Matt McCormick’s Paraduxx (sic) of Divine Agency

December 30, 2015 by  
Filed under Catholic Apologetics, Featured

Matt McCormick’s original article “The Paradox of Divine Agency”,
In Michael Martin & Ricki Monnier (eds.), The Impossibility of God. Prometheus (2003) can be found here:

I don’t blame McCormick. In the order of blameworthy, it goes like this: the devil, the apologists (including myself), and then me again (for not writing faster). We’re all in this together, though, and as we’ll see shortly, that’s the whole point.

McCormick states his main thesis as follows:

“…when taken together, the divine properties of omnipotence, omniscience, and perfection (moral and otherwise), preclude the possibility of agency.  That is, God cannot act.  It is impossible for an omnipotent, omniscient, perfect being to act—it cannot exert its will because it can never find the world in a state that does not conform perfectly with its will.”

Sorry for interrupting, but this is going to be a real hoedown. Back to McCormick:

“In light of this conclusion, the very notion of divine agency, of God’s possessing plans and acting to achieve ends in the world, becomes meaningless and must be abandoned.  And a God that is incapable of action or agency is not worthy of an attitude of religious reverence.”  

Yes, if it were so, McCormick would be right. Pace McCormick, I argue that God does act, acts according to a definite plan, and necessarily achieves his end in the world. God is sovereign. However, I also argue that the world is replete with situations against God’s will. Though it appears to be a contradiction in terms to say so, I argue that God is sovereign and the world corresponds to God’s plan about as much as a burned out building corresponds to the architect’s original design. I also argue that it’s not a contradiction. And I succeed. It’s pretty cool, and you get to see.

Let’s start by me agreeing with all of the following propositions of McCormick’s argument:

1) It has been widely alleged that God acts or possesses agency.

2)  A being has agency when it has goals, conceives of them, acts on the basis of those goals with the intention of achieving them, and it could have done otherwise had it chosen to.

3) The possession of agency is a necessary (but not sufficient) property of an appropriate object of a religious attitude.

4) In order to have agency, a being must recognize some state of affairs in the world (correctly or incorrectly), conceive of another desired state of affairs, and then set about to make the desired/conceived state of affairs real.

5)  In order for God to exercise agency, the world must actually be in a state of affairs that is different from what God wills or wishes it to be.

6) If there is an action gap for an agent, then either a) the being desires to close the gap, but it is not possible for the being to do so, or b) the being has the goal of changing the state of affairs but refrains from doing so because of some other goal, or c) the being possesses the non-actual state as a goal and acts to make it actual.

The above is good. Do you know why I say it’s good?  I say it’s good because it’s not very good, and now we’ll see the better part.

“There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:42)

What I’m about to say, being the better part (philosophically speaking), won’t be taken away either. It won’t ever be scratched, or ever backpedalled from in any degree, and it will never cause its defender to have to bite a bullet of any kind or caliber. What I am about to say won’t even be cogently challenged at any point in the future without its detractors instantly morphing into sitting ducks in front of some mysteriously overwhelmingly-powerful quintessentially anti-duck agent. If someone wants to be the example, then they’re a hero of sorts. Take note, as there won’t likely be many after them.

McCormick’s next premise is where things irrevocably nosedive. Ducks are good at diving:

7) There can be no restraints, internal or external, on the actions of an omnipotent, omniscient, perfect agent’s will.

The restraint of perfect love is the restraint. What? How can it be? Like so: Perfect love means perfect love which does not compromise with non-love even though the “goals” of the agent doing the perfect loving are billy-clubbed, spat upon, shat upon, falsely accused, and/or misconstrued by philosophers on both sides of the stupid.

Let me tell you a story. It’s only a story. It’s a true story, but it doesn’t have to be true in order to utterly devastate McCormick’s argument. It just has to be a story, and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s the pivotal moment where atheology of McCormick’s variety either disappears forever or is permanently made a museum piece. There’s really no third option. If there were, I would tell you. If you can think of one, you tell me.

The Story

If God is perfect in himself, he does not create for himself. Therefore, the only reason why God creates is in charity. Charity is understood as a matter of “gift” for the sake of another. Charity to whom? To us? To us. There is no other reason why God creates. And a gift is not a bad thing, but is something we ought to like.

A gift cannot be forced or else it is not a gift. And a gift must have the desires of recipient in mind. If I give you a gift which harms you, it is not a gift.

Notice, though, we are in pain, and we did not ask for pain. What follows from this is that the pain is not the gift of God. It is something which is not God’s intent. It is something interfering with his offering to us, and it did not come from God. From what did it come? Doesn’t God create all things?

God, because he is perfect, and because he loves us, only wants what is highest and best for us. He wants our good. And our “good” is what we want, too. God creates all things, but he does not create all situations. All things have their being from God, but situations have their being between God and us. I’ll explain.

God is love, and love is gift. We are made in God’s image. And our happiness is in giving and receiving love. We who are made in God’s image have been made very much like God in a lot of ways. I will tell you the one most important for the purpose at hand: God is the one from whom all (and only) good things come.

Where does evil come from, then?

