The drummer, Neil Peart, their primary lyricist, is clearly a bright fellow--interested in politics, religion, and literature---his songs reflect an intellectual curiosity and a libertarian humanist sensibility.
One of my favorite songs by the band is titled Freewill. Now I'm not claiming this is deep philosophy, but as many of you know, I've done my time immersed in baroque philosophy--complex, esoteric, and mostly at a ridiculously far remove from anything resembling real life. As I've said in the past, I no longer have much interest in grand philosophical systems that don't speak to how I live my life day to day. Besides, I think most of us draw tremendous comfort and meaning from the soundtracks of our lives. Music is where I and many others turn for comfort, energy, and connection.
Anyway, back to Rush and that much-loved song of mine. The final stanza and chorus are:
"Each of us
A cell of awareness
Imperfect and incomplete.
With uncertain ends
On a fortune hunt that's far too fleet.
You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose freewill."
I love the clarity of the song--philosophy lessons that last five minutes twenty-four seconds are about what I have patience for these days.
So there we are, my sermon on fate, destiny, freewill, and freedom done in less than the length of a pop song. I believe we are free to make choices, to choose our lives. Thanks for coming, be good, see you next time.
Well, maybe it's not that simple. I have to admit that the more I researched the subject, the more I pondered, the more daunted I became. Fate, destiny, is a complex hard topic—I initially, foolishly, thought it would be pretty simple. I don't believe in an external controlling intelligence and so fate goes poof---if there's no grand designer, there's no grand design. And yet the more I thought about what fate and freedom actually means, the more I realized the complexity involved. If I were a parish minister rather than a chaplain, this is a sort of topic I would engage as a series rather than a one off.
First, I think I need to define what I'm talking about here. What I am addressing here is capital F Fate or capital D Destiny—a preordained, predetermined path or outcome for one's life. A belief that someone or something has created an order that pushes or pulls one toward a particular end. Here's where I begin to get tripped up. This seems a slam-dunk as I don't believe in this kind of external intelligence, and yet I do believe that we are all embedded in webs of connection we can barely understand. Do these webs constitute enough of an independent intelligence to influence our lives? I think they do, but there are no simple answers here. I also think we need to expand our definition of fate and destiny, perhaps with a small f and d, and so reshape our concepts of influence and connection. I do not believe that the God of the Bible has determined the course of my life, but I do believe that a million little notes, some heard, some beyond my perception create the soundtrack of my life—some days Rush and Jethro Tull, some days John Denver and Sheryl Crow, sometimes Vivaldi or Mozart, and sometimes it's just elevator music.
I do believe we are free, but every decision, every relationship, every action, every philosophical/theological stance, every motion and moment happens in a context. We do not live our lives in a vacuum. We are free, but it is a relative freedom. And by relative freedom I don't mean the fact that my mother is 1500 miles away—although, trust me, with my family that is a sort of freedom. Rather I mean that I am relatively free given the psycho-social dysfunctional family psychopathology I have acquired, the physical and disease process damage this body has sustained in 41 years, the cultural biases I have—both as a middle-class liberal east-coast born American white male and as an Ashkenazi Jew, the educational and career-based opportunities and limitations that I have---in short, all the chosen and imposed, conscious and unconscious restrictions in and around my life have an impact on both my sense of freedom and the reality of that freedom.
Now having just admitted my impatience with complicated philosophy, that little litany of disclaimers I just offered sounds a lot like complicated philosophy. Oh well, you can take the boy out of the philosophy department.
Let me try and simplify what I mean. I am free because I perceive myself making choices, and yet, at the same time, I am not free because my choices are subject to so many influences that are very real. I can, and sometimes try to, deny these elements in my life, very real elements that shape my destiny as surely as any god.
How can I consider myself truly free with so many forces pushing on my decisions? Do these forces not constitute some kind of fate or destiny.? You might call this negative-destiny—not in the sense that it is necessarily bad, but rather that many of the conscious and unconscious restrictions on my decisions have a fairly strong limiting effect on what I do. I have commitments to my family--Julia, Benjamin; to my employer, Memorial; this congregation and the UUA; friends; and so on---to meet those commitments I do not just take off for Nepal on a whim nor do I behave in ways that are strongly inconsistent with those commitments. Just a small example, a friend recently ended his employment at Memorial. Some friends threw him a party to which I was invited—at Hooter's. It may seem a silly thing, but I really thought about whether I should go. I don't particularly approve of their business model—it feels exploitative. I try to be aware that my role as a minister and a chaplain means that I represent something to a number of people. I've heard other ministers say the same thing. Although I have much less theological baggage to deal with due to the nature of our tradition, ministers are invested with certain expectations by their religious communities. And this too, is perhaps, a form of fate. And this is a form of fate, and a loss of freedom, that everyone deals with in different ways. The prejudice our congregations sometimes hold against those who are conservative in their politics or those who serve in the military is also a sort of predestination that we carry out and make people more or less comfortable in our churches. A person who walks in here wearing a cross and a military uniform is, you could say, destined, to get a different welcome than the person who walks in wearing tie-die and Birkenstocks. Perhaps not a strongly different welcome, especially at this church, and it is not a very substantial form of destiny, but you get the point. Everything we bring to an encounter, visually and symbolically and historically contributes to determining outcome. It's a form of mini-destiny.
