Lent Meditation 6

  • (Refrain- Through the prayers of the just who pleased you, have pity on sinners who call to you, and send us, from your treasury, pity, mercies, and salvation.)
  • 1- If our creation is hateful, the blame is with the Creator. If our freedom is evil, the accusation comes to us. If we do not have freedom, why then is our choice put on trial? If not, then he judges it wrongly, but if so, he punishes it rightly.
  • 2- Trial accompanies freedom, and law is tied up with both of them: freedom which crossed the line of the Judge is brought to trial. What would the true Creator gain by lying to us, by not giving us freedom yet writing and giving us the law?
  • 3- The truth stands in the middle, to ask and to be questioned: Did our Maker give us freedom or not? Well, questions and investigations are born of freedom: Answer and her sister Inquiry are daughters of Freedom.

I make it a point to avoid philosophical and theological debates on free will, because that question, more than all others, gets hairiest fastest. Materialists who tend toward determinism (which was a popular position before the quantum revolution and still appears today) deny free will as a matter of necessity. Calvinists who concentrate on God’s free election and human misery until they see nothing else deny it as well.

But we don’t need to get into physics or debates about salvation. This madrasha which, like most of the madrashe in the Hudhra, is attributed to St. Ephrem, keeps it pretty simple.

He spends the first verse assuming the possibility that free will doesn’t exist. The consequences of that, to him, are that God is to blame for our sins, and that any accusation or trial of us is unjust (the language of a legal trial remains throughout the meditation). But these conclusions are absurd: God cannot be unjust, and so the premise that there is no free will must be false.

The second verse expands this: the very notion of judgment and trial (so prominent in the Bible) requires there to be free will. Not only that, but the very notion of law does as well: when God commands, it implies that we have the choice to obey or not. If we don’t, that implies that God is a liar, which, again, is an absurd conclusion. And that absurd conclusion again implies that our premise is false.

Not only law and judgment, but the very reality of question and answer imply free will. It’s not simply the Scriptures which, for Ephrem, require us to believe in free will, but the bare facts of human communication and community. This move toward the idea of community poetically justifies the otherwise weird symbolism of Freedom being a mom and Inquiry and Answer being her daughters.

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