Are our lives predetermined, or do we have free choice?

Short answer: All events and circumstances are predetermined in the sense that they are part of the Holy Spirit's script of our journey through time and space, a journey that has already been completed. We have free choice in the sense that we can freely give and receive miracles, which both shifts our perception of events in the script and "fast forwards" us through parts of the script.


The Course's stance on the age-old question of determinism vs. free will is rooted in its ideas about the nature of time. The Course's ideas about time are mind-boggling to say the least, and I know I still don't fully understand them; nevertheless, we can certainly grow in our understanding of them if we read the Course carefully. Here, then, is my current understanding of the Course's position on the determinism vs. free will issue (henceforth I will use the term "free choice" instead of "free will" since, strictly speaking, "free will" in the Course refers not to choice but to the undivided will we share with God). I am indebted to Robert Perry for his research on the Course's view of time, which I have drawn on in this answer.

All events and circumstances are predetermined in the sense that they are all part of the Holy Spirit's script of our journey through time and space, a journey which has already been completed.

The Course is emphatic that our journey through time and space is not at random, but in fact follows a preordained script:

Yet there is a plan behind appearances that does not change. The script is written (W-pI.158.4:2-3).

Who wrote this script? Well, certainly our own choices contributed to it, and this is one sense in which we have free choice—in fact, the Course says that we ourselves have chosen all of the particular events and circumstances of our individual lives:

I am responsible for what I see.
I choose the feelings I experience, and I decide upon the goal I would achieve.
And everything that seems to happen to me I ask for, and receive as I have asked (T-21.II.2:3-5).

But the Holy Spirit is actually the author of the script; the Course alludes to this when it refers to "Him Who wrote salvation's script in His Creator's Name" (W-pI.169.9:3). He took all of the "story material" that we gave Him and incorporated it into "salvation's script," a script of our entire journey through time and space, a journey from separation to salvation. (The fact that our own ego material is incorporated into the script leads some Course interpreters, including Ken Wapnick, to conclude that there are two scripts: the ego's and the Holy Spirit's. But I don't find support for this in the Course.)

This idea that the Holy Spirit incorporated our choices into His script for salvation helps to reconcile two seemingly contradictory ideas in the Course: the idea that all events are the result of our choices (as in T-21.II.2:3-5 and T-21.II.3:1-3), and the idea that all events are lovingly planned by the Holy Spirit (as in W-pI.135.18:1-4). It also helps answer the nagging question, "If the Holy Spirit wrote the entire script, why are there so many painful events in it? Does this mean that He inflicts pain on us?" No, the painful events are the result of our ego choices, which the Holy Spirit had to incorporate into His script because He couldn't violate our free choice (love never imposes itself by force). But He could reinterpret our choices in the light of his salvific purpose, and so He took even our darkest dreams and wove them into a tapestry of light. Because the Holy Spirit wrote the script, we can trust that all the events and circumstances of our lives, regardless of their appearance, will ultimately lead to greater good:

What could you not accept, if you but knew that everything that happens, all events, past, present and to come, are gently planned by One Whose only purpose is your good? Perhaps you have misunderstood His plan, for He would never offer pain to you. But your defenses did not let you see His loving blessing shine in every step you ever took. While you made plans for death, He led you gently to eternal life (W-pI.135.18:1-4).

Our lives, then, follow the Holy Spirit's loving script. Yet the Course also tells us that in truth, the error of separation (including all the fragmented forms that error took) and the Holy Spirit's correction (including all of His specific corrections of those fragmented forms) happened instantly— the entire separation lasted only a "tiny tick of time" (T-26.V.3:5), and "passed away in Heaven too soon for anything to notice it had come" (T-26.V.5:1). Time, and our entire journey through it, is in fact an illusion that is already over and done with. Why, then, do we experience it as this long timeline? Because even though the separation is in fact over and done with, a part of our minds still wants to hold onto it. And since it is in fact already over, the only way we can hold onto it is to hold onto our memories of it. That, says the Course, is exactly what we are doing: "You keep an ancient memory before your eyes" (T-26.V.5:6). As we go through the Holy Spirit's script, we are actually "reviewing mentally what has gone by" (W-pI.158.4:5). As Robert Perry puts it: Like a senile person, we are living in our memories.

