While it would be the height of hubris to suggest that I am capable of following the many profound contributions of Alasdair MacIntyre to the world of Christian thought, I can claim him as a long-standing hero of mine. It also seems clear enough in a lecture delivered on November 11, 2022 that MacIntyre has espoused some variety of open theism. My own assessment is a simple one, but his commitment to open theism seems to me rooted in a sad confusion regarding human free will and God’s relation to time.
In a recent lecture titled “The Apparent Oddness of the Universe: How to Account for It?” at Notre Dame, MacIntyre said:
Many of our thoughts and utterances are predictable, but some are not. So it is with some, as yet, unmade decisions when neither the agent—who is, as yet, quite unable to make up her or his mind—or anyone else knows what the agent is going to decide until the moment when that agent makes her or his decision. Until the agent finally makes her or his decision, her or his future action is undetermined. There is no fact of the matter about what she or he is going to decide or to do—nothing to make any statement about true or false. Not only does she or he not know what she or he is going to do, no one else can be said to know this either, including God. And this is the case not only with some decisions but also with some other thoughts and utterances whose occurrence cannot be predicted. …So even if an omniscient God does exist, there have been and will be numerous occasions on which he cannot be said to know what will be done or happened until it is done or happens. [See more context in a slightly longer transcription below.]
Not surprisingly, these statements stirred up questions, starting immediately in the Q&A after his lecture and continuing on Twitter (with some defense of MacIntyre there from Joshua Hochschild) as well as some online accusations such as this one by Urban Hannon.
Such questions of heterodoxy, however, are entirely outside of my own ken. My heart is simply saddened by a gap that I see growing in contemporary theology. Despite a host of books and articles about Christian platonism, theologians seem blind to the understanding of God’s relationship to time that is offered from within this rich tradition. We seem to have lost sight of eternity. Related to this is a diminishing grasp of the divine and human will as always directed toward the transcendence of being itself. Freedom is always simply the ability to see and to enact from among the infinite array of good options available within the creative life of God. We cannot speak of free will apart from an endless desire for the good, the true, and the beautiful as these are offered limitlessly by God.
To start with time and eternity, we must remember that we exist only in the present moment, and the present moment only exists incompletely alongside a host of false and contingent projections and delusions that are not known by God (other than contingently by Jesus Christ’s suffering and death with us in our cosmic history). A free choice in the present moment is one with the capacity to see past these present falsehoods and delusions and to see and display back to all creation a part of what we know to be eternally true within the life of God. This kind of free and true knowledge in the present moment is capable of changing the contingent past itself so that everything in this incomplete womb of a world now will eventually be set free to participate unhindered in God’s own creativity and life. I’m expressing it poorly, but other thinkers have shared with vigor and brilliance on these topics. Consider Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition by Olivier Clément, The Bride of the Lamb by Sergei Bulgakov or the brief references to fallen time in The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart. For another remarkable living Christian author, ponder the relationship to eternity put forward by Stephen R. L. Clark (in his book Can We Believe in People?: Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos):
Our ancestors were right: we should not suppose that here we have a continuing city (cf. Heb 13:14), but rather look sideways, ‘out of time and to eternity,’ from the eternal now. As long as we think of here and now as being this very place and moment, we must admit that it is always being lost, and that our extrapolated futures will not come to pass in quite the way we think of them. Notoriously, to make God laugh we need only tell Him our plans. Sacrificing the present for the sake of the future is suicidal. Nor can a merely material, temporal future ever be enough to satisfy us. ‘If the many become the same as the few when possess’d, More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.’
So the moral of my story about the future of our species must be just this : don’t live for any imagined future; time is always short. Seize the occasion to look outward, whether literally or analogically. The peril in that advice is that it may seem to support the short-termism or presentism of too many of our present leaders, cued to respond to immediate crisis without any care to consider where their response will lead. To look aside to eternity is to seek that pattern of living which is appropriate to any age and climate, not simply to discount the future in the name of a present passion. The peril that we face — which may be the proximate cause of our expectable decline — is our concern with short-term outcomes at the expense of values. Short-term expediency in forgetfulness of the eternal and without any imaginative grasp of a likely future almost guarantees that the temporal end is near.
For material shorter than book length, you might start by reading “In the Fullness of Time” by Jordan Wood or his interview with me on the topic of changing the past. None of this is to suggest that all of these authors agree with each other. Clark and Wood might even both articulate their own modest versions of an open theism from what little I understand. However, I gather that they do so with a healthy regard for the layers of time as these varieties of time all stand in relation to eternity itself.
Contemporary theologians desperately need a more profound appreciation for the understandings of Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus Confessor regarding the dynamic relationship of longing and infinite stretching that can unite finite humans to the infinite and eternal life of God. Without this appreciation, we end up thinking of free will and the human fall in temporal and linear categories that make no sense and lead to terrible misunderstandings. One of the saddest moments in MacIntyre’s opening comments was when he described the “second creative human act” as “the choice to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, the choice to quarrel with God, something that God would not have known was going to happen.” Here, I am not saddened so much by the problematic claim that God could not have known that the fall would take place but that MacIntyre would describe picking a “quarrel with God” as an example of human free choice. This is a heartbreaking misunderstanding of human freedom that confuses our incompetence and bondage with our freedom. How can our fall away from life with God ever be called a “second creative human act” in any sense? It is the opposite of creative. We are free and productive only when we learn to work perfectly with God, synergistically, in the infinite variegation of creative power and life that is offered by union with God.
