13 September 2006

Macbeth and Predestination

Read: C. S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green & Walter Hooper.
Watched: the first part of HBO’s Elizabeth I

This is a re-hash of a previous post. My students & I have been exploring this topic in Language Arts classes recently, so I repost it here for their sakes, looking forward to their comments.

David Taylor once said artists must read their systematic theology. Indeed, I do believe that great Christian art is (partly) only as good as its doctrine. Partly; skill/craftsmanship/aesthetic excellence are also essential. But I also think that the debates over theological points are as fertile as solid convictions. The “Problem of Evil,” for example, functions as the catalyst for large passages in Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s trilogy, Milton’s Paradise Lost….

And the debate over Free Will vs. Predestination is another such matter. We’ve been reading Macbeth for the last month or more, putting it into the context of cultural controversies. One hot topic of Shakespeare’s time was this problem about “Does God deterimine all things beofre they begin, or are human beings free to create their own [eternal] destinies?” And it was very hot; wars were raging all over Europe in the latter half of the 16th century over Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. Shakespeare, man of the age, was certainly not going to let this red-letter debate slip by. But he also didn’t want to lose his head.

However that may be, the author of the introductory matter in our Norton Critical Edition, Robert S. Miola, claims that “Whatever his personal convictions, Shakespeare clearly adopts a Catholic view of the action and theology of free will in this play” and “the doctrine of predestination renders human action essentially undramatic: when the end is known, preordained, and absolutely just, there can be no real choice, suspense, conflict, or resolution. This conception of divine justice and human action renders pity an impertinence, terror a transgression, and tragedy an impossibility” (pp. xv, xvi).

Maybe we shouldn’t be so sure. I have a problem with that sweeping generalization. I wouldn’t say that predestination freezes all possibility of dramatic action. I’d like to make two points:

1. The characters do not know the ending. They are within a double predestination, as it were. Theologians will pardon me for abusing the term. First, they might be predestined by God, if such is the writer’s or audience’s belief. Second, they are certainly predestined by the intent and will of the artist. Or perhaps I have those in the wrong order?

2. In life, we do not know our ending. The staunchest Calvinist, if he has his wits about him, believes that here inside time we must make choices. Yeah, perhaps God has set the choice before hand, certainly God knows what will be done, but that does not make the psychological and emotional experience of choice any less a reality. Any less real. It is also thus inside works of art.

So, here’s the question: Is Macbeth free to choose his fate, or is he destined to follow the prophecies? We’ve talked about how much the witches knew, could they see the future, would Macbeth have become king even without killing Duncan, are the “equivocating” words of the weird sisters quite “fair” from a spiritual point of view, do telling the future and making big decisions create parallel universes… you know, the usual literary discussions. :)

So now, let’s continue that conversation. Feel free to answer the above question, offer new questions, or give other examples of how this doctrinal dilemma has been the catalyst for great passages of writing. Or I’d really love to see examples of other genres (visual arts, music, etc.) that use this or other theological paradoxes for their meaning and motive!


Andrew said...

First off, I am a student of Mrs. Higgins. And I am not really that knowledgeable when it comes to things like theology, but I will attempt an answer to the question she posed.

It seems to me that many people think that there are two ways of looking at the matter of predestination. The first is that, be there some form of creator or no, we have a free say in all that we do. For those that believe in a God or gods, it means that whoever created them just sits back and watches the fun. For those of us whole style themselves atheists, it means that, as Carl Sagan put it, “”. It seems wonderful doesn’t it? Whether or not there is a cosmic or spiritual power we are the masters. We are the great creators of all our thoughts and things. We control where humanity is going and where it came from. It means that we have power, and everyone loves that concept, don’t they?

But, that way of thinking carries with it a caveat. And that is that nobody cares. There is no loving God to turn to for help. When you die, you are gone. Nothing matters; anything goes. This is it and if you do not like it just kill yourself now and the bitter pain will end. Nobody says this better than Denethor in Tolkien’s classic, The Lord of the Rings, when he succumbs to despair: “better to die sooner than late, for die we must.” What a sad and pitiful existence! Nihilism and fatalism are no way to live, believe me I know.

Then there are those that claim that God or Fate decrees our ends and the means to that end. Nothing we can do will change what happens. If God or Fate says that you will be in a car accident no amount of swerving or slamming of the brakes will save you from it. Maybe it is a slightly unsettling thing to know that what happens is beyond your control. But then again, nothing is really your fault, because whatever higher power you believe in made you do it. Isn’t it nice to have a scapegoat for everything?

But, do we really want to be on a crash course to the bitter end? I certainly don’t like the sound of that. Besides, can we be truly creative and inventive if what we do is exactly dictated down to every heartbeat? Not really, since the concepts of inventing and creating require free thought and decision. The very fact that I wrote this reply attests to that fact.

