Moral theology for an absurd universe

I recently wrote in my medium publication about “How to live in an absurd universe“. I touched a bit on religious themes but kept it pretty focused on philosophy. In this blog entry, I want to dive into the theology of absurdity. Given that our starting point is that the universe is absurd (that is logically inconsistent), how can we understand who God is, what it means to have salvation, how absurdity may be connected to sin and fallenness in humanity, and whether we have free will and thus moral responsibility for our sin.

The protestant reformation and counter-reformation gave us three generally contradictory theories of salvation and what kind of universe God has created.

These are Calvinism, Arminianism, and Molinism. They correspond roughly to three different philosophical attitudes towards free will, which ultimately is the foundation of moral responsibility. These are respectively

  • Non-compatibilist determinism, meaning the universe is deterministic and that is not compatible with the existence for free will. Hence, we have no free will.
  • Non-deterministic free will, meaning the universe is non-deterministic and we have free will which determines at least partially what happens in the future.
  • Deterministic or compatibilist free will, meaning the universe is deterministic but we still have free will. Our free will choices, however, are determined by the states of affairs in which we find ourselves. Nevertheless, if the states of affairs were different, we would make different choices. This presupposes the existence of counter-factuals, states of affairs that, if they did exist, would lead to different futures.

Renown philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig is probably the best known proponent of the last bullet and has written extensively on the Biblical support for it.

The world we live in, however, may not be deterministic at all. Most every day events are the results of averages over myriad particles moving around randomly in the air, the water, and solid objects.

Indeed, from quantum physics, you could argue that determinism is only a property of probability distributions, not of individual particles. The outcomes of individual quantum experiments are random.

Unlike a purely random universe where everything is completely unpredictable, ours embodies a kind of contradiction. It is both random and not because it depends on whether you are talking about individual particles or averages of many particles.

Whether such a universe admits free will depends on what you think free will is. Free will is traditionally thought to mean being the source of one’s actions. But what does that even mean to be a source?

Philosophers have been struggling with this problem for centuries. One of the key results of that struggle is a realization that what we think free will is makes no sense. To combat that, philosophers developed more precise definitions. The first potential definition is called simple conditional analysis which states that a person has free will if and only if, when they choose to do otherwise, they do otherwise. In order to exercise free will, their actions have to be congruent with their choices. This definition is consistent with both compatibilist and non-deterministic free will.

This definition unfortunately ties free will to our emotional state, so is it really free? An alternative definition of free will that attempts to solve the dilemma suggests that a person has free will if and only if, holding all things constant up to a time t, that person can do otherwise at time t.

This definition, called the categorical analysis, is a non-compatibilist definition since if the world were deterministic, then people would have no choice but to do exactly the same thing in all possible worlds that have the same past. If, on the other hand, the world is random, then people could do different things in different worlds, even if they have the same pasts. This is necessary for free will but not sufficient.

Christian thought on moral responsibility contends that people’s actions are not congruent with their choices. They choose to do good, but do evil instead (Romans 7:15-25). This directly contradicts simple conditional free will at least in terms of doing good.

Some philosophers, along these lines, argued in a series of thought experiments that the ability to choose to do otherwise isn’t necessary for moral responsibility and rejected both simple conditional and categorical analysis. Rather, moral responsibility rests in the decision itself, made in the mind. If one’s actions are incongruent to one’s decision, then the decision is what matters. Hence, if I decide to do good, but end up doing evil then I am not morally responsible for that evil. Yet, if I decide to do evil but end up doing good, I am responsible for the evil I chose to do. This goes further than simply unexpected outcomes however. It means that, if my brain makes me sin when I don’t want to, then I cannot be held accountable for that sin.

Yet, Paul argues otherwise. He argues that when he does what he hates that he is still in sin because he is a slave to it. Hence, from Paul’s perspective, moral accountability is in both our actions and our choices, not just one.

Christian theology suggests, indeed, that we all have a sin nature. Paul argues that we inherited this from Adam. The first man to sin. How we inherited it is up for debate. The Augustinian doctrine of original sin is the orthodox response.

A modern take on the problem might be that we gained sin when we developed moral codes for behavior and came to see morality as an absolute framework independent of human culture. Before that, our behavior would have been like the animals with no right or wrong attached to any action or just a set of “rules of the house” for whatever culture we were a member of. Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil could be a metaphor for this development and sin the inevitable result.

By analogy, people couldn’t make illogical statements until they developed languages that contained such statements and recognized that those statements contained universal logical truths.

Neither of these may have happened till the development of writing about 6000 years ago since both require a certain amount of abstract thought.

Paul says that we are slaves to sin and that Christ sets us free from that sin. He makes this metaphor in Romans 6:16-18.

15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that, if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that you who were slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become enslaved to righteousness.

Romans 6:15-18

Paul likely didn’t come up with this metaphor since Jesus makes the same metaphor in John 8:34.

34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

John 8:34-36

When Jesus uses this metaphor, however, he means something slightly different than Paul. Paul suggests that one is a slave to whomever one obeys: sin or righteousness. Paul is making the argument here that, even if you are saved by grace, as indicated by verse 15, you can’t just keep sinning. The reason is because you are a slave to whom you obey. Jesus, on the other hand, suggests rather that sin makes one a slave in the sense that one is not part of the family of God, just as a slave is not part of the family he serves. This is because he is responding to Pharisees who claim not to be slaves because they are of the family of Abraham. Jesus is saying that their familial connection to Abraham means nothing if they are not also righteous as Abraham was. Thus, he, the Son, must free them from their sin so that they can join the true family of Abraham and God.