Don’t interrupt, please. I will get to it. But we need to know first about the good and where it comes from.

God is the one from whom all (and only) good things come, and he has made you in his image.
He has made all people in his image. All the angels, too. And one part of that is that he has made each person like himself in being the one from whom all good is to come to every other person. He made each individual almost as important as God is, himself, in this way. He made it so that every good thing he does for everyone, for all eternity, he does through what you do. This makes every person totally important to every other person, and nobody is unimportant.

But God is love, and love is gift. We are made to be like him. We are made to be a gift to every other person, too. But a gift cannot be demanded. It’s not a gift anymore if it is. However, we are still just as important as God made us even if we do not give like God gives. This is because God gives the same good thing even if we don’t return his love. He makes it so that we stay important, even if we do the wrong things. And he takes those wrong things and makes it so every good thing he ever does, he does through those wrong things we did. This is so we can stay important like he is, and so that we can be saved even though we have sinned. If he didn’t use the bad things we do as much as the good, then we couldn’t be as important as we are, or the bad things we did would make us ashamed forever because they would disappoint everyone.

But where does the wrong come from if we are in his own image? The wrong comes from there not being the right, and the right is this: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

God has only loved us and given the good to us. But not everyone has loved one another or loved God in return. God still loves them anyway. He will not change his love even if we change ours.

So are psychopaths who enjoy inflicting pain upon others made in God’s image?

They are, but there is so much covering it up that it is almost impossible to see. The reason why they behave like they do is this: “But not everyone has loved one another or loved God in return.”

Consider what happens when God loves all, but not all love one another or God. Is there right order in the world? Or is there disorder because love given is not returned? There is disorder, of course.

Now, when a person who is made for right order is born into disorder, it is unfair. The person was not made for disorder, and they expect right order. Justice is in our nature, and our nature cannot find it in the broken world. Therefore, we try to take what we don’t have. And this perpetuates the brokenness. Sin begets sin.

This is all still just part of the story, by the way.  But I can tell it how I like, with digressions and morals and stuff like that. Let’s, therefore, very consciously define some axioms of life: 

1) You are to reject any god who holds you as a slave.
2) You are to reject any god who gives evil and calls it a gift.
3) You are to reject any god who holds your sins against you rather than taking them to himself so that you can have his glory instead.
4) You are to remember, most urgently (and the Enemy will try to make you forget) that anything which is not done freely, as a gift, is not of God.

Now back to the story part:

The evil in the world is the result of someone not returning God’s love while God still loves them the same. The person who does not love affects the whole world. They are connected to everyone because God made us to be important to one another. Therefore, when one does evil, all suffer. Not as a punishment from God. But because God still loves the one who does evil. He loves them the same as if they were totally innocent. That’s how sins can be forgiven.

God cannot force us to freely love him or to love each other. If there is a break in love, then there is suffering because that’s what a break in love does. It makes it so that a good thing that should be there isn’t.

Does it mean that those who suffer less are loved more? No, it means that the disorder caused by sin falls where it will. God does not control that because sin is outside of what is freely given to God to control.

The real world is as we and God have made it together:

Human beings are relational, and they possess their lives–themselves–only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself. To be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for. But sin means the damaging or the destruction of relationality. Sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god. Sin is loss of relationship, disturbance of relationship, and therefore it is not restricted to the individual. When I destroy a relationship, then this event– sin–touches the other person involved in the relationship. Consequently sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it. To the extent that this is true, when the network of human relationships is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. At the very moment that a person begins human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently each person is, from the very start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought. Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it.” (Cardinal Ratzinger, In the Beginning)

So God can’t control sin?

Of course not. God does not take from us what we do not freely give him. God is gift, not demand.

And if we don’t accept this gift we are going to hell?

No, we are already there, in a sense, and he is drawing us out by his gift. If we will not let ourselves be rescued, then the disorder becomes everything to us forever.

Are we not “created sick and commanded to be well”?

No, the command of God grants the power to be well. Not by our doing, but by his. He unites us with Christ, and the meaning of our lives is the same as the meaning of the life of Christ.

What does that mean to you? The life of Christ. What did he do?  Something about his sufferings saving the world, maybe.

Your sufferings will have saved the world. This is what God does with your pain. Because, otherwise, it is just worthless. He turns our shame and brokenness into glory.

If one is maximally important, and if the actions of one affect all, then it follows by necessity that the disorder of one becomes the disorder of all. And God enters this disorder to suffer it in each of us. He makes our sufferings (which otherwise are pointless) the same as his sufferings (which are divine glory). The unchanging constancy of God’s love in the face of evil means that everything good God ever does for anyone is done through exactly what you, or any person, has done and suffered.

If my suffering is out of my hands, and out of God’s hands, then why pray?

It is because your prayer affects the whole world. It is not just our disorder that touches everyone. Our love touches everyone, too, and when it does, it brings healing instead of harm. Further, what you ask of God, God will give you if he is free to do it. He has made everything dependent on each, because he has made each like himself. And this includes you.

What about nature “red in tooth and claw”? Nature didn’t get that way because of people. Is that God’s will?

