If my computer does what it has been programmed to do, it is not being “good” in the sense in which we would generally use the word. It is simply doing that which, as a mechanical matter, it has been set up to do. If a honey bee stings someone who has disturbed the nest, losing its stinger and dying in the process, has it been brave and virtuous? Not really. Bravery implies overcoming fear by conscious choice. The honey bee is set up to sting intruders, and has no need to make a choice in the matter. If my dog risks harm to herself by attacking someone who is attacking me, is my dog behaving bravely, and should I be grateful? Yes, for my dog knows fear and will normally avoid danger, but in this case she has chosen to face danger for my sake. She has done a good and virtuous thing. It is the ability to choose NOT to do good that makes the choice to do good virtuous.
Likewise, of the computer, the bee and the dog, it is only the dog who will FEEL virtuous. She will be rightfully pleased with herself for having done a good thing. The ability to experience the bliss that comes from virtuous action is thus dependent upon the ability to choose to take an action that is not virtuous. In order to reap the personal benefit of alignment with God, we must have the ability to fall out of alignment. In order to achieve Heaven, we must be free to choose Hell.
There is an irony in the story of Adam and Eve that is generally lost. Before the fall, Adam and Eve lived a pleasant and simple life in the Garden of Eden, eating the fruits as the monkeys did and having no cares, making no choices. The serpent tempted Eve to make a choice, to choose between obedience to God’s command or disobedience. In choosing to disobey, Eve and Adam invented sin and were cast out of their simple paradise. My children have asked why God, being a good and all knowing God, would allow this to happen. It seems a difficult question, but the answer becomes clear once one sees the deeper meaning in this simple story. Adam and Eve lost the paradise of the Garden of Eden when they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but in so doing they obtained a chance for a much greater paradise, for it was only by choosing evil that they developed the ability to choose good. They gained the ability to rise to greater heights of bliss than the simpler animals in the Garden, but only at the great cost of living in a world of hardship and difficult choices. The paradise lost was the price they paid for the chance to find the greater paradise of true alignment with God.
Does it make sense that Adam and Eve could actually have found the key to paradise by being thrown out of the Garden? It does if you examine the evidence. Consider first the case of people who try to find artificial bliss through drugs. There are drugs that give a person a strong feeling of exhilaration or pleasure, temporarily. They use the chemicals to give themselves a feeling of pleasure disconnected from the mental and spiritual foundations – love, joy in accomplishment, pleasure in a good deed – that normally give rise to happiness. Drug addicts thus provide an experiment showing what might happen if we were endowed with the ability to experience a constant stream of pleasant feelings while living the simple, choice-free life of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Addicts, however, are not happy people. The drugs take away their ability to be normal, functioning members of society, people who do good things and devote themselves to love. Without this ability, the artificial stimulation of the drug does not provide happiness. Their lives become empty and soulless. Their attention becomes fixed on the craving for the drug, for they have nothing else. A hollow life of chemical joy is not bliss. An artificial feeling of joy, separated from the spiritual sense of love and goodness that are its natural accompaniment, cannot take the place of a life well lived. While Adam and Eve lived simple lives in the Garden, God could not just flip a happy switch in their brains and grant them the full experience of spiritual rapture, because goodness – the conscious exercise of the choice to be good – is part of the essence of that rapture. Without that spiritual component, mere chemical pleasure is but a teasing shadow of the real joy that only goodness can bring. It is a discontented pleasure with a sting its tail. Like Alice, the person who finds pleasure in a pill is given a glimpse into a beautiful garden, but they cannot figure out how to reach the key that would let them walk the flowered pathways, and the frustrated longing they feel is greater than that of someone who had never glimpsed the garden at all.
We feel this intuitively. It is, for example, the underlying force behind the movie Pleasantville. Pleasantville is a town where no one is bad or cross, with no crime or struggles. The movie’s heroes, like Lucifer, introduce sin into the pleasant paradise, giving rise to unpleasantness, but at the same time allowing the inhabitants to find true happiness.
Consider next the animals of the field, who live their lives feeding and frisking about, without choices or ethical quandaries. Are they happy? A frolicking lamb in the field is certainly happier than a pitiful veal calf in a dark crate, yet few of us would view most animals as having the same positive capacity for real happiness that humans have. The sheep in the field may feel content, but real happiness requires more than that. Prisoners in minimum security prisons may be safe and have all the necessities of life, just as the sheep does, yet we believe that they are being punished. Why? Because the ingredients for animal contentment are not enough for beings who have the capacity for real happiness. We feel that a life of simple material comfort, without choices to make or the chance for love, is no life at all for a human being. The very essence of the human soul is its capacity for choice, and to experience the pleasure or pain that flows from choosing wisely or badly. Without the freedom of choice there is no passion, no fire, just a cold mechanical existence. We know from the depths of our souls that this is a fate to be dreaded, no matter how safe and simple it may be, for it is a life without the opportunity to know love, to know God. It is not life enough for us. Our religious understanding must incorporate this instinctive knowledge. A Christian life must be one of choice and feeling, not shelter and control.
Thus, our spiritual nature is dependent upon free will. This concept of free will, and the fact that true virtue is dependent upon the existence of free will, lies at the heart of many of the most difficult questions of religion. Further, an understanding of the concept is essential to progress in thinking about religious questions, because it is by understanding the role of free will that one may come to understand the importance of free thought. Free will implies a responsibility to make correct choices, and nobody, not even God, can relieve a person who has free will from that responsibility. This is a tremendous burden. We fear the consequences of choice, seeking a thousand ways to shift responsibility to someone else. “I don’t have control over that.” “He told me to do it.” “She led me astray.” “The Bible says you have to, so I can’t question it.” “I’m a product of my society.” “I was just following orders.” All these excuses burst like so many bubbles when pricked by one simple truth, that all actions or failures to act involve choice, and that the only one who can choose your actions is you. You are irrevocably responsible for your own choices, and so you, not some other authority, must think things through and pick the right choice. We may feel at times like we stand blindfolded upon a precipice of choice. If we step the wrong way we will fall into disaster, and we can’t see which way to step. Fortunately, there are aids that can lift the blindfold and help us find the path. The foremost of these is an understanding of the principle of connection, which will be addressed in my next article.