Decisions, decisions. Life is full of them. The time we wake up in the morning, the clothes we wear, what to eat for lunch or buy at the store, summer vacation plans, our investments and work projects, all involve choices and planning. Decisions come in many forms; they arise from everyday interactions, such as a spontaneous trip to the snack shack at a ball game, as well as annual legal formalities, such as filing taxes. They inundate our private lives, influence our public lives, and vary in terms of triviality and consequence.[1] Life is indeed full of decisions.

One very important decision I had to make recently involved what to do for my wife’s fiftieth birthday. I frankly didn’t have a clue. So I sought the counsel of a dear friend who is a genius when it comes to planning events. My friend suggested a surprise party, offering her own home as the place for the event. She immediately took a pencil in hand, looked to the calendar on her desk, and found a date approximate to my wife’s birthday that was open and convenient. She then suggested that my youngest daughter sleep over her house the night before so that my wife and I would have the excuse of visiting her home that day. She then suggested I contact by email our invited friends and give them the time and place. My dear friend not only helped me give my wife a wonderful surprise birthday party, she also gave me a fantastic lesson on the art of decision making.

The Power to Choose

Decision making is conceived generally as a practice of planning and action taking. It varies in degrees of formality, complexity, and intentionality, and applies to a wide range of human activity. What we often overlook is the cultural specificity behind decision making. As the purposes and processes behind decisions differ from culture to culture, we find that our judgments and choices actually reflect larger social dynamics. Cultural assumptions about the self, community, risk, age, gender roles, legal norms, career opportunities, honor and shame, health, education, and the like, all contribute to how decisions are made.

In our Western context, the idea of “free will” (liberum arbitrium) has been enormously influential in our understanding of the human person. The term appears to have derived from Stoic philosophy, was introduced into Christianity by the second-century theologian Tertullian, and was developed theologically by Augustine.[2] Of interest is how the idea of free will seems to involve two contradictory notions. On the one hand, we all assume that we are free to make our own choices. On the other hand, what and how we choose, the natural and social causal factors that frame our choices, such as our physical height and our parents, are external to us, they are not self-generated. Augustine intensified this tension by emphasizing the moral limitations on the will as the consequence of our sin.[3] The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas addressed this tension between freedom and determinism by postulating the dual nature of human beings: we are composed of both body and soul; the former is governed by nature and is largely determined, while the latter is governed by reason and thereby allows for free choices.[4]

However, the rise of the modern age radically reshaped our conceptions of the will and choice. In the contemporary context of globalization and technocracy, human volition is no longer understood in relation to the Christian conception of God and the world but rather in terms of neoliberal conceptions of autonomy and self-actualization. This reorientation of the individual away from God and toward self-invention comprises what socioligists refer to as “lifestyle values,” which reinterprets the human person as a sovereign individual devoid of any religious obligations apart from those chosen by and for oneself. Today, therefore, choice involves quite literally everything; we decide every aspect of our self-identity: our political party, career, relationships, gender, and even children. In fact, decision making is so central to the modern conception of the human person that its absence (as in the case of an unborn child) or its loss (as in the case of someone lapsing into an irreversible coma) is considered the deprivation of personhood.

Unfortunately, the church in the modern age has not escaped the hyper-volition that marks contemporary Western culture. Nineteenth-century revivalism enshrined decision making as central to the autonomous individual. Hymns such as “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” and the replacement of the Eucharist with the “Invitation” at the climax of church services significantly reconfigured worship around modern decision making. Today, a number of televangelists assume as normative secular conceptions of consumer-based choice and show weekly how God can make such conceptions a reality in our lives.

A Theology of Decision Making

In formulating a theology of decision making, it is therefore crucial that we see decisions not as simply givens but rather as social constructs. We need to be aware of the ways in which we come to our decisions, to think about our thinking, as it were, so as to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

The church fathers referred to this self-evaluation as an attitude of nepsis, a sense of being sober-minded and alert.[5] And they were very clear that such mindfulness is not an autonomous endeavor, but requires the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. Saint Gregory of Sinai writes:

You cannot be or become spiritually intelligent in the way that is natural to man in his pre-fallen state unless you first attain purity and freedom from corruption. For our purity has been overlaid by a state of sense-dominated mindlessness and our original incorruption by the corruption of the flesh … mere skill in reasoning does not make a person’s intelligence pure, for since the fall our intelligence has been corrupted by evil thoughts … the wisdom of this world … falls far short of real wisdom and contemplation. (Philokalia IV, p. 212)[6]

A distinctively Christian approach to decision making is thus one that is bathed in prayer and theological reflection. The wisdom that we seek comes ultimately not from this world (1 Cor 2:13), but from God (James 1:5). In so far as it is the social space of the church that provides such a contemplative context, our decision making is sanctified within the shared lifeworld of these Spirit-filled communities.

So how do we put godly decision making into practice? That will be the subject of our next post.

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[1] Åsa Boholm, et al, “Anthropology and Decision Making: An Introduction,” Focaal – Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 65 (2013): 97-113, 98.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd edition (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994, 1997), 427.

[3] Ibid, 427.

[4] Boholm,”Anthropology,” 98

[5] http://ancientchristianwisdom.com/2012/11/06/the-therapeutic-strategy-of-nepsis/.

[6] As cited in Fr. George Morelli, “Mindfulness as Known by the Church Fathers,” http://www.antiochian.org/mindfulness-known-church-fathers#_edn3.

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