Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Roger Olson's boyfriend in the sky

What torments him the most, however, is his utter inability to find a girlfriend...To make a long story short (as they say), the writer discovers that he can control the girlfriend by writing about her…Eventually, the writer becomes disillusioned with this magical phenomenon. He comes to think of the young woman as real which, in the movie, in a sense, she is. Physically, she’s “there.” But he controls her completely. She becomes whatever his momentary whim causes him to write about her.

Finally, he has a kind of nervous breakdown and starts furiously writing sentences that cause her to be like a puppet—just to demonstrate his power over her. Then, in a moment of utter despair, loving her so much, he writes that she is real and free.

In his book The Providence of God Calvinist philosopher-theologian Paul Helm says: “Not only is every atom and molecule, every thought and desire, kept in being by God, but every twist and turn of each of these is under the direct control of God.” (p. 22) Yes, of course, he goes on throughout the book to attempt to demonstrate how this is a good thing. But, in the end, it’s unsatisfying for the same reason as the writer’s control of Ruby in the movie.

Toward the end of “Ruby Sparks,” the writer character discovers that what he is having with Ruby is not a relationship but a condition. Ultimately, she is not yet real. Or, if she is real, she is not a person. What he is having with her is not a personal relationship—from either his or her perspective. His perspective that he was having a personal relationship with her was an illusion. And his power to control her was not in any way glorifying or magnifying of him (as he seemed to think at some points). It was not only unfair to her (since he could cause her to be real and free); it was demeaning to him. What he was doing was unethical.

Now, let’s adjust the movie, the parable, just a bit and see what would happen “if.” Imagine that the writer finally decided that controlling Ruby was better than giving her reality and freedom. Better for whom? Well, for both him and her. After all, he could then protect her from the many dangers of being real and free. And he could show off his magical power to his brother (a character in the movie) and his therapist (he does reveal it to both of them). But who would think he was “protecting” her or revealing real ability? All people in their right minds, decent, reasonable people, upon realizing what he was doing to her, would condemn him for it. (In the movie his brother comes to think what he is doing is wrong. His therapist never really believes it.)

Here is my question to Calvinists: even if the writer in the movie treated Ruby with kindness, would you ever agree that he is doing something good—either morally or in terms of showing his greatness? I can’t imagine it. What’s great about using a magical power to control things compared with using persuasion to influence them? And what’s morally good about controlling another person compared with giving them freedom and entering into a real relationship with them?

Of course, Helm, and most Calvinists with him, goes to great lengths to try to show that God is different. It’s okay for God to control his human creatures whereas it would never be okay for humans to do so (except, of course for small children or hopeless imbeciles).

A ventriloquist may claim to “love” his puppet, but anyone hearing that claim would laugh or cry—considering the ventriloquist either joking or crazy. That would be even more the case if the ventriloquist claimed the puppet loved him!

Philosopher Brümmer also demonstrates, rightly, I think, that strict Calvinism (he uses the Canons of Dort as his foil) is ultimately incoherent insofar as it claims that God is so different, so unique, that somehow it’s good and right for God to control humans in such a manner that would never be considered right or good in human experience. If God is so “wholly other,” such that there are no analogies, then, he says, we really do not know anything about God. This is what I’ve been saying here for a long time—almost since the blog’s beginning. Ultimately, strict Calvinism, divine determinism, must posit a “hidden God,” a voluntarist God who has no nature or whose nature is so radically different from ours that we can’t even conceive of it. And, in light of hell, such a controlling, manipulative God cannot be conceived as “good” in any meaningful way.

i) First off, I commend Olson for pressing the boyfriend/girlfriend analogy to illustrate Arminianism. I think that’s a very revealing, and apt comparison. And it nicely illustrates some childish weaknesses in Arminianism.

In a healthy romantic relationship, both man and woman give something and get something. It satisfies a deep psychological (and physical) need.

There’s an ineluctable element of self-interest which motivates the relationship. Not just doing something good for another person, but how that’s good for you. We are incomplete without it.

We wouldn’t marry if there wasn’t something in it for us. At least, that’s the expectation going in–although reality doesn’t always turn out that way. We marry to receive something in return. Reciprocated affection. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t hope to get something out of it. Although romantic love ought to be concerned with the best interests of the beloved, it’s also essentially self-interested. The man wants a woman who wants him in return. He wants her to want him as much as he wants her. And I assume most wives want a husband who desires them rather than viewing them as just a charity case.

And that’s roughly how Olson defines a “real relationship.”

Speaking for myself, I don’t seek a “relationship” with God in that sense. If that’s what motivated God, he’d be pathetic. I don’t need a God who needs me. I don’t worship a God who needs me (and other creatures) to complete what’s lacking in himself.

In Calvinism, God’s love for the elect is an act of sheer disinterested love. God has nothing to get out of it. He does it purely for the good of the elect.

ii) In defense of Olson, someone might say that Scripture itself uses romantic theological analogies. But if you examine the specific examples, they don’t intersect with Olson’s comparison.

There’s the motif of God as a jilted husband who remains faithful to a faithless wife (Hosea; Isa 54; Ezk 16). There’s the motif of God defending his bride (Rev 19). There’s the motif of God/Christ laying down his life to save his wife (Eph 5). And there’s the motif of God marrying down (Ezk 16; Eph 5).

iii) I don’t think Calvinism requires God to be “wholly other” or “hidden.” That’s just Olson’s hostile characterization.

And, yes, it is different with God. He’s the Creator, we’re the creature. That’s a fundamental and unilateral asymmetry. Cause and effect.

That’s very different from the boyfriend/girlfriend dynamic, where they grow closer to each other, grow through each other, grow into each other.

iv) Olson’s illustration also suffers from an inner tension. He says “Then, in a moment of utter despair, loving her so much, he writes that she is real and free.”

But what does it mean to say that Ruby is finally set free to be herself? She started out as a figment of the writer’s imagination. His idea of the perfect girl. And although she continues to evolve, it’s his idea of her that’s evolving. She has all and only those characteristics which he invests her with at any particular moment.

So even if he frees her and reifies her at the end (a la Pygmalion), she didn’t invent herself. Everything she is she got from him. At whatever stage of the process he frees her, what he reifies is his own concept.

Now, we might speculate that after he frees her, she continues to develop on her own. Becomes a somewhat different person. But even so, she didn’t make herself from scratch. She could only work with what he gave her. Her potential for further development is limited to his creative idea. At bottom, she can’t rise any higher than her source. A reified fictional character is still defined by the writer. By his personal vision.

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