T. Talbott’s Conception of Human Experience

This post is a continuation from my last post, which deals with the worldview of a Christian Universalist in his book, “The Inescapable Love of God.” Although this is not a particularly popular or well known book, this kind of thinking invades much of contemporary Christian thought, even if unitentionally or unknowingly. It can be incredibly dangerous, as will hopefully be demonstrated. My posts will break down Talbott’s worldview, dealing with aspects such as Non-Ultimate reality (my last post), Human Experience (this post), Salvation (future post), and Ultimate Reality (future post).

 

Before Talbott’s assumptions about Ultimate reality and Salvation are examined his notion of human existence will be analyzed. Any study of a particular concept of human experience can be broken down into two sub parts, human freedom and human failure. (Holmes) Each unique worldview offers, consciously or unconsciously, an account of human freedom along with an account of human failure. The worldview proposed by Talbott in his book The Inescapable Love of God is no different. However to help develop this his understanding of specifically an additional work of Talbott’s will be used. This work is a journal article published in the Reformed Journal during February 1983. The title of the article is “On predestination, reprobation, and the love of God.” This article will be of service as a supplement to understand Talbott’s thoughts on both human freedom and human failure.

The focus of Talbott’s article “On predestination, reprobation, and the love of God” is not primarily on the free will and failure of man but whether or not “there are persons whom God could redeem but chooses for one reason or another not to redeem.” (p. 12) As such the primary concern in the article for Talbott is the nature or God and his love. Nonetheless Talbott does make some fairly straightforward comments regarding human freedom in the opening stages of his article. He does this both positively and negatively, that is he makes a few positive statements of belief as well as vehemently denies at least one conception of human freedom. Though published in the Reformed Journal Talbott puts the Reformed doctrine of predestination under heavy fire. Defining the Reformed doctrine of predestination in John Calvin’s words as follows, “God’s eternal decree, by which he determined with himself what he willed to become of each man…Therefore, as any man has been created to one or another of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.” This is so abhorrent to Talbott that he calls accuses followers of the Reformed tradition of “attributing Satanic qualities to God” and “confusing the Father in heaven” with “the Devil himself.” Talbott continues to offer a positive statement about what conception of free will he affirms. “For the record, I am a libertarian, to be sure, though not quite as confident a libertarian as I once was.” The libertarian conception of free will understands man’s will as strictly uncaused. Though God may perhaps influence a person’s choices that person’s will is ultimately free.

With this foundation laid, it is much easier to discern Talbott’s sayings in The Inescapable Love of God. The very first thing Talbott does as he begins to address human freedom in his book is to articulate what he calls the “limits of omnipotent power.” In this his thesis is that “not even God can causally determine our free choices.”(pg. 170) He elaborates in the following pages on what in means for human persons to be free. The definition Talbott settles on is that an action is only free if the performer of the action could have not performed the action. In other words had the ability to do something other than what was done. To leave the conversation here would run the risk of over simplifying Talbott’s point however. Consider the following,

For according to (William Lane) Craig, God willingly permits irreparable harm

to befall at least some of his loved ones, and my own view (Talbott’s) carries

no such implication. To the contrary, I assume that God permits no evil, however horrendous it may appear to us in the present, that he cannot eventually turn to

good; he permits no harm to befall his loved ones that he cannot in the end repair.

I also assume that, given a long stretch of time, the Hound of Heaven can over

come all obstacles that our wrong choices present and can thus achieve all his

redemptive purposes; in that respect, he is like the grand chessmaster who, though exercising no direct causal control over the moves of a novice, is nonetheless

able to checkmate the novice in the end. (183)

 

Through this illustration Talbott’s proposal becomes clear. Human failure is a constant turning away from God and continually acting in a fashion that is contrary to his will. This portion is consistent with the classical Christian conception of human failure. Human freedom is a rather nuanced understanding of humans’ ability to act or not act according to their own will, while all the time God rules supreme, accomplishing his purpose in the world without infringing upon mankind’s freedom.

In responding to Talbott’s thoughts on human existence there is a new objection unique to his conception of human existence as well as one old one which pertains to his entire worldview. First as has been raised already, throughout Talbott’s writings he assumes God’s love is identical in kind and degree to human love. Successfully refuting this notion, would essentially deal a crippling blow to the foundation of Talbott’s worldview. Secondly, perhaps the most serious objection, is that it appears that Talbott simply wants to have it both ways. This is to say that Talbott wants to assign absolute autonomy and freedom to humanity while all the while assigning a high degree of sovereignty to God. Referring back to the text quoted earlier, Talbott states that he assumes “God permits no evil” that he cannot in the end use to ultimately serve his (God’s) redemptive action. However returning back to the analogy Talbott offers, the chessmaster has no “causal control over the novice.” So which is it? Stating that God would not allow any evil he could not use to further his purpose implies there is evil that God is not permitting or allowing. Yet clearly Talbott states humans have ultimate freedom to both perform an action or refrain from performing that action. Again referring to Talbott’s own analogy, its not the the chessmaster is only permitting the novice to make moves that will eventually lead to accomplishing the purpose of the chessmaster, that is in the analogy putting the novice in checkmate. Rather the chessmaster merely responds to any and all moves the novice makes, by default permitting all of them. Now perhaps Talbott is merely being misunderstood and what he really means to say is that there is nothing (no action of any kind) that a person could perform, or neglect to perform, that God could not use for his redemptive purpose. But such a response only raises to new errors. First such a statement would seemingly remove all necessity for both moral development as well as moral living. However even more importantly it is questionable that on this view evil even exist. At the very least, given this response Talbott’s conception of evil would seem closer to a pantheistic notion of evil rather than a traditional Christian understanding. Given these objections, most particularly Talbott’s confusion of human freedom and God’s sovereignty, his notion of human experience does not seem coherent or sufficient.

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