he seek revenge against Israel. He said

as a doctor he was expected to heal, and how could he do that if he himself were broken

and damaged. He preaches tolerance to those who will listen to him.

As I was listening, I found myself thinking about my own children and my own

daughters. I thought about how much I love them, and how I would sacrifice my own life

for theirs without hesitation. I can't imagine losing one of them, let alone three; and

whoever took them from me should be prepared to reap the whirlwind, as I would want

justice and revenge of some sort I think.

The reaction of the doctor floored me; and I have spent days thinking about it

and thinking about my own thoughts on the matter. While the doctor attributed it all

to God's will, and while he believed that whatever God wills has a good purpose in the

end, I reflected on his fundamentalism and contrasted it with my more "enlightened"

view of how God acts in the world.

Why did God create us? It's a simple question with profound implications. The

good nuns at Holy Name Grammar School said we were created because God loves us.

In turn, God wishes us to love Her back. Since no one can be made to love anyone else

(Can you put a gun to someone's head and tell them to love you? Have you heard of

parents who don't love their children and vice versa?) Love by it's very nature is a gift.

As such it is freely given, it has to be a free act. So in creating us out of love, God had to

allow us free will or there is no love relationship offered to us. So, without free will,

there is no relationship and thus no grace. If we truly have free will, then God has no

idea what we will do with it (no omniscience). If we have free will, God can't step in and

fix things when we screw up or sin (no omnipotence). There is no cosmic bandaid

available if we just pray hard enough or long enough or fervently enough. We are free

to love God or not and She hopes we pick the former. The analogy I use is once again a

parental one. As parents, we have absolute or omnipotent control over our children for

a very short time. Eventually, we can't force them to do anything. If we have a loving and

caring relationship with them, we can still influence them in powerful ways. We can still

"persuade" them about choices they may make, but we cannot "coerce" them. The more

powerful our relationship, the more "suasive" power we have. So too with God. God

cannot coerce us, but God can be suasive, powerfully influencing our lives (read St. Francis,

St. Ignatius, Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day).

Here is the rub, or conundrum, or fly in the ointment; the doctor's explanation

of Allah's will and his acceptance that God chose him and something good will come out

of this tragedy, seems to be an answer that is more comforting or neater; and it has enabled

him to cope with the loss of his daughters far better than I could deal with the same loss.

To him, what happened is part of God's plan; and since God or Allah loves us, She can't

want anything bad for us. On the other hand, for me, what happened to the doctor was

man's inhumanity to man. It was evil. It was a free choice that these Israeli soldiers made

in the midst of a war, the choice of which someone else made.

There is a part of me that really wants to believe that what happens to us is part

of God's plan and there is a reason. There is comfort in the belief that an entity far more

powerful and loving and wise is guiding events in my life. A God that powerful could change

Her mind or fix something that went awry. In scripture, Yahweh tests Job by taking

everything away from him to see if he would still have faith. When terrible things happen,

there is a little solace in the knowledge that it could be a test or that there is a reason

behind it.

Because of his beliefs, the Palestinian doctor is not angry or vengeful, not calling

for retribution; but rather trying to make something good out of a senseless tragedy,

and turn the death of his daughters into something good by starting a foundation for

other Palestinian girls and women.

Because of my beliefs, I believe God gave us an amazing gift, the ability to enter

into a relationship with Her, to know Her and to love Her and be loved in return. We can

receive God's grace (love) and freely return it. This entity called God mad me, loves me

and wants me to love Her back, and I do that by how I love myself and others. I am free

to return that love (grace) or turn away from it (sin). Our choice is absolutely free; and

while God hopes we choose to enter into a loving relationship, She has to wait and see

what we choose to do.

Which is better, a God that controls everything and everything that happens is

part of God's will and we accept that, or a God who loves us enough to create us and then

gives us the freedom to love Her in return?

I didn't write this because I have an answer but because I have questions. I want

to believe that all that happens to us is part of some grand plan. God, I want to believe

that so badly; and yet I know that love is a free act and that freedom gives me the choice

to sin (turn away) or return the love of God.

Perhaps the appeal of a "fundamental" approach to God and religion is the

certainty that it offers. Perhaps believing everything is part of a plan helps especially

in dealing with tragedy. On the other hand, if we are free, then our choices are ours and

our world can be better if we choose, and tragedy occurs because we turned away (sin);

which means it doesn't have to occur if we turn back. Perhaps what happens to me is my

own fault, and God weeps with me, offers Her love and forgiveness, and encourages me

to do better the next time.

I don't have an answer except to say that I find the doctor's response to the loss of

his three daughters extraordinary and inspiring, and I can use all the inspiration I can get.

What do you think? I welcome your comments and rebuttals. Please send them to

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