The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Synergy: An Essential Piece to a Universalist Theodicy

I think a case can be made that if one understands the concept of syngery, it can go a long way to giving a solution to some of the difficulties in a universalist theodicy.

To put it simply, syngery or syngergism is the idea that God has left a certain amount of what goes on in the universe up to his creatures and their free choices. For example, the fall (for those who believe in it) was conditional upon what Adam and Eve chose to do. Or to be more trivial: whether or not you do well on an exam will depend in large part upon how much studying you put into it.

Now a key in understanding syngery completely is knowing that God himself, even before the various free acts of his creatures are made, has decided from all eternity what the particular effects of those free acts will be. The creatures do not unilaterally determine the consequences of their choices. For instance, it is God who has decided if you don’t study well for an exam (unless you happen to be a particular genius), you will not do as well as you could. Likewise with the fall. God, then, has “predetermined” or “predestined” the consequences of various freely performed acts, many of which (all?) are not perfectly foreseen by the actor. I think this is the most consistent and logical way to understand predestination.

What is so often missed in theodicies and talks of free will is the fact that neither the creature, nor God, singly determine the outcome of an event that involves the free choice of the creature. What this entails is that we are all the time trying to understand the consequences of sin and righteousness from an “either-or” perspective. We look at an event and say “why didn’t God prevent that from happening” or “look at the good God has done”. But if syngerism is true, then there are certain events in which it is incomplete to say only what God or what his free creation as done. Both God and the free agent contribute to the making of the unique, otherwise impossible event. Which waterdrop comes together to form the streak on the windowpane? When two soldiers are leaning against one another’s back, which one holds the other up? God is obviously “logically prior” to his creation, but one of the abilities he has given it is to be co-creators with him; to be actual, real agents. This involves a setting aside of his omnipotence and his ability to unilaterally determine the course of whatever events he has left up to this cooperative act.

The “story” of the universe, then, involves decisions and courses of events which are really up to the freedom of his creatures. On this view, we can clearly see that events which go on “outside” in the real world are up to us. Whether or not I do well on the exam is in large part up to me. And whether or not I’m late for work depends on if I wake up early in time. We can easily understand, then, that for our freedom to be real, there must be established, determinate consequences attached to our acts. Here an essential point in the doctrine of freedom is misunderstood by many people. Having freedom does NOT mean that every single act we perform, along with every consequence, is up to our freedom. Each choice itself DEPENDS on certain factors which are not, themselves, freely chosen. If I choose to smoke, I cannot also choose to avoid a loss in lung function and maybe cancer. So having “free will” does not mean having freedom with respect to everything. Indeed, having freedom concerning everything would be the same thing as not having freedom at all. Imagine a world in which not only my acts, but also the consequences of them were totally up to my free choice. It may at first not look so bad. Perhaps you think you’d choose to eat all the foods you like and still be in top physical shape. Or maybe you’d want to have riches and therefore not need to work. But what about your very sense of happiness? What if your very value system was such that it itself depended on your choice? That is, say in the middle of eating a delicious apple you thought “should I go on finding this delicious”? Or, while warmly thinking of someone you love, think “should I go on getting pleasure out of loving this person”? Soon, you see, we would lose all motive to choose anything at all. In fact we would go mad. If we do not start off with intial desires – with an initial constitution and tendency – our choices would never get off the ground.

And here is where I think the doctrine of syngery can answer some of Universalism’s biggest challenges. Some of the “effects” which are not up to us have to do with our character or personality – in fact, with our conciousness itself. The same way in which a person exercises his muscles and thereby builds strength, so too a person who makes choices builds his own self. But the difference – the crucial difference – is this: God has determined our minds such that even our bad acts can build for us good characters.

