The relation between divine providence and human freedom is at the center of Christian theology: on the one hand, God has created the world and cares for it and leads it to a particular end; on the other, human beings are free and responsible for what they do and must give an account at the end for the life they lived. How are the two to be reconciled?
Classical theism affirms a doctrine of God according to which the Creator is eternal, timeless, immutable, impassible, completely a se and perfect within Himself, etc. It might seem very difficult to understand how God so conceived can “interact” with a world of free, contingently existing creatures.
One option is to make God’s will absolutely prior to every contingent occurrence and existence within the order of finite beings, so that God is like an author and the history of the world is His story: He has complete control over everything which happens and knows how human beings behave and will act because He knows what He wills to happen.
This option saves the classical theistic doctrine but it is disputable whether it preserves human freedom in any profound way. It seems to me phenomenologically evident that if I relate to another person and take myself to be doing so freely, I understand myself to have a measure of freedom from the control and determinations of the other person; I operate freely and independently, to some extent, of the influence and control of the other. If I come to think of the other person’s will as prior and determining of my own, for instance if she hypnotizes me to act in a certain way, then I think of freedom as having been compromised and disrespected. Since, furthermore, we must relate to God in a personal way, taking Him to be a person similar to us, addressing Him with the personal pronoun and so on, then these same phenomenological considerations apply. I cannot think that God’s own will is absolutely prior to my own without simultaneously losing a sense of my freedom in my relation to God.
Another option is simply to deny the classical theistic description of God. This is something like open theism: God is mutable, He changes and is affected by what takes place within the created order, He comes to learn to knew things about myself and others on the basis of the choices we make, and so on.
This option is unsatisfactory from a philosophical or natural-theological perspective. I can’t argue the point here, but I take it that the classical theistic description of God is true and capable of being more or less demonstrated on philosophical grounds. So this is not a genuine option for me, either.
What to do? Both of the previous two views attempt to situate God’s providential interaction with the world in Himself, either by making His will the ultimate cause of everything that happens or else by interacting in a dynamic and mutable manner with the finite order. But there also exists the possibility of “ontologizing” divine providence by situating some of its elements within the very structure or fabric of the created order itself.
For instance, part of God’s providential care for the world includes justice, in virtue of which He punishes sinners and rewards the righteous. The “ontologization” of divine justice means locating its essence in the manner in which finite being experiences beatitude or desolation as a result of sin. Whereas in our political orders the state has to administer justice through punishment and incarceration, for example, because criminals are not immediately affected by what they do in a way that is satisfactory for us, God’s justice is perhaps immediately satisfied when a person commits a mortal sin insofar as that very sin turns her away from the vision of God, the ultimate good of human existence, and sets her on the path for dissatisfaction and suffering in the pursuit of mere finite goods (or finite merely-apparent-goods).
Another aspect of God’s providential care concerns eschatology: the universe as a whole is “headed in a particular direction,” so to speak, and this in virtue of God’s so-directing it. But this direction and the various twists and turns it takes, especially when human freedom is included in the equation, may seem hard to reconcile with the notion of a God who is perfectly immutable and impassible and unaffected by what takes place within the finite order. The response may be to put the “teleology” of finite history into the very fabric of finite being itself, so that, in addition to the natural teleology of a flower or of a human being, the world itself is intrinsically ordered to move in a particular direction.
Now, human freedom, according to my earlier reflections, requires that we possess a measure of independence from the control of God in what we do. Thus, it seems to me right to think of every moment of time as consisting of two super-imposed “stages” of sort: first there is the stage of God’s conserving the world as it is in existence, giving it being, presenting it to human consciousness in some sense, and so on; then, there is the free choice of the human being to act in some way or other in “response” to the world as it is given.
It is obvious that human choices have tremendous effects on the way things are: a father who chooses to be abusive to his children produces an effect that would be quite different than if he were loving to them; likewise, human beings can destroy the environment or else take good care of it; etc. At the same time, a doctrine of divine providence requires us to think that human freedom is nevertheless exercised within certain limitations specified by God ahead of time in light of His purpose for the world. Thus, we can think that human choices are in principle limited by the intrinsic teleology of finite being which it has been given by God.
The future, on this view, is open in a limited way. There are very many ways things could go in the future, there are very many forking paths, and human choices close off certain possibilities forever while simultaneously bringing about new ones. But the paths are all headed in a particular direction, and God is never, strictly speaking, surprised by anything that happens — first because He is not affected by anything within the finite order, nor does He respond it, and second because He has given finite being itself a specific intrinsic teleology which leads it in the direction He wishes to go.
I take from St. Maximus the Confessor the teaching that Christ is the goal of the whole cosmos. God’s purpose is “to unite all things in him” (Eph 1:10). The intrinsic direction of finite being in history is towards unity with Christ, but the fulfillment of this unity in any particular person’s case depends on her free will: through sin she may turn herself away from a proper ordering to Christ, in which case this “unity of all things” will prove hellish to her. Or, if she loves Christ and desires to be so united with Him, then it will be heaven.
One problem for any attempted reconciliation of divine providence with human freedom is the phenomenon of prophecy: how can a human being foretell the future by God’s help if it is essentially open and undetermined? I think that we can say the following in response. Prophecies are inevitably formulated in an essentially ambiguous way, so that the completely determinate meaning of the words evades even the persons who utter them. This permits that the prophecy be fulfilled in any number of ways; from the utterance of a prophecy, any potential future which is still realizable is contains a potential fulfillment of the prophecy itself, though this fulfillment is only recognizable retrospectively, after the fact.
But whence does a prophecy arise in the first place? How can there be any prophecies, if God does not respond to what takes place in the created order in some sense? Here my speculations perhaps border on the magical. The biblical formula says that “the word of the Lord came to” some prophet or other, so that it is effectively a passive experience: some unique impression is given to the prophet which presses upon him to speak or act in some way in the relevant context. This occurs at the right time and in the right place somehow without God’s having planned the whole story ahead of time. If there is an intrinsic teleological orientation to finite being as such, then it is possible that certain historical events (such as the reception of a prophecy) take place as they should, when they should, to whom they should, in the same way that the simultaneous development of various parts of the human body take place at the right time and in the right way in its own development.
This is a classical theistic scheme which simultaneously preserves a doctrine of divine providence while maintaining that human beings are profoundly free in a libertarian sense, thanks to which God does not always have control over what they do. It is important also to emphasize a further point about theological language: on this scheme of things, I think we should take a very firm apophatic approach to divine language which does not permit us to read too much into notions like “will” and “knowledge” attributed to God. God is spoken of in a personal manner and approached in a personal way because that is appropriate for human beings; it is an accommodation to human finitude and not a really adequate description of God’s being, who is strictly speaking beyond those categories and unknowable.