Our experience of our journey through time and space can be likened to watching a movie on a VCR (only in this case, we are part of the movie). The script is written and all we are doing is watching a movie that has already been shot. Because the movie has already been shot, we cannot really do anything to change the movie itself. In this sense, all events and circumstances in our lives are predetermined (including, fortunately, the happy ending of our movie, which is salvation). However, there is one significant thing that we can do to change our experience of the movie: we can give and receive miracles. More on that below.

We have free choice in the sense that we can freely give and receive miracles, which both shifts our perception of events in the script and "fast forwards" us through parts of the script.

I can think of two ways in which miracles change our experience of our journey through time and space. First, and most important, miracles change our perception of the events and circumstances of our lives. The same physical events or circumstances will be seen quite differently through Christ's vision than they would be through the eyes of the ego. Miracles allow us to see "the love beyond the hate, the constancy in change, the pure in sin, and only Heaven's blessing on the world" (W-pI.151.11:3). They reveal to us the Holy Spirit's loving blessing shining in every step we take, as referred to above. Thus even though we may be going through the same script regardless of how we perceive it, our experience of the script will be profoundly different if we choose to view it through the holy perception that the miracle brings to us.

Second, the miracle actually alters our journey through the script by allowing us to skip over parts of it and thus go through it faster. We are told that "the miracle is the only device at your immediate disposal for controlling time" (T-1.I.48:1). Since it is a device for controlling time, the miracle itself comes from outside of time, outside the script; it "establishes an out-of-pattern time interval not under the usual laws of time" (T-1.I.47:2). In other words, our choice to give and receive miracles is not predetermined by the script; it is a truly free choice. According to the Course, this is the only free choice we have.

What about the other things the Course says we can freely choose? It tells us in some places that our only free choice is whether to listen to the ego or the Holy Spirit (C-1.7:1), and in other places that we can't choose the curriculum, but can choose when we want to learn it (T-In.1:3-5 and M-2.3:6-7). In my opinion, these are just different ways of saying the same thing: We can choose the miracle (which is the choice for the Holy Spirit, and is the choice to learn His curriculum), or we can refuse the miracle (which is the choice for the ego, and is the choice to delay learning the Holy Spirit's curriculum).

So, miracles are the only means at our disposal for controlling the script of time. How do miracles control time? The following passage gives us the answer:

The miracle minimizes the need for time. In the longitudinal or horizontal plane [the time line] the recognition of the equality of the members of the Sonship [the end of the journey] appears to involve almost endless time. However, the miracle entails a sudden shift from horizontal to vertical perception [a shift into timelessness]. This introduces an interval from which the giver and receiver both emerge farther along in time than they would otherwise have been. The miracle thus has the unique property of abolishing time to the extent that it renders the interval of time it spans unnecessary. There is no relationship between the time a miracle takes and the time it covers. The miracle substitutes for learning that might have taken thousands of years….The miracle shortens time by collapsing it, thus eliminating certain intervals within it. It does this, however, within the larger temporal sequence (T-1.II.6:1-7,9-10).

This is an amazing passage. It tells us that by working miracles (or receiving them), we can skip over huge chunks of time—even thousands of years. This doesn't mean that we skip over chronological time; it's not like I experience a miracle in the year 2000, save a thousand years, and then find myself in the year 3000. Rather, it puts both giver and receiver further ahead in the timeline of their spiritual development— it "substitutes for learning" that might otherwise have taken a very long time. It thus renders "the interval of time it spans unnecessary," meaning that it literally skips over the part of the Holy Spirit's script that we would have otherwise needed to plod through in order to reach that level of spiritual development. Miracles thus allow us to hit the "fast forward" button on our VCR and skip entire scenes of the movie. This saves time, which after all is the entire purpose of A Course in Miracles: "This course does not attempt to teach more than [others] learned in time, but it does aim at saving time" (T-18.VII.4:5).

