Unfinished Abstract Thoughts on Love for Disorganized Times: Towards a Definition of Love

For some strange reason, in times such as these—where I feel perpetually bored to paralysis—I find my disorganized thoughts percolating between the fine borders of love and hate. I think myself into thinking that ambiguous ambivalence is, perhaps, the only road worth taking. I claim to know nothing at all—so I write about love. In a time such as this—where my mind is freely floating, carelessly caressing the oft-cited phrases of lover’s past—I awake to discover disentangled thoughts in disorganized times. In other words, I weasel-word my way into everything and anything—that being love.

I guess love needs no introduction, but I would like to pontificate, as always. In fact, pontificating on the subject seems to be the only thing I am currently capable of doing. I am, as a human being—by all means—incapable of loving. Which is why I find love such a bothersome and curious thing.

By all means, do forgive me! Language is incompetent where rhymes are necessary. I should have been a poet—then, and only then, would I have turned out to be a perfect lover.

I do sincerely hate languages. They are such an obtuse means of reaching something so profound as…love. I mean, you spend so much time deliberating about a subject in a language that is foreign to it. Love is—Oh, God, here I go again! (using words that don’t make much sense)—continuously evading definition.

So I won’t even try—but I will.

I must confess, my own obsession with the subject began a long time ago—before time began. In other words, before time immemorial. I was quite a regular child, nothing spectacular in my own childhood. Nobody—and I do mean nobody—would have thought that I would turn out the way I did. As a child, I spent most of my time building things, running around (like most boys do), getting dirty, and finding the opposite sex morbidly disgusting—but secretly fascinating. They were—and probably are—an entirely different species, of a different stock than men. I enjoyed sports up until about middle school. Somewhere in my early teenage years, I had begun reading more books than necessary. In fact, even while I was twelve years of age, I would finish reading assigned books light-years ahead of the entire class. Eventually I phased out assigned readings and began reading whatever interested me. By high school, I would be awarded all kinds of awards in the field of the “humanities.” By sixteen, in a single year of high school, I managed to check out six hundred forty books. It may have been two years of high school, this I cannot clearly remember.

At this point, one begins to wonder what it was that I was reading. To be frankly honest, most of my readings were in fiction. However, sometime around fifteen, I had begun reading scholarly literature, psychology, philosophy, etc.

And, inevitably, I fell in love. Sweet, sweet love.

I don’t exactly remember what it was that made be become so attracted to this one particular blonde girl in my class. She had big green eyes. Maybe that did it. I fell in love—madly. I wrote her a poem and had it published in some anthology. Unfortunately, after a bit of searching, I could not locate it. Whatever. This too shall pass.

I remember one particular day, in a health class, when I seen my friend writing something that resembled a poem. He kept looking in the direction of, well, my affectionate one. Apparently I wasn’t the only guy in class writing her poems. After that, I decided that if two people loved the same girl, I would be the first one to back out. And I did.

The only thing is that I never really stopped liking her. I still had to sit next to her in class. And so I became obsessed with love and romance, marriage and sex. In other words, I hit puberty.

At this point in my life, I had begun reading literature on love, lots of literature. I mastered marriage, sex, and pregnancy. I read books and even had begun writing my own approaches and thoughts on love. By the time I was sixteen, I had decided I would publish books on love and that my first book—appropriately titled “The Battle for Love”—would become a bestseller. The book—err, the 5-page gibberish document—luckily never saw the light of day, the ink of print, or the pixels of a blog. (Thank. God.)

I was, and continue to be, a thoughtless and eccentrically horrible writer. An elite few like to read anything I write—but only the insane trod that path (to quote myself—another characteristically megalomaniacal trait of mine).

After my non-existent literary agent failed to publish my fifteen-year-old mind’s magnum opus, I vanished into seclusion. And remained there until—today. (I’m eternally glad that you found me, you!) I discovered—and continued to reinforce—the correct view that one writes only after one has mastered a subject. But—due to the fossilized remnants of my postlapsarian genes—I tend to carry the remains of my ancestor’s “fallen nature,” so I often do enjoy having my cake and eating it too. Today sounds like a good day for cake, don’t you think so?

I shall write about love—though I have yet to “master” the subject.

Ah, where should I begin? Where will my thoughts lead me?

At this point in time, I have this to say about love: do it or do not do it, you shall regret both. Whether one loves or does not love matters not—one ends up regretting either choice.

I have regretted, and continue to regret…nothing. I am an anomaly. This is probably because I tend to be somewhat hopeful in a very sadistic way. Life is good. That is my motto.

But I do think about regret. I think about the possibility of regretting. What if I were to regret this or that situation? I ask myself these sorts of questions all the time. What if this girl—this particular girl, no, that one—were to be my lover? What if we wrote books together and talked ourselves through sleep? What if… God, I do live in the subjunctive mood…

I have become somewhat particular about my thinking on love. I have become what some may call a “subjectivist.” For me, as I believe it is for everyone, love is a subjective thing. One must—and I do mean must—refrain from resorting to scientific thinking on the subject. Oh, do not get me wrong, one could read the literature, but one must never forget that the subject at hand—love, that is—is never to be confused for something objective, something to be reduced by science’s all-grasping claws. We can examine some aspects of love, just like neuroscientists can examine the qualia—that is, the subjective experience—of color. But in the process of reduction and examination, one must never confuse the scientific data about the subject for the subject itself. This happens all too often in our modern age. To continue the color example, while a scientist may be able to reduce the sensation of the color red to a specific pattern that neurons follow, one is never any closer to the color red—and its all-too-important sensation—than when one started. Likewise it is with love, while some psychologists and philosophers may teach us a thing or two about love, we are never—and I really do mean never—any closer to the quale (singular for qualia) of love than when we first started. This is, quite obviously, a problem. A serious problem indeed! We write so many things about love, yet we fail to love; we think so much about love, yet we fail to practice loving. That is truly a dilemma. We have thousands of books lining our libraries and bookstores regarding love and loving others—yet I have been left untouched; one may add: loveless to the bone. So what is, precisely, the problem? What are we doing wrong? Can anything be done?

I have spent a lifetime thinking about the subject—even, on rare occasions, I have had the pleasure of passing as a loving person—yet I have not made much progress regarding the implementation of love in our society. How does one do it? How do we go about doing it? First and foremost: how do I love?

While there are many things one could say about love, one needs to start somewhere. One cannot merely write with the preconceived notion that that which one writes would be somehow complete, in and of itself. Nothing is truly complete. As Kierkegaard remarked, “Once you label me, you negate me.” I cannot write about love thinking that what I write is somehow definitive (perfectly packaged, wrapped, sealed, and labeled)—it is not. Moreover, as Kurt Gödel has shown, even logic and mathematics appear “complete” when they are incomplete. My approach to love is somewhat infinite—I could always say more. To be honest, millions could always say more. But speaking isn’t always enough—if only millions would love more. I write as one writing love letters in the  Second World War from the trenches of Germany; these letters have no particular beginning and no, hopefully, particular end in mind—I simply write because I am obligated to do so.

From such trenches, one writes with one’s blood; one writes with the ink of one’s soul, with the callouses of one’s heart. One sees with the eyes of living, warm-blooded life—raw and full of emotion. In fact, one writes with a sort of immediacy that is not always available in mundane times. One writes with one’s whole life behind, and death staring right back ahead. I write, at times, in such a convoluted manner. In order to write in such a way, I must subjectively subjectivize such a moment—I must become emotionally and experientially one with it. Only the future will determine if I have come close to such particular writing.

First and foremost, I choose to return back to that most all-important of topics: the subjectivity of love. Love is subjective. I’m sure you have all heard that before. I will merely repeat it again: love is subjective. Beat that into your hearts and head.

