It’s kind of scary. I mean, I know that Google Maps has everything recorded. Some family members recounted, a few years back, how they were shown raking the leaves in their yard on street level photographs. I guess everything’s part of your permanent record now. What was scary to me was receiving a letter with a picture of my house on the envelope. Yes, it was from an insurance agency, and insurance thrives on the feeling of vague threat that rattles around our primate brains most of the time. Is something or someone out to get me? Oh no! They know where I live! Maybe it was supposed to be friendly, like a good neighbor. It just didn’t come across that way. Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.
Not that being recorded doesn’t have its advantages. We live in an older house, and like most older houses it has had some additions over the decades. That means the roof is complex. That complex roof turned out to be leaky also. When the roofer was trying to explain why he couldn’t do just the one part where the water was getting in (we have been re-roofing on an installment plan), I had trouble imagining it. You see, when you’ve got neighbors all around it’s pretty tough to get the right angle to examine your own roof. I googled our address and shifted to satellite mode. I zoomed in and found the layout of the roof. Screenshot and save. Otherwise I don’t think I’d ever have understood how complicated rain deterrence can really be.
But getting a letter in the mail with your own house on it—this seems to cross some kind of line. Yes, I like our place. I feel comfortable here. It’s got space for lots of books. It isn’t fancy, though. It still needs quite a lot of work both inside and out. And I like to spend my scant free time reading. It’s cheaper than buying all the lumber and tools I need to do things the way they should be done. Maybe if my job were driving around filming other peoples’ houses I’d make enough to have some contractor come in and fix things up. But the insurance agent knows where I live now. Covid-19 probably stops him from knocking at my door, but I do value my privacy. Like most things, being recorded is a mixed bag. Who couldn’t use a little extra anxiety once in a while?
One of the oddest industry-standard phrases in use in secular contexts is “acts of God.” In a recent edition of Bostonia, the Boston University alumni magazine, an article entitled “The Acts of God Algorithm” seemed to promise some insight into this bizarre phenomenon. The piece, it turns out, is about an insurance analyst named Karen Clark. Of course, the place where “acts of God” are regularly invoked is in the insurance business. The reason this is so interesting is that in a nation as religiously motivated as the United States, people simply accept the slush-pile, default “act of God” as a given. The phrase, however, betrays a depth of fuzzy thinking and bad theology.
Does an “act of God” apply to an atheist? Does a devout Hindu have to accept any disaster that the monotheistic god and insurance companies present her or him with? Who tests to see if “God” is behind any of these acts? Given that monotheists differ widely on the day-to-day involvement of God in the natural world – certainly the world of insurance companies – how are any acts allocated to God? Legally! Predestinarians would assert that all acts are acts of God, and thus their insurance companies should be prepared for all such contingencies (they would, of course, have been predestined to deny this). Even those who accept less regular interference from on high would have trouble discerning whether a human-caused accident might or might not have had some hidden message from God. Are insurance moguls the ones qualified to decide?
To call any natural event an “act of God” betrays a level of jaded, if not indolent thinking that is inappropriate to all except those in the business of making money. Life is uncertain; it comes with no guarantees. Somehow our society accepts that if we pay good money to top-heavy, overly wealthy companies, bad things won’t happen to us, and if they do we get paid back. This kind of theology is diametrically opposed to the worldviews of the Bible and many monotheistic religious outlooks. Yet we accept that hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods are “acts of God.” The sneeze that causes a motorist to accidentally run a red light is not. And insurance brokers are weeping all the way to the bank.