Luck

September 7, 2005 | 18 comments
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There’s a new family which just moved into our ward; the father is also a new professor at WIU, like myself, and he’s occupying a temporary slot here, trying to figure out what will come next, also like myself. So we have a fair amount in common. We had them over for dinner on Monday, and I discovered something else we have in common: Katrina. Or rather, how close we came to being in its path.

I interviewed last spring at the University of Southern Mississippi, with campuses in Hattiesburg and Gulfport, and nearly got the job. He interviewed last spring at the University of Southern Alabama, with a campus in Mobile, and nearly got the job. They were tenure-track jobs, and we wanted them badly; we worked hard for them, prayed and fasted about them, felt good about our chances of getting them. Then we didn’t get them. Both universities hired someone else, who got to move down south and begin a new career and be part of a new community and make a new start, and who were then presumably slammed by Katrina, and may have lost everything, perhaps even their lives. My new friend and I, meanwhile, scrambled and picked up these temporary jobs, and moved to a small town in western Illinois.

Was it luck?

The ancient Greeks and Romans had no problem with the notion of luck. She was Nike, a tiny winged goddess, frequent associate of Athena, speeding about the universe, a harbringer of victory and luck. Sometimes she was there, sometimes she wasn’t. You worshipped her, offered sacrifices and prayers and poems, called upon her name. Even if you didn’t believe in her literally (and in all likelihood few of our civilization’s ancestors probably did), you still knew that “the gods” (generically, indistinctively) may or may not be with you in any endeavor or choice. So you pushed your luck, or hoarded it, trying to lure or implore the goddess’s eye your way, metaphorically speaking of course. The metaphor continued on for centuries, and continues today. “Fortune is a woman,” stated Machiavelli in The Prince, calling upon those he advised to live boldly, take large (if measured) risks, assess their surroundings unsentimentally and eschew weakeness–to look back, doubt, cavil or quail before the arbitrariness of life was to prove oneself effeminate; fortune, who responds to rough, confident treatment, would not bless anyone with her affections who did not show himself to be made of stern stuff. Sky Masterson of Guys and Dolls fame implored luck to “be a lady,” a “nice dame,” to stick with him–the high roller, the confident craps-shooter, the Alpha male of the New York gambling world, who had been such a fine escort to her over the years. And she does: Sky wins the biggest bet of his life, shows where luck really resides, and all–as it turns out–to the ultimate benefit of the Salvation Army. (Who says God doesn’t play dice?)

Monotheism, and particularly Christianity, seem to put a damper on all this luck talk. There are no lucky or unlucky people! Yes, some are blessed and some are cursed–perhaps for reasons of righteousness or wickedness, perhaps for God’s own inscrutable reasons, but always, always for a purpose. There is no arbitrariness here, no random force in the universe that sometimes does, and sometimes doesn’t, answer our desires and reward our longings. If there is one God, then He must be an accountable God, and the universe He created–with its angels and devils and hurricanes and whatever else–must therefore be something that we can make an account of, without appeal to some sort of winged randomness. We can trust God, as Job insisted, and if we can’t take Job’s word for it, whose can we?.

And yet, just what is Job’s word? Those who have actually read and struggled with the Book of Job know that its story is far more than that of a faithful man enduring misfortune; it is the story of a faithful man firmly, relentelessly, unapologetically demanding that God account for the misfortune that we are given to understand God directly allowed to come upon him. God finally answers, telling Job, in essence, to shut up. Job accepts the wisdom of that answer, and repents of his presumption. So that’s one option–though I must admit that in some ways, well, if that’s Yahweh, I think I sometimes might prefer Nike.