What may, at first, appear to be a selfless act—such as sacrificial love—may actually conceal something of more utilitarian sorts. Even the most wicked of demons could appear to love. Some people “love” out of convenience. Some people “love” out of necessity. Some people “love” out of fear. In all (or most?) of these cases, love is not really present.

But all such philosophizing merely evades the real question: what is love? I will not attempt to answer this particular question with the thoroughness that it surely deserves; rather, I will attempt to formulate a tentative, working definition.

Love is a verb that presupposes the existence of two human beings who think and act in such a way that to both subjective individuals the phrase “I love you” comes to mind upon the mere sight, thought, or mention of the Other. The act of loving the Other is holistic in the sense that both intention (i.e., the human will) is perfectly in tune and in harmonious relationship with the consequential act. When a human is in such a relationship, his or her thoughts and actions are subjectively loving and are interpreted—in most cases—as such by the Other (i.e., the one being loved). Such “loving acts,” as they are normally called, are usually self-sacrificial and reflect selfless behavior, immediate care, and concern for the well-being of the Other. Love, by this definition, may include other related acts (such as sexual expression, friendship, care, etc.) but does not inherently need to. In sum, in order for an act to qualify as being “loving,” the act must (a) be seen as loving by the subjective individual committing the act; (b) the act must be loving according to intent—and consequentially; and, finally, (c) the act must be interpreted as loving by the one upon whom such “loving acts” are acted upon. As a side note, it must also be noted that, at times, when the fruition of intent is impossible (e.g., a wounded soldier wishing to help another wounded soldier in enemy territory but inhibited to fulfill his intent due to his present paralyzed condition) such “acts” of love—though they have not been acted upon—are, nonetheless, to be considered acts of love.

The above is my current, working (limited) definition of love. It is not all-inclusive, and I do not claim it is. It is merely to function as a definition which excludes selfish acts and utilitarian acts, which may be shrouded in the cloaks of “love.” Some acts which appear loving are not so. If I love somebody because of some utilitarian good, such an act is not entirely loving. If I love my father (which is a good thing) because I wish to secure my inheritance, such an act is immediately to be excluded as an act of love according to my definition.

Now that I’ve “defined” love, back to the beginning: how is love subjective? Love is subjective because it presupposes the existence of two or more subjective human beings. Love presupposes the existence of—at least—two very different minds. Love, being a singularity (or, at the very least, an attempt at such a thing, as the union theorists would argue) encounters serious issues when presented with the issue of dual-ness: there are two or more attempting to love and be loved. Love, a single unity, encounters the problem of subjectivity. For example, if I attempt to love another girl—as I have attempted many times—such acts of love are not inherently seen as acts of love. The girl may very well see me as a threat—not as a loving person! If love is, as I do see it, an attempt at unification with another, an attempt to have an I and a You become a We, then surely love’s singularity is threatened by the existence of a mind who is not in harmony with the Other. If I love another girl, and she does not love me, such a thing, by (my) definition is not love. Love is threatened by subjectivity. We, as a species, are threatened by our subjectivity. We misunderstand and miscommunicate with others all the time. We start wars over mistakes. We hurt others due to misunderstandings. We attack others without attempting to understand them—we fail to taste the waters of their subjectivity. Love is constantly having war being raged upon it—by our very own subjectivity. Even the objective scientist (objectivity in this case is merely an illusion) cannot help but be faced with the immediate problem of love and subjectivity. Herein lies the problem of love: love demands a kind of conscious effort at organization and synchronization. For an individual to love another human, one must attempt to love the Other in the Other’s language; one must, then, be accepted as a potential human being with whom the Other could consummate love. This involves dual-wills (i.e., the wills of two different individuals), the wills of the lover and the one being loved, and, most obviously, this involves conscious synchronization—but not at the expense of losing the individuality of every individual involved.

In order for a We to exist—what some now call “we-ness”—there must be an I and a You—this is what I mean by “not at the expense of losing the individuality of every individual involved.” If the I is lost or the You (or both) then the We, too, ceases to exist. Love, then, must inherently find a fine balance between We-formation (i.e., the formation of we-ness) and the individuals involved. This, of course, is a problem for each and every subjective individual—I cannot tell you how to remain yourself. That is a job only you can do.

So how do we go about loving others? How can we increase love? Will education help? (If not, then what is the point of my writing this paper?) I do not, at the present time, have an answer. I am not sure how we are to go about doing things the right way (if such a way exists). Here I am merely reflecting on one thing and one thing only: the subjectivity of love. Love, for me, is subjective. I have offered my readers some thoughts on love. These thoughts are not definitive nor are they thorough—they are merely thoughts which, I hope, would stimulate thinking and discussion on this thorny issue.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Sin, Guilt, and Atonement in Judaism: Why Jesus is Not the (Jewish) Answer

Sin—and its ugly cousins, guilt and atonement—are not very popular topics. Christopher Hitchens called the atonement—that “ancient superstition”[1]—Christianity’s most immoral sin. He succinctly put his thoughts on atonement into clear words, probably reflecting the views of many modern people:

“Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans. Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life.”[2]

Hitchens is not alone in viewing the vicarious death of Jesus as morally repulsive. Many secular moderns feel very similar emotions. The atonement sounds like a bunch of hogwash. But why are the concepts of atonement, both within Judaism and Christianity, so morally repulsive? I believe this increase in disgust towards religious concepts of atonement is inevitably linked to modern man’s denial of the concept of sin. And the concept of sin is further denied because sin is impossible without God. A secular man who denies God is a secular man who denies sin; a secular man who denies sin is a secular man who denies any such thing as atonement. The Jewish theologian, Michael Wyschogrod, acutely aware of this problem, correctly writes that “sin is so difficult for modern, secular man to accept.”[3] Moreover, those concepts which are most closely related to sin—namely, guilt, punishment, and atonement—are rendered meaningless once sin itself is eliminated. Therefore, there is a “reluctance to speak of guilt and punishment, concepts that many today find psychologically unhealthy.”[4]

In light of the comments made above by Hitchens regarding the idea of atonement—predictably coming from a man who has zero training in theology and is an anti-theist—I believe that a more nuanced approach towards sin, guilt, and atonement must be taken. In what follows, I will look at these three concepts from a Jewish perspective, mostly engaging with Wyschogrod’s illuminating essay “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” which, I hope, will further deepen our understanding of Christian understandings of these concepts (having sprouted out of Judaism anyhow).

Wyschogrod begins by observing that Judaism has long been on the defensive regarding sin, guilt, and atonement. He sees Jewish theology obsessively slaving away under the pressure of Christians and secular people. The Jewish theologians were too busy trying to make distinctions between that which was Jewish and that which was Christian; that which was Jewish and that which was secular. Instead of taking this approach, Wyschogrod takes a thoroughly Orthodox Jewish approach in which he mostly engages, first and foremost, with the biblical texts themselves. Wyschogrod is mostly trying to address the issues of atonement and sin from a thoroughly Bible-centered perspective.