This is really seen most plainly in our feelings of guilt and shame. We choose to sin and yet we later feel bad about it. Do we really think that this feeling bad is itself something we have chosen? We may have freely chosen to “give the last word” in an argument, not to win it, but simply to give one last hurtful quip. “You would say that; just look at what you did to so and so.” This evil act is what we choose. The further remorse, the sinking feeling afterward, is not. I think that’s just the way God has determined our free acts to effect us. If we would have resisted that last quip, we would never have felt the bad feelings. That, too, is a law of our consciousness which God has determined. But these laws are organic in the sense that their manifestation is not unlilaterally determined by God. They are determined by him in terms of the raw “datum” or consequential result, but what acts within those laws, I believe, and what causes one effect rather than another to occur, is our freedom.
Now, it will help in passing to say that we are always making such free choices which, little by little, go to “form” for us our character. Thus it may actually be the case that the last quip in the example above was not itself freely performed. It may have come from an ALREADY MADE character. We may have already, slowly but surely, by degrees ever so small, been freely giving in to feelings of resentment, jealousy, and hatred. And one of the consequences of that may be the sort of character that, when in such a situation, prefers to make the quip. Like the alcoholic, eventually after so many drinks he no longer freely chooses what he does. The fact he has gotten do drunk, however, comes from his initial choice. This, by the way, is exactly what I think happened in the case of Peter and Jesus. Jesus was able to predict Peter’s denial because he was able to see just what sort of person he had freely become. In this way, then, does predestination operate. God does not predetermine the acts of us except insofar as he has predetermined what sort of people we will become, if we make such choices. The “if’s” are up to the freedom of the creature; the effects have been determined by God. (That of course doesn’t mean God wants a creature to be bad!) It may not be possible to say exactly when we are no longer free, but it is safe to say – indeed I think experience vouches for us all here – that we experience our freedom and bondage in varying degrees. The essential point to remember is not “at what exact point” this occurs (which may not be possible for our senses to detect), but simply that it does occur. Libertarian freedom gives way to compatibilist freedom. (This, by the way, makes a lot of sense of certain things happening to us which dramatically change our psychology: you’ll notice often someone with a brush with death will have an irresistible new appreciation of life. This feeling is not something he “freely chose” to have.)

Here, then, is the saving grace (no pun intended) of the above kind of syngery and universalism. God has determined that certain types of free acts will ultimately result in what Tom Talbott has called a “trump card”. To put it simply: whether or not we are saved, come to a true and full knowledge of ourselves and God, or are reconciled to him does not depend on which free choice we make. The road getting there certainly does. We can make it easier or harder, both on ourselves and those we love. But God has placed a sort of safety net for those who are obstinate.?

If we can believe the feelings of guilt we have when we sin are graces from God, conscious states which we cannot control but which nevertheless are “part of us” because we really have contributed to their existence by freely sinning, then we can believe that there is a point at which God similarly overwhelms the sinner with the truth of his horrid condition such that resistance is no longer possible. The time for libertarian freedom in such moments is over, and the time for compatibilist freedom has given way. George MacDonald, and also, I believe, Tom Talbott, think this final state just before the irresistible trump card is the “Outer Darkness”. That seems to me very likely. I think it may also be the “aeonian lake of fire”. But whatever we call it, the effect is the same. A sort of libertarianly driven, compatibilist transformation such that the sinner is sorry for his sins, sees himself as a sinner, and is reconciled to God irresistibly, but it is none the less himselfdoing these things because his freedom is what has given rise to this new conscious state of mind.

(Even here, though, we may should say more. For isn’t it the case that, for all those in heaven who are no longer tempted to sin, God has already determined them to have this sort of character based on their prior acts?)

The main objection to this doctrine is that it seems to imply that God could have, from the very beginning, ensured that none of his creatures ever sinned by always playing the trump card. But this objection – which I used to find convincing – stems from not really understanding the doctrine of syngery. That is, God’s decision regarding what cards He plays is dependent on what his free creatures do. So he couldn’t have “just played” the trump card from the get go unless he didn’t want a synergistic creation.

The last question then is why he apparently did want one. I think it’s because ultimately, if God had determined every event his creation did, the creation would be functionally equivalent to his own self; it would entail pantheism, and the idea of “personhood” would be meaningless in such a universe. If I hold my hand over a child’s and force it to draw exactly what it is I want, I have robbed that child of any agency concerning the picture. In fact the child has not drawn anything for me at all. I have simply drawn something for myself. Now imagine not only the child’s hand, but its mental states, its intentionality, its very consciousness was similarly controlled by me. Would not the child as a separate person cease to exist altogether?

There are partial answers to why God wants a syngeristic creation – such as “it is the only way love is possible”. But these really only hover around this deeper point. God, I think, wants to create rational beings separate from himself, which are true agents, real live souls and identities. This is why he allows our freedom to partially shape the story of both the universe and our own psyches. If it did not shape anything, what would we in fact be? It is not so much that love, goodness, or joy aren’t possible without libertarian freedom constantly fueling them. It is that there would not be an actual soul, an independent center of consciousness, to be aware of them and metaphysically connect to them and identify itself with them. After all, if all events were determined, not only our outward acts but our inward states of consciousness, would it even be possible to distinguish between ourselves and anything else? If we never experienced ourselves causing anything, could we have any idea of ourself, or any idea of something else – be it God or another soul? m not so sure we could. It seems I only know I am not another because there are certain acts going on which I have not caused or “contributed to”. If there is no difference between “I am doing this” and “this is happening to me” is it even possible to formulate the concept of “myself”? What is true of the physical world seems to me equally true of the spiritual. All the grace and love that flow through me may no doubt be dependent on certain things I do, but at the same time I am not the root cause of these things anymore than the fact that I am breathing makes me the cause of oxygen. As Tom Talbott and Lewis have suggested, freedom it seems is an essential element to the emergence of self-conscious beings.

