Monday, December 22, 2003

Lagniappe: What Does God Know? - What prompts this post is a discussion/friendly debate that I had last night with my brother, who is visiting from Berkeley where he is studying towards his Master's Degree in Theology. (By the way, my brother is a member of the Society of Jesus, a catholic religious order more commonly know as the "Jesuits." My brother is not a priest, but rather a religious brother.) In any event, the discussion we had last night centered around the question: What Does God Know? This is a question that has been discussed around the dinner table at my home many evenings. So much so that my 5-yr-old daughter has memorized my pat answer to the question. Before I give you my answer, I should let you know that both my brother and my wife (not to mention my daughter, who is inclined to side with them) do not agree with me on this issue. So, what is my answer to that interesting question? Well ... I say: "God knows that which is knowable." Seems fairly inoccuous; but its implications are critical, because it implies that there are certain things which God simply cannot know.

I don't believe God knows the future of human behavior. I don't believe God knows from the moment of our birth what our life actions will be and whether we are destined for heaven or hell or purgatory or whatever. I believe that God is omnisicient, but only in term of what is knowable in the context of my faith in the notion of free choice. If God knows our destiny, how is it that we have any choice or freedom at all? Now, my wife and brother say that we cannot understand the mystery of God omnisicience coupled with the existence of true free choice because we think as humans do, and not God; but I argue that even this position is the product of a human thought process that leads one to the notion of mystery and faith. My belief is that we can only know and understand things through the prism of our humanity and our human faculties, and so we must rely on our best efforts to lead us to understanding. For me, this means that we must rely on our faith informed by our reason. And my reason informs my faith that God knows the infinite possibilities of our choices, but he does not know (and does not compromise free will by thus knowing) what it is that we will choose in those moments of our life.

Because, if you buy into the notion that God knows our choices, and where we will be, the possibility of redemption through an act of free choice is not possible. We either have the ability to turn from evil and repent from sin at any point in the eternal existence of our soul (even after death), or we have no choice in the matter. If God knows that from the moment of our creation that we are destined for heaven or hell, then how is it that we are free to choose either the path to heaven or to hell. In a sense, it is already chosen for us because it is predetermined.

My brother argues that God is always with us in the context of our choices, and I don't disagree; but being with us and being in full knowledge of the infinite possibilities of choice does not mean that God knows which of those possibilities we will choose.

Let's move to some examples. We humans may not know if life exists on other planets in other galaxies; but if such is true, then God certainly knows it, since he is the creator. God knows all things that can be known. He knows what will happen to the arctic penguin when the leaf falls from the tree in the tropical rain forest. God knows how the bird's chirp in Louisiana affects the sleeping patterns of the Prime Minister of Japan. All of this, I believe, is "knowable" because it doesn't affect human free choice and will. However, if I get drunk at a New Year's Eve Party and make the mistake of driving home afterwards in bad weather, does God know that 10 minutes later drive into a tree and break my back? If I have free will and free choice, He can't. Why? Because it presupposes that within those 10 minutes, my ability to exercise free choice is no longer operational. I can't believe this. Why is it not possible for me to get into the car, drive for five minutes, realize that what I am doing is dangerous, and pull off into a parking lot to call for a cab or to sleep off the drunkenness. Of course, it IS possible for me to choose this.

Now, my brother would say that God is with me at every instant and every fraction of an instant and so is knowledgable of my choice as I make it. In other words he knows what I am going to do when I do it. But this still begs the question: who makes the choice? Something must come first. Is the choice and God's knowledge of it at the moment of choosing one and the same? It can't be, because then it is not fully free. I must make the choice distinct from God's knowledge in order for it to be fully my own free choice.

So I always end with the compromise: God is omniscient. He knows all that which is knowable. I don't pretend to define that which is knowable; but I do believe that God cannot know the unknowable. I welcome your thoughts on the subject.

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