14-1 faithmeltdown

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.


A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

        14.1 (Winter 2014)




courtesy of artrenewal.org

Sermon on the Mound: Of Ants and Men

George Shirley


 Chance or fate?  Are we free, or are we predestined?

Say that a tree falls in the forest, struck down by a stone that fell from the sky.  What are the odds of such a thing happening?  Pretty long, one must suppose.  Theoretical physics has been telling us for about three decades now that chaos is an integral filament in the fabric of reality.  Some things just happen, for no apparent or predictable reason.  The degree of chance in their occurrence, while perhaps tiny, is not negligible.

The more classical approach to the tree’s demise would be to stress the intricacy of the chain of causes.  While no human mind could at present calculate all the micro-events that would put just this fragment of a meteorite in just this part of the forest at just this time of night, every link in the chain exists.  Some day we may become capable of reconstructing every stage, or maybe even constructing every future stage before it actually takes place.  (But would not that, then, create the possibility of averting the event?  Hence “fate” would no longer be so in the sense employed by the ancient tragedians.)

So far we have viewed chance and fate as opposites.  The one has things occurring for no clear and predictable reason, the other for reasons too numerous and tiny to be clear, perhaps—but nonetheless so rigidly connected that all events must be considered inevitable.  Chance says that anything can happen; fate says that only one certain thing can happen.

Yet from another perspective, these two conceptions are the same.  Chance is willing to sign off on the proposition that causes are so abundant and minute that untangling their joint effect is impossible to the human intelligence.  Fate doesn’t necessarily disagree.  There’s no requirement for the determinist that the human mind fully understand why or how things are determined, now or in the future—only that we accept the possibility of some superhuman mind’s fitting all the puzzle’s pieces together.  This might be the mind of God, or it might be some mega-computer waiting to be built.

Completely absent from all of this discussion so far is any notion of will.  Inanimate objects are always and only reactive.  They have no ability to formulate various possible behaviors and choose one from among the options.  Our tree couldn’t have bent over, and our rock couldn’t have veered to one side.  Say now that the tree was planted by a man fifty years ago to bear nuts and feed his village.  He has grown to love the tree, both because it helps his loved ones to stay alive and because he and it have grown up together.  Its destruction has a powerful emotional effect upon him.  A number of responses to the misfortune are quickly imaginable—of which, consider just these four:

  • The man shakes his fist at the gods and curses them.
  • The man assumes that someone in the village has drawn the wrath of the gods and urges that the offender be seized and sacrificed.
  • The man transfers his primary attention to other trees that he has planted more recently, aware that nothing lives forever.
  • The man reproaches himself for being shortsighted and searches the woods for other nut-bearing trees.

All of these responses are volitional.  All four—and many more besides—might course through the man’s mind before he selects one to act upon.  The choice he makes is not conceivable as the result of any material cause-and-effect chain, no matter how elaborate: it is a different order of event.  By the same token, his choice is not accidental, because we can readily classify it as morally good or bad: it hasn’t simply burst into being like a thunderclap, but it follows from a certain association of ideas.  The first two options above are clearly bad ones, morally speaking.  They reflect a mind that takes no personal responsibility, but rather seeks to vilify and harm others when it suffers an inconvenience.  The second two options are much more proper and mature as moral decisions.  The man has willed himself to view his misfortune as something in the nature of things whose troubles to him personally are not grounded in any real intent directed against him.

When we call ourselves Christians and claim that we believe in freedom, the correct parsing of that statement has to do entirely with our free will.  The ancient Stoics who were so influential upon early Christian thought did well to emphasize that we cannot affect macro-events in the physical universe—and to emphasize, even more, that our being elated or devastated by anything that happens in that physical universe is a sign of spiritual immaturity.  What we can and should affect is nowadays called our attitude.  Our free will is our power either to curse events for not falling out according to our pleasure or to recognize that our pleasure should consist in advancing the cause of goodness.  A destroyed garden is not an evil: it is a misfortune insofar as it is unforeseen, and perhaps a reproach to our wisdom or industry insofar as it was foreseeable.  Chance and destiny have no relevance to us beyond that: neither one is a motive force of our will.

The struggle to wean one’s desires from “happy outcomes” is never won in this world.  We all like for things to turn out in our favor: we would be insane if we felt otherwise.  Yet the true Christian should no more be praying for an abundant harvest or a great job offer or a resuscitation of the economy than he should for a special Christmas gift.  The degree to which our practice of the faith has degenerated into an obsession with material outcomes probably has much to do—if only indirectly—with why our economy is so poor.  Collectively, we have paid too much attention to trivial wants and too little to real needs, creating a world in which the demand for frivolities determines whether or not we have enough money to buy bread.  Maybe we should be planting more nut-bearing trees, literally, and paying more attention to our personal role in the misfortunes that befall us.

Every Christian must be a determinist in this sense only: his destiny is to bring his will and desires into as close a proximity with divine will as possible.  Right will is not our will: it is impersonal in the same way that moral imperatives are impersonal.  We must not lie, break promises, cheat, exploit, or oppress.  We must always play by the rules.  The rules, however, are set down in heaven and in our hearts, not by political representatives or dictators; and the good is not service to an evolving state of well-fed and healthy citizens, but an individual heart that knows it has not lied, cheated, or bullied.  Therein lies the individuality bestowed by conformity to the good—for that conformity can only be attained by the most intimate and personally nuanced struggle in the universe.

We need freedom in order to wage this struggle toward spiritual conformity with God’s will.  We need freedom to work out our liberation from material desires—not political servitude in order to fulfill the material desires of others.  Our political states have grown as anti-Christian in this regard as our appetite for selfish pleasure.  We need freedom to conform to God’s will, not compulsion to conform to the state’s concept of wellbeing.

In a way, Christ’s death on the Cross was history’s most graphic illustration that worldly misery need not be misery of the spirit—upstaging Socrates’ execution by quite a bit.  We have forgotten that we are free, and in what sense we are free.  We are free to reject the material in our personal lives, but not free to subjugate our neighbors so that they redistribute their material things to others.  We are free to pursue heaven by making ourselves poor in this world’s terms, but not free to attempt making a heaven out of earth by forcibly eradicating the poor.  We are free to make servants of ourselves, but not free to make slaves of others.

The Church’s position on these issues—the universal Church’s, whether Catholic or Protestant, high or low, sectarian or non-denominational—has grown tortuously complex, and even contradictory.  Whatever regeneration of the true faith occurs must come from the individual, because only the individual has the freedom to choose submission to God’s will.  All determinism which claims power over human choice as gravity has power over rocks in space is a subversion of the faith.  God’s love is the gravity that draws us toward our destiny, and how we respond to that gravity might well be called—in the here-and-now—a matter of chance.  We also call that a mystery.

George Shirley, a native of South Carolina, has contributed several poems to this journal recently.  The current piece, however, illustrates (in his words) both why he studied for the ministry briefly and why he desisted from his studies permanently. 

Back to 14.1 Contents