Our own doctrine tends to suggest (though not without a fair amount of internal tension) a partial way out of this monotheistic dilemma–God isn’t strictly accountable for everything in this world. Not because He lacks in power, but because His love for us requires that He accept certain immutable facts about the nature of identity and morality. A perfectly accountable and responsive God would be, according to this line of reasoning, a God who undermines temporal human freedom, and without such mortal freedom, there can be no growth, and thus no fulfillment of our godlike potential. Thus there must needs be a certain amount of unpredictability in who is hit by hurricanes, and when, and how, because if it there were not, then the trials and tests which such unknowability provides would be lost, and God’s ability to show us enough love as to want us to be like Him would be lost. He would instead be treating us like playthings, treasured pets, not full persons, and that’s not Godlike love at all. And so we conclude that, while we agree as good monotheists that there is a supreme God who has perfectly designed the universe, and that there is no “real” randomness in the sense of tragedies and fortunes emerging from the actions of a mysterious second or third party, the actual structure of the world prevents any kind of one-to-one correspondence between our persons and our “luck,” or lack thereof. We may be blessed for our faithfulness; then again, we may be tested as well. And we may be punished for our sins, and we may not. And sometimes we just endure for purposes unknown. (Paraphrasing Elder Neal A. Maxwell, who was paraphrasing George MacDonald: we are not always the helpful hammer which is shaping and pounding the iron ore into something beautiful, nor always the iron receiving the rough but necessary treatment. Sometimes we are merely the anvil.)

Okay, so perhaps there must needs be unpredictability, even a certain kind of mortal unaccountability, in the matter of who moves into, and who moves away from, the paths of hurricanes. But that’s not the only question. There is also the question, must there needs be hurricanes? If we really do imagine that God has created a world within which there are certain events that are, insofar as His plans for the world make necessary, both unknowable and unavoidable, events which connect to purposes that are larger than any account in particular but are part of the overall design of the world itself, then aren’t we suggesting that He, in the name of this grand and heartfelt love, has actually given up some of His own compassion? That He has loosened upon the world a randomness impervious to all forms of agency? In which case, is God, in some small yet profound sense, also a fatalist, shaking His head at the world but unwilling (because unable) to respond to it when it (and His children who live upon it) cry out to Him? I imagine an infinitely wise and loving and powerful version of Detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan, pointing His finger (you know, the one bringing life to Adam in the Sistine Chapel painting) at us like a gun, intoning with voice fraught with divine concern and sorrow, “I’m going to put hurricanes down there. Now, some of them may hit you, while some of them may not. You might move to Gulfport, and lose everything; you might move to Macomb, IL, and be secure. The question you have to ask yourself is: do you feel lucky? Well, do you, my children?” (Had to change the line: “punk” just seems a little too vernacular for God to use.)

We recoil at such a notion. God, a fatalist, staring down the barrell of the world, waiting to see which way we’ll run (sadly already knowing, but waiting nonetheless)? Of course not. God is not subject to fate; rather, He is the master of our fates, the captain of our souls. We pray to Him, and are answered with miracles and revelations and comfort and counsel. He is, in short, compassionate: He hears and answers prayers. God can, and has, moved hurricanes (or at least mountains); surely He can move a family in a hurricane’s path. I prayed for the job in Mississippi, but I also prayed that whatever happened be what is right for our family. We didn’t get the job, and we ended up moving far away from Katrina. Well, that’s certainly an answer, and one I am grateful for: I am very, very glad right now that I didn’t get the job in Mississippi. God took compassion on me and my family, and protected us. Of course, someone else got the job, and so perhaps God wasn’t quite as compassionate towards her or him. Does that kind of ruin the whole thing? Are we prepared to accept a selectively compassionate God? Some would say, of course, we must; a compassion which is not selective, which does not grace the wise virgins and shut out the foolish ones, isn’t compassion at all, but some nonsensical, undifferentiated universal “love” that makes no demands at all. (Though my daughter thinks otherwise.) I can see the sense in that. But it also seems to me that such an understanding turns on my ability to see myself as a wise virgin, and the person hired by USM, or the person who drowned in their basement in New Orleans, or each of the hundreds of thousands killed in last Christmas’s tsunami, as a foolish virgin. And that is an understanding I doubt I will ever have.

