Puppets, Addicts, and the Un-Free Will

“I have been talking about the un-free will for thirty years and have never had a single person agree with me on my first attempt. People instinctively rise up against the idea. I repeat, I have not experienced a single instance, in thirty years, of anyone immediately agreeing with me that the human will is not free. (In fact, the only people who display any receptivity at all to the idea are alcoholics and criminals. And even criminals behind bars want to go back to “free-will” once they are settled into prison existence.) When I speak of the un-free will, most people wish to have a duel with me and leave me, like Alexander Hamilton at Weehawken, inert on the ground.

Often when the subject of the un-free will comes up, people jump ahead of my claim. They think I am talking about predestination. They think I mean Pavlov and little dogs with bells and shocks. They think I am trying to corner them into some kind of idea that makes people into puppets. To this I say, ‘you’re ahead of the game. I am talking about one thing, and one thing only: how people actually act and whether they are under compulsion in certain situations. Please don’t talk to me about puppets until you have answered me about addicts.’”

-Paul F.M. Zahl Grace in Practice: A Theology for Everyday Life


Despite the question of human freedom and the will normally taking place in the context of conversations about predestination, Zahl rightly argues that the un-free will is the precondition for having compassion for humanity. A theology of everyday life that is faced by the desperate bondage people are subject to (bondage not only to flesh and blood but also to the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this present age Eph. 6:12) must begin with the irrepressible cry of “Help me!” The un-free will rightly understood doesn’t lead to disgust and contempt for others or myself but an utter dependence on the good and loving God who rescues.



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