They say, “Evil prevails when good men fail to act.” What they ought to say is, “Evil prevails.” — Yuri Orlov (Nicholas Cage) in Lord of War
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To have a fateful¹ outlook on life means to see everything as inevitable. There is no room for “What if that…” and “What if this…” Everything just is. So the fateful person accepts the inevitable. But it doesn’t always have to be negative, like Shakespeare’s famous introduction to Romeo and Juliet: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes /A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”, as if to say the tragic endings of the couple were determined by the stars. I was more worried about the fatal loins… Sometimes fate even seems to be on your side. “There was no way even I could have stood in the way of myself getting this job; it was meant to be” or “Everything good is coming to me lately”.
What’s this other word then, faithful? You might find, if you listen hard enough, that when most people say faithfulness, they’re actually saying fatefulness. The two just sound the same. Could they really actually possibly really be that much different? Yet at the heart of the Christian story, the very beginning, there is a rejection of fate; things are not the way they’re supposed to be. In the words of Switchfoot:
Dreaming about providence
And whether mice or men have second tries
Maybe we’ve been living with our eyes half open
Maybe we’re bent and broken, broken
We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
This particular mouse had plenty of second tries
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In the Christian tradition (of mission, contrition and spiritual nutrition) God stands in opposition to fate: We were created for communion with God and creation, but we rejected this for other pursuits so that the position we are now in is not our fate; it is not meant to be². The deus contra fatum³ (God against fate) summarises holistic biblical theology in that God has dealt the death-blow to death/fate and is continuing his work to restore an Edenic earth, to restore what is meant to be. To pray “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10 NIV) is to acknowledge that God’s will stands in contradistinction to the state of the earth at present.
Jesus’ earthly ministry is teeming with examples of deus contra fatum. In one of my favourite examples, Jesus not only asserts the divine will against the fate of being born blind but he gives new meaning to it:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him[…]”
After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, made some mud with the saliva and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go”, he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” […] So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
(John 9:1-3,6-7 NIV)
The man’s fate was to live life without sight. Jesus’ reason for the man’s blindness is not so much a theodicy, a justification for his blindness in divine terms, as it is an intervention on divine terms. Of course the man wasn’t born blind for God’s purposes, but his blindness, on encountering Jesus, becomes a part of God’s purpose. Through Jesus’ redemptive work he gives the suffering a new meaning.
Paul heralds the deus contra fatum through his descriptions of the significance of life in Christ and Christian community. The gods are not an orgy of selfish caprice, demanding our sacrifices and punishing us for their own failures4, but the Lord himself would give his all for us (Philippians 2:6-8)5. We are not pawns in a chess game of cosmic-indifference, but loved more than we can imagine (Romans 8:38-39). All distinctions and inequalities that our birth and society thrust upon us are overcome in Christ and Christian community as we are adopted as children of God (Galatians 3:26-28) and citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).
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Ah, that was refreshing. But it’s all a bit simple. In some very dark corners of your beloved God’s Word we come across an altogether different conception of fate, one that necessarily arrives in conceptualising existence both as not as it’s meant to be and in line with God’s sovereign rule. But rather than blissful submission to deus ut fatum (God as fate)6, the subject takes on the spirit of deus contra fatum, this time against God himself. This is to say that “Your will be done” can only be prayed regarding this caveat a couple of verses earlier, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8 NIV).
Abraham prefigures universalism in his confrontation with God before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. He persists in asking God to relent from destruction because there may be righteous people in the cities (Genesis 18:20-33). Moses prays that God will not show the extent of his anger to Israel after they turn to idolatry, although the Lord is determined to do so (Exodus 32:7-14). The evil king Ahab is promised by the Lord through Elijah to die horribly but, after repenting in light of Elijah’s words, God adjusts his intentions (1Kings 21:17-29). And, much to the prophet’s dismay, Jonah pronounces judgement upon the foreign city of Nineveh, who in turn repent, causing God to change his mind (Jonah 3:4-10 NRSV — many popular translations like the NIV avoid the awkward theology; cf James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8).
Anyone keen for some modern propheteering? Nineveh’s back up and running!
