Everyone seems to have something which sets their teeth on edge. Not just stuff like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard, either; for some people it’s bigotry, for others it’s legalism, for others it’s greed or corruption or something else. Those mindsets some people seem to have that we just find intensely bothersome when we meet them in other people. The stuff it takes an effort of will not to confront immediately.
I seem to have several. Deliberate wilful stupidity is probably the chief among them, but fatalism might be second.
Fatalism, of course, is the idea that everything is preset and that human free will is an illusion. We do not, actually, have the ability to make choices, nor the responsibility that goes along with it. We are all just puppets or robots, carrying out our predetermined destinies with no more power to change them than a rock has to stay in the air when you let go of it.
Fatalism has a long pedigree; it appears to be one of the mindsets into which human beings naturally tend to fall. We’ve changed our ideas about the causative mechanisms over time, but the idea is remarkably persistent. Where once we spoke of the Three Spinners, the Greek goddesses of Fate that spun the threads of people’s lives with blind indifference, or of the influences of the stars, today we’re more likely to point to genetics as our deterministic cause. “I have no choice, the Fates have spun it” became “I have no choice; it’s in my stars” and now seems to be “I have no choice; it’s in my genes”.
Is it just me, or is this the same idea in play?
I think the attraction is that it rather wonderfully and thoroughly absolves us of all responsibility. If it’s all predetermined, then nothing we do is our fault. I couldn’t help it.
But human responsibility is one of the cornerstones of Biblical moral teaching; starting from God’s goodness expressed in His attribute of Justice, one of the corresponding truths of human nature is that we are moral free agents; that is, we have the right, responsibility and ability to make real choices and decisions.
Theologically, of course, one of the big questions is how human moral agency can coexist with Divine Sovereignty and omniscience. If God knows everything, so the logic chain goes, then everything must be already determined in some fashion, otherwise human free choices would screw up God’s foreknowledge. So either human free will must be to some extent an illusion of perspective (hyper-Calvinism) or God’s omniscience must be somehow limited (the Open Theist heresy).
Me, I take comfort from the fact that God’s ways are higher than man’s ways. This may be a bit of a cop-out, but logically, why should a finite and temporal mind be expected to fully comprehend an infinite and eternal One? It’s like the old adage that if the human brain was simple enough to understand, humans would still be too stupid to understand it.
We can’t even properly comprehend what infinite is. For instance, if the entire observable universe were shrunk to the size of a single atom of Hydrogen, “infinite” is still bigger than the entire observable universe by comparison. And you, who cannot even hold that truth in your feeble human mind, want the mysteries of the Divine nature to conform to the limits of your understanding? God is infinite and eternal. We are finite and temporal – we are born, we live, we die. He goes on forever, both forward and back through time.
In the secular world, we’re more likely to encounter fatalism in the form of genetic determinism or a fatalistic understanding of the influence of nurture than an oversimplified understanding of the sovereign Will of God. “I can’t help it; it’s my genes” or “I can’t help it; it’s my upbringing”.
In my understanding, which as I have said above is limited, genetics does not work that way for complex behavioural traits. Blood type and hair colour may be reasonably straightforward switching on or off of various proteins and enzymes in the body, but that’s a different kettle of fish to more complex things like behaviour and propensity to develop certain cancers and so on.
Using the example of certain cancers that they tell us are “genetically linked”, what having the “cancer gene” does is not to create a certainty that you will inevitably contract that cancer, but an increase in the probability that you might. In genetic terms, it creates a predisposition toward the development of a particular cancer, not a deterministic certainty. Whether or not you actually do is dependent on numerous other factors including your lifestyle, behavioural choices and other risk factors. But we are in the realm of probability, or speaking more commonly, of possibility, not of certainty. The genetics of complex, multi-factor things like cancers and behavioural traits are not fatalism, despite how we’ve popularised the science.
The influence of nurture is even more poorly understood. Few would deny that one’s environment and upbringing do influence one’s choices and behaviour, but to lay the responsibility for all of our actions squarely at its door would seem to be overstating the case. It boggled my mind that in a recent Texas drunk driving incident, the perpetrator successfully used an “affluenza” defence that amounted to “It wasn’t my fault because my parents are rich and I was not raised to have a sense of right and wrong”. Being self-centred and amoral is now apparently someone else’s fault.
Yeah, that’s justice being done.
Even the Hindu idea of Karma and the Western pagan notion of luck are to an extent fatalistic. The doctrine of Karma states that what happens to you is determined not by your choices in the here and now, but by what you did long ago, perhaps even in a previous life. Perhaps not classic fatalism in the sense that everything, including our decisions, is preset, but certainly deterministic in its outworking. You can’t escape Karma.
The Western notion of luck is more opaque, but certainly we get the idea sometimes that certain people are “just lucky”, or “just unlucky”, and that there’s little you can do to fight that. So in the mindset of luck we try to increase our store of luck points by such means as horseshoes, rabbit’s feet, charms and “lucky” this, that and the other, rather than taking ownership of our lives and responsibility for the consequences of our decisions.
It’s all very antithetical to the teaching of Scripture, in which human beings bear responsibility as free moral agents for our choices, but in which God is just and merciful to create a way out of the blind law of choice and consequences by dying in the Person of Jesus to take the just consequences of our bad moral decisions on Himself.
There is no Fate. We are responsible, and we are free. As Rich Mullins put it, “we are responsible to be free”.