Evil came first from the evil one. From an angel who refused to love, but demanded to be loved. This messed up a lot of things in nature because the angels had things under their authority. And many did not do what they should. The others did what they could to bring order and balance. Evil is from any person made in God’s image (and this includes both humans and angels) refusing to love. They make a hole in the community. And all of reality is based on the community because persons are the only thing that is truly important. Everything else is secondary to that and exists in service of that. When a person turns from God, the whole world is darkened and twisted because of their turning away.

It is all of our choices that made the world as it is. My choices harmed that child in India as well as the child in my home.

Now you’re against suffering. You really are. And that means you are very much like God. I say so because he is against suffering. He is against sin only because it’s where suffering comes from.

You may say, “I can’t stop suffering, but God can.” You think he can.

So he can’t? If he could, he would.

Therefore he isn’t all omnipotent?

He is omnipotent. There is another reason. He is omnipotent, and he is totally against all evil. All suffering, he sees as you see.

So why not end it?

Because God cannot do evil in order to prevent evil. Despite God’s omnipotence, God is not free to do evil.

How is preventing evil an evil thing? It doesn’t seem like it is, I know. For example, we are to prevent evils if we can. It has to do with something not too many people think about.

Love does certain things and not others. There are some things love will never do. We can know something about what love will never do by knowing the basics of what love does do. We know that love acts for the good of the beloved. We know that one who loves treats the beloved as an end in themselves and not as a means to an end. We know that perfect love loves perfectly. That is, without any diminishment of what love is and does.

God is love and each of us is his beloved. He loves each as if each were the only one. And he loves all of us as he loves each of us. In loving each of us perfectly, in the greatest way God possibly can, he gives each a gift such that no greater gift can be conceived. He does not hold back his love, but gives all. Now, in the giving all, he does not see us as pets. He sees us as equal to himself. This is something important to know. It is important to know because you don’t know it. Even in me writing this, I don’t know it. However, in the knowing of this, everything else is to be known. And in the forgetting of this, everything else is forgotten.

God sees us as his equals. It’s not an equality of nature, but a bestowed equality of relationship. This is one aspect of what it means to be made in the image of God. Seeing us as his equals, he has made it so that nothing he does that can possibly be done with us is done without us. And, therefore, we are all just as important as he is with regard to the level of importance he can possibly give away.

It is this way because he loves, and only because he loves. If he did not love us totally and fully, it would not be this way. But he does, and it is. One thing to know, and you already know, is that he cannot force us to do what can only be done as a gift. This is what makes it possible for evil to happen and for it to make the whole world seem like God doesn’t exist or care. He could treat us as not his equals, but as slaves or pets, but then he wouldn’t be loving us truly.

He cannot do evil (that is, act contrary to the perfection of love) in order to prevent evil. He can’t love us less in order to love us more, and this is why there is evil though God is totally good. He is not free to prevent it. He is not free to take away our importance or our freedom. But he is free to take our good and bad, our gift and our self-withholding, and unite it to himself so as to draw forth the ultimate good from all that we have given him. And from all that we’ve withheld. He will sovereignly draw forth an undiminished good from that which we’ve done wrong in order that our wrongs not end in our separation from him or from any other made in his image.

Unless, of course, we refuse to be with him or them. Even if we do refuse, though, God still loves us the same. And everything we’ve ever done will be necessary to the eternal joy of all who will be with God forever. Because God made us that important in the beginning. And he preserves us in that importance to the end. He does so because he loves perfectly, and his love does not change because of evil.

He loves the same as he would as if evil had never been a factor at all. He knew we wouldn’t do the right things before he created us. He still gave the same gift as if he didn’t know. He did not diminish love in anticipation of evil. If he did, then evil would indeed be running the whole show. As it is, love is still in charge, and love will prevail. Because of the perfection of God’s love, it appears to us as if God is ignorant of evil, or powerless, or doesn’t care. No, it is because God will not do evil to prevent evil. Evil is to be conquered by love alone.

Now, turning to McCormick’s thing:

“Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went over to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. And he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again.’ And immediately the fig tree withered.” (Matt 21:19)

Pardon me, I just wanted to get that in there before the argument. Now, quoting McCormick:

“8) Therefore, it is impossible for there to be a state of affairs in the world that does not accord perfectly with an omnipotent, omniscient, perfect agent’s will.  The world always conforms perfectly with God’s will.”

Nope. Never again will this line of thought be taken seriously unless you just don’t know any better.

The world is indeed out of order, but all disorder has been taken into God’s hand such that evil is turned against itself, and all things are worked together for the good and brought to their final end without diminishment.

Except for those who insist upon diminishment. They will get what they choose because God can’t force his gift on anyone. He merely receives ours. He receives whatever it is we freely offer him.

One last fig-check:

“9) And since action requires that there be some state of affairs that is different from what an agent wills, God cannot act.”

Gosh, this is a mess. But it’s a mess that will clean itself up from here on out. Once people see the solution it can’t be unseen. You see it. You don’t need me to to say it.

Thank you, game over, and goodnight.


  • IrishEddieOHara