Surely God gets it together by the time of Jesus though? Or maybe Jesus represents a stronger affinity with this side of God, one more open to the challenges of the people who accuse God of fatefulness. It turns out that his first miracle, the inauguratory water into wine, is a reaction to motherly nagging (John 2:1-11). A Canaanite woman interrupts Jesus’ important ministry to the Jews and demands his attention when he feels the need to focus on other things (Matthew 15:21-28). And towards the end of his ministry he seems to desire otherwise than God’s plans for him (Matthew 26:39), culminating in disillusionment with God’s abandoning of him, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 NIV). These examples show both how Jesus changed his will in regard to the desires of others, and how he as God was at odds with God.
Of course, in each of the illustrations from both Old and New Testaments, one could, to avoid Pelagian/Arminian heresy, etc, and maintain the duality of God = good, person =bad, impose their own theology onto the stories and read them as opportunities or tests that God was giving to reveal the true hearts of the characters in them. I think it’s somehow better to read the stories at face value though, and give them some credit in themselves for what they’re saying. In the Book of Jeremiah, the Lord admits to this principle outright, although it’s more so regarding sin, punishment and repentance (which a lot of New Testament theology problematises, eg. Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3; Galatians 3:10-14), rather than such as intercession (the Abraham, Moses, Mary examples) or beseeching regarding your own undeserved suffering (the Canaanite woman):
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
(Jeremiah 18:7-10 NIV)
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The biblical story of King Hezekiah is another favourite of mine. The writer of 2Kings praises him for his trust in and following after the Lord, connecting this to the blessing that his kingdom received and saying, “There was no-one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him” (2Kings 18:5-7 NIV). Take that, David!7 The thing with this dude is though that he, like other examples listed here, contested what God had planned, in a similar situation to the Canaanite woman towards Jesus. Basically, the prophet Amoz comes up to Hezekiah when he’s sick to let him know that he’s going to die. Thanks for the heads up, bro! Hezekiah is disillusioned. He weeps before God so Isaiah comes to let him know that God has decided to give him another fifteen years (This story paraphrased from 2Kings 20:1-5). But the interesting thing is that Hezekiah doesn’t get up to a lot in these next fifteen years. He managed to have a son, Manasseh, who was twelve when Hezekiah died, but turned out to be a bit rotten, according to the historian (2Kings 21:2). Hezekiah had seen a great defeat of Assyrian oppressors prior to his sickness (2Kings 18:17-19:37), and in his extra years the Lord promised the end in its fullness (2Kings 20:6). But all of Hezekiah’s righteous achievements seem to me more so a part of his previous life, that within the parameters of God’s will.
God pwning the Assyrian army
Maybe his extra years were a display of God’s grace. In fact, Hezekiah didn’t explicitly ask for more years; he only wept because he knew his time was near (2Kings 20:3). Isaiah records a song attributed to Hezekiah that notes he was in the ‘prime of [his] life’ when Amoz announced his impending death (Isaiah 38:10). This is where the argument goes full circle. It is the embrace of both Deus ut fatum and Deus contra fatum: God against the God of fate. Is this not the most viable conclusion to draw on the Judeo-Christian conception of a sovereign God? That is, a God who oversees and is in control of all, yet opposes what is going on? As the serious King James translators put it:
“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7 KJV).
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¹Fatalistic is probably a more recognisable term concerning the context, but for the sake of poetry!
²This, of course, is to avoid all that controversy around the Fall as a measure for God’s sovereignty (a euphemism for determinism). Oh, and that other controversy concerning the origins of evil, which is no doubt an uneasy paramour of the question as to whether God intended the Fall…
³Totally working on my Latin here to create the illusion of working within some historical theological parameters. Help me out if you can: deus (God, masculine, nominative) contra (against) fatum (fate, masculine, accusative). I was unsure whether to put fate in the nominative or accusative and what gender to use, but I’m pretty sure it’s the accusative because it acts as an object; the only reservation I had was that contra wasn’t a verb.
4Also a reading of Christianity that our theology often makes all too easy for us and the world around us to agree with.
5Paul’s embodiment of this complete self-sacrifice is an important example to make note of here, as it provides a good metaphor for Jesus’ cosmic humility in that it approaches the self-emptying from the perspective of the believer rather than Saviour: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Romans 9:2-4, on Israel rejecting the Gospel).
6Does it still make sense if I replace ut for contra? Help me out here! And to what extent should I consider word order?
7Take that Jesus!???
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