So what do I think of all this? Do we have total say in what happens, or are we just running along a path that can never be altered? Are we great masters of all we look upon, or are we mindless robots being toyed with by some greater power? My personal conclusion is neither. It is my opinion that God decrees your final end (heaven or hell) but you can take multiple roads to that end. For example, if you want to get to the local Wal-Mart there are two ways you can go. Both lead to the same end, but they are different. What if George Washington had decided that he did not want the responsibility of leading a nation? What if the pilgrims had chosen to stay put and stick it out? What if the brave men on United Flight 93 had decided that there was nothing to be done? What if? What if? I can not see how anyone can believe that we have no choices.

Of course, none of this is not to say that God has no clue as to what we will do. On the contrary, I firmly believe He sets out multiple paths for us, but that he lets us choose knowing full well what we will do and how it will affect us. I say then that predestination is a little bit of both. God sets out a person’s end, but that person can choose how he gets to that end with God’s full knowledge of what will happen. The obvious thing then is to choose wisely, since blame can not be laid on God for what we do, and to consult Him in all matters. Is it not encouraging to know that there is a loving God willing to let us fall and who then helps us back up, when we ask it of Him, so that we may learn to become better people?

And now I will leave the reader in peace, especially since I did not expect this once short reply to grow so big. And I am sorry if it rambles or is unintelligible, for this was written quite past the time of day when I am in the prime of my cognitive capacity. On a side note, can anyone tell me why I can’t find it in me to write this much when the teacher requires it? I certaintly have no answer to that one…

Andrew said...

Okay, so it is pretty late (as I said in my previous post) and I forgot to include Carl Sagan’s quote. I don’t remember the exact wording but he said that the cosmos is all that was, is, or ever will be. So for those of you puzzling over the empty quotation marks, sleep deprivation is the answer.

Sasha said...

I think that God has pre-destined everything, yet leaves us some free
will to decide how it comes about. He leaves it to us to decide what
path to choose, but He knows both paths will lead to the same end: the one he has picked out for us. Based on this and if we assume the
witches in Macbeth do predict the future, then I think Macbeth is
destined to follow the prophesies, but is able to choose how they come
about. In Genesis 25:23, God promises Rebecca that Jacob will be
blessed and not Esau. But Rebecca takes matters into her own hands and tricks Issac so that Jacob gets the blessing. Would Jacob have gotten the blessing if Rebecca hadn't stepped in? I believe so. This is echoed in Macbeth: Would the first prophecies come true if Macbeth hadn't taken the decision into his own hands?

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, Andrew & Sasha. I have another question for you or anyone who posts after you: What happens if we consider this question from a perspective other than linear time as human beings experience it? Think about it this way: you have made a decision (to drive to Wal-Mart on the more scenic route, say). Well, now that the decision is made, you look backwards on it. You know that God knew which one you were going to choose; you believe that God is omnipotent (all-powerful); therefore you realize that He had predetermined that choice and guided you in it. Suppose you hear on the news that evening that there was a terrible accident on the other road just at the time you were driving.... You realize that God's guidance of that simple decision saved your life.
However, before you've decided, the finite nature of your mind frees your choice as far as your knowledge, inclinations, will, and reason are concerned. You do not know what is going to happen, therefore you choose freely. Does that at all preclude the decision from being pre-determined by God?

That's my question for anyone who's reading this.

Ashley R. said...

hello, I too am a student of Mrs. Higgins.
I have a few thoughts...
The more that I thought about the idea of pre-destination, especially as it related to "Macbeth" and Shakespeare's time, I started thinking that maybe my thoughts about pre-destination all along are a little too simple... to elementary. In class we started discussing a line toward the begining of the play where Banqo says to the witches "If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear your favors nor your hate." (Act 1 Scene 3 Lines 60-64)When he says this, I gather that he believes that there are multiple options for the future, and he's asking "which one will happen?" Applying that to Mrs. Higgins latest question, I think that it's obvious that God has a hand-hold in our lives. He shows us in many ways what His will is for a certain situations. While at the same time, there are other cercumstances in which we feel left to make the decision all alone. A friend once told me "I believe that God has control over our lives. He is there helping us and speaking to us with what he desires for our major decisions, while there are others which it's his will for us to make the decision ourselves." So I guess this all left me with one question: in the situation Mrs. Higgins used in her comment about the person and their trip to wal-mart, I wonder "what about the other two cars?" What about the person who was killed in the car accident that the guy taking the scenic route missed? Was it God's will for those other two car loads to die, just to save that one car?

Rosie Perera said...

Lots of good thinking here, all of you.