Regarding sin, Wyschogrod writes that the Jewish theologians had to compose their theology reacting to Christianity’s stance. In Christianity, especially early Christianity, the idea that flourished was the sinfulness of humankind at the expense of God’s mercy. That is, the Christians were more prone to elaborating upon humankind’s absolute sinfulness before God than they were at speaking about God’s mercy and the beauty of God’s creation. In such a way, Judaism was seen to take a more positive view of the world; whereas Christianity took a more negative view towards the world. Where the Christians exalted celibacy, the Jews exalted marriage; where the Christians preached rejection of material goods and their (almost) inherent evil, the Jews saw everything material as being good because God said it was (Genesis 1:31). “[C]ondemnation of the material came to Christianity from Platonic and Gnostic sources which were and are in sharp conflict with the life-affirming realism of Judaism, for which celibacy is not only not a virtue but—if the word can be used—a sin.”[5] Wyschogrod sees Christianity as essentially deviating significantly from its Jewish roots. Moreover, the Jews, by recognizing that the Christians rejected this world (or, at least, that is what the Jews perceived Christians were doing) were rewriting their own theology—they began downplaying the sinfulness of humanity and the goodness of marriage and the material world. Wyschogrod argues that, still later, the Jews accepted secularism’s anti-sin stance hook, line, and sinker. “It is the secular spirit of our time that finds talk about sin objectionable.”[6] in modern times it is this culmination and combination of various factors which have led to modern, liberal Jews taking an anti-sin position—sin no longer is a popular or even a “gentleman’s” topic. Sin is something that our dumb ancestors came up with; it is high time to shed such superstitious beliefs.

But what exactly is sin, and why is it something which “liberal” Jews and secular men find repulsive? Wyschogrod believes that sin is contingent upon God’s existence. Once we eliminate God out the picture (as Hitchens does) it is impossible to speak of sin. No such thing exists. He writes that sin is, simply, a “violation of the command of God.”[7] Moreover, Wyschogrod believes that secular folk commonly assume that sin is to be identified with wrongdoing and vice versa. However, sin is not wrongdoing per se. Sin is only possible when there is a violation of a command which came from a lawgiver. That is, sin is an attack on the personality of God; it is an attack on God’s authority. It is to say to God, “I know you personally, I know what you hate, and I choose to do that which you hate.” Sin is committed only against those who have personalities. On the contrary, the secular folk, who deny God’s existence, simply exchange sin with the word “wrongdoing.” For them, any kind of technical error is wrong and hence is a “wrongdoing.” But this makes “sin” (i.e., “wrongdoing”) analogous to committing an error when solving a mathematical equation. It is paramount to claiming that sin is nothing more than just a human error. Big deal? A man answered the question What is 2+2?with 5.The problem with secular conceptions of sin should now be obvious: the principles underlying such conceptions are inherently atheistic and presume the nonexistence of divine commands coming from a personality. Wyschogrod argues that the secular conception of sin can only lead to “regret” not (religious) guilt. How could a person solving an objective mathematical equation incorrectly feel guilty? Such a person feels mere regret. That’s it. “[S]uch a violation does not constitute sin.”[8]

In what ways does a Jewish conception of sin, which is inherently religious, differ from a secular conception of “wrongdoing”? We have already noted how Wyschogrod makes a distinction between religious sin/guilt and secular wrongdoing/regret. We have also already looked at the importance of God and personality. I will now attempt to synthesize a thoroughly Jewish and biblical perspective on sin—the gospel according to Wyschogrod.

Wyschogrod takes us back to the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, God gave Adam and Eve a divine command which was rooted in Him—rooted in His divine personality—“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for on the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17 KJV). Wyschogrod succinctly summarizes this narrative theologically:

“The implication clearly is that eating of the forbidden tree will result in man obtaining knowledge of good and evil. Instead of simply obeying the divine lawgiver, he will then be in a position to know why the good is good and the evil, evil. It seems that God does not wish man to have this knowledge. He is to obey God in order to obey God and for no other reason. And when he disobeys God, he has not violated a law that has an autonomous claim on his conscience and which therefore puts him in the wrong in an objective sense, but he has rebelled against God, whose command he has broken. The violation is, then, directed at God. And because it is directed at God, it constitutes a break in a relationship between God and man and requires remediation.”[9]

Now that Wyschogrod had defined sin according to the Hebrew Bible, he has laid the foundation for us to what will now follow: the concepts of guilt and atonement.

Because sin is a transgression of (1) a divine command issued by (2) God who has (3) a personality, this means that sin inevitably leads to a broken relationship, which further results in (a) guilt and, later, (b) (possible) atonement.

In the Garden, “[m]an’s first sin is thus an act of disobedience whose aim is to obtain a knowledge that will make man God-like.”[10] Apart from this knowledge, prior to the eating of the fruit, humankind was entirely dependent upon God, both for morality and guilt. If God did not tell you to feel guilty, you couldn’t possibly feel guilty. Humankind had been given the choice to live according to God’s idea of right and wrong, and, ultimately, God’s idea of good and evil. However, humans had decided that God was acting capriciously when handing down commands. In this way, “[m]an not only disobeys God but signals his determination not to accept permanently the status of a creature of God dependent on God for instruction as to what is permitted and forbidden. He is determined to make his own judgment as to what is good or bad and thus become God-like.”[11]

Once Adam and Eve decide to make their own morality, not grounded in God but in their own (limited and sin-stained) reason, they discover that they are naked and feel ashamed (i.e., guilty). They start to think that there is something wrong with being naked. But how could they know? “God immediately recognizes that Adam and Eve are making independent moral judgments that are not derived from any divine command, and that can only mean that man has disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit.”[12] Here is the decisive moment: Adam and Eve had discovered their own morality, grounded in nothing but capricious disobedience to God their Maker. Here they were at the epitome of reason!

On the one hand the seculars have their Platonic doctrine of “sin.” That is, humanity is essentially seen as comprised of knowing beings who act according to what they know. Moreover, they generally tend to do that which they know to be good. In Plato’s conception of reality, sin is merely a person doing that which they do in ignorance or ignorantly, again, confuse the good with the bad. In Plato’s conception of sin, those who commit it are not necessarily “evil,” they are merely “ignorant.” If ignorant, one may not necessarily be punished; rather, one is to be pitied. Clearly, Plato’s conception of sin is not what the Bible has in mind. The Bible does have things to say about sins committed in ignorance (Num. 15:22-24), however, the Bible sees sin as ultimately disobedience to God. God alone is Good and Just; he is the one who ultimately knows what is good for you, for He has made you. Wyschogrod argues that, contrary to Plato’s idea of sin, the Bible’s approach is very different. “The focus of attention is not on the particular nature of the act, its inherent wrongness or immorality. The focus is on the giver of the command and the damage that the sin has done to man’s relationship with the being who is behind the command.”[13] On the flip side, “obeying his command is to honor God, to recognize his authority, and to proclaim oneself dependent on him and subject to his will.”[14]

Now we must ask the simple question which many are probably dying to hear: is God in charge of reality or does man have free will? Wyschogrod makes a brief comment here that tends to give us a sense of what the Bible seems to be saying holistically. “[I]t is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Bile understands that, by and large, people do what they do because they want to do it and that they could have done other than what they in fact ended up doing.”[15] Given this underlying presupposition, it is easy to see why the Bible could place so much punishment upon humankind for their sins. This retributive justice, inevitably, brings to mind feeling of guilt, shame, and remorse. Only a man facing his own very real sin can claim to feel repentant and, ultimately, guilty. In this way, Christianity brings guilt upon humankind in full force and with unabated fury. While Wyschogrod agrees with the Christians that humans are sinful and should feel guilty, he believes that this sort of approach is extreme. He also is weary of the Jewish counter-reaction which resulted in sin being downplayed, along with guilt and shame. Summarizing his views of Christianity, he writes:

“Since the fall, man is naturally depraved and headed for damnation, from which only faith in Jesus as the messiah can save him. The net effect, at least to the Jewish observer, has been that Christianity seems to have emphasized the sinfulness of man far more than does Judaism.”[16]

