I was recently in a car accident. It was a serious one in which I suffered a broken rib, a broken collarbone, a fractured ankle, stitches on my right wrist and right hand, and stitches from the tip of my nose to the top and along the bridge of my nose to my eyebrows. My nose was fully split open. The insurance assessor who looked at the car agreed with my initial assessment when he saw it: I was lucky to be alive.
A few days later my wife put a notice on Facebook that I was healing well and was going to be fine. I was released from hospital four days after the accident and again put a picture on Facebook showing me to look pretty good — from a distance with bad lighting — for a person who had just been run over by a Toyota Tacoma.
Many condolences came in, along with well wishes. Many people thanked God that I was alive. Some assured me that God must have a special plan for me since he saved me from death in this accident.
The mythologizing of this event in our context of course provides an opportunity to reflect on the idea of a divine plan that people often invoke when speaking in such contexts or, as I will put it more provocatively and more specifically for the given situation, Jesus and car wrecks. Many religious systems have some idea of a divine plan. I’m going to get at Christianity’s in a somewhat roundabout way by speaking of the influence upon it by an ancient Greek school of thought, Stoicism. The Stoics, who emerged in the third century BCE, thought that everything that happens does so in accordance with the dictates of rationality, the logos. This rational core of reality isn’t imposed on nature by a deity outside of it. Rather it is imposed internally by nature itself, which unfolds in accordance with its own rational, divine plan. We humans have no freedom to influence the course of events around us. What we can do is change our attitudes towards the things that do occur. This is the key to our happiness or tranquility.
Christians, influenced by Stoics and others, developed a similar notion of Christian Providence. Everything that occurs, many Christians believed and believe, is ordained by God’s plan. Here though, for the most part the Christian tradition has seen the plan not as imposed by nature itself but by a transcendent God on nature, To get back to my accident: In alignment with this view, it was ordained by God’s plan, as was my healing after the accident. The fact that I’m alive now rather than not is because God, in his divine wisdom, didn’t think it was my time to go yet. God, as the giver of life, can in this view take it whenever he pleases. The giver of life is not culpable for also being the taker of life. In many cases, he appears to use reckless drivers or other irresponsible parties to achieve his plan.
While for the Stoics there was no chance of changing the divine plan, one was simply to learn to accept it, for Christians as well as other members of Abrahamic religions question have arisen about whether God might change his plan depending on prayers and supplications. But that leads us to another set of questions, which I can’t explore here.
The views I am exploring here are of course hefty metaphysical ideas on their own part; and they are awash with questions: If there is a divine plan, how would we know what it is? Why should we accept that there is one? Beyond that, to accept that things like traffic accidents — that lead in some cases to death, and some cases not — are all part of God’s plan us in some logical conundrums.
Moving from this idea of God’s plan to Jesus’s plan — something I want to mention since I’ve titled this “Jesus and car wrecks” — of course makes the argument more difficult still. It is, I guess, less cumbersome — though surely cumbersome enough — to show that an accident like mine was God’s plan than that it was Jesus’s plan, since to show the latter, one would have to show the plausibility of the Trinity and other such things — no small feat.
But let me pursue for a moment the idea that this accident and my surviving it are parts of God’s plan. This involves us from the outset in a paradox of sorts. For if it was God’s plan that I was in the accident, then it appears that we must claim that the accident should have happened. This implies that it was God’s plan for the person who was driving dangerously, sleeping at the wheel or playing with this phone to have been driving dangerously, sleeping at the wheel or playing with his phone, whichever of those things led him to veer into my lane and crash his Toyota Tacoma into the windshield of my Prius C. In short, if the accident was supposed to happen, and the driver’s recklessness was necessary for the accident, then the driver was supposed to be driving recklessly.
The paradox is that while this metaphysical argument implies that this recklessness should have happened, we typically also have a moral imperative that runs in the opposite direction — that this driver shouldn’t have been driving recklessly. He should have been paying attention. He failed by driving recklessly to live up not only to his moral obligations but to the basic requirements of the law. The paradox then is that — in line with such an argument — this driver both should and should not have been driving recklessly.
Now philosophers have long dealt with this basic conundrum — since Heraclitus at least — and their ways of dealing with the problem typically betray something of a sleight-of-hand. One typical route for the devout is to say that human morality is simply a conventional perspective, surpassed by divine perspective — well, whenever God decides. In that case, the normal moral rules that we follow do not really hold in all circumstances. They are something like rules of thumb for us but surpassed as God wants them to be. So in our case, while the driver of the Tacoma normally should not drive recklessly, on this morning he should have since on this morning his driving recklessly was necessary to carry out God’s will — namely, an accident in which I was nearly killed. Here paradoxically again God might work with the two parties of the accident in some subtle and mysterious ways. Perhaps the driver of the other car needs to awaken to the fact that he normally drives too recklessly. This accident might teach him a lesson. Or it will push him toward some moral reform, since he is confronted with the potential shortness of someone else’s life. And who likes that? Perhaps I needed a near death experience. Maybe the accident will awaken in me a gratitude for the preciousness of every day for the rest of my life. Or some might think that a near death experience should lead me to put aside any questions in God’s existence and devote the rest of my life to God’s service or some such thing. Here then the guilty driver should still feel guilt for driving recklessly even though it was meant to be. He should learn from this “mistake” that was meant to be and waken up to his normal responsibilities to drive safely. I should learn from this accident preciousness of life or to put aside ant doubt of God’s existence or some such thing.
