Saturday, June 19, 2010

Captain of My Soul

People have a hard time with predestination. They don't like the idea that they are not in control of their lives - that they are not free to decide their own fate. I saw the film Invictus recently about Nelson Mandela. He sustained his hope for decades in Robben Island prison by reciting Henley's famous poem by that name. It ends: "It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

I remember memorizing that poem in grade school. It was a strange text to teach preteens. It is an angry fist shaken at the heavens. Certainly not patriotic or godly fare. It is a statement of vehement self-determinism. There is a strain of this in all of us. That is why we rebel against predestination - especially double predestination - that some people are predestined to salvation and others are predestined to damnation. It feels so ... well ... wrong.

There are variations of predestination that theologians have developed over the centuries - ideas like lapsarianism, infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism. I won't even try to get into those. Basically it all boils down to how determined you think we are. It is not just Christians who play this game. The Eastern idea of karma, which is at the heart of Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions, is the same thing by another name.

The religious are not the only ones who believe in determinism. I had a friend in college who was an atheist and a Skinnerian (radical behaviorism). He believed that we were animals completely determined by our genetic makeup and our environment. I remember long discussions lasting well into the night where I argued the contrary position.

I watch the animals scurrying around my house - chipmunks, rabbits, groundhogs, birds and such - and I think he was more correct then I realized at the time. These creatures seem to make decisions, but it is all hard-wired. They are completely controlled by their instincts and bodily appetites. Nothing else is going on in those tiny brains. The same is true of the tiny human brains I have observed during thirty years of ministry.

People are animals who only use their "superior intelligence" to rationalize their irrational behavior. I include myself in my assessment. I am a human animal controlled greatly by my instincts and conditioning. I like to think there is a great rational and spiritual decision-making process at work. But usually I know what I want to do; I just need time to justify it to myself. I have seen the same thing in people I have counseled. They already know what they are going to do; they just come to me for assurance.

Where does spirituality come into this? Call it soul, spirit, the image of God, or any other term you want. But there is a transcendent dimension in human beings that is conscious of the other forces at work. I am aware of the deterministic dimension in my body and mind. Does that awareness make me free? I don't know. My guess is that it does not, even though I would like to believe the contrary.

My personal experience and observations indicate that we are not in control. If I were an atheist I would say it is the blind and aimless determinism of nature that controls us. As a Christian I say that the Creator of nature is in control. Complete control. No conditional predestination or temporal predestination - no open theism - only the complete unconditional sovereignty of God over all things. The only freedom I have is within the will of God. He is the Master of my fate; he is the Captain of my soul.

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