In this way, “Christianity tends, far more than Judaism, to generate feelings of guilt and worthlessness.”[17] In such a way, the Jews believe that Christians have a “rather unhealthy view of human sexuality.”[18] Because the Jews wanted to present their faith as being different from Christianity, they made sin virtually nonexistent in Judaism (unfairly, according to Wyschogrod). “[S]in in Judaism plays a much less central role than it does in Christianity…”[19] Wyschogrod argues that Judaism’s response was not fair to biblical theology, especially prophetic conceptions of justice, sin, and atonement. “The dreadful possibilities of sin and the catastrophic consequences of sin are integral and fundamental parts of Judaism, both biblical and rabbinic.”[20] Despite Wyschogrod’s comments about the centrality of sin in the Bible, he believes that Jews are, nonetheless, much more optimistic when it comes to thinking about human nature. “The terror of total damnation, of total rejection by God is thus absent, and it is perhaps this, more than anything else, which enables Jewish optimism to coexist with profound understanding of the sinfulness of man and the reality of punishment.”[21]

But is Wyschogrod fair to Christians? After all, as a Christian, I can interpret the Hebrew Bible along the exact lines Wyschogrod does. I can further add that humans are worth so much in God’s eyes that God had sent His only Son to save them. Isn’t that more optimistic than Wyschogrod’s claim that only the Jewish conception can be so “guilt-free” and “optimistic”? Personally, while I agree with Wyschogrod, I do not think his observations regarding Christianity are entirely fair and correct. While he may be right about some (or even many) Christians, his statement is certainly not the last: the Christians can have certainly just as much optimism (if not more) than the Jews. For the Christian has the same Hebrew Bible as Wyschogrod…and then some.

We now come to the subject of atonement. Why is atonement theology in so much disgrace amongst the secular people, liberal Jews, and liberal Christians? The answer, according to Wyschogrod, is relatively straight-forward: we have succumbed to a thoroughly rational ethical system—we love Kant a whole lot. “[B]ecause the moral law is not a person, it cannot forgive anything, just as mathematics cannot pardon those who add incorrectly or drop an integer in a subtraction.”[22] With an objective moral framework, sin simply is impossible. Humans are seen as rational beings who merely make mistakes vis-a-vis the moral law. “The past can be learned from and the repetition of the mistake can be avoided, but the past mistake cannot be erased.” Because this is the case, “there is no place for a doctrine of atonement in autonomous human ethics.”[23] Once a human makes a mistake within a strictly Kantian moral framework, one is simply aware of how wrong one was; one is not obligated to feel guilty or shameful. One merely says, “Oh well, I committed adultery and I do not wish this act to become a universal categorical imperative. Next time I will not commit such an act.” In such an ethical system, there is no need for atonement. In fact, atonement would be impossible where sin does not exist. But with God all ethical systems change. The rules change. The game changes.

With a personal God who has a personality, wrongs committed against Him in disobedience to His divine commands constitute sin. And God, if He so chooses, can, as a personality that has relations to His creatures, forgive. “God tells sinning man that, in a sense, the past can be changed.”[24] According to rational ethics which do not have a personal God with a personality, sin is impossible and hence forgiveness is not really an option. However, in a religious framework, sin occurs and so does forgiveness. But how is one forgiven? How does one atone for one’s sins?

In Judaism, after the destruction of the Temple in the year seventy, the Jews were faced with a dilemma: they could no longer offer sacrifices to God. What were they to do? Wyschogrod shows us that the Jews went back to the Hebrew Bible and found texts which emphasized the point of sacrifices. The point was not the mere external act of offering God a sacrifice; the crux of the matter lie in the issue of whether such sacrifices were offered in a state of repentance. That is, a good sacrifice was good in so far as the heart offering the sacrifice was repentant before God. The Christians, on the other hand, responded by pointing out the contingency of Judaism—being useful only with a standing Temple and endless sacrifices. They thought that Judaism surely would collapse. After all, the Jews no longer had a way to become “at one” with God; without the sacrifices and the Temple, they were always in the wrong with God. The Jews responded to this: “Not so fast,” they said. They began “to stress the power of repentance.”[25] They turned to the “prophetic texts that spoke with very little admiration of sacrifices unaccompanied by the turning of the heart.”[26] In such a way, repentance was sufficient for atonement of sins. God accepted a repentant heart. In this way, the Jews were able to maintain their faith, its distinctions, and were able to refrain from falling prey to the clutches of the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ. Who needs the atonement of Jesus when one has (sufficient) repentance?

This is the gospel according to Wyschogrod; in short, these are his reasons for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah—Jesus is not necessary for salvation. However, contrary to the opinions of the secular folk, he maintains the existence of sin, guilt, and atonement (by means of repentance). In a very memorable sentence, concluding his article, Wyschogrod writes:

“By pronouncing ‘It was very good,’ God takes responsibility for the totality of his creation in which sin, as well redemption, becomes possible.”[27]

Wyschogrod is content with Judaism, so long as it is grounded in the Hebrew Bible in an authentic way. He believes that dialogue with Christians is possible—and should continue. Likewise, dialogue with those secular folk should continue as well. While he may not convince me regarding the so-called “pessimism” of Christianity, he does partially persuade me that Jesus may not be, by necessity, the answer for Torah-observant Jews.[28]

All in all, Wyschogrod attempts to think both critically, sincerely, and robustly regarding sin, guilt, and atonement both in Judaism and Christianity. He tries to formulate a theology that is relatively fair (with some objections) both to Christians and Jews. In this sense, perhaps, his article is of utmost importance. He engages Christianity, he seems to understand good portions of it, and still stays faithful to his own Jewish convictions. His article is illuminating to Christian readers, those who may find it difficult to understand why a Jew rejects Jesus. Moreover, his clear presentation of the nonexistence of sin and guilt in modern ethics is very brilliantly and succinctly written. For this I do commend him. I have yet to read a better rejection of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah than this.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2009.

Wyschogrod, Michael. Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations. Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key. ed. by R. Kendall Soulen.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.


[1] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2009), 209.

[2] Ibid. Italics original.

[3] Michael Wyschogrod, “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 55.

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 55.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 56.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 57.

[13] Ibid., 59.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 63.

[16] Ibid., 67.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. Italics mine.

[21] Ibid., 68.

[22] Ibid., 69.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 70.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 74.

[28] See his article “”Paul, Jews, and Gentiles” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 188-201.

The Søren Kierkegaard You Never Knew: Unscientific Philosophical Fragments on “Love’s Hidden Life” in Works of Love

Works of Love is, perhaps, the greatest single piece of literature written in the history of humankind. Astonishingly, it has been greatly ignored by philosophers, laymen, and theologians alike. Unlike its predecessors, Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, or The Sickness Unto Death, Works of Love has largely remained unknown in the Western world. In an attempt to introduce my parents to this masterpiece, I discovered that the Russians had not even bothered to produce a translation to this very day! Reading recent reviews written by modern readers—a bare dozen or so—I recognized in their writings precisely how I felt about the book: mesmerized and changed. Most reviewers were both disturbed by the fact that such a life-altering book could have been given a cold shoulder, lasting a swiftly-approaching two centuries. I, too, could subjectively relate to that experience; I wanted to share my love for this work with someone—anyone—but there were none to be found. It is out of this frustration that I write; my presuppositions and inevitable biases are self-evident. I will mostly engage with the book’s profound first twelve pages (in the Hongs’ English translation). My purpose is modest: to briefly summarize Kierkegaard’s thoughts and provide some of my own unscientific remarks.

