Msgr. Charles Pope: Voluntarism, a Critical Error of Our Times

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By Msgr. Charles Pope, April 11, 2019

Part of the reason for the mess we’re in today is a philosophy called voluntarism. Some mistake this word for volunteerism, which refers to the use of volunteers or the willingness to be a volunteer, offering one’s services in some capacity without compensation. Voluntarism is something quite different and is of the darkness.

Voluntarism is the view that the will overrules the intellect and that truth is something asserted or willed rather than discovered by the intellect and proposed to the will for obedience. Voluntarism holds that something is true because one says it is so.

Among the more extreme examples of this today is transgenderism. Although one’s sex is easily determined, most often by sight, some feel free to dismiss this evidence and simply assert that they are something else. If a man states that he is in fact female (or one of some fifty other designations) it is said to be true simply because he asserts it—and all are expected to overlook the obvious evidence to the contrary. Thus, something is true by the mere assertion of the will; something is true because one wants it to be or because one says it is.

Another less radical but more common example of voluntarism is shown in the dismissive comment “Well, that may be true for you, but it isn’t true for me.” This is subjectivism in that the determination of truth moves from the object to the subject. This philosophy holds that there is no objective truth; things are not true in themselves but rather because someone (a subject) says they are. Thus, subjectivism and voluntarism are strongly connected.

Voluntarism did not arise out of nowhere. Like many heresies and errors, it comes from a selective emphasis on one truth to the exclusion of others. The cycle of erroneous action followed by overreaction has led to today’s situation in which some people live isolated in their minds, insulated from the created world that manifests the truth of God. Bishop Robert Barron notes,

The roots of this perspective are old and tangled, stretching back at least to the Middles Ages. In that period, certain philosophers emerged, most notably John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, who argued for a maximalist understanding of God’s power. God’s free will determines, they maintained, the nature of reality in all of its dimensions…. [Even] ethical principles are valid because God says so (Arguing Religion, pp. 38-39).

Prior to this, theologians up to and including St. Thomas Aquinas held that God commands something because it is good. It is not good merely because God commands it. In this view, there are things that God, even though omnipotent, cannot do: He cannot do evil, cannot lie, cannot sin. This is because evil of any sort is a privation, a lack of something that should be present. God cannot sin because in doing so He would deny his very self; He would no longer be perfect and thus no longer omnipotent. It is a kind of linguistic fallacy to say that because God is omnipotent, He can do absolutely anything. The All-Holy One cannot will or do that which is unholy and yet remain All-Holy. He who is the Truth cannot lie and yet still be the Truth. The All-Perfect One cannot will or do that which is imperfect and yet remain All-Perfect. Thus, God’s perfect power (His omnipotence) exists in His being perfect God without privation of any sort.

Scotus, Ockham, and others, in seeking to emphasize God’s power, so exaggerated it that they distorted His very nature. They asserted that God can will whatever He wants, and the mere willing of it makes it good rather than that it is intrinsically good. In this view, right actions are right simply because God approves of them, and wrong actions are wrong merely because God disapproves of them. This is theological voluntarism. In it, God’s reason is largely eclipsed by His will. In effect, His will is arbitrary because His mind and His reasons for commanding something do not matter; all that matters is that He wills it. This is an attractive idea if you want to highlight God’s power, but I would argue that doing so overshadows God’s goodness and reasonableness. Something is not good because God commands it; He commands it because it is good. He commands reasonably; He commands what is intrinsically good and what is best for us.

Theological voluntarism had long held sway among Muslims, but in the 16th century it began to spread among Christians, mainly Protestants. It appealed to those who held to the sola scriptura premise; they were less interested in arguments from creation or natural law—it was enough that God had said something and that it was in the Bible. Who needed to demonstrate the reasonableness and goodness of what God commanded? Or so the thinking of theological voluntarism went.

How did theological voluntarism become the human voluntarism we know today? Bishop Robert Barron details the process well:

As is often the case in the history of ideas, a strong position tends to awaken an equally strong opposition, and this happened as modern philosophers went about their work. A God seen as oppressive and arbitrary in his freedom was … [in varying stages]construed … as the enemy of human flourishing. Feuerbach declared his atheism with the shout, “The ‘no’ to God is the ‘yes’ to man.”… Nietzsche extolled the Ubermensch (superman), a hero in whom the will to power is so intense that it shatters any moral and intellectual systems that would constrain it. … Sartre asserted that existence precedes essence. Human freedom comes first, and then, on its own terms posits meaning value and purpose (Arguing Religion, pp. 40-42).

Thus, in stages, human voluntarism came to replace theological voluntarism. Atheists rejected God, but not the God of ancient Christendom. They rejected a willful God, one whom they saw as oppressive, arbitrary, and willful. This was a God of power, devoid of love; this was not the God who willed in conformity with what was good and what was best for us but one who did what He pleased—it was thisGod who was ushered to the door.

Man triumphantly took the place of God, declaring, “I will do what I want to do, and I will decide whether it is right or wrong.” In this human voluntarism, bold assertion often overrides even the most obvious realities.  A controlling opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States stated, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992). A man can now “be” a woman simply because he says it is so. A Catholic leader or politician who defies Catholic teaching can say that he is a “practicing Catholic” and it is so simply because he says it is so. People speak of “the god within” or of “the god of their own understanding,” claiming the absolute right to design their own god (who just so happens to conform with what they think) and worship that god. We used to call this idolatry. This is human voluntarism. Forget reality, forget reason, forget evidence, forget revelation. Things are what one says they are. The will triumphs over all. Truth must give way to power, the power of the will.

The problem, of course, is that different people want different things. Welcome to the power struggle brought about by human volunteerism, the tyranny of relativism and subjectivism. It looks like its only going to get worse as many double down in asserting their will over everything and everyone. Every man becomes an Ubermensch, asserting and imposing his meaning, refusing to discover the reality of God’s creation and to learn from it humbly.

We who strive to remain sane in times like these can only run to the true God, our Father, who loves us. He is the Lord, who commands what is good and what is best for us. He does not merely impose His will. He is a reasonable Lord. He is Love, and He is Truth. Although He is all-powerful, He cannot lie and will not hate. He wills only the good for us. Cling to Him as never before and know that whatever He commands is good and is what is best for us.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Voluntarism, a Critical Error of Our Times