I have been working diligently, for over a month, doing my last edit of my novel Ristretto Rain. It is now “soaking” to borrow a term from my professional crabbing friends (btw, if you are one of those readers, please don’t use my jmichaeljoneswriter email address because it no longer works). In other words, the manuscript is in the hands of several kind readers, who I hope will give me helpful thoughts and corrections for my next cycle of editing and rewrites. Then I will come back and be consumed again as I try to incorporate their thoughts into my work.
But this me the opportunity to do other things, such as our taxes, and to write other things. I am still interested in this series of “Loss of Truth” and am working on the next installment, which is a very complex writing. However, on this rainy day, with little to do outside, I wanted to put down some thoughts, which I think I can do quickly.
While this will hopeful be a brief work it will be on one of the most profound concepts that humans have wrestled with since the beginning and is the idea of fate, fatalism, and determinism. The Greeks and Romans wrestled with the question of fate, trying to figure out if their gods controlled fate or were submissive to it. I have written on this before, early on when most of my writing was consumed with my cancer and my response to it. This time, it really has nothing to do with me personally or what I’m dealing with.
First, I must define the terms as I am using them. I realize that some writers, theologians, and philosophers use these terms interchangeably and others define them the way I will here, which are the most classical definitions, which I will explain below. I will also comment that this issue should be addressed regardless of your philosophical orientation. These are issues that transcend all religions and worldviews including the variations of atheism. So, while I may write about this from a Christian perspective, at times, these are certainly not exclusively Christian concepts.
So, on to definitions. Fatalism is the concept that in the end, my destiny is preset, although I will have free will in making the small day to day decisions. The Christian and Muslim will say that God has predestine us for a certain outcome of our lives, (for example if we are part of the faithful or not) the number of days we live and—speaking generally—what we accomplish. Pantheism is no longer well-defined as there are many approaches to that general idea, from the classical Hindu, to the western interpretation of pantheism (previously known as “New Age”), My knowledge here is limited but I’ve heard a quote (maybe it was from a movie) from a Hindu that said something like, “All things end up in the good, so if things aren’t good, that means this is not the end.” That is a form of fatalism, where humans end up in nirvana, one way or the other. The only question for the pantheist is the process of getting there.
The atheist may have a fatalistic view, but without intention (meaning without some personal force intending a particular outcome). There is no force or person in that model that is directing your life toward good. That form of evolutionary fatalism is that the natural laws are set and will predestine this world to its final outcome, which may be good or a disaster. The outcome is set, although we may not know what that is (except the models do say that our sun will eventually expand, consuming the earth in the process, and then explode).
Determinism takes this to the microscopic level, where everything is programed and there is only an illusion of free will. The atheists who hold this view, at least the ones I’ve talked to, have this position because—as an extension of what I said previously—the natural laws determine everything, even the thoughts that enter my head. So, the big bang happened, and it had no choice to happen because it was following irresistible natural laws of physics, then the universe was set in a predetermined motion based on the laws of physics. Then evolution created life and the present life forms, based on compelling natural laws, down to the very fine details of everyday life.
The pantheists may vary in their perspective of determinism, but some of the ones I’ve spoken to, believe that every event of their lives is part of this general life-forces wills to direct them, eventually, to goodness. So, to those people, nothing happens by chance. While there may be some room for a little free will, this life force is constantly interfering with this free will to redirect it to its final destiny.
Now we come to the religious, specifically the Muslim and Christian. While I have spent hours talking to Muslims, I will not spend too much time talking about their viewpoint at this juncture except to say that it is similar to the Christian view, but possible more extreme. It is more extreme in the area of determinism. They emphasize that power of God, often telling me that the Christian view of God is weak and inferior. This very powerful God must control the movement of every atom, thus there is no free choice. They soon face the same dilemma as the deterministic Christian and that is then how do you justify evil? I’ve heard both extremist Muslims and what I would call hyper-Calvinist Christians who share the same view on this that even evil is not a free choice but is predetermined by God… or Satan (pay your money and take your choice). But then it begs the question, if we had no choice in doing this evil, why are we culpable?
With all the above said, then I come to my main thought and that is the view of the average Christian on determinism. Most of them would say that there is a place for free will, that when we do evil (aka sin) it is an act of our free will; therefore, we are guilty. They also believe that we have free will in following God or rejecting him. This idea is attractive because the holders of this view can then boast that they are the good guys because they made this choice and the other, bad guys, didn’t. They also live like they believe in free will in the more mundane things, like picking colors for their houses, deciding were to go on vacation, picking a spouse (not so mundane), picking a profession, and the list goes on and on.