Kierkegaard begins his masterpiece by (re)introducing his reader—“that single individual”—to a well-known verse out of Luke’s Gospel: “Every tree is known by its own fruit, for figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush” (6:44). Immediately he launches an attack on all reductionist empirical physicalism: If “we should believe nothing that we cannot see with our physical eyes, then we first and foremost ought to give up believing in love.”[1] He wants nothing to do with naturalistic approaches to reality; he slams his book shut in the face of all such readers. If one is to proceed reading his book on love, one must first begin by assuming the critical[2] position that reality as we know it with our empirical senses should be doubted. This is not all there is to life as we know it. Kierkegaard clearly sees love as something that falls, in some mysterious way, out of the ordinary—it is not to be entirely reduced to physical processes which can be observed with the human eye and mind. This point must be pressed if modern readers, who are almost always grounded in scientific naturalistic approaches to anything and everything, are to understand where Kierkegaard stands on this issue—he would have atomically blasted the likes of Helen Fisher’s Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love[3] out of its turbid waters, no questions asked. Kierkegaard sees those who reduce everything to atoms as incapable of robustly understanding and subjectively embracing love. For such people, love is an “eternal loss, for which there is no compensation…”[4] Those who live such lives are ultimately “deceived.”[5]

Modern readers may find this anti-physicalism to be something which inherently makes Kierkegaard’s conception of love wrong-headed. Is not science the greatest asset humanity has had, well, in a long time? But Kierkegaard is very careful with what he chooses to say and what he does not. He foresees that his approach presupposes the existence of God and that Love is to be ontologically grounded in God. “[A] human being’s love originates mysteriously in God’s love.”[6] Love, which is in God, is the source which fuels all other so-called loves. Kierkegaard makes some further axiomatic statements: Love “connects the temporal and eternity” and is, therefore, “before everything and remains after everything is gone.”[7] Simply put: love is eternal. Why, then, cannot empirical physicalists (or, materialists, if you will) actually really love? Kierkegaard believes that because love is eternal—and since the eternal is what the physicalist disbelieves—he or she has “an enormous relief to cast off this bond of eternity.”[8] The physicalist, in his rejection of the supra-natural eternal, is, by inference, rejecting true love. Christian love, Kierkegaard argues, which is to be identified as the true form of love, has nothing to do with those aesthetic poets. Christian love is eternal and, therefore, never perishes. The poets write about a love which blossoms—if something blossoms, it must die. “What the poet sings about must have the sadness, which is the riddle of his own life, that it must blossom—and, alas, must perish.”[9] In a paradoxical way, in denying true Christian eternal love, the physicalist, who rejects eternity, is stuck recycling “blossoming love” in an ever-increasing state of “sadness”—while he rejects suffering and sorrow, he still ends up wallowing in it! (In this perfect example, one can paraphrase with Kierkegaard, “Do it or do not do it—you will regret both.”)[10] Granted, some of us may disagree with Kierkegaard, but that is all beside the point. (For atheist and theist alike can benefit from his through analyses of love.) However, Kierkegaard does consider these presuppositions important—despite what one ultimately chooses to do with them.

In several tightly-packed sentences, Kierkegaard comments, regarding the physicalist who gave up on love, “That he ‘has seized to sorrow’ we shall not deny, but of what benefit is that when it would be to his salvation to begin in earnest sorrow over himself!”[11] This sentence, if superficially skimmed over, can lead to disastrous results. Kierkegaard is clearly and concisely stating that love is equivalent to sorrow. This observation of his is not to be missed; it is one of the key marks of Christian love. Kierkegaard is here identifying for the readers what the physicalist knew all along: to love someone truly is to suffer, to have sorrow. But from whence did such an idea arise? Kierkegaard, as many already know, was a devout Christian, a reader of the Gospels. And in the Gospels, Kierkegaard saw what it cost God to love the world. He saw what it meant to lay a life down for somebody else. Somebody effectively unworthy. Kierkegaard instinctively knew the price one had to pay to really love. Love has an inverse relationship with power and control: those who have more power and control usually have less love; those who love most have the least amount of influence and power in a relationship. And where exactly does one find such a self-less love?

Kierkegaard insists that “Every tree is known by its own fruit.” He wants the readers to realize the importance of loving intentions, amplified by sound waves used to carry loving words, which result in loving actions. Herein lies the secret to Works of Love. In a similar vein, probably inspired by Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, and I will quote him at length:

“There is an old argument about whether only the will, the act of the mind, the person, can be good, or whether achievement, work, consequence, or condition can be called good as well—and if so, which comes first and which is more important. This argument, which has also seeped into theology, leading there as elsewhere to serious aberrations, proceeds from a basically perverse way of putting the question. It tears apart what is originally and essentially one, namely, the good and the real, the person and the work. The objection that Jesus, too, had this distinction between person and work in mind, when he spoke about the good tree that brings forth good fruits, distorts this saying of Jesus into its exact opposite. Its meaning is not that first the person is good and then the work, but that only the two together, only both as united in one, are to be understood as good or bad.”[12]

Like Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard is not entirely a Kantian deontologist, neither is he a J. S. Mill consequentialist/utilitarian; he is both. He refuses to dichotomize and pit one against the other. He refuses to call “love” that which results in evil. He refuses to call “love” that which is done out of evil, which happens to result in what appears to be a loving action. He refuses to take that step. He sees love as both being done out of a loving heart (deontological approach), spoken with loving words, resulting in loving actions (consequentialist approach). That, for him, is love par excellence. “Every tree is known by its own fruit.” Love must produce fruit; it must result in what is perceived to be a loving action. Kierkegaard, ever the skeptic, rightly delves into the subjectivity (or, inter-subjectivity) of love. What if one is deceived by someone into thinking the fruit is “love” when it is not? What if someone is self-deceived into thinking the fruit is “love” when it is not? How does one know what is love? Do not all of our subjective worldviews come into play? Kierkegaard is completely aware of such subjective elements. It happens “when a person makes the mistake of calling something love that actually is self-love, when he loudly protests that he cannot live without the beloved but does not want to hear anything about the task and requirement of love to deny oneself and to give up this self-love of erotic love.”[13] “Can love be reduced to a particular phrase or word?” Kierkegaard asks. “Words and phrases and the inventions of language may be a mark of love, but that is uncertain.”[14] He continues: “In one person’s mouth the same words can be so full of substance, so trustworthy, and in another person’s mouth they can be like vague whispering of leaves [with no fruit found on the tree].”[15] He believes in speaking loving words, but he is aware of two things: (1) the subjectivity of understanding the spoken and (2) the inability of any human to reduce love to a single word. Kierkegaard asserts that “you should not for that reason hold back your words,” for “ whoever is an object of your love has a claim upon an expression of it also in words…”[16] Kierkegaard sees duty-based (i.e., deontological) ethics at work here. He believes that if one is so moved inwardly to love somebody else, one is bound to express verbally his or her feelings. The object of your affection already has a deontological claim upon your words. What if love results in nothing but Taylor Swift’s lyrics? What if love is nothing but a love song, a poem, a whispered verse from Shakespeare in the ear of the beloved? What if love is only a word? “[I]mmature and deceitful love is known by this, that words and platitudes are its only fruit.”[17] Kierkegaard outright rejects any so-called Taylor Swift approach towards love, which is grounded in nothing but temporal sensuality, obsession with sex, and objectification of the “other-self.” Such verbalizations and erratic gesticulations are nothing but the bastard child of the whore, self-love.

“There is no word in human language, not one single one, not the most sacred one, about which we are able to say: If a person uses this word, it is unconditionally demonstrated that there is love in that person. On the contrary, it is even true that a word from one person can convince us that there is love in him, and the opposite word from another can convince us that there is love in him also.”[18]

Earlier, Kierkegaard remarked that love is “invisible” and that it must simply be “believed” in.[19] Precisely because of its “invisibility,” love cannot be reduced to a particular word or even action. When dealing with the question of reducing love to a particular work, Kierkegaard states that everything “depends on how the work is done.”[20] He rejects the idea that love can be reduced to one, single work.

