Retrospective

There is something fundamental about the way we humans live our lives that shapes everything we do. Our relationship to time – we are always living in the moment, remembering the past, and know nothing of the future. Entire emotions exist because of this fundamental limitation – regret, nostalgia, fear, anxiety, hope – all because we cannot know the future and cannot live in the past. CGP Grey did a great video essay (disguised as a Q&A) on this topic recently that I really enjoyed.

Essentially, his point was that our knowledge of the past is practically limitless compared to our knowledge of the future. In January of this year, none of us could have anticipated a Global Pandemic and the correct response to it. In retrospect, though, everyone seems certain they know how it “could have been done better.” It’s this retrospective enlightenment that I find so interesting. When we look at the past, the “correct” decision seems apparent.

We often beat ourselves up whenever the result was anything but optimal, as if we expected our past selves to have the wealth of knowledge available to us in the relative future. The fact of life, though, is that the future is always obscured in a “fog of war” (borrowing Grey’s metaphor here, seriously, go watch the video). We are always ignorant to the actual results of our decisions and will never have the retrospective enlightenment to know which choice is “most correct” until the decision has already been made.

When we decided to move to Spokane, we were making a very serious leap of faith. The generosity of our family and local churches provided the only source of funding for the cross-country move. We were moving far from these support structures, entering a program that was notoriously difficult and expensive, all because we prayed about the decision and found all the doors along the way opened.

Had I known then what would come from our move to Spokane, I may have made the decision with more confidence. I made great friends, found a stable job, and while I did not finish the program I moved cross-country to study, I did finish my undergraduate degree (rather inexpensively!) prepared to enter Seminary with a newfound love of biblical studies and the pastoral ministry. I could not have possibly anticipated any of this – the job, friends, degree, or global pandemic – whenever I left my parents’ house on that fateful July morning two years ago.

I think there’s a lesson to be learned in all of this – Our human perspective is so pathetically limited. Particularly when compared to the sovereign foreknowledge of God, we are ignorant. So every decision we make, large or small, is made in relative ignorance of the consequences. We can never truly know where the path will lead us when we take our first steps.

There are a number of ways people have chosen to handle this truth. You could be totally fatalistic and assume that the unpredictability of the future will eventually crush you at it’s whim. I would call this the faithless approach – you have no faith in the self, God, or some other force and simply accept (perhaps with much anxiety) the inevitable unpredictability of the universe. While there may be room for some types of nihilistic determinism in this view, the predetermined path of all things is itself a disorganized structure that comes from the chaotic nature of the universe. Things may be predetermined, but they are predetermined by randomness, not by some sentient, order-providing force. I do not know many mentally healthy people who could stomach this approach and actually live as if it were true.

Most people, I believe, show the faithful approach – they believe (perhaps subconsciously, displayed through their actions) that there is some underlying structure to the universe that makes our actions meaningful, and, to even a minimal extent, predictable. Their faith can be placed in anything, but I think most people place it in themselves. “I have control over my own destiny” they will claim. This can be empowering, but it is flawed – it still does not acknowledge the ultimate ignorance of humans to the unpredictability of the future. We have control over our decisions, but we cannot control the results. Our human rational capacity may be able to form logical relationships like “if I book this flight for April 2020 I will be able to go on a vacation” but it cannot anticipate the unpredictability of a Global Pandemic.

There is another form of a faithful approach which does not place faith in the human but in the supernatural. For these people, there is some force beyond human understanding which provides order to the universe and allows for a semblance of predictability. This is not strictly Christian theism – I am sure many people today would say they believe in things like fate, destiny, or karma. This view is also not ignorant to the forces of Chaos in the real world. Rather, it believes that even the eventualities of unpredictability are part of a larger structure to life unseen to man. Whatever force created order from this universal, unpredictable chaos, it had some intent behind it beyond simply allowing chaos to rule.

This is not an argument for the existence of God. This is simply my observation on how people deal with unpredictability – something we have all become acquainted with in the past few months but which I have felt in abundance for the past two years. I find myself empathizing with Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith 1, who is “infinitely resigned” to the whims of the uncontrollable universe, because somehow “by virtue of the absurd,” it seems that God will work out both the Good and the Impossible in a universe which, without Him, is nothing but evil and chaos.


Footnote 1: Søren Kierkegaard’s discussion of faith in Fear and Trembling, cited here, has been one of the most impactful works I’ve read in the past few years, and I find myself coming back to it often. If you can stomach the 19th-century philosophical prose, I highly recommend it for anyone struggling with the intellectual balance between faith and reason. Kierkegaard isn’t afraid of tough questions, and I think he perfectly grasps the trouble with having faith in a chaotic world.

That faint orange ball is the sun.

The wildfire smoke blanketing the Pacific Northwest has been a 48-hour norm here in Spokane. Going outside feels like walking into a smokehouse, or sitting by a campfire when the wind blows it into your face. We’ve been taking antihistamines like candy. This week’s featured photo is a view of this layer of smoke outside my living room window, obscuring the sun and leaving soot on the outside window panes.

I am sure this week’s blog post was not the riveting content you have (almost certainly not) come to expect from Wayward Wings. In the absence of school assignments, this post is the culmination of my theological pondering over the past week or so. So, forgive me if it’s a bit self-indulgent. I hope it nonetheless resonates with you.

More posts coming soon. Thanks for reading.