Predestined?

This particular doctrine struck me as evil. It violated every experience and thought I’d ever had, even raised as an unquestioning Christian as I was. Then, at Grove City College I was faced with it for the first time—predestination. If free will is an illusion, what crueler God can be conceived? I couldn’t avoid such thoughts upon re-reading Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. A non-conforming non-conformist at the college assigned it in a science fiction class, so it has been decades since I’d read it. Now I found it perhaps more profound than before. Much has happened since my initial reading of the book, o my brothers. (And sisters.)

The framework of the story is well known. Alex and his friends are teenage punks who love ultra-violence. Alex is betrayed and imprisoned. Considered incorrigible, he’s reprogrammed to the point that he can’t even defend himself in a society that’s grown even worse during his time in jail. In the hospital after a suicide attempt, he awakes to find his old self restored, whether this is a good thing or not. The main point that’s behind this, it seems, is that without free will, repentance means nothing. In fact, in my edition of the book, an afterword by Stanley Edgar Hyman makes the point that some interpret A Clockwork Orange as a fictional defense of Christianity. Certainly the comparisons are there, from Judas through Jesus, healing, sin, and suffering. How much it actually meets that idyllic vision of God in Heaven directing the lives of individuals is, of course, an open question.

The idea that human beings are born as Hell-fodder posits a cruel and sadistic deity. Not only are the majority of human beings going to face eternal punishment for matters beyond their control, there is a divinity who planned it that way. We are all, literally, puppets in a universal morality play written by a being whose moral compass is horribly skewed. Indeed, even at Grove City some of the faculty would state that philosophically there could be no contest—free will was right. But, they would add, tapping the Bible, it’s not true because the Word of God says so. When I protested, it was declared, without irony, that even my protest had been predestined. In other words, in this clockwork universe I was clearly an Alex. Upon closer inspection, however, the truer analogy would be that we are all the victims of Alex and his droogs. But only if we have the freedom to make such an observation.

Forest of the Subconscious

The mind is not the brain. This isn’t mystical mumbo-jumbo (although there’s nothing wrong with mystical mumbo-jumbo either). We’ve been bombarded with the message that we are meat machines for many years now. Those who have studied physics and plumbed its depths often tell us that if we had all the bits of information involved, we could figure out anything. Our minds are our brains and it is merely electro-chemical signals that form a kind of operating system for this biological computer. The idea that we have a separate mind, we are told, is an illusion. Interestingly, studies of the subconscious mind raise significant questions regarding this interpretation. The subconscious, it is generally acknowledged, was discovered by Sigmund Freud. Prior to Freud many people did things and didn’t know why. Now we know, despite debates about the details, that we have to consider the subconscious mind as well as the more familiar conscious one.

I’ve been on a Through the Wormhole kick lately. Since we don’t have television, I have to watch the episodes after they air, but at least I have the option of doing this when I have some time. I recently watched the subconscious episode. The truly amazing takeaway from this was that our minds often, daily, in fact, operate on a level that we know nothing about. There are ways of tapping into the subconscious mind—meditating, as I mentioned earlier this week, is one way. Others are more scientific. Stimulating areas of the brain with small amounts of electricity can enhance abilities that we never knew we had. In fact, we might even be able to enact a Matrix-like download of information. I think I may have swallowed the blue pill after all.

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Call it a gut-level reaction, but I have always had a strong resistance to the idea that we are mere automatons. Consciousness, which, increasingly we’re discovering, involves a dose of subconsciousness, doesn’t feel at all like a we’re programmed. Theologically, I always objected to the strange notion of predestination. It made no sense, theologically, or experientially. One very wise professor once told our class, “If you want to test this, tell your spouse that you’ve got her or him completely figured out. They will do something you don’t expect.” Our minds are perhaps the most miraculous parts of human beings. The concept that we are merely following the pre-determined laws of physics makes no sense unless we believe in a literal Hell that we’ve made of this world. Are we programmed to self-destruct? I believe not. Whether in my conscious mind or in the true mind that lies underneath it.