“[E]ven in charity, visiting the widow, and clothing the naked do not truly demonstrate or make known a person’s love, inasmuch as one can do works of love in an unloving, yes, even in a self-loving way, and if this is so the work of love is no work of love at all.”[21]

Here, precisely, those who ignorantly accuse Kierkegaard of a pietistic works-righteousness approach fail miserably. For Kierkegaard does not believe that works in and of themselves are “good”; they must be done with right intentions, gracefully reflecting the “Initial Love,” which flows eternally from God Himself. Moreover, those who want to accuse Kierkegaard of strict consequentialism or Utilitarianism also fail miserably: no such thing is present in any absolute form here. No, what is of utmost importance is: “How, then, the word is said and above all how it is meant, how, then, the work is done—this is decisive in determining and in recognizing love by its fruits.”[22]

The question then arises: What if somebody’s love is not recognized as such? What if, in loving somebody else, that certain somebody misunderstands me and my actions, and takes them to mean something other than love? Kierkegaard believes that such a person must not “work so that love will be known by the fruits but to work so that it could be known by the fruits.”[23] He is not saying that your love, as such, will be recognized; he is saying that it could be recognized. This is not an imperative to make love known to the other; this is, rather, a statement in the subjunctive: works of love must be done in such a way that they might bring about works which are interpreted to have been done in love. There is no guarantee that such works will be labeled “love.” There is uncertainty here.

What if somebody reads the Gospels and then starts judging how much others love, is that appropriate? Kierkegaard responds with a resounding “No!” For “the one who is busily occupied tracking down hypocrites, whether he succeeds or not, had better see to it that this is not also a hypocrisy, inasmuch as such discoveries are hardly the fruits of love.”[24] In judging others, we are judging ourselves. The Gospel is not a weapon to be used against others; rather, it is a mirror in which one examines oneself.

We are, finally, back to where we initially started. “The first point developed in this discourse was that we must believe in love—otherwise we simply will not notice that it exists…”[25] Here, Kierkegaard insists that only the believers see love; only those seeing love believe.

“Therefore the last, the most blessed, the unconditionally convincing mark of love remains—love itself, the love that becomes known and recognized by the love in another. Like is known only by like; only someone who abides in love can know love, and in the same way his love is to be known.”[26]

Kierkegaard is insisting that love requires the acceptance of this axiomatic statement: believe that love exists. For only in believing that it exists will it actually spring into existence.

To conclude this somewhat lengthy look at only a few pages of the text, I would like to briefly reflect on the overall impression this particular chapter made on me. I am thoroughly convinced that Kierkegaard is right in arguing immediately that love is subjective. That does not mean that love is not absolute. It is absolute, and has its grounding in an objective God. However, love is subjective in the sense that we can all be hearing the same thing from a particular person and only one of us may react in a loving reciprocal manner. That is, only one may actually subjectively feel love being conveyed. Romeo may objectively be verbalizing feelings of love—feelings which none of us could subjectively relate to. An objective event may be taking place (in fact, it is) but not all of us have subjective access to that objective reality. We all know that Romeo directed his loving words, carried on sound waves, to one person and one person only: Juliet. While those sound waves could have been recorded and examined objectively by a team of empirical scientists, love would never be conveyed in their thorough analysis. Not a single scientist would fall in love with Romeo. Not a single scientist would intuitively and subjectively know and experience the love contained in those words. In this sense—in this thoroughly Kierkegaardian approach—the love which is ejected from the innermost part of a human being is specifically directed, like a beam of light, at a particular person in a particular moment. Apart from all of these tautological statements (e.g., statements such as “loving is believing, believing is loving”), at least that is how some may view them, Kierkegaard correctly observes that, paradoxically, love begins with belief. One begins by believing in love—one presupposes that love exists in the other human being. Once love is presupposed in the other, then love is experienced by the one presupposing. “Like is known only by like.” If you want to see love in another human being, first believe that he or she is loving. If you want to receive love from another human being, first believe that he or she is capable of loving you. In such a way, love is an act of faith. If there is one thing Kierkegaard wants you to walk away with from reading the first chapter, it is this: believe in love. Apart from belief, there is nothing but poetic “sadness.” If you want to remain stuck in a never-ending cycle of self-love and a refusal to really love, then you can feed on the “blossoms” of temporal “love.” As for me and my household, we are taking a leap of faith.

Works of Love goes on to develop other ideas about love. Kierkegaard deals with self-love and its inherent problems, the categorical imperative and the “You shall love” command, the problem with preferential love (such as erotic love and friendship), the importance in distinguishing between true “others” and the “other-self,” etc. He does all of this in merely the first few chapters of the work. If you enjoyed this paper, please go out, do yourself a favor, and buy a copy. Read it.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6. Trans. by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Fisher, Helen. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love: Some Christian Deliberations in the Form of Discourses. Kierkegaard’s Writings XVI. Trans. and Ed. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or. Trans. by David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Küng, Hans. On Being a Christian. Trans. by Edward Quinn. Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1976.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love: Some Christian Deliberations in the Form of Discourses, Kierkegaard’s Writings XVI, trans. and ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 5.

[2] Hans Küng correctly observed that naturalistic approaches, which deny any other reality other than that which could be perceived by the senses empirically, are essentially not critical enough. In an ironic manner, they deceptively believe and accept all that which the senses receive. On the other hand, the theist, generally speaking, believes in the possibility of another reality; this implies that the theist is more critical and, therefore, more doubtful—he is more willing to criticize and scrutinize the empirical data (something which the uncritical naturalist simply cannot a priori allow himself to do [for all we have is the natural world, he thinks]). “Belief in God as radical basic trust can therefore point also to the condition of the possibility of uncertain reality. In this sense it displays a radical rationality—which is not the same thing as rationalism” (Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn [Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1976], 76. Italics original.

[3] Helen Fisher, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 8.

[10] This quote does not occur in Kierkegaard verbatim, contrary to those who repeatedly cite it. It is found in Either/Or in the following form: “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both…” [trans. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971)], 37.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 51. Italics original.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 11.

[15] Ibid., 11-12. Words in brackets are my own added for contextualization purposes.

[16] Ibid., 12. Italics mine.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 13.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. Italics original.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 14.

[23] Ibid. Italics mine.

[24] Ibid., 15.

[25] Ibid., 16.

[26] Ibid.

Predestination and Free Will in Islam and Christianity: A Comparison

People the world over like to know about ultimate meaning in life. They want to know whether God exists, whether life has some ultimate end-goal (i.e., telos), whether there is life after death, etc. But if God—whichever God that may be—exists, they want to know whether He/She/It influences their lives. If God is driving history—all history—to some greater ends, some yet-to-be-seen Grand Finale, where is God now in all this? If there is some sort of final end point at which God is driving all history, how is God accomplishing all that in the here and now? To put the related question in different terms: is God influencing
my day-to-day existence? If so, how much of the influence is out of my control (that is, am I being predestined?) and how much of my life is of my own free will (that is, free of God’s, or anybody else’s, control)? Both Islam and Christianity attempt to address that issue. Both have things to say about predestination and free will. And, finally, both, I dare say, do not offer an absolute, universally agreed upon answer. What we have are various attempts at answering the question. We have various ways both Islam and Christianity attempt to make sense of both God’s omnipotence and humankind’s autonomy. In a world which appears hectic, inexplicable, utterly evil, and full of useless suffering, people everywhere ask the question: where is God in all this? Am I damned to suffering? Did I create this hell I’m living in? Was it chance? I will begin by looking at Islam’s attempt to answer some of these questions. After looking at Islam, I will look at Christianity’s response to the issue. Finally, I will compare and contrast the two religions, and, ultimately, offer my own theological reflections.