So what? As Nate suggests, “God often has projects for us other than understanding”; as the scriptures themselves promise, God’s grace is in fact a “peace . . . which passeth all understanding.” I’m not going to understand it: just respond to the suffering, and leave it at that. A good answer, though not one which puts the Mormon finitist position in any significant way ahead of the traditional monotheistic one. Should that bother me? Should it bother me that my new friend and I, like every other Christian ever, are really not any different than Job–equally placed in the midst of a (to us) unaccountable turn of events, insisting that there is meaning to be found therein, exercising faith in its existence, doubting that the object of our faith is in fact a significant one, knowing full well that we probably (even structurally!) will be prevented from ever knowing either way? I suppose not. But I will say that if Job is the essential and universal human story (and I think it is: Job, as a scriptural text, stands in my opinion with the Gospel of John, the Book of Romans, and the Book of Jacob in its ultimate import), then I think there is little harm in dropping our theological pretentions once in a while, and just contenting ourselves with a little bit of luck.

I have a wife, three children, a job, food on the table, books on the shelf, and no water in my basement. I don’t live in Gulfport. I am a lucky man. I don’t, because I can’t, presume for that to mean anything whatsoever about what God thinks of me or what He has planned for me. It’s just an account–an account limited in explanatory power, superficial in its meaning, possibly apostate in its associations. But it is a functional account; it tells me who is fortunate, and who is not, and that the fortunate ought not act as though they have any more right to their fortune than they would if, well, than if it had been bestowed upon them by some flighty, winged fairy. Despair and death reign in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. Melissa and I send off a check–because we can, because we can afford to. Lucky us.

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18 Responses to Luck

  1. Geoff J on September 7, 2005 at 7:50 pm

    Nice Russell — a theodicy post of sorts in the wake of Nate’s anti-theodicy post…

    You have some great moments in this one. The Dirty Harry line had me chuckling. And now I have the voice of Marlon Brando singing “Luck be a lady tonight…” running through my head — it is not a pretty sound…

    As for luck — I have been meaning to post on this subject for some time. I have always thought of us Mormons as being a little like the X-Men character in the 80s named “Longshot”. His super power was essentially good luck. I have often wondered if the “prospering in the land” we are repeatedly promised in the Book of Mormon as a result of keeping the commandments of God manifests itself often in the form of good luck. I can’t really support that theory, but I have always suspected it was the case in my life…

  2. Adam Greenwood on September 7, 2005 at 8:11 pm

    Without luck, we’d start to think that we deserved what we got.

    A world with agency–a world in which one person’s decisions affect someone else–is a world with luck, hurricanes or no.

    When we’ve talked about God and us, we haven’t exhausted the set of agents who might be affecting things.

  3. Jack on September 7, 2005 at 9:26 pm

    “When we’ve talked about God and us, we haven’t exhausted the set of agents who might be affecting things.”

    I find a lot of comfort in that thought, though I’m not exactly sure why.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on September 7, 2005 at 9:48 pm

    My feelings about your comment aren’t the same as Jack’s, Adam, but they might be if you explain what you’re getting at in a little more detail. At first I assumed you were talking about the devil and his servants; but now I wonder if you aren’t talking about angels, our ancestors, or perhaps even other divine beings entirely? Interesting. Part of the point I was making in regards to montheism is that, if we believe that there is a God who is the Creator, and we further believe that we are His creation, then there is no appeal to “outside” sources of creative power to generate blessings or “luck.” Hence, there isn’t any luck, at least not in the classical sense; everything follows the logical imprint of God’s sovereign will. The Mormon finitist argument may modify that argument slightly, but substantively doesn’t change it; in the end, God in His foreknowledge made a world with hurricanes, which kill some and leave others untouched, and we are left trying, in vain, to account for it all. But if there really are other agents who can account for events in this world, well then, that’s a different story. But aren’t those agents strictly accountable to God? Or do you think, like Nephi being granted the sealing power, that there might be divine free-lancers out there, entities to whom God has intrusted His power and authority, who are going about sending hurricanes and moving people out their path as they will, without necessarily acting in accordance with God’s daily plans? I don’t believe such is the case, but perhaps I’m reading more into your comment than you intend. (What would we call such entities, anyway? Saints? I know your sympathies for Catholicism are deep, Adam, but are they deep enough to allow for, if not a full-blown Nike, then some pseudo-independent figures from whom we may plead for intervention?)