Another and perhaps simpler way to defend the reason behind God’s syngery is to say that God wants it because he wants a universe in which important things really DO depend on individual beings. Thus it is not freedom as such which is valuable in his eyes; but the ability to do great good, and subsequently great evil. It is not the freedom to simply choose names for your children; but the ability to abundantly bless posterity or coldy curse them – to make their lives easier or harder. It is not the ability of choosing chocolate cake or vanilla for desert, but in being able to provide supper itself for those who depend on you. It seems no more possible to be able to do the one good thing without simultaneously entailing the ability to do something bad. For is it possible for someone to really do great good unless the opposite (not doing great good) is possible? And what can be the opposite of “not doing great good” but something “less good” – i.e. something evil?

These, then, are my thoughts concerning synergy and how I think understanding that actual conscious states themselves are the syngeristic result of our freedom** and God’s predestining will; and how he has not made the universe such that the final result of any of our free acts is eternal hell or annihilation. The consciousness of one who experienced the outer darkness will no doubt be different in heaven than the one who didn’t need such punishment, but the two will still be in a final state of union with God. Their “looking back” over their lives will be different; their roads may involve an infinite variation, what makes up their heaven, will no doubt be different mental images (and won’t everyone’s? The man with no children will have a different heaven than the man with twelve). But everyone’s destination, I believe, will be the same.

**by “our” freedom I mean the whole creation’s. I believe we inherit much of our psychological tendency genetically. I therefore believe that our conscious states are not only the result of our individual freedom. We are impacted by the whole history of our race. This can be seen even on a small scale: the young man who’s father is abusive or absent may be prone to fits of recklessness or violence.

Edit - I want to say that I think the Fall may be an instance in which our wills are compatibilistically affected by the libertarian choices of another, so much so that we may all unavoidably sin. But I think at the same time that we are thus “able” to be so connected and affected by Adam (and others) because we are all really somehow connected to one another. We really are one; we really are the same. I do believe all the deep expositions of original sin have taken note of us sinning “in” Adam, however they’ve tried to explain it (eg legal fiction). The view I’ve expressed above seeks to explicate the consequences of St. Paul’s belief.

And here is where Paul clearly states our synergistic relationship with God:

Thanks Paidion,

I also like (although I don’t know Greek - perhaps you could translate?): “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you.”

Some Lewis:

The Bible really seems to clinch the matter when it puts the two things together into one amazing sentence. The first half is, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”—which looks as if everything depended on us and our good actions: but the second half goes on, “For it is God who worketh in you”—which looks as if God did everything and we nothing. I am afraid that is the sort of thing we come up against in Christianity. I am puzzled, but I am not surprised. You see, we are now trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does when God and man are working together. And, of course, we begin by thinking it is like two men working together, so that you could say, “He did this bit and I did that.” But this way of thinking breaks down. God is not like that. He is inside you as well as outside: even if we could understand who did what, I do not think human language could properly express it.

Sorry I’ve been so long in replying, Chris. I think that verse is a good example of synergy. It takes both parts separately, “Work out your own salvation” and “It is God who works in you”. But that does not mean that the two parts ARE separate. We work out (or “work toward” is possible translation) our own salvation, yet at the same time God is working in us to bring it about!

This verse can be used to oppose either “salvation by works” (we do everything) and Augustinism/Calvinism (God does everything).
But it cannot be used to support either of the above, when taken as a whole.

Is this all tied up in the knowledge of good and evil? Do we correctly understand what is called “the fall”? These are questions which have been going around in my mind of late. How is this tied up with morality and consciousness? Do I believe in even a limited form of evolution in which humankind became progressively more sentinent or what was actually going on in the garden of Eden surrounding forbidden fruit? So is the knowlege of good and evil essential to sentience? Was prohibition issued because God knew that He alone could handle the morality issue and that our forbears would therfore land in the proverbial poo by going down that road? And then, here we have the issue of synergy brought up which could lead me to think that the development of millions of individual moral identities was really the objective of God from the beginning? This is a very interesting line of thought - Thanks for bringing it up.

All great questions Chris. Of course I don’t know the answers, but here are some immediate thoughts.