I'm not going to speak this morning about Augustinian or Calvinistic conceptions of Predestination except to say that I don't believe them in the slightest. I spent time reaquainting myself with those concepts and they still make head and heart hurt. I don't believe that many Unitarian Universalists are interested in a God who has already, more or less randomly, chosen who will go to heaven and who will go to hell regardless of any behavior or choice. Grace is, those folks claim, purely a gift from God that humans in their post fall-from-Eden state of depravity neither merit nor can earn being incapable of good. Some of our ancestors, like Michael Servetus, died denying such capricious and demoralizing theologies, and I don't think many of us have much more stomach for such ideas. Also, freewill is either true or it isn't. If some god has already determined the exact shape of my life then I don't really have freewill. Variations on the theme—God doesn't choose, but is aware of all possible choices and knows which one I will choose, or God knows the final outcomes but not the small details still turn people into puppets. I readily grant that freedom and freewill are complex ideas, but I have always and will continue to resist any theology or philosophy that denies the basic integrity, worth, and inherent potential nobility and beauty of the individual human being.
What piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
I am not completely free, no one but a psychopath on a desert island is or could be, but I am blessed to live in a time and culture that accords me about as much potential freedom as any human being has ever enjoyed in the history of civilization. I will not throw away the benefits of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution to a theology that demeans my basic humanity. I will, on the other hand, try to preach one that enshrines humanity's best efforts to shed the shackles of tyranny, dogma, and ignorance. Let me stop this portion here. I don't want this to be a barnburner sermon, but this is something I feel passionate about and proud of our heritage.
But whatever fate may be embedded in my genes and imposed by environment or personal history is still not the "foretold in the stars" destiny most people mean by the word. Here's where things get hard for me. I am not particularly fatalistic. I don't believe in some foreordained destiny--at least I don't think I do. My problem here is that I cannot deny the presence of what feel like moments that seem beyond random, beyond pure chance, moments that are, indeed, significant and do seem to reflect some kind of path or pattern to my life. Various people have noted these sorts of events. Mythologist Joseph Campbell said that when we follow our bliss, "a thousand unseen helping hands" aid us in our journey. He's not alone in feeling that way, WH Murray, a Scottish mountaineer, beautifully wrote:
"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."
And I have experienced Providence, these unseen hands. Moments of change in which opportunity seems to arise to be placed like a gift of tremendous value in hands.
Maybe I just need to return to my Buddhist roots. The concept of karma makes sense to me in a sort of Newtonian physics way. My present and future are partially determined by my past in that I make choices, which lead to other choices, and so on—perhaps even across lives. I'd like to believe that the universe recycles. Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, speaks of Interbeing, his name for the older, quite complex doctrine of Pratitya Samutpadha—web of interconnection. Of course, we don't need to go much further than our own principles which also point to the interdependent web of life and although we tend to understand that as physical ecology, I believe it also applies to metaphysical ecology. We are connected.
At least a few words need to be said about the darker side of fate, karma, destiny. Throughout history, various regimes have used such metaphysics to justify social order and control. Throughout history we have used various conceptions of fate to offer cover for our darker intentions. We have used biblical “evidence” to define Africans as the "children of Ham" and so subject to slavery, we have justified a repressive caste system in India under the guise of Karma, and leveled charges of blood libel against Jews for murdering Christ and thus given sanction to persecution and murder. The list goes on for ways we have claimed fate as authority for injustice.
But do we say we don't believe in corporate fate, that a whole group can be held responsible for the actions of another generation? And yet how do we acknowledge the role of past foreign policy plays in creating the conditions for our current challenges---or do we simply continue to place all the blame on the Other? Do we ignore the complexities of Colonialism when we throw up our hands and wonder why the Middle-East is rife with discord or Africa is filled with corruption? Do we deny our complicity in some of the world's most intractable problems and then feign ignorance when these tragedies begin to wash up upon our shores?
A sense of Fate or Destiny has tremendous potential to shape our understanding of events both personal and global. None of us get to make choices that are completely free and with no relationship to past, present, or future. And this brings me back to that Rush song, Freewill, and a new insight for me into the very lyrics I quoted earlier. “Each of us, a cell of awareness, imperfect and imcomplete.” I have no idea what Neil Peart meant by those words, but as someone who writes and preaches on a regular basis, I've come to understand that what I write and say sometimes has strikingly little to do with what my audience reads or hears. And so, whatever Neil meant, I now see connectivity in the midst of his ode to freedom. “Each of us a cell of awareness” perhaps recognizes the organic nature of our bonds to each other—cells within a larger organism—moving towards perfection and completion only to the extent that we recognize our role in the larger body. I will never deny both the reality and necessity of freewill, but I increasingly have a appreciation of how much I am both director and player in this bizarre performance that is life. To quote Shakespeare once again:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts
We have fates and destinies, but they are created by us through organic complex connections that are given divinity and holiness through the relationships we build, the choices we make, and the wisdom we earn.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid
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.
William Ernst Henley
written 1875 from his hospital bed