I recently finished reading Fredrik Backman’s 2012 bestseller, A Man Called Ove. It’s a well-written story about a man (called Ove, in case you were wondering) who is exactly as he seems, but not for the reasons you would think. Ove is a 59-year old man recently forced into retirement who stomps around his neighborhood all day enforcing the council rules and yelling at friendly, if a little inept, service people. He hasn’t spoken to his only friend Rune since Rune upgraded from a Volvo to a BMW.
Ove’s primary characteristic, it seems, is his devotion to his principles. This is at the heart of the story, since the people around Ove keep trying to get him to act contrary to his principles (like putting more money into the parking meter up front so he doesn’t have to go out to feed it every 15 minutes). Ove is who Ove is, and Ove won’t change who he is. He’s an entirely consistent character throughout the book.
As Ove’s backstory progresses, however, we learn that Ove is who he is because of the people in his life. His father, who died when he was 16, owned a Saab and taught Ove how to take it apart and put it back together again; so, Ove has never owned anything other than a Saab. Ove’s late wife Sonja was a loving and compassionate woman, and it is the memory of her that leads Ove to repeatedly help his somewhat clueless neighbors throughout the book, even though he sees them as helpless and moronic.
These two ideas—Ove’s strong and unyielding will on the one hand, and his character being formed by those he has loved on the other, seem at odds with one another. Are Ove’s choices ever his own, or does he act the way he does because of his influences?
I think Ove beautifully represents the reality of human willing as a caused reality, something I believe most Arminians are hesitant to admit. We act the way we act because of the people around us. This doesn’t take away the validity or dignity of human choice; it establishes it. For me to exist in the world as a real agent, capable of action, is for me to be able to act on others in such a way as to affect their decisions. I would argue that I cannot not influence the decisions of those around me. It follows that to say a “free” act of the will is therefore one in which the actor is uninfluenced and unmoved is actually to deny causality in the sphere of human willing.
Christian doctrine affirms that only God is from himself, and exists by virtue of his own life. Our life is derivative of and maintained by God’s life, ultimately, and by the lives of others, proximately. Only God is a se, existing by virtue of his boundless and uncaused life. We are who and what we are by the gift of God, a gift directly given by God himself through his Spirit and indirectly given by a multitude of forces and factors. But it is God as agent who uses these myriad causes to give us the shape of our lives. This is not inconsistent with will, but is, in fact, the foundation of it. Ove is not a se, but ab extra. This would be a problem if Ove were not a creature (which he is doubly), but both Ove and we ourselves are creatures. If our being and life are from outside ourselves, how can our willing be wholly interior and uncaused? The Arminian doctrine of free will is, I think, an unintentional denial of the uniqueness of God in reference to his willing as the One who is from himself, and the only One in whom we live and move and have our being.