One of the truths of the Catholic Faith that seems most difficult to explain to people is how we can have free will and yet God’s will is done in the world. This is a powerful example of a paradox (one of many in the Catholic faith) that comes from simultaneously holding two truths that seem to be contradictory. We insist that both are true, even though it is hard to describe how they mesh together.
I found an unexpected enlightenment of how our free will and God’s do not conflict, but God’s will surrounds our freedom and sustains it. It was in an interview with Dean Koontz, author of a number of popular novels, that was broadcast on EWTN (thanks to Jennifer Fulwiler for the link to this video).
As someone who has written a book, I found the interview very interesting. For me, the biggest struggle to writing was to let go of my own ideas: much of what I wanted to say did not fit into the book that I was trying to write. Dean Koontz described this as letting go of ego. The author needs to place his abilities at the service of the story that he has chosen to write.
His comments on free will start at 34:44. The whole interview is well worth watching: Dean talks about the craft of writing and the years that he needed to learn the craft, and he mentions how his books became much better when he stopped following an outline in order to let the story develop in a natural and spontaneous way. I think you already need some skill as an author to do that kind of writing.
Some people might find the idea that he gives his characters free will to be artificial, even fake, since obviously his characters are not real people. To me his comments sounded not only true, but insightful.
The difference between good novels and lousy novels is that in lousy novels, the characters reflect the author’s own favorite loves and hates. In good novels, the author is willing to welcome and to work with any character, even one that is very different from himself.
Second, in good novels the author stays focused, keeping with the story he has started and not derailing it with his own ideas that do not fit. This allows the story to be a complete whole, and it allows the story to be perfect in its own way.
Third, and this is where Dean Koontz’s thoughts were very interesting to me, is that when an author has welcomed a character and given him space, an author has an obligation not to force that character to do something that would be out of character for him. This is part of letting go of ego and part of allowing the story to be a complete whole. Forcing the character to make a certain choice – even when the author knows this is the best choice – would violate the integrity and authenticity of the story. The consequence of respecting the characters and the story is that, if the character is the sort of person who would make a huge mistake in certain circumstances, the author needs to let him make that mistake. However, this does not mean that the story is ruined: the author can use plot and circumstances to shift the story and bring the character to repentance and conversion.
This is a tiny little sketch of how God works with us. The fact that God has given us free will does not mean that God does not care what we do: God cares very deeply and he hates to see us make mistakes. It also does not mean that God is distant or has given up guiding the world. God respects our freedom, but God has already taken our freedom into account when deciding how to accomplish what he wants.
When God brings a person into the world, he is committed to doing everything possible to bring that person to eternal glory; but for God, overriding our freedom is not a possibility. This means that failure to enter glory is a real possibility. However, God is willing to keep working on us until the last moment of our life.