While the script is already written (determinism), our experience of the script and the speed of our journey through it is up to us (free choice). Thus there are many ways that the Holy Spirit's script can actually play out in the world.

Applying the "time saving" aspect of miracles to our question about determinism vs. free choice, what this tells me is that even though there is a single, unchangeable script, there are a huge variety of possibilities for how that script actually plays out in the world. Everything that happens is part of the script (except for the choice to give and receive miracles), so in that sense there is determinism. But since different people are progressing through their "sub-scripts" at different rates—some working more miracles than others, some receiving more miracles than others, each saving a hundred years here, a thousand years there—the number of possibilities for how things actually unfold in space and time must be truly staggering.

To me, this means that all bets are off when it comes to predicting specific events with certainty. Jesus himself was apparently unable to do this concerning Helen and Bill's lives; commenting on a particular situation Helen and Bill were facing one day, he said, "I do not yet know what decisions those who are involved in [what is] happening later today will make" (Absence from Felicity, by Ken Wapnick, p. 290). Thus it seems clear that no particular event in our lives is actually predestined in the sense that there's absolutely nothing we can do to keep it from happening. For instance, let's say that the Holy Spirit's script says I'm going to get cancer (remembering that the Holy Spirit wrote my cancer into the script only because I insisted upon it—it was my choice). This cancer is part of the script, so it's predestined in that sense. But I still have a choice: I can work a miracle (or receive a miracle from someone else), and if I do, I may skip over that part of the script completely and not get cancer at all. Since our choices jump us to different parts of the script, our choices make a huge difference in determining what actually happens in our lives. Thus I don't think there is predestination in the absolute "it's going to happen and you're powerless to do anything about it" sense.

This idea that there is one predetermined script but many ways we can choose to go through it raises all sorts of questions about how it all fits together. I think it's just far too vast and complicated for our limited minds to ever figure out; however, one analogy I have found helpful is to liken the Holy Spirit's script to the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books for children. These are interactive storybooks in which the child reading them is essentially the "hero" of the story, who must make choices that determine how the story will play out. At the bottom of each page, the child is given a choice about what will happen next in the story, and is then told: "If you choose Option A, go to page 23; if Option B, go to page 26." Each choice will lead to a different outcome, which presents the child with a new set of choices, and so on. Thus the same, predetermined book (the book is, of course, already written) can nonetheless be gone through in a variety of ways, depending on the child's free choices.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit's script is something like this. Events unfold in our lives, all of which are part of the Holy Spirit's predetermined script, a script which leads to the inevitable happy ending of salvation. Yet as the events of the script unfold, we are constantly presented with a choice which will determine how we experience the script, how fast we go through it, and what parts of it will actually happen in our lives. As we go through the "book" of our lives, every instant we are presented with our options: "If you choose a miracle: experience joy, skip a thousand pages, and go to page 10,214. If you choose the ego: experience pain and go to the next page." I'm not entirely sure this analogy is accurate, and it still leaves all sorts of unanswered questions about how our individual "books" all work together. But it is at least one possible explanation of how we can have a predetermined script and real free choice at the same time.

Fortunately, I don't think that we need to know exactly how it all works. What I think we do need to remember is:

1. Because the script has already been written, and at the end of that script is our salvation, our return to God is inevitable. If indeed we have already journeyed through the script and are only reliving a memory of it, we have already returned. In fact, since the whole journey is an illusion, we never really left.

2. Yet we have real choices to make. We can choose miracles, which will both shift our perception of the events and circumstances of our lives to a more joyful perception, and help us and our brothers move faster toward our happy reunion with God.

Let us, then, choose miracles. Let us save time. And let us remember as we do so that "every collapse of time brings everyone closer to the ultimate release from time, in which the Son and the Father are One" (T-1.V.2:4).

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