Head to Head
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
don't seem to think that the idea of fate can be dismissed easily, and
that it has some value to us.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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
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.
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.
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
of all humanity.
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
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.
who follow Jesus Christ, their reality and, yes, their fate lies with
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
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