The doctrine of the fall to me serves primarily a practical purpose: explaining the current state of the universe, or at least our planet, with all its evolutionary aspects of life preying on life in sometimes torturous fashion, and also - very importantly - our collective psychological nature as human beings; that is, our selfishness, greed, ambition, etc. As Lewis says in what I believe the best chapter ever written on the fall, we observe a pretty messed up existence both within us and around us (at least, it could be a great deal better) - surely it didn’t come straight out of the all good and all perfects hands this way? Surely this is not what qas originally “very good” in his sight? I’d recommend, by the way, rereading that chapter in Problem of Pain. It can be found here: … 14746.html

That, anyway, is the purpose of the fall: to explain all the evils “embedded” in life now or there by “default” by taking the free will defense and spreading it out over an entire race and planet and among different species and perhaps even to supernatural beings.

And I think its important to stop here and really think about how wide an application this can have. My own opinion is that intellectuals today are extremely narrow minded in this area. For instance, we suppose the fall to be impossible because fossil records show death has been reigning on this planet for millions of years long mankind came around. But why suppose death to have been an evil? Is it impossible to believe that death - that is the cessation of sentient and nonsentient life on this planet - is not intrinsically bad? If we were perfect people, or if our consciousness was radically different (ie unfallen) would not death be something that we in a healthy way looked forward to if it meant a closer union of ourselves with our all beautiful creator? Funerals would then become celebrations. We would not weep but rejoice for our loved ones when they passed away. Our whole mental state would preclude the idea of grief. It would simply never enter our minds. And as far as physical pain went, such a different mind governing our bodies may have allowed for such psychic abilities to drastically lessen painful sensations. Even today you hear of people able to “block out” what would be unbearable pain to the average person. So “the fall” is something I think which can be much more creatively understood than it had been historically. Unlike many on this board I take the doctrine to be the only viable explanation that saves God from being the author of evil or introducing Dualism.

One of the issues that makes this topic so complex - and therefore all the topics related to it, like free will and the problem of evil - is that we really don’t understand what consciousness is and how it works. If we are indeed dealing with a thing that has an immaterial something as its primary “operator”, then we can hardly be surprised. This is why, I believe, we are often driven to assert apparently contradictory statements regarding consciousness itself: we have free will, and yet we’re also partly determined; God can irresistibly cause us to do certain things or feel certain ways, yet it is still us doing and feeling; etc. I think the doctrine of synergy can go a long way in clearing these things up because it posits a complementarity which is apparently excluded when we trying to think or categorize things - particularly events or “effects” that go on in the world or in ourselves/consciousness - in either or terms. It would be like asking “who caused the driver to die in the car crash?” Well, the driver was speeding, so that contributed to the event. But also he was only able to be speeding because the company called Ford has made automobiles capable of going that fast. The word “cause” then often gets treated in this either/or fashion which precludes from the outset any sort of symbiotic relationship. Certainly there are things we do and things that God does, but the explanation of events and what goes on - that is of reality itself - is incoherent if it doesn’t include BOTH agents. The above about the car crash is a good example I think of how God may have set up the universe. He has, so to speak, eternally decided to bring about certain consequences depending on the acts of his creatures. Some of those consequences are, evidently, unimaginably horrific. But two things may save us from despair. A) we can at least try to hold as an article of faith that God has not established the “rules” such that things can get irrevocably bad; and b) may it not be that evil and its consequences HAVE to look somewhat “totally unacceptable”? Anything less than that would not really be, well, evil would it?

I also think synergism allows us to say how it is that free will can be maintained along with guaranteed universalism: we contribute synergistically to our actual states of consciousness. So if we hold that no act of ours will ever serve to cause us an eternally irreparable state of consciousness, we can then believe that there is some sort of final backstop for souls in which their bad choices actually cause in themselves an irresistible state of final or “solidified” repentance. This, by the way, is nothing different than what we all have experienced on a smaller scale. When we feel remorse or guilt, not even the staunchest, thoroughgoing libertarian who has not the smallest compatibilist bone could maintain we caused THAT. We chose and caused the sin; God graciously caused the contrition.

Just some thoughts for now. Would love your reflections!

Thanks Chris, Rereading CSL on the fall reminded me that some of his thoughts were reflected in his trilogy SF Pre/Post Landra and that Hideous Strength. I read them too long ago to recall though I remember the discourse between the woman and Satan on Venus was lengthy and tortuous. I am not sure I find myself agreeing with Lewis’s description of paradisal man. it looks like a flight of fancy to me which allows him to flesh out conclusions which may or may not fit. He does not address the issue of the knowledge of good and evil which I tend to think is important in this context. I look forward to the thoughts of others. I do believe the notion of synergy is a helpful one and explains to some degree the way that God is at work in us for HIs good pleasure (and our benefit).