I pray for the day when Christian theologians take as obvious this starting point in our understanding of freedom, the human will, and our current incapacities within the limitations of a death-bound time. May the resurrection of Jesus Christ come to be seen again as the ultimate in-breaking of life into a history bound by death so that time itself expands and human free will becomes truly possible in radical defiance of our human fall.
Note: for a more complete context with all of the quotations of MacIntyre above, see this transcription of 24:16 to 32:02 from the video recording of “The Apparent Oddness of the Universe: How to Account for It?” by Alasdair MacIntyre:
It was as late as the 6th and 5th centuries BC that the ancient Jews gave definitive written form to their histories of their origins both as Jews (as those defined by God’s covenant with Abraham) and as human beings (who looked back to the creation of their very first ancestors by God, his final act in the creation of the universe). Their conceptions of themselves of God and of creation are not to be found in any other ancient culture. How are we to understand them? Begin by considering one of God’s attributes: his omniscience. To say that God is omniscient is to say that he knows everything that there is to be known, which is important. There are some things that occur that are not there to be known until they have, in fact, occurred. Many of our thoughts and utterances are predictable, but some are not. So it is with some, as yet, unmade decisions when neither the agent—who is, as yet, quite unable to make up her or his mind—or anyone else knows what the agent is going to decide until the moment when that agent makes her or his decision. Until the agent finally makes her or his decision, her or his future action is undetermined. There is no fact of the matter about what she or he is going to decide or to do—nothing to make any statement about true or false. Not only does she or he not know what she or he is going to do, no one else can be said to know this either, including God. And this is the case not only with some decisions but also with some other thoughts and utterances whose occurrence cannot be predicted.
So it is with those thoughts that find their first expression in some poem of striking originality. Someone who was able to tell us in advance what this poet was going to say at some time in the future would have to be able or himself to offer the poem in all its originality, but in identifying the originality of the poet we have already ruled out that possibility—the possibility of the Shakespeare who anticipates Shakespeare a Rimbaud who anticipates Rimbaud. As with decisions and poems, so it is true with the first articulation of highly original scientific theories. No one could predict their formulation out of advance unless she or he was already able to formulate them— a Newton before Newton, an Einstein before Einstein. [So there is] a set of human events (some of them decisions, some of them poetic occurrences, some of them formulations of theoretical insights) which are unknowable until they have taken place. Let us call them singularities.
So even if an omniscient God does exist, there have been and will be numerous occasions on which he cannot be said to know what will be done or happened until it is done or happens. Whether a God exists or not, this aspect of human life is of crucial importance. Human agents, on several different types of occasion, think, speak, and act unpredictably because their thoughts, speech, and acts are not yet determined. If it was God who gave us this power to think, speak, and act in such a way as to determine otherwise undetermined futures, then he endowed humans with genuine creativity. It’s the mark of creativity, as I shall understand it, that those who possess it sometimes do something genuinely new, something not to be expected or predicted. And at this point, those who believe that the biblical God exists, they remark that, according to the Genesis story, God created human beings in his own image and likeness, and it is God’s creativity that finds its likeness in human creativity. That creativity found its first expression, according to the second chapter of Genesis, when God brought members of various animal species to Adam to see what names he would give them. Adam’s act of naming was of course a first creative step towards classifying and understanding. Adam was the ancestor of Aristotle and of Linnaeus. The second creative human act was to be very different. If we were to believe the Genesis story, it was the choice to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, the choice to quarrel with God, something that God would not have known was going to happen.
What I’ve done so far is twofold. I’ve identified what I take to be one key feature of human life, and I’ve suggested some of its implications for how we must think about God, if we are to understand God as the creator of the universe. In developing both his claims further, I’ll be primarily concerned with the nature of the universe and above all with its apparent oddity, an oddity that poses problems both for biblical theists and for modern atheists. The universe has what are—at first sight and often at second and third side too—two incompatible sets of characteristics. It is, on the one hand, what the natural sciences have shown it to be: a law-governed universe. Every particular in it is composed of law-governed particles, and human beings are no exception to this generalization. Every transformation of energy from one form to another is governed by the laws of thermodynamics. This is a universe, it seems, of determined and predictable regularities. Note that the relationship between the determining and the determined is characteristically probabilistic. That does not make the universe any the less a universe of predictable and determined regularities. Yet it’s also, as I’ve already suggested, a universe of unpredictable singularities, among them, indeed, the first formulations of those insightful theories whose confirmations, by observation and experiment, provide our grounds for believing in the law-governed nature of the universe. The history of the natural sciences is, in key part, a history of singular and unpredictable events, and in a law-governed universe there should, it seems, be no singular and unpredictable events. There seems to be no place for them. Hence the apparent oddity of the universe.