Monday, September 28, 2015

All you have to do is... Seriously???

For this week's newspapers I answered a question about whether humans have free will and to what extent:  

Q:  Is it true that humans have a free will, or are our life and eternity laid down by another power which causes us to be destined for the events which happen? 

This is a question which both religion and philosophy have both struggled over the course of centuries, and among Christians, it has historically been the source of some of the most heated disagreements about doctrinal matters. 

Since for people who live in the Western world, particularly in the United States, much of our way of life is founded on the ideas of freedom and opportunity, we often get the impression that this freedom applies in all areas of life. 

When we are talking about earthly things, this is true for the most part.  The majority of the time, humans do have free will when it comes to merely earthly matters.  So, when it comes to what we eat, where we live, the things we purchase, what we will do for an occupation and how we will carry out that occupation, humans have a free choice, provided the choices of their fellow humans do not impose upon them. 

However, the Bible makes clear that in spiritual matters, circumstances are far different.  Some of the highlights among these include Paul’s statement in the book of Romans, quoting from the Psalms, that “No one seeks God” and “No one does good, not even one,”  along with the prophet Jeremiah’s statement that the human heart is deceitful above all things. 

Paul also makes statements throughout the books of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians that salvation is “by grace,” that is that it is a pure gift.  Now if our salvation is a pure gift, except that we must exercise an act of free will to make a choice, then it is no longer pure gift, but rather the result of the human work of making a choice. 

In response to this, some have suggested that there is no free will at all in humans.  They conclude that humans have no free will at all in spiritual things, and some even extend this to earthly things to the extent that all things are caused and determined by God with humans merely carrying out what has been decreed. 

This oversimplifies a highly-nuanced teaching of Scripture, though, whether we apply this idea, called determinism or fatalism, to only spiritual things or to all of life.  Simple answers are always attractive, but rarely manage to answer the question with the full depth of Scripture. 

The witness of the Bible’s authors is consistently that God receives full credit for any person whose sin is forgiven and that they played no role in earning or deserving that gift.  However, when speaking of those who receive the punishment their own sins deserve, God never receives the blame, but that blame is rather squarely assigned to the person who committed the sin. 

There is also a distinction regarding whether the question is asked of a Christian or of an unconverted person.  For those who are apart from Christ, it is as if they possess a free will, but it is restrained to only choose evil in spiritual matters, and in capable of choosing good.  However, for those who have been given the gift of trust in Jesus, that will has been un-chained from that point forward, the new person created through faith and Baptism does indeed have a free will, although it continues to struggle against the old sinner that still dwells within them for the remainder of their natural life. 

Ultimately, humans do possess a free will, which all people are able to exercise in merely earthly matters, but none at all as it touches on salvation; and even after being freed by the Holy Spirit’s work it continues to struggle against sin’s restraints until they depart this life to await the final Resurrection with their Lord. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Born in the Wrong Body?

My article for this week's newspapers answers a question regarding the unity of the body and soul and those  who would suggest one is superior or that the two can be mis-matched:

Q:  Is it possible for a person to be “trapped in the wrong body” or for there to be a mismatch between who they are physically and spiritually?

It used to be that when a person said, “I am a marathon runner trapped in a sumo wrestler’s body,” or “I am a 29 year old trapped in a 70 year old body,” that it was merely a figure of speech that a person was using to indicate that their attitude did not line up with their physical attributes. 

Today, however, such claims are regularly stated with the intention of describing what a person believes to be a factual set of circumstances.  News stories abound where such statements are made about a given person’s race, sex, health, or abilities, but those who hear such claims, particularly Christians, would do well to consider the implications of such claims for our understanding of the human person if they would be factual. 

Philosophers in Greek and Roman times often debated whether a person was composed of two or three or another number of components parts.  Such explanations would include component parts such as body, soul, mind, and spirit, and in such systems of thought, it was usually proposed that the immaterial elements made up the real person and the body was portrayed either as incidental or sometimes even like a sort of prison. 

In other parts of the world, a variety of religious philosophies teach that the “real” person is the spirit, which is then born repeatedly through a series of several lifetimes, taking on different bodies.  The common theme between these views of the human person is that they begin with components, move to the idea of the person, then assign one component as the one that is essential to humanity and the others as auxiliary. 

Biblical understanding of humanity, on the other hand, sees the person, although composed of both material and immaterial aspects, as created whole.  This can be seen from the creation accounts of Genesis to Paul’s epistles, and everywhere between.  Any distinction or discrepancy we perceive between these aspects is only the result of a fallen world, and something we will only experience during our mortal lives, because we will be made whole at the resurrection. 

There are times when a person might perceive a difference between the roles or traits that society expects of them based on their outward characteristics, and they make such statements as a way of legitimately challenging the assigned traits which arise from culture rather than Scripture. 

In other cases, particularly those regarding gender, a person may suffer a biochemical irregularity which causes them to, feel, behave, or perceive themselves in ways that do not fit the body they are born with.  In such cases it is not that a wrong combination of material and immaterial elements have been joined in the person, or that one element is the real person and the other a mistake.  Instead, even though they were not created to feel the discord they experience, a part of them is not functioning as designed for them to be comfortable as the integrated human being that they were created to be. 

As Christians navigate these kind of difficulties themselves or help their neighbors who may suffer from such false perceptions, we recognize that they are a whole person, and since we cannot see or understand the inner workings of their immaterial elements, the body God gave them and its genetic code is the only reliable marker of who that person is before God. 

In light of this, we teach that one aspect of the person is not real while the other is false, but that they are a whole person.   Accordingly, we seek to the best of our ability to assist them in embracing and living out their reality as a whole person, and while they endure these struggles in this life, we support and encourage them through the gifts our Lord has given in His Church until our Lord returns to make them whole and align all things as He designed them to be.