Islam on Predestination and Free Will

Islam teaches that Allah created the world out of water (30:21) and humans out of clay (32:7). (It should be noted that some commentators combine the different statements and amalgamate the texts to teach creation from both water and clay.) Humankind, then, is seen as a creation of Allah. Being Allah’s creation, Allah had given guidance to humankind—from Moses’s Decalogue, to Jesus’ Beatitudes, to Muhammad’s final miracle: the Quran, the concrete guide for all life on earth. In the Quran one finds what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”; the Quran is the epitomizing definition of Jesus’ teachings. The devout Muslim sees the Quran as the inspired word of Allah. By it he lives, breathes, and guides all his actions. But from whence do these actions arise? Does Allah cause a man to be a good Muslim or does a man simply, on his own, using rational reason, choose to follow Allah (by means of following the Quran)? A devout Muslim, naturally, would, again, turn to the Holy Quran for guidance. What does the text say about Allah’s will and how it relates to humankind?

There are numerous verses in the Quran that speak precisely to this issue. In 18:28, for example, the Quran states:

And keep thyself with those who call on their Lord morning and evening desiring His goodwill, and let not thine eyes pass from them, desiring the beauties of this world’s life. And follow not his whose heart We have made unmindful of Our remembrance, and he follows his low desires and his case exceeds due bounds.[1]

The verse addresses, paradoxically, both issues. On the one hand, Allah is commanding the readers to follow those who are desiring His goodwill. This implies that humans have the ability both to hear the word of Allah and do it. However, in the second part of the verse, notice the paradoxical phrase “[a]nd follow not his whose heart We have made unmindful of Our remembrance.” So Allah is the one who, like the YHWH of Exodus, “hardens the heart” of Pharaoh. So do those who do evil have a choice? I mean, the text does say that “We have made unmindful” of the commands of Allah those who are evil. (The “we” is known as a “royal plural,” which is used in Semitic languages when a king or a god speaks, even though the speaker is singular.) What appears to be most mind-boggling is the following verse, which continues the illogical paradox:

And say: The Truth is from your Lord; so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve. Surely We have prepared for the iniquitous a Fire, an enclosure of which will encompass them. And if they cry for water, they are given water like molten brass, scalding their faces. Evil the drink! And ill the resting-place!

Not only do the evil have Allah (We=Allah) intervening and causing them to be “unmindful,” they also have Allah serving them canisters of molten brass! In an understandable move, the sectarian[2] commentator Mualana Muhammad Ali refrains from commenting on predestination and free will in both verses; however, to his credit, he does elaborate theologically on the torments of the Quran’s “hell.”

These two verses from Surrah 18, known as The Cave, are not the only ones one finds about predestination and free will. In 76:29-30 the Quran states:

Surely this is a Reminder; so whoever will, let him take a way to his Lord. And you will not, unless Allah please. Surely Allah is ever Knowing…

Here, again, one finds two apparently contradictory ideas being made back-to-back. On the one hand, Allah is allowing the readers to “take a way”; on the other hand, you will not actually will to do anything unless Allah allows you to will. So who or what is ultimately responsible for humankind’s actions? If those who choose the wrong path are ultimately caused by Allah to make that evil choice (and are later punished for it), why are humans responsible for their evil actions? In this case, Muhammad Ali is somewhat helpful. “The meaning is that true and sincere believers have so completely submitted themselves to the Divine will and are so completely resigned that they have no desires of their own, and all their desires are in accordance with Allah’s pleasure.”[3] Muhammad Ali is on the free will side in his commentary (in opposition to a deterministic interpretation). He argues that “man has not been constrained by God to adopt a particular course, whether for good or for evil.”[4]

Are we even reading the same text? Because I am honestly baffled. Does he ignore Allah’s complete and sovereign omnipotence? Al-Ajurri, for example, disagrees with Muhammad Ali. He takes a strong deterministic (=predestination) interpretation. The renowned Islamic theologian Binyamin Abraham writes concerning al-Ajurri, “[W]hen dealing with the problem of predestination and free will, al-Ajurri is very careful to select verses which fit his doctrine of predestination which is very probably dictated by the traditions.” [5]Abrahamov sees this sort of theologizing as being more grounded in Hadith and tradition rather than Quranic theology. Al-Ajurri virtually ignores verses that contradict his deterministic view of history. Verses such as 2:26, 14:27 and 40:74, all which tend to emphasize human free will, are ignored. For example, 2:26 reads:

…Then as for those who believe, they know that it is the truth from their Lord; and as for those who disbelieve, they say: What is it that Allah means by this parable? Many He leaves in error by it and many He leads aright by it. And He leaves in error by it only the transgressors.

Muhammad Ali, commenting on this verse, writes: “It is a plain fact that Allah guides people or shows them the right way by sending His messengers, and therefore He could not be spoken of as leading them astray.”[6] By “plain fact” what Ali really means is “that which accords with my own opinion.” As is evident, people like al-Ajurri vehemently disagree (and rightly so!). The Quran does speak of predestination, whether you like it or not. In fact, al-Razi, a 13th century Islamic philosopher, “considers the Qur’an a weak device for attaining certainty with regard to theological problems in general and on the issue of predestination in particular.”[7] More pointedly, he considers such verses as “contradictory.” Despite these contradictory verses, al-Razi believes the Qur’an is inspired with mere uncertainty regarding such peripheral matters as predestination and free will. Here is certainly an interpreter one can respect. A man who calls the bluff on those who believe they have found a “solution.” He says it clearly: no certain solution exists.[8]

“Free will inside a radius of determined environment creates an obscurity,” wrote L. Housman.[9] Despite all of these problems, some scholars and theologians continued trying to figure out Quranic theology on this issue. Abd al-Razzaq wrote that “the act, which is decided upon, is free; but in so far as the totality of causes, named the complete cause…its production is determined.”[10] If I understand him correctly, using what seems to be Aristotelian philosophy, al-Razzaq is suggesting the nuanced but absurd idea that individual acts are “free,” whereas their collective totality is somehow predetermined. That is, while I may choose freely different routes to drive home (individual actions) the fact that I arrive at home is determined (i.e., this being the “complete cause”). Allah is in charge of “complete causes”; I am in charge of choosing freely. This really pushes the problem forward. One could then ask, what point is all of my free will (let us say that I am attempting to lead a peaceful life), if Allah had already predestined me to some murderous “complete cause”? Am I really free to lead a peaceful life if I had been predetermined to murder somebody at some final point?

Against the above view, another theologian, Wasil b. ‘Ata, offers a different approach:

“The Creator Most High is wise and just, so that it is impossible to attribute to Him evil, or wrong, or that He will for His creatures the opposite of what He commands, and judge and punish them for that. The creature is the doer of good and evil, belief and unbelief, disobedience or obedience, and is requited for his action. The Lord Most High has enabled him…for it.”[11]

In this view, it appears that Allah had made man rational, he is able to competently do the good or the evil. Given this presupposition, humankind is then judged accordingly. God is not responsible for where humans ultimately end up. All evil is on their hands.

With all of these various approaches, where does that leave the devout Muslim, the one who is aching and pining away in the trenches of existential reality? Is he or she responsible? Allah? Both?

I do not think that Quranic theology gives us a concrete answer. As we will later see, in Christianity one is faced with relatively similar problems. Theologians there have come up with ingenious ways of “solving” the issues.



Christianity: Free Will and Predestination

Christianity presents us with problems very much similar to problems examined earlier in Islam. Predestination and free will feature much in today’s Christian discussions. In fact, in my experience, whether one has any theological training or not, almost everybody has an opinion on this issue. As Adam Neder once said, “There’s good theology and there’s bad theology, but there’s no such thing as no theology.” Growing up, I found passages such as Exodus 9:12, where the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart, perplexing.

וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק יְהוָה֙ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶֽׁה

“And YHWH made strong the heart of Pharaoh and he did not listen to them [and] the word which YHWH said to Moses.”

While we all know the ending of the story—Pharaoh ends up drowning in the waters of the Reed Sea—not all of us think about the potentially implied injustice being done: God punishes Pharaoh after “hardening” his heart. The question then becomes: is God responsible for Pharaoh’s death? There seems to be one potential catch here, however. The word commonly translated “hardened” is the Hebrew word חָזָק (“to make strong, harden”), occurring in the intensive Piel verbal form. Using some liberty, one could paraphrase the text to read: “YHWH made Pharaoh’s heart firm in its own resolution.” That is, YHWH merely made firm that which was already present in Pharaoh’s own heart. In this translation, Pharaoh is not seen as being controlled entirely by YHWH; YHWH is merely making firm that which already there.

While many, if not most, lay readers see this passage as ultimately describing YHWH’s sovereign reign over humanity (he is the one totally in charge of your destiny), passages like 2 Kings 20 seem to add more confusion to the mixture. In this text, Hezekiah prays to YHWH after he is told that he would die. YHWH had decreed Hezekiah’s coming death. Hezekiah responds with petitioning YHWH and YHWH ends up “changing his mind.” Hezekiah, in the end, ends up living fifteen additional years. Here, at least in this chapter, biblical theology points in the direction of free will. For his acclaimed book—being endorsed by the likes of OT scholar Walter Brueggemann and the philosopher C. Stephen Evans—Gregory Boyd begins discussing “open theism” with this passage.[12] He argues that God chooses not to know outcomes and allows humans to exercise complete and total free will. This view, however, does not dismiss God’s sovereignty (God is seen as ultimately giving up his power in a sacrificial, Christ-like manner). Open theism is essentially an “open view” of God—God has left the future completely open. He does not “know” it.

In opposition to this view is the so-called classical view, popularized by John Calvin. In this view, God does not change throughout eternity, neither does his knowledge change, his will change, nor any past, present or future outcomes. Everything is set in stone in unchangeable eternity. God is impassible, too. (In ironic contrast to Christ’s humiliation on the Cross.) God is not affected by human petitions in any real sense (they really don’t change what the Islamic scholar called the “complete cause”). Summarizing this view, Boyd writes: “[W]hatever takes place in history, from events great significance to the buzzing of a particular fly, must take place exactly as God eternally foreknew it would take place.”[13] In the classical view, God’s foreknowledge determines the future (Augustine and Calvin) or, according to Arminius, the future determines God’s foreknowledge. In the end, both takes of the classical view result in a set future. One way or another, God had predetermined a certain occurrence of events. The open view accepts some claims of the classical view, disagreeing that all the events are known and controlled. For example, one could know that tomorrow one would go to the dentist at ten o’clock. Knowing this (a set future) does not mean that one “knows” everything that would take place in between now and the future. The open view, therefore, cherry-picks from several approaches and creates a synthetic approach that makes (almost) everybody happy. One could think of Deuteronomy 30:19, which reads, implying free will, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life (NRSV).” But how does the open view, in which free will is given almost complete free reign, deal with biblical texts that make the future set in stone?

In Isaiah 46:9-10, YHWH declares that he declares “the end from the beginning and from the ancient times things not yet done.” Christ’s ministry itself was “destined before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20, NRSV). While there are multitudes of such passages that deal with this issue, these select and concrete verses do reflect the totality of the views in the Bible; that is, these verses give us a taste of both extremes. For example, the open view interprets Isaiah 46 as essentially saying that God, in knowing what he wills to bring about, will have his way with many uncontrolled, unknown factors. Taking Romans 8:28 seriously, one could argue that God is the one who is “working all things for the good.” God is not saying that all things are good—He is saying that, in this chaos, that is his goal (i.e., the accomplishment of that which is good [the “complete cause”]). He guides history where he wants it, working within a chaotic and unset system. In fact, as Boyd points out,[14] a God capable of dealing with chaos is a much greater being than the being Calvin believes in—a detailed perfectionist incapable and incompetent in dealing with chaos and free will.

Furthermore, take Jeremiah 18:7-10, for example.

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it (NIV).

As plain as day, God is “relenting,” or, to accurately reflect the Hebrew term, “repenting.” God is changing his mind, so to speak. While this, in fact, is the straightforward reading of the Hebrew text, Calvin and the classical theologians used ingenious ways to make the text say something it never said. They “usually argue that texts that attribute change to God describe how he appears to us; they do not depict God as he really is. It looks like God changed his mind, but he really didn’t.”[15] The problem with the classical view, whichever form it appears in, is impossible to disprove. With all the weasel-wording, distortion of ancient texts, and hedge-creation, it is simply impossible to disprove the classical view. “Suppose, for the sake of argument, that God wanted to tell us in Scripture that he really does sometimes intend to carry out one course of action and that he really does sometimes change his mind and not do it. How could he tell us this in terms clearer than he did in this passage?”[16] Well, reading the Bible, one should get the impression that God changes his mind and that the future is not—entirely—set (cf. Gen. 6:6-7; Ex. 32:14; 33:1-3, 14; Deut. 9:13-29; 1 Samuel 2:27-31; 1 Kings 21:21-29; 2 Chronicles 12:5-8; Jer. 26:2-3; Ezekiel 4:9-15; Amos 7:1-6; Jonah 3:10; and scores of other passages).[17]

How then does one go about dealing with the issue of predestination and free will? Personally, I am not sure that the Bible gives us a clear picture. While the verses dealing with an open view (in favor of free will) completely outnumber, anecdotally, verses that imply or support predestination, one is still left quite baffled by the texts when viewed as a whole. For these and other reasons, I believe it is probably safe to say that while an open view may have me and some philosophers happy, it certainly isn’t the final word that is to be said regarding Christianity and its stance towards free will and predestination.

Concluding Remarks

In this brief look at a relatively basic approach towards the issue of free will and predestination in both Islam and Christianity, we can easily see many similarities. Both religious traditions have unanswered—and maybe even unanswerable—questions. Both appear to suggest, at least tentatively, the existence of both predestination and free will. Both may even allow the two to exist in tension. However, both also have unresolved issues; things that many a theologian and philosopher will probably continue to dispute for many years to come.


[1] The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, trans. Maulana Muhammad Ali, new 2002 ed. (Ohio: Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam Lahore Inc., 2002).

[2] Going with the Lahori-Ahmadi creed, Ali did not accept miracles, had an immense hatred for the West, Christianity and Judaism, all features which I, the subjective reader, can attest to being found in his notes, translation and commentary. Most Muslims do not like this particular translation. However, it is the definitive translation to those of us in America, since a large Muslim population here belongs to the Ahmadi sect. Moreover, as a final remark, I do not believe this particular translation skewed the texts that I will be dealing with.

[3] Mualana Muhammad Ali in The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, 1163.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Binyamin Abrahamov, “Theology,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, ed. Andrew Rippin (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 424.

[6] Mualana Muhammad Ali in The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, 16-17 (26b).

[7] Binyamin Abrahamov, “Theology,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, 429. Italics mine (added for emphasis).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cited in William Thomson, “Freewill and Predestination in Early Islam I,” The Muslim World, 40: 207–216. 207.

[10] Ibid., 207.

[11] Ibid., 211.

[12] Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 7.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 128-129.

[15] Ibid., 77. Italics original.

[16] Ibid., 77-78.

[17] Ibid., 83-87 and 157-169.