Is a Theology of Luck Probable? (Part 2)

<Yes an odd topic. I strongly recommend reading Part 1 to make sure that when we both are using the word “luck” we mean the same thing.>

Now, you may not care for this language (luck, lucky, unlucky)— I am not sure I do either— but this definition of luck does have one advantage. It is phenomenal. That is, it looks at something as a phenomenon, without necessarily addressing the cause. So, for example, if John asked Tammy, “Do you believe in UFOs?” a reasonable answer might be, “Well, I certainly believe in UFOs as a phenomenon. That is, I believe there are things we see in the sky that appear to be flying that we are not always able to identify. However, if you are asking if I believe in alien technology flying through the skies with little green (or gray or reptilian) creatures, then ‘No,’ I need a lot more data to be convinced.”

So if we are looking at luck as a phenomenon of either (or both) variance from the mean, or being on the desirable side of probability of an event, I think we can make some tentative theological statements with regards to luck.

#1. God DOES play with dice. Supposedly, Albert Einstein, expressing his doubt of quantum mechanics, had quipped that God does not play with dice. (I did not take the time to try to verify the quote. Einstein has been credited for a lot of things, both wise and foolish, that he never said.) But at the quantum level there does appear to be true randomness built into the universe. On the macroscopic level, a lot of phenomenon are, at least on a practical level, appear to be random or at least resulting in a Weibull distribution of outcomes rather than a clearly predictable result. Whether there is true randomness in the macroscopic level is not certain… but what is certain is that we have a limited understanding of cause and effect, the underlying mathematics to create realistic models, and have a poor understanding of initial conditions. We are not really sure whether our own thoughts and actions are deterministic or not. Harvard’s Law (the less humorous form of this law is that that organisms do whatever they want to do regardless of our attempt to control their responses) suggests the answer is NOT— our ability to predict the future is often much poorer than we think it is. Desirable things happen and undesirable things happen, and this doesn’t always happen as we think or wish. The doctrine of Common Grace comes into play here. God gives rain to both the just and the unjust. That is, there is not always a causal relationship between things we consider as blessings, and the behavior or character of those who receive these blessings. Ecclesiastes likes to explore this point. The same might be suggested the opposite way. Abel died “before his time” while Cain lived a long life even though Abel was the one who found favor with God. And both Abel and Cain had great toil to survive in this world regardless of their righteousness or lack thereof.

#2. God sometimes uses loaded dice. God doesn’t always act on common grace (or common fall). He rigs the system sometimes. He sometimes “stacks the deck.” We sometimes describe this as a miracle. An interesting story in the Gospels is the case of the healing of the man blind from birth. People were asking whether this man had sinned or whether his parents had sinned. They were looking for a clear causal relationship. They were revolting against the idea that this man had the bad fortune/luck to be born blind. Jesus was unwilling to support either suggestion. He gave a different answer— he was blind to glorify God. This answer is very much open to interpretation. Does it mean that God purposefully made sure that he was blind for 20 or 30 years just so Jesus could heal him? Possibly, but Jesus had balked at simple causations elsewhere. In answering the question of whether those crushed by the falling tower of Siloam, or those sacrificed by Pilate were being punished, Jesus expressed this in doubtful terms, but then says to watch out lest worse comes our way. A reasonable answer to this might be— good and bad things happen. We don’t always have control over this and often cannot predict this. But God is ready and able to step in “with loaded dice” and act with intent in what otherwise may seem a chaotic world without clear meaning or structure. The blind man may not have been born blind for any satisfying reason. However, his blindness is given meaning with God stepping in to change things— acting against the odds. Some things do not have inherent meaning… but God can give meaning. This seems to be the idea of Paul’s statement that God works everything for good for those called according to His purpose. It is not that God makes sure that everything that happens is good for those called. Rather, things happen, random meaningless things happen, but God can step in and give these things meaning.

#3. We cannot always know the difference. When something happens we don’t know if it happens as part of the random and complex mechanisms beyond our ability to predict or control, or whether it is an act of Divine action. We don’t even necessarily know if our own actions bring results or whether it is a matter of luck (or Divine action). If I plant a church and you plant a church. If my church dies and yours flourishes, does that mean that you are better at churchplanting than I. It is definitely possible… but upon honest reflection, the best answer we could give is we just don’t know. As Merold Westphal would say, we are unable to look over God’s shoulder. We all are exploring a vast territory using a map with large pieces missing or illegible.

