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Fate, Chance, and Life’s Giftedness

February 11th, 2009 by Jason · No Comments

Fate and a strong predestination were part of the dominant theology in Israel’s day.  It was assumed that God managed and ordered the world in a fair way such that if you fared poorly, it was because God was punishing you for your sin (or even that of your parents), and if you did well, it was because God was blessing you for your faithfulness.  It’s understandable, this need to hear that God is in control, for back then, as it is now, chaos was the anti-god, the force that ancient Israelites feared.  Chaos, chance, undoing lead to a life that’s unpredictable and ends in death.  That’s why the sea with its unfathomable depths and inability to be controlled was seen as a source of chaos as was Leviathan, the monster who dwelled in its depths.  It may sound strange to us now, but it was good news when God was described as “trampling on the waves of the sea” in Job 9.  And that’s why it’s even better news when Revelation 21 describes the new earth as having “no sea.”  God’s not against surfing, but against the destructive forces of chaos.  Today, we need only look at the economic collapse and how hard we’re trying to figure out and control forces that seem beyond our control.

However, hearing the good news of God’s power in overcoming chaos can easily become calcified into a set of maxims that guarantee good for those that follow the rules and woe for those that break them.  A sampling of that dominant theology, from some of Job’s well-intentioned friends:

“Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
Where were the upright ever destroyed?

As I have observed, those who plow evil
and those who sow trouble reap it.

At the breath of God they perish;
at the blast of his anger they are no more.  (Job 4:7-9)

“Surely God does not reject the blameless
or strengthen the hands of evildoers. (Job 8:20)

In our day, outside of theological talk about predestination has been the conversation over the past couple hundred years about the possibility of free will and how pre-determined the universe is.  In the scientific view of the universe that Newton delineated a few centuries ago, the world is like a clock that was wound up at the beginning and everything is fixed and ordered by the rules that govern it such as gravity.  Newton gave us the image of atoms as balls on a billiard table that operate according to absolute laws and philosophers took that and surmised that if we knew the location and speed of every atom in the universe we could predict the future with certainty.  In more recent years the discovery of the DNA that make up our genes has opened up the old question of whether we are a “blank slate” or an already-written book.

In recent years, the deterministic view of the universe has started to crack.  Atoms are not billiard balls obeying fixed laws, but are more like clouds of energy, definitely not fixed.  Quantum physics and chaos theory has given us “room” in the universe for the genuinely “unexpected” to happen.  Quantum physics informed us that when we look at quarks, the smallest building blocks of matter, we can either know where they are or where they are going, but never both at the same time.  Chaos theory tells us that the smallest change in large systems, such as weather patterns, can cause massive unexpected results.

All this to say that fate and fatalism, chance and choice are as pertinent and unsettled questions today as they were in Biblical times.  Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, vacilates between the two poles, sometimes concluding that “time and chance happen to us all” (Ecc. 9:11-12) and other times affirming that God orders the universe, but that his ways are inscrutable (Ecc. 3:11).  It’s true that life doesn’t follow a roadmap, that it’s mysterious, and even often amoral.  And yet Qohelet can also tell us that “we should be grateful and enjoy what we have worked for.  It is a gift from God” (Ecc. 5:18-20).  Giftedness underlies fate and chance.  Life is absurd, and yet it is also the case that life is good and beautiful.  Not good because we can make life ordered by being clever and hard-working enough to outwit chance, but simply because it is gifted from a God who both made life “very good” and works to “make good” from even the chaos that sin causes.

Most of us spend our time crawling, groping, climbing, sometimes running, but always moving like the works of a clock.  But now and then joy comes to arrest the motion, it stops the tedious ticking of our life-clocks with the bracing discovery that we have received a gift.  It works most magnificently when we feel our own lie as if it were God’s gift to us.  (Lewis Smedes, How Can it be All Right when Everything is All Wrong?)

Tags: science · theology