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What I’ve Learned About God from Writing Fiction: Free Will vs. Determinism

Updated: Apr 14

I began this year with a blog post about rest. Throughout the month of January, I rested aggressively and with intention. One of the things that rest means for me is reading really good novels. One of the things rest does for me is to return me to my baseline, my core self. And one stable trait of my baseline is creativity. So, in January, I read 3000 pages of novels. And in February, it came as no surprise that I started setting books aside to write another novel.

Since I’ve spent the last two months cranking out about 120,000 words, I have been deep in a flow state, which for me feels exciting, energizing, pleasurable, and deeply spiritual. (I also haven’t had as much time to keep up with this blog. My apologies.) In various conversations recently, I’ve encountered folks who are wrestling with knotty theological questions—two in particular. I realized that neither of these two questions has ever really bothered me, and the reason is embedded in my decades of experience as a writer of fiction.

The two questions are: 1.) Free Will vs. Determinism—Does God give us free will, or does God control everything that happens? And 2.) Love vs. Suffering—How can a loving God allow suffering?

You might notice that these questions are inextricably linked, and tied to the issue of God’s love vs. God’s power. See my recent blog post on dichotomous thinking for the difference between an “either/or” and a “both/and” approach to this issue, and why paradox tends to be more helpful than dichotomies.

But however we approach them, these are huge and important questions; many people have lost their faith in trying to answer them. Most attempts to answer these questions rely on logic, reason, and systematic theology. Sometimes, attempts at answers appeal to our emotions. None of these answers are perfect or complete, and some are far from compelling. But I want to try something different: I want to attempt an answer by discussing art, specifically the craft of writing.

This blog post got so long that I turned it into a two-parter. We’ll tackle the first question now, and you can check out my answer to the second question next week. But before I get started, I want to give three caveats:

1.) Not all religion or spirituality is theistic—that is, incorporates belief in a divine being or beings. I don’t think religion or spirituality must be theistic to be valuable—however, my spirituality is unapologetically theistic, and so I approach these questions with a basic assumption that there is a God or divine intelligent life force somewhere out there.

2.) This is not going to be a perfect analogy. I am quite aware that if you push it too far, it starts to break down. If you want a more precise and detailed answer to these questions, I recommend you explore resources on open and relational theology. For an easy intro, check out Thomas Jay Oord’s book, Open & Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas.

3.) I will be using she/her pronouns for God, because I think it’s good practice for all of us to stop associating God with patriarchy.

Question #1: Does God give us free will, or does God control everything that happens?

My stories start with an idea—a what if, an image, an emotion, a dream, or sometimes an interesting character or two I want to explore. From that initial spark, I start putting together a plot: this happens, then this happens, then this happens. I construct outlines of ever-increasing detail. A five-point outline of the whole story becomes a five-point outline of each of those five points, which becomes a list of chapters each with their own five-point outline, etc., etc. Then, as I get closer to actually writing, I break chapters down into scenes. Before I start writing a scene, I do a quick five-point outline of the scene so that I have at least a rough idea of where I’m starting, where I’m ending, and how I’m getting there. Then, and only then, do I actually start writing.

Let me just pause to say how much I love this process. It is so much fun.

So by the time I start writing a novel, I know what’s going to happen. I have made decisions—I have determined what happens from beginning to end. But in another very real sense, I have no idea how it’s all going to play out. I may set up a scene, and know where it needs to end to move the plot forward—but there are always surprises. It’s not until I sit down to write a scene word by word in a chronological flow that I actually learn what happens. And experientially, writing a scene doesn’t feel like consciously deciding each beat between the characters; it feels like discovering what is happening as it is happening. The characters themselves decide what to say; they show me how we get from A to B. This is what the artistic flow state feels like: I am just a vessel, and the story is flowing through me from somewhere else. And sometimes along the way, the ending changes, or something gives me a new idea, or a character shows me that they’re not entirely who I’d thought they were, and something new unfolds that I wasn’t expecting. Sometimes, this means going back to my outlines and shifting things around to accommodate for the change. There is a better person for this character to fall in love with, I learn; that character is the one who would make the sacrifice, I realize, not anyone else. And so the plot changes. (The biblical word for this, by the way, is repent—to change your mind or course of action, a verb often applied to God in the Old Testament.)

