In the last post I suggested that “laws of nature” are better understood as the properties of the natures of entities themselves, as in Aristotelian metaphysics. Seen in this light, the concept of “freedom” in nature makes little sense, since there are no “external” laws either maintaining order or restricting freedom. Rather, everything in nature is simply created to act according to its God-ordained nature. It would be no violation of the natural order by God either to create some new type of nature in the world directly, or to act on existing forms according to their existing natures. On the other hand neither would it be a problem for him to have created something with the ability to unfold in an evolutionary fashion.
It follows, however, that for anything in nature to be “autonomous”, in the sense of writing its own laws, creating or changing its own nature, would be the most unnatural thing imaginable. That’s the question that arises par excellence if we consider humans and their free will.
To do that, let’s examine “law” in the sense of God’s other book: God’s divine law for mankind. I described how the “legal” conception of nature was mainly imported into science from Christianity. But in turn, the idea of God’s word to us as “law” is a little wide of the mark, though prominent in early modern Christianity.
Just as there are a few biblical descriptions of “ordinances” relating to nature, so there are rather more in relation to, particularly, the law of Moses. That reflects Israel as a theocratic state, there being a need as in all states for an external set of statutues. But the overarching concept of the Pentateuch, and indeed the whole Hebrew Bible, is torah, a word that doesn’t really mean “law” but, at root, the teaching imparted by a father to his child and so, by extension, the teaching imparted by Yahweh to Israel his son.
To quote one source:
A hebraic definition of Torah is “a set of Instructions, from a father to his children, violation of these instructions are disciplined in order to foster obedience and train his children”. Notice how the word “Torah” is translated in the New International Version translation in the following passages.
“Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching [Torah].” (Proverbs 1:8)
“My son, do not forget my teaching [Torah], but keep my commands in your heart”. (Proverbs 3:1)
The purpose of a parent’s Torah is to teach and bring the children to maturity. If the Torah is violated out of disrespect or defiant disobedience, the child is punished. If the child desires to follow the instructions out of a loving obedience but falls short of the expectations, the child is commended for the effort and counseled on how to perform the instructions better the next time. Unlike Torah, law is a set of rules from a government and binding on a community. Violation of the rules require punishment. With this type of law, there is no room for teaching, either the law was broken with the penalty of punishment or it was not broken. God, as our heavenly Father, gives his children his Torah in the same manner as parents give their Torah to their children, not in the manner as a government does to its citizens;
“Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your Torah” (Psalms 94:12).
In other words, one could see torah as a special way of forming human, as opposed to lower creatures’, nature: rather than our nature being in every sense a given (though in most senses it is, since our physical, mental and spiritual abilities are all a divine gift), our rational and moral selves are formed by the actions of others, with our own voluntary consent. This is truer than western man tends to think. As social beings, we have a strange freedom to form others and be formed by them, though voluntarily. I like this quote from philosopher Roger Scruton:
Communities are not formed through the fusion or agreement of rational individuals; it is rational individuals who are formed through communities.
Divine torah, then, might be seen as an indirect form of creation, where the moral and spiritual aspects of the nature God intends to form in us are offered for us to accept voluntarily. In this I see a parallel with laws of nature – not that there is an external set of restraints within which we may be “free”, but a set of creation principles that, when internalised, form in us our true human nature.
Why then would God make us that way – given that it is obvious from universal experience that it has allowed the possibility of sin? Well, aside from the fact that such a question receives short shrift in Scripture – pots questioning potters and so on – one could say that it prevents us being mere robots. But as the last post showed, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong in being a robot, if that’s your nature.
I prefer another good thought from Aquinas. Our freedom is given us to choose between different good things in God’s creation, since we can’t experience them all. A myriad photons all act the same way according to their nature. Even rabbits and lions can only be more or less typical of their kinds. But a host of rational humans can eat, handle, learn and offer thanks for a huge variety of good things, and being communal beings can share that blessing with each other, and directly with their Creator in worship. They can even offer worship on behalf of the irrational part of creation.
That’s one thought, anyway – and there are more mysterious considerations, too, including the Irenaean idea that our sin itself may be used by God to help us to maturity as a father’s discipline is part of torah, and of course the greater glory that redounds to God from restoring what is broken rather than making it unbreakable in the first place.
But the main thing is that, in terms of God’s primary purpose, our freedom is intended to help us be formed in our heavenly Father’s image and to serve him more gloriously. Torah, with its necessary accompanying freedom, is our “autonomous law” just as gravitational attraction is part of the “autonomous law” of massive particles. And in both cases, there is no place at all for the idea of freedom as the kind of autonomy that is in any sense independent of God. That’s why Jesus, the most free human being who ever lived, conformed in every way to his Father’s will – torah in him had found a willing home.
Sin remains, then, a perversion of the will’s true purpose, resulting in a diminution of our nature. It’s not just that by disobeying God’s external laws we are rebels. It is that by refusing God’s teaching for us we have become sub-human. God is not Zeus jealously refusing mankind the divine knowledge of fire until Prometheus bravely steals it. Rather he is a Father who offers us the best torah possible, only to have us reject the gift in favour of a corrupt aberration of our own.
On the torah model, then, final judgement is like the rejection by a good father of an irredeemably wicked son who has failed to internalise any of the character-traits he was taught. It may be seen as punishment in a legal sense (and Scripture does portray in in that way), but it is also the rejection of a creation that has willingly failed to be what it was made to be: ie fitted for eternity with God.
I don’t know if that is helpful to you, but it does seem, to an extent, to provide a more valid comparison of scientific and spiritual law, and one that makes the whole quest for autonomy either in science of human affairs pretty meaningless.
Just one more thing: by pointing out law as part of God’s provision for creating human nature, it reminds us that it is not necessarily the exhaustive expression of God’s nature. We are created in God’s image, true, and so that certainly makes love, truth, justice and so on something that we share with God more than we would expect, say, tapeworms or crocodiles to do. And yet the good God has also expressed his nature in the whole creation in different ways. God, on reflection, is clearly not subject in the same way as us to the law: the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away – but it is not theft. God takes each one of our lives in the end – but it is not murder. So how can we possibly hold him to account by the law, not forgetting that we ourselves do not even keep it? In this, as in so many other things, we need to remember that he is in heaven, and we are on earth, so our words before him should be few.
That’s good torah.