Free will is a concept discussed around the world. Western science has led to views with a sense of no separate agency, just a series of events that follow one another like a ball in an old-fashioned pinball machine, or scientific determinism. Quantum reality seems to have opened up a whole new perspective that may well allow for free will, but, despite raising a particle physicist, I am no expert on quantum mechanics and its relation to metaphysics.
As far as religion’s views on free will, I can perhaps speak best to the views of Christianity, in which I was not only raised, but also academically trained as a minister at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Christian views, however, seem to conflict with one another, until one gets less literal about the Bible, and either more academic or more mystical, or both.
In fact, many Christians like to talk about God “being in control” of life and the universe. This thought brings comfort to millions of Christians, probably around the world, although I am most familiar with the views of American Christians. However, Christians also seem to believe in free will. The idea of free will is necessary in Christian theology in order to make clear that we are the agents who chose to “sin,” and therefore we “don’t deserve to be forgiven,” but by God’s grace and Christ’s death on the cross, if we repent, we will be forgiven.
In other words, we have free will to choose God and Christ, or to reject them. We also have, in the Christian worldview, free will to choose to sin or to be pure and holy in our thoughts and actions. Because of our free will to make choices, there are consequences for our ‘sins’ and possibly rewards for our ‘Godly’ choices (depending on whose view you adhere to).
The problem here is that we cannot both have God be in control of life and the universe, and have free will to make our own choices. This is just not logically possible to have both. Either God is in control (and we can blame God for our sins?) or we have free will.
Personally, I don’t think is either illogical or to blame for our sins. So, the next option is to consider that maybe God does not completely control the universe. This option is exactly the idea that was introduced in the early 20th Century by mathematician and theologian Alfred North Whitehead, whose writings formed the basis of a 20th Century theological movement called “process theology.”
Process theology rarely, if ever, makes it into churches. Process theology is rarely preached about or taught about, although I am certain I must have done so at least a little in my days of serving churches as a minister. Process theology claims that God is in intimate relationship with the universe, so that what happens in the universe affects God, and vice-versa, with God “luring” people and events in the universe towards divine ways of being and doing. This process theology approach leaves room for science, randomness, and chaos theory, while adding that God shapes reality by coaxing, and evoking or calling goodness into being.
Personally, I find the idea of this God who gives us free will and grants freedom to all levels of being in the universe really appealing, especially when that God also coaxes or calls or nudges us and life towards birthing goodness and love.
Alas, that is not a view that I have heard described very often, if ever, by other preachers. For one thing, Christianity would have to move beyond patriarchal views and towards this divine feminine view of God being like a loving mother who nurtures us into developing our own goodness, and who helps us birth goodness and love into the world.
Fortunately for me, I found Eastern ways of thinking decades ago, and I bring the same feminist theology to them, but have found myself pleasantly surprised that the writings of Paramhansa Yogananda* not only affirm a more feminine way of Divine Nature, but also explain everything about life and the universe more perfectly (logically and lovingly) than anything else I have ever heard or read.
After many years of practicing Raja Yoga Meditation and Kriya Yoga, and reading a number of Yogananda’s writings, I have finally come to understand that free will has to be embedded into the very nature of the universe for one simple reason: God is present everywhere and in everyone.
Yes, Christians refer to this concept in classical theology also, calling it “Omnipresence.” However, there is an integrative, metaphysical way that I have finally, through my studies and meditative insights, come to understand God’s omnipresence and its relation to free will.
The intuitive understanding to which I have been led through reading and through meditation, is that the nature of God’s omnipresence is what makes God’s relationship to free will abundantly clear. Specifically, as both the Bible and Eastern yoga philosophy teach, God is also known as “I AM.” The presence of God in everything is the Great I AM that exists not only IN but also AS each and every part of the universe, energizing and evoking the divine potential in every aspect of reality.
So, for instance, the I AM in each of us influences our choices, even if our ego self rejects those choices. Our somewhat limited conscious awareness of that influence has long been referred to as the voice of our own conscience, at least in the West.
The I AM presence of God is in everything, though, so its influence can shape reality, although it does not control it. Free will is therefore necessary both to allow the I AM presence to coax divine ways of being in the world, and also to give each aspect of reality the opportunity to reject divine ways of being and doing.
Free will is essential for humanity to find God, and to embody God in our choices. Free will is essential for every aspect of the universe to express itself uniquely as an expression of divine presence, or as the illusion of divine absence. The I AM presence is everyone and everything allows free will choices, and seeks to improve every situation as much as possible, and as much as we, with our free wills and our egos will allow.
Free will is the essential quality of the universe that allows us human beings finally to find God within ourselves. Free will allows us either to live as if God does not exist, or to live as if God is in us and guiding us and loving and blessing others through us. When we choose the latter, sooner or later, by our own free will and the ever-present love of God, we will find ourselves lost in oneness with the very heart and mind of God.
I pray that it will be so soon for all of us, and I am grateful that free will allows the Divine Presence to love us and become one with us all, if – or when – we are open to it! May it be so.
* For the most insightful and comprehensive introduction to the Yoga philosophy of Paramahansa Yogananda, please read Autobiography of a Yogi.