Last week I had the pleasure of conducting Carmina Burana, a hair-raising oratorio composed by Carl Orff and dedicated to Adolf Hitler. The opening number “O Fortuna” is a thrilling hymn to the god of fortune featured in countless films and television commercials. The lyrics come from poems written by mediaeval monks who were supposed to be preoccupied with prayers. But these verses are filled with pagan odes to gambling, fate, drinking, prostitution, and springtime. Notwithstanding the subject matter, the poems are written with a great reverence for Fate, as if Fate was God Himself.
O Fortune, like the moon you are changeable…
The wheel turns; I go down, another is raised up;
Sits the king at the summit – let him fear ruin!
We live in an unpredictable world. Like a wheel of fortune it can bring rain in due season or unwanted famine and pestilence. Religion and science try to make sense of this unpredictability with two basic interpretations: fate and karma. A fatalistic worldview interprets life as unknowably determined by God or the laws of nature, while a karmic view interprets the world as tailored specifically to mankind and subject to his choices. When tragedy strikes, the fatalist says “shit happens” and the karmic says “everything happens for a reason.”
God of Fate: Pagans, Calvinists, Scientists
Proponents of a fatalistic God include pagans, Calvinists, and scientists. Pagans anthropomorphise fate through various mythical gods representing the conflicting forces at work in the world. Like Oedipus who accidentally murdered his father and married his mother, we are the unwitting victims or beneficiaries of forces beyond our control. Calvinists believe we are predestined through God’s grace (or fate) to be saved or damned regardless of our works. Scientists and secularists also believe in a wheel of fortune which guides the random mutations in genes which create the complexities of life. They don’t use the name “god” to describe the wheel of fortune, but rather “chance,” “chaos theory,” “randomness,” or “monkeys at typewriters.”  For many scientists, freewill is an illusion, and we are simply the natural by-products of the random forces that led to our creation.
God of Karma: A Universe of Works and Meaning
In other religions, everything happens for a reason. Jehovah said: “if you keep my sabbaths I will give you rain in your season…but if you keep not my sabbaths, you shall sow your seed in vain and your enemies shall eat it.” Joseph Smith says “all blessings are predicated upon obedience to the law upon which it is predicated.” A Karmic God has created a “best of all possible worlds” calculated to give us all the best chance of getting to heaven if we will just make the right choices. When things don’t make sense, when “the wicked prosper and the righteous are cursed” we interpret these things as trials of faith which are really just blessings in disguise. Even the prosperity of the wicked can be interpreted as the “curse of riches.” This allows us to explain how God can be “good” and at the same time rule over a world full of suffering. A karmic universe is filled with meaning and has an answer for everything.
Some secularists hold karmic-like views, believing that the universe holds a purpose and meaning in our lives even in the absence of God. The great scientist and inventor Buckminster Fuller wrote: “Nature is trying very hard to make us succeed, but nature does not depend on us. We are not the only experiment.”
LDS View: Reconciling the Karmic and the Fatalistic God
There are difficulties with both the Karmic and Fatalistic interpretations of God. The universe is both extraordinary orderly, and extraordinary random. It’s hard for scientists to explain the complexities of life through random gene mutations, and its hard to defend the terrible sufferings and inefficiencies of life as the work of an omnipotent, benevolent God who is simply encouraging us to grow through karma. In my opinion, a true depiction must somehow account for both karmic and fatalistic dimensions of God. It turns out LDS doctrine does an admirable job of reconciling these two viewpoints.
1. God as Organiser
In LDS doctrine, God organises the universe out of pre-existing elements. The existing universe is filled with “oppositions in all things.” Opposition is the inescapable nature of reality, what we call fate. God may intervene at times, blessing us for righteousness, or giving us trials for our growth, but ultimately, He can’t be held responsible for the general state of opposition in which we live, which He did not create.
2. God as Exemplar
An Exemplar God also works within a pre-existing “oppositions in all things.” But He is actually member of our species, a former human being who has evolved to become a God. His role is that of exemplar within the chaos of creation. By example, He teaches us how to cope with, and eventually become masters of the random world in which we live. I really like this interpretation. It resolves the meaningless of fate by placing it as the backdrop in a compelling narrative of eternal growth.