The slavery metaphor thus has two connotations: (1) that one is forced to obey a master and (2) that one is not of the family of the master and so does not enjoy the privileges of a son or daughter. This is important because in the ancient world a son or daughter was bound to obey their father or mother just as a slave was, yet they were also part of that family. They would forever remain part of that family, and they gained an inheritance (either directly or through a dowry). A slave gained no inheritance or family privileges and if they were sold would have no recognized connection to their previous master.

Given that we today do not live in a world where slavery is common place, a more modern metaphor might be about a machine. A dishwasher, for example, is not a member of a family. It is bought, sold, and junked as required. According to scripture, then, if you are in sin, you are like God’s dishwasher, and he will junk you when you wear out. But, if you are freed in Christ, you become a child of God and share in his rest and abundance forever.

Fast forward 1900 years and we come to Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who argues that we are slaves to absurdity in the sense that our actions have no meaning in the world. He compares the human condition to that of Sisyphus, who, in Greek mythology, was condemned to roll a stone up a hill for eternity such that, each time he nearly reached the top, the stone would roll back down again.

Trying to avoid or escape sin without Christ is likewise a Sisyphian task. We try to do good in the world but each time we nearly arrive at salvation, we sin and our stone rolls back down. Hence, the hill is like God’s law, and the stone is our attempts to follow it. Yet, we are slaves to the never ending, meaningless cycle of trying to be a good person without God’s special grace.

This is itself an absurd situation. We live in a world where God has created a law that we, as humans, cannot consistently follow. As Paul says in Romans 3:23, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” we are condemned as Sisyphus.

Moreover, this task is meaningless for if we are condemned it doesn’t matter how well or fast we move the stone up the hill. It will always fall back down again. Hence, we are not only slaves to sin but to the law as well as Paul argues in Galatians 4.

Therefore, our free will plays no part in our salvation as long as we are engaged in the Sisyphian task of trying to follow the law. Our moral responsibility plays the slave to our identity as inheritors of a sinful nature.

This is why humanity needed a Savior in the first place.

Christ doesn’t remove the need to roll the stone up the hill nor does he remove the rolling back down. This is the human condition. Every Christian knows that Christians still sin and still must try to do good. What he removes is the condemnation. Thus we are promised that one day all humanity will be judged and separated into two camps: the condemned and the saved. There are two kinds of people who will be saved: those who got their stones to the top and those who are in Christ. Given that this task is Sisyphian, no one’s stone will have reached the top but Christ’s, so only those in Christ will be saved. We get our stones to the top by proxy because we are in Him.

In other words, humanity’s sin nature prevents us from achieving what Christ achieved and this absurd situation demands that we require salvation.

Since free will moral choices are largely irrelevant to salvation, however, we have to look at the one remaining free will choice: to choose Christ or not.

In an absurd universe, salvation is the only escape but are we given the choice or simply chosen?

If we were all made aware of our situation, as Sisyphus clearly was, and offered a way out of it, perhaps not now, but at some point in the future, would not all of us take it? Indeed, would not the offer make us feel gratitude and love for the one who offered it?

Let’s go back to our definitions of free will. In the simple conditional form of free will, we receive salvation if and only if we want to receive it. Thus, if the world is deterministic, God sets things up so that we either do or don’t want to receive it. (William Lane Craig, for example, argues that the world logically requires a balance of saved and non-saved people and God set things up to save the most number.)

Molinism contends that God chooses the world we inhabit such that our simple conditional free will analysis determines whether we are saved or not. Other worlds may exist where a condemned person in this one chose Christ in that one and vice versa, but those are worlds God chose not to create. All that matters is what choice we make in this world.

In the categorical analysis, we can interpret a free choice of accepting Christ as being free if and only if there exists a world where a different choice would be made, all things being equal including desires and feelings. This is a little different than Molinism where God sets things up so that our desires and feelings lead us to salvation. In this analysis, the same desires and feelings can lead to different choices.

We can even go so far as to suggest that one receives salvation if there exists a world where we choose it, all other things being held constant.

This may seem contradictory because it allows us to make multiple inconsistent choices in different worlds. It isn’t a statement of universalism, however, because there may be people who would never choose Christ in any world. Likewise, since you can’t know what your other selves would decide, you don’t get to stay in your sin and be saved necessarily.

Yet, this interpretation sees the individual identity, not as a single random outcome in a random universe, but as a probability distribution across many worlds. A choice, freely made, is a condition that a set of worlds exists, leading up to the time of the choice, t, with the same pasts, such that some of those worlds contain futures with different choices. Hence, even with the same feelings and desires, I can make different choices not because I have a particular state of mind given me by God but because I have a particular nature that includes the willingness to accept salvation.

This thesis partly supports the Arminian perspective in that we have free will, but it is not compatible with determinism. Moreover the universe is not deterministic except in terms of probability distributions. Thus, a Calvinist or Molinist stance only makes sense when applied to distributions, not individual events, so we cannot use that stand point to talk about specific choices people make in this world. We would have to know all counter-factual worlds to make a determination, something that is only possible with experiments involving particles.

The bottom line is that an absurdist universe is one where we cannot save ourselves. Whether we are free to choose salvation, we find ourselves unable to escape the meaningless task of trying to follow God’s law unless we are in Christ. Only when we are in Him, does the task become meaningful.

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