How do we handle the tension between predestination and free-will? When we reach a cross-roads in our life, do we have a creator God who set everything in place with us as cogs playing out the Divine Plan? Or has God set plans in motion that allow us to make choices which can either help those plans or derail them? Psychological and neurological evidence might indicate the former. But most, if not all, of us experience life as if we have the ability to make any choice in almost any moment.
An emphasis on predestination can make us feel like our choices don’t matter and that life is controlled at every step. It can lead to a lower sense of responsibility: “What’s the point in trying to stop climate change? It’s either a part of God’s plan or it isn’t, either way my actions don’t matter.” An emphasis on free will, however, can make us feel like every choice and act is monumental, and that everything rests on our shoulders: “If I don’t choose the right school for my child, I could be ruining her life.”
To add to the confusion, both are supported by biblical text.
Predestination, Romans 8:29-30 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined [emphasis mine] to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Free-Will, John 7:17 Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.
These two examples merely scratch the surface of biblical texts people use to defend their positions of either predestination or free-will. Our faith tradition, outside of biblical texts, doesn’t exactly tie everything in a neat bow, either.
St. Augustine, On the Predestination of Saints He promised not from the power of our will but from His own predestination. For He promised what He Himself would do, not what men would do.
Justin Martyr, First Apology God’s foreknowledge is intuitive, not active, and is caused by man’s choices.
This, again, only touches upon the vast number of thinkers on each side of this debate. For the entire history of the Christian faith, Christians have struggled with the question of a predetermined life on the one hand and the experience of free will on the other. What if there were a way to reconcile these two views?
Enter Wyrd Wyrd, pronounced “weird-uh,” is a Norse term which can help bring a resolution to this debate. (Side note: yes, the term is a pagan concept, but I am operating under St. Augustine’s guidance that “all truth is God’s truth.”) Wyrd is often translated into English as “fate,” so it has a foot on the “predestination” side of the debate. But wyrd is not simply fate. Wyrd has a connotation of interaction, context, and effort associated with it, too, which gives it a foot in the “free will” camp.
Wyrd may best be described by example: when my four-year-old unexpectedly jumps up on my back and screams in my ear, I have an infinite number of choices before me. I can ignore him, I can ask him to stop, I can react violently, I can laugh and tickle him, I can put him in time-out, or any number of other ways of responding to the moment. But, also, I’m a person in a place and time. Perhaps I have a history with abuse, which would make such an event triggering to me. Perhaps I’ve had a couple of drinks, which limits my ability to make the exact choice I might want to make. Perhaps I’m an educator with experience with small children. Perhaps he and I have a long running game of sneaking up and surprising each other, which prepares me for this moment.
All of these things add context to the situation. However I respond in that moment is wyrd. It’s the expression of my free will to choose my action combined with the whole history of events leading up to that moment. If I rise above the moment to calmly talk to him, that’s wyrd. If I turn and shout at him, that’s wyrd, too. And the Divine is with me in all of it, nudging me, perhaps, to make some choices over others, but loving me enough to allow the choice.
In each moment we have an infinity of choices that are narrowed down by the constraints of history, time and place, and the Divine Plan. Wyrd, in a Christian context, becomes a way of thinking of ourselves as co-creators with God. Yes, of course, The Divine has a Plan for us and our lives. The Divine has power to work miraculously, but that work requires effort on our part that feels, subjectively, like it relies on our choice and our initiative.
Yes, the God of Love can repair a hurting marriage, but both people are likely going to have to go to counseling and engage in a lot of difficult inner work. That’s wyrd. Yes, The Maker of Heaven and Earth will deal with climate change, but we have to make massive changes in a short time instead of simply shrugging our shoulders. That’s wyrd. Yes, the Shepherd cares what school my child attends, but will be there making any choice I make fruitful. That’s wyrd, too.
None of these things rest entirely on our shoulders, but neither are we allowed the comfort of inaction. We can take the best of free-will — the need to act — and the best of predestination — the comfort that there is a plan — and have them both. That’s wyrd.
Bart Hennigan has a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He completed Sewanne's Education for Ministry and is pursuing certification as a spiritual director through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When not reading or discussing philosophy and theology, Bart is a stay-at-home father of three, which has taught him much about patience and the importance of silence.