I just spent a couple of very pleasant hours with John Hartness’ new Quincy Harker novella, Heaven Sent. The plot describes how Quincy first met his guardian angel, Glory; in fact, he hadn’t been aware he had a guardian angel in the first place. Turns out those GAs are pretty handy to have around, and not just because they can stop bullets on your behalf. On a less convenient note, however, Quincy (whom Glory christens “Q”) learns that guardian angels can only intervene in very specific circumstances, and that they kind of suck at information sharing. When Q takes issue with Glory’s failure to communicate—not to mention help him when he asked for help—she informs him that angels do not have free will—they cannot help themselves from following “Orders from upstairs.” That stopped me cold. Slavery in heaven? Apparently so. It also got me thinking about one of my favorite topics, free will and making good choices. We all want to make good choices, right? But free will ensures that we often miss the mark. Why is this the case? I suspect I won’t know for sure until I shuffle off this mortal coil. In the interim, I can speculate. Or navel gaze. Your call.
What is free will, anyway? For me, free will is the potential to make poor choices and engage in serious self-destruction. I’d like to have a more positive outlook about one of the defining characteristics of humanity, but in looking around me, and also inside the recesses of my own dark corners, it’s hard to be optimistic. Free will ensures that even when we know—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that option A is a better choice than option B, most of us choose B anyway, particularly if it involves chocolate. Perhaps I should only speak for myself. And not to sound like a broken record, but 66% overweight and obese Americans, almost 20 million alcoholics, and the many millions who support Donald Trump all point to the fact that we aren’t so good at making good choices with all this free will we have.
And then we can ask ourselves, why is free will a defining characteristic of humanity? Why not have us all be angels, who apparently can’t make a poor choice (explains the whole halo thing for sure, by the way)? Wouldn’t that be nice? Always making good choices, always doing the right thing? Always marching in lock step with the Big Guy Upstairs? Oh, wait, maybe that last thing isn’t such a great idea. We’d all be Stepford Wives and mental slaves and where would be the fun in that? In fact, if I pull this string a bit more, without free will, nothing makes any sense at all. There would be no search for truth (we’d all agree on what it is), no striving toward excellence (because it would be a universal imperative, not an aspirational construct), no winners and losers, because competition wouldn’t be an option. Sounds pretty boring, not to mention pointless.
But if we believe in free will, as I do with every atom of my being, what does our free will have to say about topics like predestination, divination, destiny, etc.? It’s another interesting mental puzzle. I love my Tarot cards, which I use mostly for guidance, but sometimes to sneak a peek at what might be just around the next temporal bend, just beyond my line of sight. I also believe in destiny to some extent. But even with those beliefs, I still believe we can make a mess of things if we want to. I figure it’s kind of like genetic expression: my family has a genetic predisposition towards lethal heart disease. I know this, and it colors the health choices I make. So, I could let history play out again and again and go to an early grave following a massive heart attack, like so many of my relatives. Or, I can take care of my heart and avoid that particular destiny. I’m going with the second option on that one. But not all of my cousins have made similar choices and they are currently six feet under. Free will.
Free will also trumps Divine omnipotence in my philosophy of life. In other words, the Big Guy (or Gal) upstairs cannot save us from ourselves, no matter how badly most Christian theologians have mangled the whole salvation through Christ concept. God isn’t some sort of everyday Santa Claus, dispensing get out of jail, or the hospital free cards on demand, even if we’ve been very good girls and boys. For me, God is limited by His/Her own rulebook: humans have free will and they get to choose. And in order to be a sporting kind of God, God makes sure to make the right choice slightly more difficult, or uncomfortable, or less pleasant than the wrong choice. Otherwise, as I’ve written about before, it wouldn’t be a real choice. If it were easy, we’d all be angels.
But it’s not and we’re not, and that is the reality of life. And it’s OK, actually. Having to work to do the right thing and make good choices tempers us in the crucible of living, forming our characters and making us who we are. It gives us the work of a lifetime, provides structure to our days and purpose to our existence. I think free will is necessary to all of that and that the Big Guy/Gal was pretty clever when this system was put in place. After all, as Quincy tells us, balance must be maintained. So where the angels can’t help but do good, the demons can’t help but do bad. And we humans are somewhere in the middle, trying to muddle through. So I’ll pull out my “Free Willie” t-shirt (I loved that movie), and I’ll have my little inside joke, and offer my support to whatever God put all of these pieces in motion in the first place.