Mind Matters

by Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 302
July 6, 1998

Retrospective Predestination


About to embark on a U.S. tour, the first in ten years, Olivia Newton John was diagnosed with breast cancer. That same day her father died of cancer. Six years later--years that included a canceled tour, a mastectomy and chemotherapy, a gold record, and a record of environmental activism--she now says, "I don't know if I thought this at the time, but later on I thought that maybe this all might have happened for a reason--so that I could share my experiences and show that, look, it could happen to me, and I got through it. So can you."

"Maybe all this happened for a reason" is a frequent comment by those who have faced their own mortality and have survived, transformed. It is even the comment of those who, in looking at their past, see a decision or event that pushed their life in an unexpected, but very fulfilling direction. Others, who suffer from a series of missteps or disasters, also speak of fate or bad karma.

That sense of life being determined by something outside one's conscious choice led to the Christian doctrine of predestination. Logically, predestination followed from the idea that, if God is all-knowing, God knows the future as well as the past and present. In non-theological language, the same view is stated by the person who, escaping a serious accident in which several others are killed, thanks God for saving her or his life, followed by, "Maybe all this happened for a reason"

What we don't hear is a person saying, "God decided that the others in the accident needed to die," although such a thought might logically follow. That logic led to a pernicious view of God called double predestination. If God predestines to salvation, then God also predestines to damnation. Those who speak so glibly about "the will of God" too frequently perpetuate this vicious slander of God. (The Church condemned this doctrine of double predestination in 849.)

I am skeptical of the view that God directly intervenes in our lives or in human history, favoring this individual or that cause. Disease, despair and death defeat too many good human beings, and evil too often triumphs.

But there are enough stories of individuals and causes enduring a crucible of fire and emerging victorious to realize something is at work in this world. So, I have come to affirm what I call 'retrospective predestination,' not the belief that we live lives predetermined by fate or God, but a belief that, in looking backwards in our lives, we do find we live in a created universe in which we can tap into a ground of benevolence, in which life has hidden surprises of connectedness to which we can respond first with astonishment and then with gratitude.

It is a world in which cancer-breaking up a family and threatening to end a career and a life-left a person saying, "I've learned to value the day. I'm grateful to be getting older. I try to keep in touch with the fact that life is a gift--that every day is a gift." Maybe all this did happen for a reason.

--Robert H. Tucker
6 July 1998


© Robert H. Tucker, 1998.
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