I gotta have my orange juice.

Jesu, Juva


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The Westminster Confession of Faith reads:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

We confess that God ordains or decrees everything, but in a way that establishes individual freedom and responsibility. At one level this is simply a mystery to us, but it is possible for us to go a little deeper. Authorship and artistry — or, as Tolkien puts it, sub-creation — have been for me a helpful analogy for God’s sovereignty over creation[1]. It does not even occur to us to accuse Tolkien of tempting or causing Gollum to sin, or of any injustice or violence toward Gollum. Even recognizing Tolkien’s authorship, we do not doubt that Gollum did what he did of his own free will, or that he deserved his end. Philosophers call this compatibilist free will, but it just means that we do what we want to do. An author or artist’s decreeing or ordaining her work is categorically different from ordinary causation or compulsion within the world of the work itself. In fact, the author’s decrees are just what establishes and upholds a structure of causality and responsibility within the world of her work. Otherwise it would be utter chaos.

This also means that God’s very being and existence are categorically different from ours; to use the philosophical term, he is transcendent. This is perhaps the main reason that Anselm’s argument fails: we cannot induct our way outside of the story; we cannot build a ladder that jumps right off the page. We need God to reveal himself to us.

There are some fun ways to explore this creator-creature distinction in story and art. In simplest form, characters might speculate about or comically defy the author. Pushing the analogy to its limits, we end up with self-reference, a multiplicity of levels, and illusions. This gets us into the realm of what Douglas Hofstadter calls the “strange loop,” and as Hofstadter points out, Escher’s work is a great example of all this. But the analogy does break down: our stories are only shadows of reality, and Escher’s lizards and hands and birds only have the illusion of reality. Only God enters his creation in the flesh and allows it to act upon himself.

While talking with the men from my small group this week, it struck me that this analogy of sub-creation gives literary references to God a double or ironic meaning. When an unbelieving author’s characters rail against or reject God’s authority, they are in one sense railing against him, and so he is undermining his own argument. In his very attempt to boast in human autonomy, he reveals the absurdity of that rebellion. He cannot escape his dependence on and submission to God any more than his characters can escape their obvious dependence on and submission to him.

This gives us an alternate reading of the poem Invictus. Instead of seeing it as the poet’s raising his fist against God, we can equally see it as the character within the poem’s raising his own fist against the poet. In that light, the poem becomes childish and petty.

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

The idea that we could transcend the boundary between ourselves and our author, or somehow cast off a dependence on him that is fundamental to our very existence, is absurd. Far better to humble our hearts and enjoy where he has set us.

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

The analogy of authorship might prove instructive to us in other ways, too. The fact that God’s sovereignty is what establishes causality and responsibility rescues us from futile determinism. And seeing God as an author certainly emphasizes his power over his creation. It is a small thing for him to write of the weaving of his world in seven days, or of a world-wide flood rather than a regional flood: we don’t have to wring our hands over miracles that are hard for our creaturely minds to conceive. And as much as there may be degrees of fellowship with or separation from God, this also suggests that it is misguided to divide creation and our experience into the natural and the supernatural, secular and spiritual, nature and grace. Because of God’s intimate and personal involvement in his story, the overlap between the natural and supernatural is entire and complete. You cannot possibly escape God’s sovereignty, lordship, or grace. That in turn lays the foundation for a robust common grace.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?

Finally, this analogy also suggests that, while there is great value in a reductionist approach to understanding God’s world, there is comparatively greater value in seeking to understand God’s word and world holistically, to grasp the sweep of story and persons.

See also: Proof of the non-existence of God.

[1] Yes, this does contradict the WCF quote on the face of it. See John Frame’s distinction between what you might call a proximate and an ultimate sense of authorship, which is what I’m getting at by distinguishing between decree/ordination and causation/compulsion.

Written by Scott Moonen

May 27, 2011 at 9:19 am

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