  5. Jonathan Green on September 7, 2005 at 9:54 pm

    I rather prefer the concept of luck in Old Norse tales, where luck is a defining and unvarying characteristic of the gæfumaðr, the “lucky man” for whom everything always turns out well. Of course, he’s usually a simpleton, but you can’t have everything.

  6. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 7, 2005 at 11:17 pm

    So what? As Nate suggests, “God often has projects for us other than understanding”; as the scriptures themselves promise, God’s grace is in fact a “peace . . . which passeth all understanding.”

    I have to say that I agree with that and reject the neoCalvinism implicit in the counter argument to and that the fortunate ought not act as though they have any more right to their fortune than they would if, well, than if it had been bestowed upon them by some flighty, winged fairy for God makes the sun to shine on the wicked and the righteous.

    At the same time, sometimes God does bless us to avoid random chance, and sometimes his blessing are that we will be in the path of the harshest parts of it.

    Only God knows, and in the final analysis, only God can heal us and bring us safely home.

  7. danithew on September 8, 2005 at 7:03 am

    A few years ago the subject of luck existing or not came up in conversation somehow. My wife or I said “Good luck” to a Muslim neighbor of ours. He emphatically and with conviction stated “There is no luck. There is only Allah.” For him it was an article of faith and it was obvious that there was no willingness on his part to consider any such thing. Regardless of the doctrinal issues, we had been expressing our good will towards him. I felt his complete renunciation of what we were saying to him was a little bit rude.

    I prefer to see luck as existing and that the odd happy circumstance is an expression of love (and perhaps a sense of humor) on God’s part. To completely shut down any acceptance of luck seems rather grumpy and unnecessary, like those who go about insisting that Christmas and Halloween are pagan holidays and that we cannot enjoy or celebrate them.

    I suppose a belief in luck could go too far. I’ve heard about the superstition of baseball players. There are those who carry about charms or good luck trinkets or who have something that gives them “mojo” or whatever one might call it. Some of these things are still, in my eyes harmless and even fun. However, I think that if they are carried to logical or illogical extremes, the concept of luck could turn to something akin to idolatry.

  8. Space Chick on September 8, 2005 at 3:35 pm

    Russell, I think another element to consider is that if you had been absolutely set on moving to the Gulf Coast, and decided to go there even without a guaranteed job, you still could have done so, and you’d be in a very bad fix right now. So “luck”, or the will of God, still would have had to yield to your agency if you chose to employ it in that respect.

  9. Adam Greenwood on September 8, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    “At first I assumed you were talking about the devil and his servants; but now I wonder if you aren’t talking about angels, our ancestors”

    Yes, both

    “like Nephi being granted the sealing power, that there might be divine free-lancers out there, entities to whom God has intrusted His power and authority, who are going about sending hurricanes and moving people out their path as they will”

    Yes, this! I strongly suspect that celestial beings (our ancestors and other angels) are given responsibilities for various things and that God only steps in to prevent them making mistakes sometimes. Just like here.

    I don’t know about praying to these figures. Didn’t you and I have this conversation earlier sometime?

  10. Adam Greenwood on September 8, 2005 at 3:46 pm

    Correction, it was I and Jim Faulconer. See here, in the comments, though the original post is well worth reading:

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?p=668#more-668

  11. Adam Greenwood on September 8, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    Though I still think we might have had another conversation on this at one time. You remember anything Br’er Fox?

  12. Ann on September 8, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    Re: Agents. Y’know, sometimes it just doesn’t have a single thing to do with God. Sometimes, the search committee just decides to hire someone else.