However, the average Christian then gets into a philosophical quagmire in the vestibule of popular evangelical churches when you try to talk about the very ordinary (common things of everyday life). I will start with myself, although the purpose of this article is not to center on my situation. I watch evangelicals squirm when I say things like, “It wasn’t God’s intention to give me cancer.” Now, while these same Christians would never be so cruel to say that God intentionally cursed me with cancer, they would somehow side step and weave a narrative that God either allowed this to happen or deliberately caused the cancer for a higher, good purpose. You know the cliché, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. So, both the Christian and pantheist could promote this idea.
If I challenge them on this point, that I have cancer because we live in a broken world where genetic defects happen (genes fold the wrong way), simply because this world is not perfect and this was not part of some big plan by God, they become very defensive. The reason is, what they are hearing is, “God is not big enough to have prevented this cancer, or maybe my faith is too small.” They are quick to point out that God did do this and that I must believe that he did it for a good reason… trusting him in these.
I say, bullshit. But now, away from my personal dilemma and back to the generalities.
It has become my opinion that it is the smaller God who must be the orchestrator of life’s every detail. In that scenario, God is inside a box, which we built for him with our unimaginative minds. It reminds me of my brother, Gary, who built a box for his pet rooster when he was a little boy, but accidently hitting the rooster in the head with his hammer when he was driving in the last nail… and killed the chicken.
I remember saying the word “luck” in front of a deeply Calvinist friend of mine a few years ago. She immediately lashed out in shock and rebuke for me. “Luck,” she said, “that is not a Christian word at all.” She immediately when home and “unfriended” me on FB and told others she doubted if I was still a Christian (also because I go to a church where a woman is pastor).
We need to spend more time in thought about this. I see a world that God has created, that he chooses to allow to work out under the natural laws he has created, but laws that are broken. Therefore, shit really does happen and those who are victims of that shit are having genuine bad luck. A friend of mine, minding his own business, was killed a few weeks ago with a 28-year-old man decided to get drunk and then try and drive his car at 100 MPH. It was profoundly shitty luck for this friend, to be in the path of this idiot at that very moment. This model that allows the possibility of luck, both good and bad, does not promote an impotent God. It is a huge, liberated God that does have to conform to the tiny little boxes our feeble minds create for him to live in. There is the big unknown, and unknowable. It is no more knowable for us, than a piss ant being able to understand quantum physics or a unifying theory of relativity and Newtonian physics. That’s how big this God is who is omnipotent, merciful, loving, yet, within his created universe, bad shit still happens, and it is not of his doing. That’s one of the powerful lessons of Job.
However, if you insist on a God who is deterministic, who controls the atoms, who conducts your thoughts and the actions of others, including 28-year-old men who make profoundly bad choices to drink and drive, then you satisfy your demand of an impotent God, but you give up his mercifulness, goodness, or wisdom. During my evangelical days, this was a compromise that we chose to make. We plastered over this problem by a faith that this was a good God. It is like the young woman whose boyfriend beats the hell out of her, but she still loves him and convinces herself that deep inside he is a good man just because she wants to believe that.
But the greatest problem with this model, are those who are not interested in this kind of God; Or those who did believe in this God, but then lost that belief during a period of great suffering. I know when I was suffering so much last spring (and you don’t know the half of it) that my faith in God was never in doubt, because I had liberated him from my evangelical box decades ago. I already knew that we live in an imperfect world and shit really happens without intent or meaning. That we do have the free will to make choices that effect our lives and the lives of others through collateral damage.
One response to “Ramblings: Fatalism & Determinism Revisited (aka, does shit happen?)”
This was a thought provoking read. I believe I have a very similar view on this topic but I still struggle with the idea of hell as a Christian. If God is all knowing and all powerful and if hell is real place as mentioned in the Bible (Matthew 24:46 etc..). Then just by creating the universe, God knew some people would go to hell in the end. After getting lost in questions like this, I usually come to the idea that there is a lot of “unknown” that I can’t understand. Even then I struggle with even one person having to live an eternity in suffering. I have to believe we must go on living and loving and without knowing everything, and that peoples souls won’t be forgotten by a God who created hem in the first place. Thank you Michael for writing and thought provoking questions.
– a fan