Wow, great question, Ashley! You have hit on one of the hardest questions about God's sovereignty (I don't say predestination in this context, because I think of that term as referring mostly to ultimate destination. In the case of everyday happenings, I'd speak rather of God's foreknowledge or sovereignty -- the latter implying his control over events rather than just knowing what is going to happen in advance.) I wrestle with that as well. If God allows two people to be killed in order to protect one person, what kind of a protector God his he? That seems inconsistent with a God who thinks it is "better for one man to die than that all the people perish." (John 11:50)

Perhaps the only way to make sense of it is to recognize that there's a difference between ultimate salvation and rescue from temporal pain and suffering. We don't know the full picture. Maybe the people killed in the other car crash were in a state in their lives when they were "ready to go" and the one whose life was saved needed more of an opportunity to come to repentance and to a life-giving relationship with God. We might never know. As Aslan said to Shasta in The Horse and His Boy, God tells "no one any story but his own." Part of grappling with our own relationship with God is learning how to trust him with such things and yet being willing to tell him honestly how we feel (even to shake our fist at him, if that's where our heart is at the moment) when what he does seems incomprehensible and unfair. Hiding our true doubts and questions from God are more harmful in the long run to our relationship with him than expressing them to him. God praised Job above his friends, for taking God seriously and expressing his frustration honestly (even though in the end Job learned that he had no right to question God's sovereignty; his questions and venting were just a necessary stage on the way to reaching serenity about what had happened to him).

Sorry for jumping in with such a long post in your class discussion here, but this is a topic which fascinates me and about which I'm obviously passionate.

Jana Lee said...

After thinking about it, listening to the other students' opinions in class and seeing the comments on here, I believe that I've finally come up with my decision on this hard topic. I think that, even though the story of Macbeth is fiction, the truth of everyday life still applies. I believe that, despite what the witches said about Macbeth's future, what had already been ordained would have come true. Witches can't decide a person's destiny! Only God can...
However, I believe that, even though God ultimately decides what happens and when and where, man does have a decision to make. After the terrorist attacks almost exactly five years ago, many people questioned, "Where was God?" Although that may be the obvious question, we must think about the fact that man has choices to make each and every minute of our lives; some are big and will impact thousands of people, such as that horrific day five years ago, and some will not affect many people at all, like the color of socks that we choose to wear.
It is important to understand that, although God has ultimate control over our lives, He's given us choices to make as well. We must not blame him for things like 9/ had a choice. The terrorists chose the hard way and, even though it's hard to see, God had a plan in it all, as He does for everything.

Sesoztai said...

After having taking a three-credit college course on this subject just last year, I find this conversation most interesting. This is impressive how many layers you are all sifting through. From my own thoughts, I have come to two, I can’t say solutions, but perhaps settlements that have seemed to help me on this question.
The first is what (I think) everyone truly believes and each writer here has touched on. Everything is part of God’s grander scheme. Over the summer I read a LOTR style novel by a not-yet-Christian friend of mine that I think could be read as a very profound treatise on God’s sovereignty. The novel, Tapestry, by Lanny Rose, was jam-packed with horrific violence and heart-rending situations that always occurred for some real and meaningful purpose. While reading it I would think, Why did he have so-in-so die? Then a few hundred pages latter; Oh, because if he hadn’t such and such couldn’t have happened. Just as Rosie said, “We don't know the full picture.” Each event is part of a much grander scheme. Like a tapestry, each person is only one thread that must be pulled, knotted and cut off for --we have no clue what reason—to make the image in God’s mind. That’s an old allegory, isn’t it? Tapestry: The Return of the Fey Princes, is one of a long series of books, the only one presently published. Isn’t that much like the world in which now live? We are only characters in one section of one book with much that came before, and much to be yet completed or published.
Which lead my second “settlement” in this question of predestination, or rather, sovereignty. Is God will for our lives “finished” now? My thought is that it is all a matter of time. That is, that it is a difference of how we view time. In The Screw Tape Letters, as I recall, C. S. Lewis gave a chapter about the present meeting eternity. I’m sorry that I am a college student strapped for time, so I’m not doing the research I should to find just what he said, but this is my memory and perversion of his theory. God is outside of time. He is eternal and unaffected by the passage of time as man sees it. When we die or when Christ returns, eternity will begin for us and we shall no longer experience time. Right now we are like a dot on a line, traveling from point “A” to point “B.” But God, as I believe Lewis says, is like the page on which that line is drawn. He sees all of time at once. I think Lewis said that to God, Julius Caesar is crossing the Rubicon as the Allies are storming Normandy. So, how can we say that God has already planed out what we will do? There is no “already” to God, nor any “will.” There is only now, perhaps, or…oh, never mind, we mortals (in the deepest sense of the word!) literally cannot comprehend the absence of time. Therefore, why could we not be fully chousing to do such and such and God fully “predestining” that we do such and such? If God is out side of time, there is no “pre,” He simply is “destining” always. Does that make any sense? It doesn’t do much of anything on a practical level, it is simply a way I have found helpful of saying “God did it, but you’re responsible.” Anyhow, it is all part of His plan.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thank you, everyone, for your fantastic comments. I greatly appreciate all of them, and I don't think I have anything to add! Well, OK, I always have something to add. #1 is: always go back to Scripture to see if what you believe and are saying is substantiated there. Try not to believe what feels good & what you wish were true. I say this to myself as well. And #2: Make absolutely certain that God is sovereign in your theology. Any doctrine that weakens God's power is idolatry!!