#4. This should increase our faith. Yes. This sounds backwards. The first and third points seem to drive us fear, doubt, and distrust. But do they? There is always a part of us that thinks that we can captain our own ship. We want a predictable world, with a predictable God, who we can predictably control/manipulate. Effectively, our faith is in own selves. However, if that is completely false. If we live in a thoroughly unknowable world with an unpredictable (although benevolent) God who we ask of but cannot control, we are left with few options. We can wander aimlessly in despair— not a great option. We can ignore this reality and pretend that we are in control. This option reminds me of a (very nice) lady from a church we attended, who would regularly tell us what God was going to do in a situation. When her predictions were (almost invariably) wrong, she seemed to never notice but confidently tell us what God was going to do in the next situation coming up. I suppose that option is better than the first. Some might even commend her for her faith. However, I would argue that her faith was in a god she created and felt that she either completely knew, or completely controlled. Sadly, this god rarely seemed to line up with the God who is. The third option would be to embrace our own inability to predict the future or control outcomes. We are walking into the future with blinders on. However, unlike a horse where the blinders limit vision to the sides, our blinders block vision straight ahead. We see what is around us, but not what is to come. We embrace faith— not a faith that that suggests that we can control the future, but faith that God ultimately will bring us where He wants to take us.

#5. We should be slow to judge. Jesus said that we should not judge unless we want to be judged ourselves. This verse, I believe, doesn’t simply say that it is unkind to be judgmental, but moreso taht we are truly incompetent to judge. Elsewhere Jesus notes that we see the external, unlike God who can see the heart. Related to this, while the terms “good luck” and “bad luck” have problems, they at least are prone to be less judgmental than terms like “blessed” and “cursed.” Job’s friends saw Job, sitting with him for 7 days. They decided he was cursed… and this, not surprisingly, led them to accuse Job of “getting what he deserved” since it must be that God did this for a reason that would make sense to people. Again, they thought that God was predictable, and that God was controllable. Suppose, on the other hand, Job’s friends decided that Job was unlucky— after all looking at luck as a phenomenon, not addressing issues of causation, he certainly WAS unlucky. Would this have been better. Actually, it probably would have been. We tend to be less judgmental of people we think are unlucky than of people we think are cursed. I think that using the terms “lucky” and “unlucky” can at times be quite problematic (the righteous person in Psalm 1 was more than just lucky, much as the unrighteous person was more than just unlucky). Still, at least the terms unlucky and lucky may at least give us a moment to pause— withhold judgments before trying to fit something into our own narrow perspective.

#6. Our eschatology should be based on the benevolence of God rather than our own ability to predict the future. The points up to now suggest that we are not particularly good at predicting the future… and further, it could be argued that God is good with that. We are called to faithful as we grope our way into the future. The parable of the faithful (and unfaithful) servant suggests this. The faithful servant does not know when the Master returns and this leads to an ethical response— doing the right thing every day. The unfaithful servant presumably thought he could guess or time the return of the Master. As such, he could live his life as he wanted and then fix things later. Perhaps that is part of the reason that Future prophecy is written in a way that is pretty hard to interpret. We are not meant to use it to come up with specific times and events.

Interpreting Biblical prophecy to work out exact dates, times, and events is a cottage industry for many Christian groups. In the past, Bible prophecy appears to make sense in hindsight more than in foresight. Some see this as a failing of, or a reading into, Scripture. I can see that particular viewpoint. However, if we are supposed to rely on God day to day, week to week, year to year, then we are not really supposed to know the future. And if that is the case, prophecies should be more ethical than predictive. For example, the Book of Revelation is a beautiful book that makes it clear throughout, that all followers of Christ need to be faithful to the end. God ultimately loads the dice to ensure that those who seek after God will experience God’s eternal favor, while those who don’t will suffer eternal loss. At the same time while these are the ultimate fates, in the short-term bad things will happen to all people, the just as well as the unjust. Revelation seems to have order and purpose and that which seems unfair and perhaps even random. We are left with trusting God. But some prefer to instead look at Revelation (and some other Scriptures) as a roadmap for the future. I feel like that is actually the opposite of the purpose of futurist Scripture.

Anyway, these are a few preliminary views on Theology built on a certain perspective related to luck.

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