DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Head to Head
Fate

The concept of fate has been rubbished by Christians teachers for many centuries. It is portrayed as heresy because it is perceived as contrary to the fundamental teaching that we are all free agents. Only free agents can sin, and sin is at the heart of the Christian idea that we all need saving by Jesus. Rick and Mick don't seem to think that the idea of fate can be dismissed easily, and that it has some value to us.
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Mick
Many people today are bothered by the idea that somehow, no matter how hard they try, things happen beyond their control. The river of history runs where it will. It�s as though some outside power, or perhaps a deep law of necessity, pervades everything. This sense of inevitability, of �what must be�, is quite often labelled �fate�.
 

Those of us who suspect that fate operates in our lives might find a certain comfort in the knowledge that we share the idea with the ancient Greeks of nearly three millennia ago. They thought that there is a natural law, a given order of things and powers, which governs the world. Much later, the Christian theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, suggested that fate can be equated with God�s Providence - though the former term should be avoided because it�s too pagan. 

Fundamentally, however, the idea of fate (as distinct from Providence) is not approved of by orthodox Christianity. This is because any suggestion that the future is determined undermines the idea of sin. You and I can�t be convicted of sin if we are unable to freely choose between right and wrong. And if we can�t sin, then there�s no reason to regard Jesus as our saviour. Nevertheless, it seems to me that many Christians still think that some outcomes are �God�s will� in a sense not far removed from fatalism. 

I wonder, Rick, what you make of the age-old idea of fate. 

Rick
Predicting the future, i.e. learning our fate, is a major preoccupation of the human race. We seem to have an almost pathological desire to know our fate, be it personal, national or whatever. 

Knowing the future can be valuable in adjusting behaviour to avoid unfortunate outcomes. For example, if a big snow storm is predicted, you might be prudent to hunker down until it passes to avoid an unfortunate fate. I think fate can be shaped by the operation of our rational conscious minds that allow us to make choices. 

Although many may desire to know their fate, such knowledge can be disconcerting if the future is dark with clouds and unpleasantness. I think of the prisoner facing execution, or a person who is to incur a major illness with much suffering. Such knowledge can disrupt all sense of equanimity and make life, or what remains of it, unbearable. Speaking of fate and attempting to deal with it poses many complexities. 

In assessing the nature of fate I would point to two kinds - prospective and retrospective. Prospective fate is uncertain and contingent as described. 

The only fate that is certain and complete is retrospective, the kind described by historians. For instance, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. That was his fate. That can be said because the event was complete and in past time. 

What matters most in this discussion is free will. Does the human mind have the free agency to make choices that can alter circumstances and forces to affect an outcome and alter one�s fate? I think it does. 

If everything is foreordained from the beginning of time, then I completely agree with you that our sinning has no onus. To accept that proposition would vitiate the idea of free will. Our sin ought to be considered on the basis of our choices and not on some ineluctable fate we can not know. 

Notwithstanding, I see virtue in submitting to God�s will if that means accepting what ever one�s fate happens to be. The fact is that fate is never settled until the last nanosecond of sentient life or existence has run out. 

Mick
Traditional Christian teaching is that we should all do God�s will, and that this is possible only through our own free choice. We don�t have to obey God. But if we don�t, the consequences are not good, since God always wills for us what is best. So there is a sense, as you point out, in which God�s will, being the only right way, can be seen as a sort of fate. There is a sense of inevitability when the only good way is God�s way, and when any other course of action gives results which range from a lesser good, to discomfort, and even to dire suffering.
 

But let�s take a step back. I think that many people today may have a sense of fate operating because they detect outcomes in human lives which appear to be inevitable. Take the example of a person blessed with great talents, apparently derived from the good fortune to have inherited both the right genes and an environment which allows those genetic gifts to flourish. How easy it seems for a gifted person to freely choose a good life, one which by definition is God�s will, since God wills only what is good. Which of us would not wish for such a fate? 

Then there is someone who turns out to be a psychopath or a paranoid schizophrenic despite anything that anyone, including the person affected, can do. One can be forgiven for saying that this is fate operating - though it becomes much harder to say that negative fates are God�s will, if only because it�s hard to understand a God who wills a bad life for anyone (assuming that it is "bad" to be a psychopath or a schizophrenic). 