3. God as a Vision of Humanity’s Future
This is my own interpretive extension of LDS doctrine. If, as Joseph Smith suggests, we will become gods someday, then our god-selves already exist in space-time. Perhaps our god-selves ARE the God we worship, an expression of our future, which is drawing us up into Itself. William Wordsworth says, “The child is father of the man.” Perhaps we are the father of God, by being “gods in embryo.”
I like this interpretation because it seems to reconcile Fate and Karma most efficiently. The universe is meaningless and fatalistic. But human beings create meaning within that universe by creating God, and even becoming God. This might seem an absurd theory, but think about it more broadly. The hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob” asks the question: “Do you think that you could ever, through all eternity, find out the generations that Gods began to be?” Even if gods have already existed for trillions of years, how did the first gods begin to exist? Would they not have had to evolve from lower forms of life? Would there not have had to be someone who became the “first god?” And in what environment would that first god have created itself? Would it not have have to be a meaningless universe, because there would not have been anything there to create its meaning before God? So whether we create meaning in the universe by creating God, or our distant ancestors on other planets created God, someone had to create God in the first place. Why couldn’t it be us?
- Which interpretation of God do you gravitate to: the God of Fate and Mystery, or the God of Karma and Meaning?
- If God is both fatalistic and karmic, how do you reconcile the two?
- How did the Gods begin to be? Could the God we worship actually be our own creation, the end result of our own evolution?
 It might seem strange to describe atheistic scientists as reverencing a kind of “God.” But their view of randomness ticks all the boxes for a God: Randomness (or God) created the universe. Randomness (or God) gives rise to life in its endless variety. Randomness (God) is mysterious, displaying seemingly miraculous properties of emergence. The miraculous properties of emergence are every bit as spectacular as Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine, or even more so. The miracle of life has been described by Bill Bryson as being about as likely as a tornado rushing through a heap of scrap metal and turning it into a Boeing 747. A mystery indeed!
I’m sort of with the Greeks on this one and I don’t quite know where that puts me in relation to your question. With the God of Fate, maybe? I suppose it’s the mixture of the Old Testament God with the New Testament God that makes me think there may be someone in charge, but that there is a kind of randomness (and really, in the OT, a kind of frightening, random violence) in how he does things. Of course, the answer to that is that God isn’t random, it’s just our limited mortal understanding that prevents us from understanding the quite good reasons he has for acting the way he does. I guess some would call that recognition faith.
As far as God being our own creation, I think that works on several levels, some of them troubling. So much of what we believe about God is our projection of what we believe a god should be. The plain fact of the matter is that we don’t know much about God, his thought process, why he started this whole crazy human experiment, etc. The longer I’m in the church, the less I buy into the relatively simple LDS narratives about what God wants us to do/be. I think there are so many levels of complexity and nuance and so many dimensions that we really have no clue about what God is like and we should stop pretending that we do. So yes, I think I’m with you that we, in a sense, “create” God in our own image as much as we were created in his. I wonder, though, if there isn’t some kind of perverse narcissism behind the LDS belief that we’ll become gods. We’ll become gods because we’re awesome and it’s our eternal destiny? And we’ll be even more awesome when we’re gods ourselves? That seems a bit self-aggrandizing. The theological version of a humble brag on a cosmic scale.
It’s not a very original thought, but your point about randomness and orderliness makes me wonder if God could represent some kind of compromise. God works his own ways, has his own sense of time, etc., which could make him seem “random” to us, but on the other hand, he is a “god of order,” at least according to the LDS view, and so maybe the LDS version of God actually synthesizes randomness AND order, creating a kind of cosmos that, as you point out, the LDS view of God recognizes and embraces. My .02.
Thanks for the comment Bro. Sky. It’s true that the LDS narrative is a simplification, and one that sometimes seems constricting to me. I think it can be helpful for people to conceptualise God in the LDS way, and I think God reveals Himself to us, “as WE are,” not as He is.