  13. Russell Arben Fox on September 8, 2005 at 5:08 pm

    Adam:

    I’m not remembering a conversation on this topic, but I suppose it may have happened; I have a terrible memory, after all. And speaking of which, thanks for reminding me of that thread. A great post by Karen Hall, and a great couple of comments from Jim. The way he frames it, and the way you respond, makes me want to reconsider my emphatic “I don’t believe such is the case” up in #4.

    Ann:

    Well, of course, along with all these questions about random luck vs. God’s will comes the basic framing question: are we even looking at something that is a matter of God’s interest? Hurricanes, sure, but job interviews? Maybe, maybe not. That’s kind of what I was getting at in my original comment about “doubting that the object of our faith is in fact a significant one,” but I didn’t elaborate upon it.

  14. Adam Greenwood on September 8, 2005 at 7:35 pm

    Thanks, Russell,
    It would be fun to have a conversation on this some time.

  15. Ann on September 8, 2005 at 8:54 pm

    What has God to do with hurricanes? I think he is as little engaged in natural forces as he is in the decisions of a search committee. His engagement in any earthly activities is only on the human heart.

    My understanding of the Book of Job is that the answer (very succinctly you put it!) was a late addition, and that the original answer was – there is no answer. Sometimes the hurricane goes to Pensacola. Usually the hurricane goes to Pensacola! Sometimes the hurricane just misses New Orleans, and everything seems OK there until the levy breaks. Sometimes your employer continues to pay you even though you can’t work because of the hurricane. Sometimes your employer will put you to work wherever you land. Sometimes four trees fall on your house (a counselor in the bishopric, and his wife, the Stake YW president) and sometimes your house is unscathed (the ward HPGL, and his apostate wife). Sometimes the search committee picks somebody else.

    God is utterly uninvolved in any of these things. But God is very willing to help us deal with them.

    I’ve seen God very active in the hearts of those who are reaching out to help, and those on the ground making a difference. But the hurricane itself? Its natural outcomes? Nothing to do with Him!

  16. Adam Greenwood on September 8, 2005 at 8:59 pm

    I’m as skeptical of those who think that God never dictates events and decisions as I am of those who think they can tell us when he has.

  17. Ann on September 8, 2005 at 9:50 pm

    [sigh]. I do know how to spell levee…

  18. Blain on September 9, 2005 at 12:54 am

    Here’s something that I’ve been thinking about–knots in umbilical cords. Any woman who’s been pregnant can tell you about how it feels at times like the little life in her is doing gymnastics in there. Sometimes, that little fetus will manage, somehow to swim a knot into its umbilical cord. You’ve maybe heard of some baby or other being born with such a knot.

    Trouble is, that cord that has a knot in it is what’s carrying oxygen to the fetus. If the cord gets pulled too tight….

    Several months ago, one of my obstetrical patients had an IUFD (IntraUterine Fetal Demise–sounds a lot less bad than “the baby died”). When the fetus came out, there was a tight little knot in that umbilical cord. In contrast to this, a couple of weeks ago my colleague delivered a live baby with two(!) knots in the umbilical cord; that baby is doing fine now. So both fetuses had this random occurence of a knot in the cord, but one baby never made it, and the other is fine.

    On the one hand, it was a tragedy for the family; and on the other hand the family thought, “Whew! That could have been a lot worse.” So, why the difference? If anything, the baby with two knots should have been the one to die, right? The feeling that this all gives me is not a feeling of God’s will being one way or the other. Rather, it makes me feel that life is fragile, and that pretty random things can have profound consequences. I feel like it was a roll of the dice; and one of the parties came out a winner.

    I don’t think that God made the one fetus (1) swim a knot into its cord and then (2) somehow get it pulled too tight. I certainly believe that God’s hand is in certain things happening in certain ways. But all my experience tells me that sometimes you just have bad luck.

    And one other random comment. When I think of luck, I think of “The Rocking Horse Winner”. Terrifying story.