How often do we actually use our free will? I have vigorously defended the doctrine of robust free will here and elsewhere on the Web. I am convinced that if there is no free will in the libertarian sense then the entire structure of the gospel fails. We must be free to choose our future in a robust way or this life is no real test at all. With no libertarian free will we all find ourselves as predestined cogs in the great machine called the universe. But having said that, I’m not at all convinced we actually use our free will very much at all in life.
Last year I hinted at this idea when I posited that the natural man is the causally determined man. The point of that post was that if we don’t actively choose to be better than what comes naturally we are in trouble spiritually. It was another way of saying we must act Christ-like rather than simply react naturally to the stimulus life throws at us.
But it now dawns on me that presenting the idea in that fashion let us Mormons off the hook too easily. We usually equate the whole idea of the “natural man” to the idea of a worldly or “Babylonian” person who has standards and morals that are lower than ours and therefore we pat ourselves on the back for being better than that. But I think the proverbial natural man might be more than that. I think the natural man is the person who stays only on the track in life that he or she is started on.
Nurture and Nature; Tracks and Talents
Think about the parable of the talents. Each servant is given a certain amount of money (talents) and the test is all about what each servant does with those funds, not how much money each ends up with. The task is not just to avoid losing the money but to double the money. So a servant who started with one talent and ended with two would be far more pleasing to God than one who started with five and ended with five.
So how many talents do we each get in life? I think a useful way of looking at this question is to consider the life “track” we were handed. For instance, I was born the second son of recent Mormon converts who devoutly adherred to their new religion. Genetically I was given a strong mind and body and environmentally I was given a loving and supportive Mormon family. What was my track? Well as I see it, my track as handed to me by God and my parents was to grow up as an active Mormon young man, receive the priesthood, serve an honorable mission, marry in the temple, remain active in the church, and raise children who will do the same. Ok, so I’ve met the minimum requirements of my track so far. That means I am at least on track or I haven’t jumped tracks downwardly. But is staying on track rather than jumping to a lower track enough? I think not. That is like keeping the five talents I started with – sure I didn’t lose the any of the money, but the task is to increase or even double the proverbial money. So back to the track analogy – our task is not to stay on track (even the active Mormon track) but rather it is to jump tracks upwardly.
So how does this apply to determinisnm and free will? It is admittedly hard to know exactly which of our choices are caused by the free will of the inner us and which are simply the natural reactions to the life track we were given in life. My suspicion is that we are on auto-pilot (read: causally determined) almost all of the time. But I also think that a few really good free choices can cause an upward track jump and an upward track jump means we are thereafter on a more Christ-like track in life. Of course truly free bad choices can cause downward track jumps as well.
I think that these “tracks” I am referring to can be most closely associated to the concept of character. Our character makes us predictable – sort of like tracks make the destination of a train predictable. So in this analogy the goal is to get off whatever track we were given in life and get onto the highest and best tracks we possibly can — or in other words it is to make difficult free choices that change our fundamental characters to make them more like God’s character. I think jumping tracks specifically means doing some things out of character. If we are to jump tracks upwardly we have to do things so Christ-like that they are basically out of character for us. I contend that only by so using our free will can we change our fundamental characters.
It seems to me that jumping above the minimum requirements of the “active Mormon” track eventually requires getting onto a track where we have a real and current and growing personal relationship with Christ. A revelatory dialogue with God is required for us to get to the the “higher tracks” I think. Interestingly, the scriptures say that through such a relationship we will eventually discover that we have jumped tracks to the point where we are in fact on the same track as Christ and the Father.
That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. (John 17:21)