Joseph Smith said: “When we comprehend the character of God, we comprehend ourselves.” Joseph thought he was comprehending the character of some kind of distinct man-god with flesh and bone who had evolved from a human form, just like we can someday. But I think what Joseph unwittingly revealed is that God’s character is a reflection of our own character. We receive revelations which reveal as much about ourselves as they reveal about some kind of supernatural deity. Joseph conceptualised this in a certain, very literal way. I don’t necessarily interpret Joseph Smith’s man-god theory literally, but I think it is psychically true. Man and God are inseparable. He IS us on some level, and we ARE Him.
I like the mirror image. It does, ironically, perhaps, lead one to the Narcissus myth. I wonder if God as a mirror is a trope found in the scriptures anywhere? That notion, I think, leads almost to God as a psychological construct as much as an actual, physical being, doesn’t it?
Somebody at BYU said one time life is a video that God has already seen. If that’s not predestination I don’t know what is.
Foreknowledge isn’t the same as predestination. I’ve always gotten the sense that God sees events unfolding in a continuous present, so he sees all of the possibilities of all our actions/choices at once. But that’s just me.
Predestination isn’t compatible with agency. Christ’s Atonement was dependent on him choosing to accept his mission at Gethsemane and Calvary. Saying everything was predetermined implies he had no choice.
I prefer the view that he *did* have a choice – he really could have chosen not to go through with it. Making that choice affected all those born in the past as well as all those in the future. I’m with Bro. Sky that there is a past/present/future overlap that linear timelines cannot explain.
Fascinating thoughts. I’ve been trying to pin down my own thoughts about these subjects for years. I fall more on the fatalist side of the spectrum–my theory is that this life is the purest expression of free will that there is. Which means free will for everything, down to the smallest quantum states (which is a whole head trip in and of itself). Which means that, yeah, that old blessings by obedience to the law chestnut is applicable, but also that stuff just happens, crops die, pestilence falls, and there’s nothing we can do but roll with the punch.
A lot of people would find that pretty bleak, but I find it comforting. God is there when I seek them, but the purpose of this life is to choose, to express our will and show who we really are. This is also why I’m an evolutionist, but that’s a whole line of thought that goes off in some pretty weird directions, so I’ll spare you.
The idea that we are our own God is an interesting one, and I can see where you’re coming from, but I wonder sometimes if space-time as we understand it is inherently limited by our mortality. I’ve always pictured God(s) outside of space-time, that the dark and lonely wilderness we were cast into is the universe as we see it, a vast, dark, place where we may always be separated from the other life that may be out there.
So at the heart of it I believe in an eternity of evolution. That we’ll go form one state to the next to the next, glory upon glory, in ways we can’t even imagine. It’s one of the reasons I love Mormonism so much.
It sounds like my primary class – where did God-heavenly father come from and who is his dad? There is just no answer to these question, yet we live by faith that one day we will return to God and know everything there is to know from the beginning of time. I believe everything happens for a reason, even if we do not understand fully what that reason is at the time, but with hindsight things are often clearer. I don’t think we can blame another person or persona, even God for the way our life turns out. I also believe that every person that comes into our life, even for even a brief time, is there for a reason, again sometimes we don’t understand why. Science says that nothing ends, just changes and therefore if eternity is infinite, without beginning or end, then where did God come from? Was He in fact the Saviour of another world before this one and because he proved himself worthy he became the God (Heavenly Father) of this world and does that mean that Jesus Christ will one day do the same? For every question there is another question and then another and another and so on with no end. The gospel is simple; love God, love mankind, keep the commandments, endure to the end – but there is no end!
I wander back and forth between the two understandings, I guess. Do I really believe God intervenes to help us find keys and not for Tamir Rice? So I lean more towards fatalistic – not predestination, per se, but just God created things and is just letting agency and biology just figure crap out.
I feel deeply known and loved by God – but I’m not sure how much I believe in his intervention. Kinda blasphemous – but just still working out what I believe.
I suppose I see life as a million butterfly effects all going on at the same time. I flap my wings (do butterflies flap, or just birds?) which effects the world, but so does everyone else, and so do all other forms of life so that all of our individual little waves from our wings are constantly crashing into each other creating chaos – big and small.
There are laws that govern the air around our butterfly wings and sometimes we align with that law and think we are controlling life, but the laws are way beyond our understanding and so we can’t actually see let alone understand the true pattern of them.
How’s that for a metaphor?