Is a Theology of Luck Probable? (Part 1)

Years ago, I was driving through Ohio on my way to college when I heard a radio program by a guy who was rather well-known at that time, named ‘Reverand Ike.’ This was back in the 1980s and his beliefs were… idiosyncratic. I am not sure if he should be described as a Christian preacher— I was not an expert on his beliefs then or now. On that drive, his sermon was essentially an advertisement to the radio listener for a book he wrote called, “The Secret of Good Luck.” He had some people give testimonials on the wonderful blessing the book was to them. One man said something (to the best of my memory) like this:

“A few years ago I was struggling. I worked two jobs but still could barely feed my family and pay the rent on the tiny apartment we had. But then I got Reverend Ike’s book, ‘The Secret of Good Luck.’ Now I am a millionaire with two houses and I DON”T DO NOTHING.”

I never got the book, though I see that there are some videos one can purchase online today based on the book. I found it interesting since as Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christian, I was always told that either (1) there is no such thing as luck, or (2) luck is ‘unchristian.’ So having a guy who at least liked to quote the Bible using luck in a positive way surprised me. I was more used to a different spin. A few years after that, someone, I am pretty sure it was Pat Robertson, emphasized that luck was unchristian, and at least implied that it was demonic. He said that the word “luck” is tied to the Norse god Loki. I suppose the convoluted argument goes— Loki is the Norse equivalent of Satan (although he really isn’t), and the word luck comes from the name Loki (I can’t seem to find anyone who agrees with this etymology), so therefore luck is Satanic or demonic. Since both premises appear to be false, the end result is false. Beyond that there is an implied step that says, “if you can link a word with something else, that linguistic connection is meaningful in other ways.” There are Christian groups that do embrace a bit of magical thinking in this area. For them, words don’t just have symbolic or cultural power, but a form of power to manipulate of themselves. I think that is pretty doubtful. I suppose some may be fearful of Wednesdays because they are tied etymologically to the pagan god Odin (Woden) in English, or the pagan god Mercury in Spanish and Tagalog. Words definitely have cultural power, but I don’t believe that they have power in an of themselves.

Rather than jumping all over how bad it is, I think it is more useful to decide WHAT luck is. For a lot of people, luck is rather like “The Force,” a power field that permeates the universe (or perhaps like the Tao or Chi). Like the Force, it operates in duality. There is Good Luck, and there is Bad Luck. The goal is to “Attract Good Luck” and “Repel Bad Luck.” With the Force, the “Good Force” flows through a person who is dispassionate (sounds a bit sociopathinc, actually), while the “Bad Force” flows through and empowers those who yield to (or seemingly even to acknowledge) passions. Good luck versus bad luck involves at least three different strategies. One might be thought of loosely in terms of magic. If one has certain objects or symbols—- talismans attract good luck, amulets repel bad— one can control the flow of luck. The same can be in terms of following certain ritual behaviors. Another one is pretty much the same thing but put in more distinctly religious language. In this case, luck is seen more in terms of ‘blessings; and ‘curses,’ and seen as coming through spiritual intermediaries such as spirits, angels, demons, god(s), ancestors, etc. A third, could be seen as more karmic— ‘what goes around, comes around.’ This can also be seen in more religious terms or more neutrally in terms of “this is just the way the universe operates.” If we accept that luck is something that flows within the universe (NOTE: I am NOT saying that I do accept this), we need to look at it as worthy of theological reflection. All three of the strategies listed for trying to control the flow of luck, and especially the last two, very much relate to religion or theology.

However, there is a bigger question— Does luck exist? I have been classically told that luck does not exist. I have been told this in both in secular and reliigous circles. The problem is that the terms “luck” and “lucky” seem to be useful. So if one says it is an invalid concept, one must come up with a different word that applies. Suppose one is playing the game Monopoly, and one needs to get a six to pass Park Place, Luxury Tax, and Boardwalk. If one rolls a six, one will lose no money and instead collect $200. One would be said to be lucky. Some will try to avoid the term by saying that one is “fortunate.” However, fortunate is a word of Latin origin, unlike lucky which is of Germanic or Frisian origin, that essentially means the same thing. Some may believe that fortunate seems less random than lucky since it often connotes the idea that there is personification called Fortune that is smiling on one person and not on another. On the other hand, suppose one rolls a five lands on boardwalk, which your friend owns and has placed a hotel, certainly you could be said to be unlucky.

Luck can be a useful term to describe a human situation, while still rejecting it’s objective reality. Many an expert has shown that people really aren’t lucky or unlucky. Eventually, over time, everything slowly moves toward some common probability of occurrence. A fair coin will over time lead to about 50% heads and 50% tails, while a fair six-sided die will tend to get equal numbers of each side if tossed enough times. Sometimes things are weird. In 9th grade, for math class a friend mine and I flipped two coins at a time for 100 times. We ended up with exactly twice as many Tails/Tails than we got of Heads/Heads. That is a very inprobable result, so it could be described as quite lucky (or maybe unlucky). However, if we flipped coins enough times, it is likely that that ratio of 2 to 1 would lessen until pretty close to 1 to 1. This is called “regression to the mean.” So if a 3-point shooter in basketball has a ‘hot hand’ one night and hits 10 out of 12 3-point shots in a gaime, even though he normally hits about 50% of the time, over enough games it is likely that he will have some poor shooting days that gradually brings things back closer to 50%.

Some see this “Regression to the Mean” as the explanation behind luck— both good and bad. What seems like good luck is just the weird variance that occurs with a small sample of occurrences. That view is valuable to me. That doesn’t prove that luck doesn’t exist, of course. One could argue that Regression to the Mean simply suggests that over time, good luck and bad luck will even things out.

For me, however, I prefer to follow Daniel Kahnemann’s apparent view of luck. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he regularly notes that many things, such as successful predictions about stock market changes, upon analysis appear to be more about luck than skill. Suppose there are two groups: Group Random and Group Analysis. Group Random consists of 100 stockbrokers individually picking stocks completely randomly on one day, and selling them a specified time later. In Group Random we would expect that there is a certain average performance, but some will do better than average and some will do worse. For Group Analysis 100 different stockbrokers individually picked stocks based on their best analytical skills and then sold them at the same specified time later— the same timeframe as Group Random. We might expect them to do much better than random. However, this is not normally the case. The average skilled stockbroker is likely to do little to no better than the random one. However, in both scenarios there will be some individual stockbrokers who will do quite a bit better than the average stockbroker, and some who will do quite a bit worse than the average stockbroker. For Group Random, it is quite reasonable perhaps to say that some were lucky and others were unlucky. However, for Group Analysis, did the stockbrokers who did far better than the rest do so because of skill or luck? And the similar question could be asked of those that did far worse than the others— was this due to incompetence or bad luck? It is hard to tell. If this test was redone several times over a few years, if the same people were at the top and the same at the bottom, we may suspect skill. If the the names keep changing at the top and bottom, we may suspect it is more about luck than skill.

From this perspective, a phenomenal perspective, luck could be described in a couple of ways. One way, would be in terms of variance from the mean. That is like in Group Random, where one had the good fortune/luck to do the best (and another had the bad fortune/luck to do the worst) despite NO skill being involved. Although very similar, a slightly different way of looking at it is in terms of probability or likelihood. Suppose it is a 1 in 10 million chance that a lottery ticket is ‘a winner.’ If one has the winning ticket, one could be described as lucky. If one suffers a sad event, such as succumbing to an ailment that a majority of people recover from, one could certainly be described as unlucky.

Part II, I will look at some possible theological ramifications of this sort of understanding of luck.

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