Theology: November 2007 Archives

Rowling on Destiny

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J.K. Rowling did an interview recently with a Dutch newspaper, and it included (among a lot of other things) her thoughts on destiny and free will. (For those who care about spoilers, you might not want to look at the interview or read the rest of this post.)

I have to confess that I'm a little disappointed in her response. She's very smart and well-informed about intellectual matters. But I have to wonder if she presents a false dilemma on this issue, and I'm not even sure the view she expresses here fits well with the books she wrote.

Your books are about the battle between good and evil. Harry is good. But is Voldemort pure Evil? He is also a victim.

He is a victim, indeed. He is a victim, and he has made choices. He was conceived by force and under the influence of a silly infatuation, While Harry was conceived in love; I think the conditions under which you were born form an important fundament of your existence. But Voldemort chose evil. I've been trying to point that out in the books; I gave him choices.

So far so good. It's important to distinguish between being forced into good or evil because of what happens to be true about your conception and making choices. This still doesn't say anything about the metaphysical status of free will. A libertarian will hold that these choices can't be caused by prior events if they're to be free, and a compatibilist will allow that they might be caused by prior events while still being free, because the distinction here is between being forced into something no matter what your own choices would be (merely because of the circumstances of your conception) and making choices (which doesn't yet say anything about whether those choices have explanations and if so what the explanations are).

But where she goes from here is what I find problematic: 

Ben Witherington has found another theological position to misrepresent [hat tip: Justin Taylor]. I should say that I very much appreciate a lot of Witherington's scholarly work, particularly his response to skeptical attacks on the Bible and his placement of the book of Acts among the kinds of historiographical work done in the ancient world. I haven't been a fan of all his conclusions, but I think he's one of the most important biblical scholars of our day on a lot of matters, even ones I hold a different view on.

Nevertheless, I regret his tendency to pick out his favored "bad guy" views and then to misrepresent them in order to shot them down. He does this with complementarianism on gender roles, sometimes even admitting that he hasn't read the most important scholarship on the issue (see the comments here). He does it regularly with Calvinism. This time he's picked a view that I happen to reject, but I think he's radically misrepresented the position he's disagreeing with and even given arguments against a much more reasonable position (one that I think is true and hope he would agree with).

I've been critical in the past of John Piper's reduction of God's motives to the one motive of pursuing his own glory. I mentioned my concern in this post, although it wasn't be central focus there (but see the comments for more development on the issues). I focused a little more on that concern here. So I'm no defender of the view that God's primary focus is his own glory, with all other motivations reduced to that one. So I'm not a fan of the view. Nevertheless, it seems pretty unfair to portray that view the way Witherington does:

Let me be clear that of course the Bible says it is our obligation to love, praise, and worship God, but this is a very different matter from the suggestion that God worships himself, is deeply worried about whether he has enough glory or not, and his deepest motivation for doing anything on earth is so that he can up his own glory quotient, or magnify and praise himself.

I don't see any indication in Piper that he would describe God as worshiping himself. I see nothing remotely in the area of God being worried about anything, never mind being worried about whether he has enough glory. That's not the idea at all. The view is that God's other concerns ultimately boil down to demonstrating how good and amazing God is. Being perfectly good is really and truly wonderful, and why wouldn't it be a good thing for God to demonstrate just how good he is? I find it extremely hard to believe that Witherington doesn't think God is motivated by spreading information about his goodness.

The difference between the view I would defend and Piper's view is that I don't think this is the only fundamental motive in God's mind. God's love is fundamental and does not depend just on God's concern for his glory. But that doesn't mean God has no concern for his glory, and I would sincerely hope Witherington isn't rejecting such a motive at all, because it's all through the Bible. But his criticism of Piper is a criticism of that view, not a criticism of where Piper actually gets it wrong.

I'm not sure what a glory quotient is. If the idea is that God spends all his time being and becoming more glorious, that's surely not the idea. Maybe Piper would say that God is as good as he could be, which means he acts in the most glorious way he can. If there are good objections to that view, they come from the possibility that there is no limit to how good the world or a being can be, and then you run into trouble when you say that God is at the limit. But that's not a problem for Piper in particular, and it's not the worry Witherington is raising. He seems to think it would be wrong to pursue one's glory quotient, even if one is God. I find it hard to believe that he would think it wrong to be as good as you could be. So he must think it's wrong to pursue being thought of as good. But why would God want people to have an inadequate understanding of how good he is? Why would he want people to be misinformed about one of the most important truths about the universe, that its creator is simply wonderful? So I'm at a loss to figure out what Witherington is even getting at with this language.

Consider also the following argument:

Corpse = Person ?

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IIn Genesis 46:4, God speaks to Jacob to reassure him when he's about to go down to Egypt to see his long-lost son Joseph after about 22 years of thinking he was dead. Part of this reassurance includes a point-black statement by God, "I will bring you back."

Jacob dies in Egypt. His body gets brought back. Assuming the author and/or final editors of the text weren't complete idiots, they had to be aware that Jacob didn't go back to the land while he was still alive. So complex theories of different sources being conglomerated seem unlikely if we're to give even a modicum of charity to ancient Hebrew reporting.

What do we make of this, then? If we take the text at face value, then Jacob's bones being brough back to the promised land counts as Jacob being brought back. Does that mean Jacob's bones are Jacob? Can this fit with Paul's view in II Corinthians 5:1ff that we are naked until we get our heavenly tent? It's unclear if Paul is saying that there's an intermediate, disembodied state in which we are naked or if our current state is what's naked, and we will be clothed with the resurrection body. But either way it seems that our body is a tent.

Another thought worth considering is that God might have meant something more spiritual. God would bring Jacob back to the spiritual fulfillment of the promised land. But that seems to go against the natural reading of the text in light of what happens in Exodus, which is that God's statement would be fulfilled when Jacob's bones were brought back with the Israelites 400 years later. So even if there's some spiritualized meaning on top of the more obvious immediate one, it still seems as if there should be something to the more fundamental meaning.

So here is the question. Can we read any metaphysics of the human person off God's statement to Jacob? If not, why not? If so, what sort of metaphysics is at work, and how is it consistent with Paul's statements (because the metaphysics that seems most natural for Genesis 46:1 is a materialist one that seems flat-out inconsistent with Paul's statements).

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