Inspired. Absolute. Final.

IMG_1394Recently I spent some time in my native Pennsylvania. Doing so sometimes makes me believe in a bizarre kind of predestination. I never had any truck with theological fore-ordainment; I’d rather just give up and get it all over with now. Nevertheless, the Bible was very present in the Pennsylvania of my youth and logic dictates that if something is, a priori, more important than everything else, only a fool wouldn’t pay attention. When we’d be driving along a country road and a prominent outcropping of rock was spray painted with “Jesus Saves,” I’d feel a quiet reassurance that my choices had been sound. I started reading the Bible as a child, toughing it through Leviticus and Chronicles, with true Protestant fervor. The Bible, I believed, could never let you down.

On my recent drive down memory lane, I passed a road sign advertising the sacred scriptures. It read “The Holy Bible. Inspired. Absolute. Final.” There was a number to call, ending with the words “for truth” in place of digits. Operator. Information. Get me Jesus on the line. (With apologies to Sister Wynona Carr.) The odd thing is that I always assumed this was normal. Ticking off the miles on Interstate 80, I used to see how many “Jesus Saves” graffiti I could find on overpass pylons. Even in Manhattan I still find the same phrase scrawled in the cement of a grimy sidewalk, and I always look for it when I walk that way. It was all so matter-of-fact that there seemed to be no reason to question any of it. The same held true for most of the faculty at Grove City College. No questions asked. Just read the highway signs.

Ambiguity toward the Gospel truth seemed wrongheaded and foolhardy. It is, however, difficult to take the Bible seriously without at last beginning to ask questions. Even the Bible has a backstory. Be careful how far back you turn the pages. There was a prequel to Genesis, for those who dare to look, just as their is a sequel to Revelation. Inspired—no doubt. Absolute—perhaps. Final—I doubt it. The last word comes only when all has been said and done, and given the signs I see along the road, it looks like this journey is only just getting started.

31 Flavors

Princeton Theological Seminary, nestled next to its Ivy League sibling university, has never welcomed my advances. Although I’ve long ceased keeping the myriad rejection letters I’ve received over the years and now prefer to throw them in the recycle bin unopened, in my recollection I’ve applied to Princeton Seminary more times than any other school. Given the historic connection between the seminary and my alma mater of Edinburgh University, I often wondered why I never even merited an interview. After all, I live less than 20 miles away and they wouldn’t even have to pay for gas. So it was that I found a recent reference to “Princeton Theology” so interesting. Not every seminary gets to name its own brand of poison.

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Princeton Theology refers to a movement that helped establish the culture that would give us the dubious gift of Fundamentalism. I have never been a Presbyterian, but I have attended their institutions, and one of the characteristics I’d often noted is that Calvin’s thought, in particular, often left me chilled to the theological bones. Assured of his own place in heaven, his theology seemed designed to keep others out. People, being what they are, naturally want to be on the winning team, especially in the eternity game. Reformed thought, therefore, was often perceived as cold and somewhat unfeeling. Predestination is, after all, determinism. Princeton Theology, beginning in the early nineteenth century, was intended to try to introduce a somewhat cozier evangelicalism to the sternness of Presbyterian theology. You may be condemned to Hell, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t feel good about it. After all, the divine plan trumps human need every time.

The approach of the twentieth century saw an increase in evangelical fervor throughout the United States. The growing number of flavors of Christianity led many to wonder what the true vanilla was. The answer, self-proclaimed, to be sure, was Fundamentalism. If you’ve never attended a gathering of theologians, you might not shudder as much as I do while typing these words, for such a conventicle has enormous power. Indeed, the Niagara Bible Conference was able to do what the Council of Nicaea was not—distill the essence of true Christianity that could be accepted by all believers. Unless, of course, one was raised in a Catholic or Orthodox tradition. Princeton Theological Seminary is not a Fundamentalist institution, but even a well-meaning attempt to make Christianity more palatable might lead to too much vanilla. In a world of 31 flavors, perhaps paradise tastes different to everyone, depending on the formula.

