“Grace is necessary to salvation, free will equally so but grace in order to give salvation, free will in order to receive it. Therefore, we should not attribute part of the good work to Grace and part to free will; it is performed in its entirety by the common and inseparable action of both; entirely by grace, entirely by free will, but springing from the first in the second.” ……. St. Bernard (1090 – 1153)
” ……………….The creature has nothing else in its power but the free use of its will, and its free will hath no other power but that of concurring with, or resisting, the working of God in nature. The creature with its free will can bring nothing into being, nor make any alteration in the working of nature; it can only change its own state or place in the working of nature, and so feel or find something in its state that it did not feel or find before.” …………. William Law (1686 – 1761)
These two insights from two different centuries have a common theme in identifying the role of grace and free will.
If man had free will, the philosophical question that is asked is ‘what degree of freedom does free will enjoy? Is the choice itself truly free when activated through free will? What does twenty first century scientific studies in the field of brain neurology and consciousness reveal? How can these findings be fitted with the theological positioning that we have been accustomed to?
I would like to start with what has been found in experimental neuroscience in recent years which are challenging the very basic concept of free will. “Neuroscience of free will” refers to recent neuroscientific investigation of questions concerning free will. It is a topic of philosophy and science. One question is whether, and in what sense, rational agents exercise control over their actions or decisions. As it has become possible to study the living brain, researchers have begun to watch decision making processes at work. To give a short account of the conclusion of these studies, they have pointed out that the electrical activity in the brain called the “readiness potential” starts half a second before the actual choice is made. There are many disputing viewpoints from contemporary philosophers and scientists. But the basic question that needs to be asked is “Who is this I who says I have free-will and make the resultant choice?” If we say it is the physical self with associated brain function then science is proving you wrong. But if it is your consciousness, which is a unique field within the universal consciousness, then a linkage gets established wherein the linkage cannot be perceived or measured beyond a certain threshold.
In a different language, the ancient mystics have voiced their intuitive understanding of what we have just stated. St. Bernard talks of salvation or liberation. This liberation is the liberation from ignorance of our true Self. The true theological concept of sin should be rooted in the state of ignorance, a state of being banished from Eden which is the true state of every human creation.
In order to obtain this liberation, the knowledge of which resides in a higher dimension, individual consciousness through the operation of its free will choice has to open up to receiving the out pouring of grace, which is the higher level of wisdom, from the Universal consciousness.
William Law, who was a great mystic of the eighteenth century, beautifully places the human free will in the operating hierarchy Divine action in its entirety of creation. Nature, as he states, may better be understood as the cosmic plenum of all that is manifest and unmanifest. While at the limited perceptive level of the individual ego, we think we have free choice. But in reality, this choice has to operate within the cosmic (nature) framework. Nothing in the cosmic dimension gets affected by the action of the individual free will but we are under the illusion that we are independently acting while in realty every choice we make is an action that cosmic (nature) framework imposes upon us.
Here we can see the merger of mystical intuition and scientific enquiry.