This is what Oord describes as jazz, as opposed to classical music. The musicians improvise. It happens in real time. No one knows exactly what notes they will play, or how their musical choices will influence one another—but everyone knows the beat and the key, and everyone knows you’re going to resolve to the dominant chord in the end.

Okay, let’s apply this to God and the flow of history.

The existence of prophecy in the Bible and in other religious traditions has me fairly convinced that God has a plan—a plot, some basic idea of where the universe is going and how She is going to get us all there. But God, like the leader of the jazz band, has also turned over free will to us as musicians—participants in creation, or co-creators. And She is responsive to our free will—more than responsive; exquisitely attuned to every tiny little shift in this vast, endlessly complex, interconnected web called existence. She shapes the music or the story by Her own free choices, but each of our choices is woven into the whole. And it’s happening in real time. The writer sees the whole story with all its parts, but can only experience the story unfolding in real time. God isn’t sitting outside of time, arranging it all like Lego pieces on a board; God is in the story, experiencing it with us, word by word and moment by moment.

This is one way of talking about immanence and transcendence, theological words for a God who is close, near, present, and within each vibrating atom of creation, or a God who is above, outside of, far beyond, and greater than the entirety of the universe. Most traditional theologies I’ve studied claim God is both—but the emphasis is on transcendence, a powerful God outside of time and existence. Progressive theologies I’ve explored in more recent years shift the emphasis to immanence, an intimate God who is closer to you than your own breath.

As characters in the story, we have free will. But our free will is limited by context and environment, structures that are the aggregate result of the free choices of others—God Herself included. My character, upon arriving at a place, can choose to stay or leave—but he cannot change whom or what he finds there, and he cannot choose to simply appear on the moon instead. His free will is real, but it is restricted both by the choices of others and the laws of the natural world (time, space, gravity, etc.).

Our own natures—both our basic human nature and our unique identities or personalities formed by the interaction of genes and experience—are another force restricting our free will. I can easily predict many of my characters’ choices based on their nature, just like I can predict that, if given the choice between eating jelly beans or having her hair washed, my three-year-old will choose jelly beans every time. Is predicting her choice the same as controlling her choice? No—but that prediction is an important part of parenting, and influences the choices I offer her based on the outcomes I know are best for her.

This leads me to another point.

My experience as a writer (and a parent) leads me to believe that God is not a passive recipient of our free will, but rather a dynamic influence upon us.

God does not coerce—but God most certainly woos. And this divine wooing, this beautiful, loving enticement, shapes the story toward what I as a writer would call satisfying conclusions. Multiply this by the infinite number of points along that vast, endlessly complex, interconnected web called existence, and you may start to get a glimpse of the incomprehensible artistry of God taking place all around us in the unfolding of time—an incredible story, an improvisational concert, a work of art in constant motion.

It may help to think of God’s influence on our free will as more like the responses of an artist than the machinations of a scientist. The universe isn’t some elaborate experiment set up in a perfectly controlled laboratory environment, where God tweaks each stimulus to produce the exact response God wants. The universe more like a work of art responding to the expert gestures of a master artist. My sister made a beautiful painting for my daughter before she was born. Long after it was done, my sister confessed that the dragon’s hindquarters hadn’t turned out exactly as she’d planned, and it threw off the look, so she painted a cluster of rocks to cover the offending hind legs and tail. Her artistic choice was guided by the unexpected—and the finished product was wonderful, even though she couldn’t have predicted every detail of it.

This is how I reconcile free will and determinism—in a “both/and” paradox where they co-exist in perfect balance, the way I have experienced it as a writer: God is writing a story; She gives us a will as free as Her own, but countless factors influence, limit, and shape our free will. To explore whether or not I believe God’s free will has any limits, we’ll turn to the second question—love and suffering—which you can read here next week.

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