Revelations

BeringWhyIsThePenisSex. Religion. Death. One of these things is not like the others, if Sesame Street taught me anything. But in this case, the three actually are of a piece. In my teaching days I pointed out that every religion, without exception, tries to deal with sex and death—the two great, towering markers of human experience. Nevertheless, I cowered close to the window on the bus, choosing the left-hand side so the cover wouldn’t be visible, to read Jesse Bering’s Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? From the first sentence you’ve got to like this guy. Although irreverent, Bering is never obnoxious as he asks questions about the basics of human existence that few would be willing to take on in the name of science. It’s a fascinating book, and, as I knew it would, it addressed religion and death as well as, well, you know.

Bering is an evolutionary psychologist, and he tends to lean toward a materialistic universe. His book raises a very important point, however; the belief in determinism statistically correlates with anti-social behavior. That is to say, those who believe they have no free will tend, to some extent, not to care about society. As Bering also points out, perspective is very important. I wonder if truth is subject to perspective. Actually, I’m rather certain that it is. I have fought determinism from my youngest days, although I generally feel out of control of my own life. I first encountered determinism in that insidious theological position known as predestination. The deity of a universe that predestines most people to Hell is a monster, no matter how saintly his/her portrait. One professor conceded after a vigorous debate in class: “on philosophical grounds free will wins, but on scriptural grounds, predestination does.” I disagreed. Still, he could go home happy—my challenge had, after all, been predestined.

Worse yet were the “double predestinarians.” They were those who believed that every little detail of life was predestined. I actually had a professor say, “if you fail an examine, it was predestined.” Already the illogic of it all struck the same timbre of distaste that materialistic determinism does. By its fruits you shall know it. As much as I enjoyed Bering’s book, I wondered how anyone obviously so intelligent could believe that this magnificent mental world we inhabit is nothing more than sparks tickling chemicals in our brains. Or even the biological wonders he explores. As I huddled up in a ball on the bus, my book close to my face, I knew that this behavior wasn’t natural at all. Not even science could have predicted it.

Determinism to Succeed

I’ve been watching some episodes of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole, the recent Science Channel sop to the masses to explain what scientists are thinking. I always appreciate when scientists (and other specialists) are willing to abandon argot and talk to the rest of us in plainspeak. Even if the implications are a little scary. The episodes I watched this weekend shared a near determinism. The physicists interviewed stopped shy of saying that all is ordained by the rules of science, but the implications still rang loudly in my ears. This concept is at home in the church.

Back as a college student attending a Presbyterian school (I have never ascribed to this particular flavor of Christian thought), I first chanced upon predestination. In fact, the subject was well nigh unavoidable. Students of all majors and backgrounds ended up discussing it around dinner tables as well as in the classroom. The instigator, instead of physics, was John Calvin. His theology suggested that mere mortals had no say in their destinies; God created some to be saved, the rest to be damned, fairness be confounded. I sat through many classes where the professors would argue with erudite words that all this had been foreordained. Some, “double predestinarians,” went as far as to argue that every firing of every synapse, every motion of every muscle, had been predetermined by God before the creation of the world. When I asked “why?” I was told that God has his (always “his”) reasons, and that I, a non-Presbyterian, should simply accept my fate.

Four years of wrangling and no one managed to convince the opposite party. One of my more intelligent professors once told me after class, “you free-willers always win on philosophical grounds, but we predestinarians always win on scriptural grounds.” He seemed to think that solved it. Perhaps he was predestined to conclude that. I disagreed. No greater monster could exist than a deity who predestined the horror we’ve created in our world. To see all this human suffering, much of it pointless, and simply shrug and say “God has his reasons,” is to implicate the creator in a cosmic Nuremberg. For me, I’d feel safer with the physicists saying it is all a matter of unfeeling cosmic laws. Perhaps I’m predestined to write this, but I still think they’re all wrong.

Was Calvin predestined to wear that hat?

Acts of God Algorithm

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.