This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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The implications of free will

The idea of personal liberty, not in the political sense but in the true, spiritual sense, is paradoxical. From the point of view of obedience, we are free creatures only insofar as we submit our wills to the Creator. To use St. Paul’s teaching, we are free from sin only on the condition that we becomes ‘slaves’ to Christ. This suggests that we are free but only if the will that expresses itself through us is actually Christ’s will, and so it is no we who act but God who acts through us. How does the play out in actual experience, then, and how are we to conceive of it in our minds?

The modern world has a very superficial notion of human freedom, and so naturally the notion of free will is misunderstood as well. Even religious people demonstrate ignorance on this subject: they may preach free will, and we often do not know what, precisely, they mean by this term, and they probably do not know either; but by observing their habits and the way the speak about things, it becomes more clear.

Consider this: when they arrive at a crossroads, they pause and they pray for a sign from God telling them which of the two paths they ought to take, so that they may choose with confidence. Naturally there is nothing wrong with prayer when faced with a difficult decision—that goes without saying—but what seems to be ignored is the fact that, in this example, they are not using it, or at least they are choosing not to really exercise it in a meaningful way. They are asking God to choose for them. This is pious, but it has little to do with free will.

Free will is, in its fulness, an invitation from God to participate in the act of creation. Creation in a finite world involves the decision to realize certain possibilities to the exclusion of others. Some things are possible but will never occur: this is because someone chose that it should be so, preferring one possibility over another. If God gave man free will, it is because, like Adam naming the animals, he wished him to actually choose one possibility out of man, and on the basis of this choice, God’s will was done, although it was man who actually selected which possibility would become a reality. The animal shall be called this and not that. Can we really imagine that God would have been pleased if Adam, when presented with creation and tasked with the naming, had turned to God and prayed to have all the names spelled out for him, reducing his task to one of reciting a list?

The will of man, exercised sincerely, coincides with will of God. A decision to realize one possibility and not another is to exercise a will freely. To exercise one’s will freely is not to exercise a will and ten to have God adjust his will after the fact: it is in fact the privilege of participating the in exercise of the one and only Will, for that moment and in that refracted way. God does not ask us which lever, and then pull it for us: we pull the lever with Him, in the same movement. This is not blasphemy but metaphysical necessity. The man who cannot exercise his will in this way, whose will is broken, or whose will is perverted, is not pleasing to God.

I do not quite wish to say that the Christian who prays at every crossroads is in possession of a perverse will, but only that they may never get beyond certain crossroads, and that such a will is not fully functional. The refusal to choose, in this case, is all the more harmful because it is hidden under a mask of piety. This way of going about things amounts to the rejection of a divinely given task, and many of the decisions we make in life are of this type. How often do Christians defer a question that God Himself put before them, simply by answering His question with a question?

How often does cowardice in the face of responsibility masquerade as Christian obedience?

It is the situation of the crossroads and the act of shouldering the responsibility for the decision that makes the man’s choice free and makes that freedom more than an appearance of freedom. If God simply wanted to dictate to man which choice he ought to make, and if it were simply a matter of praying to God to command us which way to go at every turn, then man’s role in the unfolding of his life would in most cases be black and white. But what if both roads are a mingling of black and white, and there is no wrong path and no right path, and we are faced only with a choice and its consequences, which will undoubtedly be both good and bad?

Faithfulness means doing what God commands, but what happens when he commands us to choose? What happens when the extent of his will is to present us with the alternatives, and for us to participate in the act of creation and the determination of events by choosing for ourselves one or the other, without God having an opinion on the matter?

This is perhaps the reason that Christians who are fearful of displeasing God spend a great deal of time paralyzed in prayer, waiting for a sure answer from God stating for them what they should do in this or that situation, when they would be better served by simply facing the task with the courage of a free and responsible being, and of doing what their own discernment dictates.

The sum total of decisions made by righteous men in the history of the world is, we would all agree, the Will of God, but it is metaphysically to present this truth in a way that turns our normal conception on its head: these decisions were not made because they were discerned to be the will of God, rather they became the will of God because they were decisions made by beings to whom God delegated the responsibility, and therefore the power, of determining how history should unfold. They became ‘the will of God’ retroactively, only once made, and not before that moment, even if before God and in eternity all decision are already finalized.

Let us take an example that, in the present civilization, will be widely relatable:

You are in a relationship with a woman, and you have arrived at the point at which you either need to marry her or not, and to bring things to a finality one way or the other. You pray, and you ask God if she is “the one He wishes you to marry.” This is no evil question, but what if God does not have a preference? What if the reality of the situation is that God would be perfectly tolerant of you marrying any one of a hundred or a hundred thousand women that you’ve met or may meet in your life? What if his desire is not so much that you do or don’t marry this woman, but that you express the freedom he has given you by choosing one woman and accepting the consequences, both good and bad, of that choice? What if the wife He has planned for you is not this or that woman, but rather whichever woman you choose to commit yourself to? The point is not to say that there are no terrible decisions to be made, but on the spectrum of good and bad decisions, many only become ‘the right decision’ or the wrong one depending on how you dealt with them after you made them.

This realization is both freeing and terrifying because it makes us realize that the freedom God has given us is not the freedom of children—to obey and be rewarded or to disobey and be punished. Obedience is and must be present in our relationship to God when we are dealing with moral questions, but much of our life is not a choice between good and evil but between one possibility and another. They are the choices an artist or an engineer faces when carrying a grand project to completion: each decision is consequential, and the end result will be effected accordingly, but it is possible to proceed in any number of ways, via any combination of possibilities. There will always be countless ways realizing the good, and on the flipside, even the “best” decision will show itself capable of being perverted into an evil if the man who makes it does not also take responsibility for it.

So many times, what God wants us to do is not so much to choose option A as opposed to option B, but to be faithful to the choices we’ve made: to be a good husband to the wife we’ve chosen, and not to sit in regret wondering whether or not we chose “the right one”.

Such a view of human freedom does have certain benefits. First, it does not leave us paralyzed in those moments when God remains silent. It also removes from us the terror of having to wonder if we chose wrongly, leaving us looking back and speculating what might have been or should have been. It replaces this backwards-glance with a rooting of one’s being in the present, since instead of wondering about what should have been chosen, we set ourselves here and now to making the best possible future on the basis of that past decision: we begin to worry more about how we may best shoulder, at this very moment, the responsibility of what we chose, and so long as we pursue this with a holy sincerity, we can be at peace knowing that we are at every moment living in a state with which God is pleased.

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