Monday, August 5, 2013


Fatalism – the belief that what is meant to be will be, that God will make happen what God intends to happen, and similar beliefs – seems wrong to me. When the story of Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom (Genesis 18:20-30) was read during the Sunday Eucharist the last Sunday of July, Abraham's audacity struck me. God's willingness to negotiate with Abraham made an even greater impression.

It is certainly not necessary to take the story of Abraham badgering God as literal history. If nothing else, the story reflects the attitude of the story's author(s) and subsequent editors about God. They clearly reject fatalism and the belief that history is already determined. Instead, they express confidence in an open future, one at least partially determined by human actions and partially by God's actions.

Obviously, individuals exercise little or no control over much of life. None of us can choose our genes or the people who raise us from infancy to childhood; only a few people have any voice even then in who will rear them (the exception of which I am thinking is a child of a divorcing couple who has the option of determining with which parent she or he will live). Even as adults, we have little influence over probably a majority of what happens to us, e.g., we cannot see the millions if not billions of viruses and bacteria that daily assault us, we attribute many other events to luck or chance, we call yet other things over which we have no control accidents, etc. Furthermore, prior choices shape not only our present options but also shape our attitudes toward those options.

Altogether, humans enjoy at best a limited autonomy.

Nevertheless, humans display amazing creativity in all fields. We examine data and perceive new patterns, or the possibility of new patterns, and then call those patterns theories. Science and the social science advance through the formulation of new theory. We arrange words and colors in new patterns to create art (literature, painting, sculpture, etc.). This continuing and incredible creativity in most aspects of our existence suggests the possibility of at least limited human autonomy, i.e., humans occasionally and in perhaps small ways acting in a non-predetermined manner.

Chaos theorists have identified what they call the butterfly effect, the ability of a small change to produce, over time, large-scale results. In other words, even if humans have severely limited opportunities to exercise autonomy, autonomy associated with relatively minuscule nudges or other moves could explain much of the diversity and development attributable to humans.

Theologically, Christians and others have hope for the future, aware of creation's dynamism and confident that creation did not exhaust the Creator's goodness and influence. God's continuing activity nudges or lures creation toward a future that God desires. Having initiated a creation that now functions independently, God is clearly no longer omnipotent. Without some degree of independence, limited autonomy would be impossible and fatalism (also known as kismet in Islam and samsara in some other religions) would prevail.

If fatalism truly prevailed, then Abraham negotiating with God would be a farce; God already and inflexibly would have decided what to do. Change, and therefore hope, would be unwarranted. Yet humans persistently and almost universally believe that we can make choices and therefore that we can make a difference. Perhaps our intuition is partially correct: we have limited autonomy, though not nearly as much as we often think.


Anonymous said...

As Episcopalians, we follow Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe God is active in our everyday lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is YOUR churchs' convenient is it not? It does not state you are not in control of your fate or destiny. Why would you question it, you are born of free will and is the individual who chooses to listen and obey God; we as humans have the inherent ability decisions on our own i.e Adam and Eve - God and the Holy Trinity working together say wait, listen and obey my commands and I will make you life richer and fuller; I will protect you .

George Clifford said...

Anonymous, Christians are far from unanimous about whether people have free will. John Calvin prominently argued that the fate of humans is predetermined, i.e., some humans are destined for heaven and others for hell. The argument dates back to the first centuries after Jesus; proponents of predestination find their strongest scriptural support in the writings of Paul. The dominance of Protestant Christians who endorse free will would surprise many doctrinally orthodox Christians who identify free will as a key component of Arminianism, a Dutch sect that emerged as a counterpoint to Calvin. Incidentally, many doctrinally sound Anglicans reject the idea of free will.

Anonymous said...

Mr George, the point I am trying to make is - You being of the Episcopalian faith wrote the article. Your church's doctrine or convenient does NOT state you are not in control of your own life. So do you believe this is true or not?? Also Calvin I believe was a nut. Why do we believe in Jesus Christ if only the predetermined are going to heaven?? "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life." Clearly this message to all people who hear and believe is eternal hope. We as disciples of Christ are to got out and spread the Gospel, the good news to the masses of those who are non-believers tell of his love for you and I. This message is false then if only the predetermined are going to have eternal life through Jesus Christ.

George Clifford said...

The Episcopal Church prays together and lacks doctrinal uniformity. I believe that people have limited autonomy. I find little in Calvin that I like, but deprecating him displays a lack of Christian charity. God's love is real regardless of the amount of autonomy people enjoy.