For Spinoza, “God” was not a supernatural Being but an omnipresent principle of cosmic order and harmony. His universe was one of matter and motion in which every outcome was pre-determined according to that primal physical essence. It was a thoroughly naturalistic worldview, leaving no room for free will.
Enamored of the ideas of Spinoza, Einstein rejected the notion of free will in favor of the belief that everything obeys the deterministic laws of nature. For folks who similarly take naturalism seriously, a human being is not an autonomous agent acting upon nature, but a biochemical machine ruled by Nature.
The machine view
With Nature as master, human thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors follow predictable patterns amenable to scientific investigation and intervention. Richard Dawkins has gone as far as to claim that we are genetic robots mechanically responding to the “desires” of selfish genes. Such thinking motivates the ongoing efforts to discover the bio-physical “causes” for sexual preferences, religious beliefs, anti-social behaviors, and mental illness.
For example, education advocate Stacey DeWitt credits Darwinian processes for child bullying, as does psychologist David Buss for adultery. Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, attributes “faulty circuits” in the brain for depression and various mood disorders.
Insel muses that treating mental illness may be “akin to ‘rebooting’ a computer that has become frozen.” His expectation is that our “science-based understanding of mental illness very likely will revolutionize prevention and treatment.”
In the “machine view” of human nature, improving the human condition is a matter of treating defective parts, scientifically and impersonally.
Against that view are a couple of Duke University neuroscientists. In October, Drs. Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi received an award (and will receive another one in December) for their research on the influences of genes and environment on human behavior. The summary of their key finding, according to Dr. Moffitt, is “you can't choose your genes, but you face many choices in life which can determine how those genes will play out." (Emphasis added.)
The late Bill Wilson would agree.
Wilson was a hardened atheist and struggling alcoholic who was frequently hospitalized for his addiction. It was during his fourth hospital stay that Wilson, at the end of himself, raised his voice in desperation: “If there be a God, let him show himself!”
Wilson would later say of the experience: “Suddenly my room blazed with an indescribably white light…I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison.”
The following day, friend and recovering alcoholic Ebby Thatcher convinced Wilson that surrendering to God was the only thing that could emancipate him from the grip of the bottle. That became the vision for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the organization Bill Wilson founded over 75 years ago.
At the core of AA’s method is its “12 Step” program. Of the program, addiction specialist Drew Pinsky states, “In my 20 years of treating addicts, I’ve never seen anything else that comes close to the 12 steps,” adding, “In my world, if someone says they don’t want to do the 12 steps, I know they aren’t going to get better.”
While the 12-step program has been credited by millions of addicts for saving their lives, its effectiveness is a mystery to many observers. It could be so effective because it goes against the grain of our “science-based understanding.”
Against the notion that “Nature is all there is,” the 12 steps acknowledge a higher Power, God. Against the culture of self-esteem and personal power, the 12 steps call for surrender to God, seeking change through submission and prayer. Against the view of man as a slavish genetic machine, the 12 steps require acknowledging and confessing moral failures and making amends to those hurt by poor moral choices. Against radical individualism, the 12 steps call for involvement in a community of trust, accountability, and mentoring.
Another organization has remarkably similar features: surrendering to God, confessing our sins, reconciling with our neighbor, growing in maturity through the spiritual disciplines, and fellowship in the community of faith. And, like AA, many of its members credit those “steps” with their salvation not only in the here-and-now, but in the yet-to-come.
Despite AA’s unparalleled effectiveness, many (even most!) alcoholics who enroll in the program fail to overcome their addiction. The same is true of that other organization, the Church.
For well over a decade, pollsters have observed that membership in church is not statistically correlated with behavior outside of church. For some time it has been known that divorce is no respecter of faith professions; but more recently it has been found that incidences of other untoward behaviors like substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, gossiping, and lying are the same for believers and non-believers alike.
It is a sobering reminder that ever since Jesus called Andrew and Simon to become fishers of men, many of the “called” have failed, and failed miserably, in their calling.
During Jesus’s earthly ministry, James and John were given to pride and self-promotion, Thomas to doubt, Judas to theft and betrayal, and all of the Twelve to fear and lack of faith—Peter to the point of denying his Lord thrice. Then there were the “many of his disciples” who turned away after Jesus’s hard teaching on the Eucharist. All this by individuals who walked with Jesus and witnessed his divine powers!
Considering that nearly all of Paul’s letters contain pastoral teachings against carnal practices that threatened the unity and witness of the church, it is no mystery that people in every organization struggle mightily against the pull of the flesh only to succumb to its gravitational force. It is a sign that human nature is far more complex than the scientific view would have us believe.
Not a machine
Rather than a cog in the cosmic mechanism, man is a free moral agent whose behaviors are intrinsically resistant to scientific analysis. Contrary to Spinoza, free will is a wild card that can trump the demands of our chemicals and genes.
Through the power of will a person can overcome the power of Nature to complete a 40-day fast, live in lifelong monogamy or celibacy, sacrifice his life for another, endure persecution, or submit to martyrdom.
For that reason, curing the human condition is a matter of conditioning the will, not re-engineering the genome. As the apostle Paul reveals, it is a life-long process of transformation that begins by “renewing our minds,” as opposed to re-wiring the brain.
Ahead of his time
Paul was twenty centuries ahead of the modern psychological insight that thoughts influence actions which lead to behaviors and habits that shape character. Therefore, he counseled believers to direct their thoughts to “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…excellent or praiseworthy,” and to put into practice what they had been taught.
But Paul knew that character formation required more than information; it required preparation, girding oneself with the spiritual weapons of truth, faith, righteousness, salvation, and the gospel, and engaging in the spiritual discipline of prayer.
He also knew that character is tested in private, when no one is watching, but it is forged in community. Accordingly, he encouraged believers to see themselves as vital parts in an organic whole, united under the Headship of Jesus Christ.
Likewise, the author of Hebrews urged his readers: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Channeling our thoughts, applying our faith, practicing spiritual disciplines, and participating in a community of mutual support and encouragement involve moment-to-moment decisions that defy methodological explanation and control. They are the actions of free-willed individuals pursuing a character-shaping process that will remain unfinished this side of heaven.
Along the way, many will fail, and fail miserably, as did the early disciples. Yet despite their failures, they have confidence that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”; a confidence that seems to have eluded a 17th century philosopher and his 20th century disciple.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.