It seems to me that we cannot avoid the conclusion that the range of an individual�s free choice is limited, and that there is a real sense in which - to some greater or lesser degree - each of us is broadly fated to live this or that life. I can�t help my African origins any more than you can help your Swedish roots. Each of us is able to exercise free will, but only in a somewhat limited way, determined by our relative fates. As you say, we can shape our fates. But how cruel it seems when the fate we shape is a dreadful one! 

Rick
Every system in the world has limits. If there were no limits chaos would reign. Rivers have their banks. If they overflow there is trouble. It is no surprise, despite free will, we all operate within certain limits.
 

I used the following argument about poker players in a previous discussion. I use it again as it is apt to this current debate. The poker player is limited to the cards in a standard deck of 52. Despite this apparent constriction of possibilities, a good deal of money can be won by skilful manipulations of the cards. 

Niccolo Machiavelli states in The Prince

Worldly events are so governed by fortune and by God, that men cannot by their prudence change them, and that on the contrary there is no remedy whatever, and for this may judge it to be useless to toil much about them, but let things be ruled by chance � nevertheless, that our free will may not be altogether extinguished, I think it may be true that fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but that she allows the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us. 

Life, it seems to me, consists of a series of fated events. For example, a businessman competes for contracts on a repetitive basis. Some he wins, some he loses. That is his fate. Similarly a sports team strives for trophies on numerous occasions. Again there is triumph mixed with loss. Life is finally consummated in the penultimate event of death, the fate of all humanity. 

I think what we are really discussing under the rubric of fate is reality. How did our personal narratives and collective experience arrive at this point? How do we deal with the seeming injustice that life has dealt us in spite of our conscious attempts to take an alternative path? How do we deal with the reality of our condition? 

It is here that Christianity can offer balm for our wounds of life. In this regard, I am drawn to the words of St Paul in his letter to the Romans 8.35-39: 

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness or peril, or sword? As it is written, �For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.� No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

For those who follow Jesus Christ, their reality and, yes, their fate lies with Him. 

Mick
I like your equation of fate with reality. Given a modern emphasis on choice, it seems a meaningful way of stressing that not everything is in our control - no matter how hard we try. I sometimes think, for example, that my greatest difficulties in life have derived from my failures to face up to reality. I have a great talent for devising behaviours to avoid the truth about myself and the world. Having said that, I think it is important not to obscure the fact that many throw the towel into the ring of life, fancying that some external controlling force is in charge of everything, and that they are merely pawns in a predetermined set of outcomes.
 

A difficulty raised by allowing fate any role at all, however, lies in drawing the line between what is inevitable and what each of us can influence. It could be argued, for example, that Adolf Hitler�s outlook on life was fated by his circumstances. Is it merely flippant to wonder if his moral worth in God�s eyes is judged by his ability to be one kind of dictator rather than another? Or we might wonder if, given the circumstances of his upbringing and the Russian Revolution, Josef Stalin was fated to be a paranoid mass murderer. Was he a morally upright exterminator, doing to the best of his ability what he was fated to do? Did Mao Tse-tung allow the deaths of 60 million Chinese because he chose to do so, or because his actions were determined by social and psychological factors beyond his control? 

To bring this closer to home, how do you and I distinguish between bad outcomes which were our fault and those which were fated? 

I accept the validity of your ultimate response - which seems to be that it�s impossible to work this out and therefore to leave it in God�s hands. There�s nothing wrong in acknowledging defeat by the mysteriously complex nature of reality. None of us will ever work things out fully; and those that claim that capacity or anything close to it must be recognised as dangerously deluded (some politicians come to mind). 

Nevertheless, I suggest that a vital part of our humanity is to struggle against fate. I don�t want to encourage hubris, that defiant, self-centred lust for power which Milton so wonderfully portrays in his Paradise Lost. Rather, I opt for an outlook on reality which grapples with what seems to be determined, and which refuses to entertain the idea that we are slaves rather than free. I and others are labelled �contrary�, the sort who all-too-frequently kick against the traces, who are criticised for not being team players. But that�s the way we are: all we can do is to be irritatingly mulish as charitably as possible.

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