This way of addressing the question of Jesus and car wrecks (or God and car wrecks more generally) is related to the classical problem of evil. Why if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving is there evil in the world? Or more specifically, why would such a deity allow bad things to happen to good people? An all-powerful God could have made me drive three seconds faster on September 25, 2018 so that I wasn’t in precisely the right spot to be run over by an inattentive driver in a head-on collision. He could have had the other driver finish reading the note on his phone this seconds earlier and look up from his phone, turn with the curve and avoid the accident. Or he could have had him not drop the cigarette, or not fall asleep. I’m not sure what his distraction was. Whatever it was, a perfect loving God could have found some simple way to delay it a couple seconds.
I have outlined a common way to try to counter the problem of evil — namely to deny hat what appears evil is truly evil. Some things, in accord with this view, appear to be evil to humans but from a divine perspective (not comprehensible to humans) those things are really good.
In a typical discussion of this view, God does not create evil itself but nearly allows it to occur — something necessary for a world with free will. I don’t want to explore these in more detail. But if one wants to maintain this and that God is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful then it seems one is forced to maintain that the human understanding of good is inadequate. Another alternative, sometimes combined with that, is to maintain that since God gives life, it is not immoral for him to take it (even according to a kind of human measure). God allows it to happen. This might provide an out — but then it would seem one would give up on saying things when such bad things occur like “It was God’s plan.” “It was meant to be.” “It all happened in accord with God’s will.” In this case, one might simply say that the accident was regretable, surely not a part of God’s will, but bad things are price we sometimes pay for human freedom. Life thus has pain and suffering that wasn’t necessary, that wasn’t will be a divine being and that wasn’t a part of his plan, but that happened anyway, because this God gave up some of his power to people to do things like play with their phones while driving killing machines. The bigger logical problem comes because very rare will the metaphysician follow where I have just suggested going. Rather, he will say human freedom caused it, but God willed it anyway.
I think it should be clear that really these arguments are little more than rationalizations from a dogmatic starting point — a starting point that requires that no dogma be softened and any contradictions in the argument must be explained away as apparent only. Such dogmatic metaphysics clearly exemplifies what Jean Paul Sartre had called bad faith.
The only honest course of reasoning simply highlights the inconsistency of this metaphysical thinking and the desperation that we can recognize in what we might call such a metaphysical Hail Mary pass. From a logical point of view I think the matter is relatively simple: Either God willed the accident, in which case he willed what was necessary for it, the reckless driving, or God didn’t will the reckless driving or the accident, but both happened anyway. The accident either should or should not have happened. It was or it wasn’t meant to be. (Alternatively, we could move toward an idea of a deity that is not all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. such as one finds in process theology. But this would really involve us in some parsing that is not possible here.)
I think it is because of a desire for great consolation that people believe that everything in the world happens as it should have happened or was meant to be. This consolation is not itself a reason for believing the truth of that which consoles. And in fact there is no reason we should need such false security for consolation. The profounder truth, I believe, is that we quite clearly live in a world where many things occur that should not. If moral reflection shows us anything it is that we live in a world where we are continually faced with moral failings. Things happen that should not have happened. If there is a good God, who wants what is best, then that God would want human beings to live up to their moral obligations. The view of Abrahamic religions is that such a God gave human beings freedom and that many of the failings in the world can be explained by the fact that humans have failed to live up to their ideals. We live in an incomplete world.
Oddly though, while Abrahamic religions tend to believe in such failings in the world as I’ve described, they also tend to believe in divine providence. Yet it is not possible to square the fact that there are so many failings in the world with the view that all that occurs happens in accord with God’s will or providence — that it all should happen. Holding the two views at the same time is simply logically contradictory. We can understand the various psychological reasons people have for doing so — sort of. But that doesn’t make it any less disingenuous.
Why not accept instead the more mature belief that we live in a world full of contingencies, where much happens that never should have? We live in fact in a frayed, tattered world where perhaps all of what is should never have been just as it is — since it only came together out of an entire history of failings and missed opportunities. Nonetheless, it is beautiful and surprising, disappointing and delightful. This requires the abandonment both of the traditional Stoic determinism and of Christian metaphysic that wants to maintain both the freedom of individuals and preordination — and that is often expressed in statements that accidents like mine were all part of God’s plan.
This short reflection leaves aside the general question of God’s existence. (I can say that such an accident does not provide me more reason for believing in God or Jesus, or divine rationality of the world order than I had before.) But what I mean to point out in this reflection is that there is an unresolvable tension between some points of theological dogma accepted by many that lead people to say things like this was all part of God’s plan, or God willed my accident or more horrific things still that occur to other people every day.
We can rest assured that those with the belief in God will lean on that belief when they have accidents that never should have happened to work through those and make meaning out of them. But might they do so without some false sense of security that the wrecks were meant to be?
For the non-religious or the less conventionally religious, a contemporary form of Stoicism provides another option. Modern Stoics (or those who think they have some insights worth accepting) will not argue that everything that occurs in the world is part of some rational plan, as the original Stoics did. Yet they might benefit from accepting a kernel Stoic teaching — that we should not try to change the things that we cannot change but only those things that we can. Other things, acts of “fate” if we want to call them that, which we cannot change, can be learned from. We might even learn moral lessons from them — like to cherish each day as special and beautiful, knowing one day that the last of our days will come.
To know those things one needn’t believe that Jesus wants terrible car wrecks or that God the Father plans them. Indeed, I think there are strong reasons for dismissing such views, since the belief in these things inherently contradicts other ideas that there are compelling reasons to believe — such as the view that we should not drive recklessly, that mistakes happen, that life doesn’t live up to our ideals.
One doesn’t need a thick metaphysics to learn from tragedy that despite it’s flaws, life can be very beautiful nonetheless — if one is lucky enough to live another day with a body and mind intact, healed or healing.