Our Actions, Not Fate, Determine What We Experience

Our Actions, Not Fate, Determine What We Experience April 14, 2020

kalhh: Creation God Finger /pixabay

One of the most dangerous things to develop in popular forms of piety in religion – and this happens in multiple religions – is to turn religious belief into a dangerous, indeed, deadly fatalism discourages people from acting for their own benefit (or the benefit of others). A fatalistic attitude can reveal itself in many different ways. In Christianity, it often follows along the lines of: “God is all powerful. He rules over the earth. Therefore, all things which happen, happen because of God.” As it is clear, if all things are done by God’s express control, free will is eliminated, many will not support such a view. Nonetheless, another, lesser form of fatalism often becomes adopted, one which presumes the direct judgment of God is behind any and all forms of earthly suffering (or, in reverse, all forms of earthly prosperity and success are express rewards handed out by God. It is such a fatalistic reading which lies behind those who say the coronavirus pandemic is the direct judgment of God.[1]

This is not to say God is not in charge, nor is it to say that the sufferings we experience have no connection to our sins. But we must remember, our sins cause their own punishments, and if there is some connection between our sins and what is going on in the world around us, it has to be from the natural consequences of our actions, our sins, themselves. Or, as John Scotus Eriugena says:

Beyond doubt, then, it must be held that no nature is punished by another nature, and in this way that no punishment is carried out by God, and hence that it is not foreknown or predestined by him, although he is often said to have carried it out and to have foreknown or predestined it. [2]

When we talk about God’s punishments, we must not think of them as God directly willing our suffering, but rather, that God set up an ordered system which allows human free will to influence the world and in so doing, have a role in creating the conditions in which they live.[3]God knows and see all which we will do. He set up an ordered system, which we can call nature, which will determine the consequences of our actions. If we hit our toe with a hammer, we will feel pain, and it is as a result of the way things work, that we feel such pain. The same can be said about the natural order as a whole. We might not be able to know the intricate details behind the way all things interrelate; we might not know all the causes involved in particular circumstances we find ourselves facing, but, it is clear, the interdependent nature of all things is at play and helps establish the effects of our actions. Those effects which we do not like we can than metaphorically call “punishments.”

God gives us free will. That freedom is important, and must never be ignored. Fatalism always renders such freedom null and void. Likewise, it disrupts the natural order of things, because it puts all things directly under the supernatural control of God. Causality becomes a casualty in such a misunderstanding of God and creation. Such fatalism suggests that what people experience is directly the choice of God based upon nothing they have done at all. Even if someone would say his punishments are given out to us because of what we have done, when free will is removed, then our actions would be determined by God and so he would be behind what we do. Why then punish us for what we have done if he made us do it? God alone would be to blame for all that happens. But this is not how God acts. God has given his creation freedom. He does not and will not force people to do evil, for he is good. And so, Augustine says, “Evil choices are not from Him, for they are contrary to the nature which is From Him.” [4] Evil comes from us, from our own freedom of choice, and out of it, comes the corruption of sin, corruption which creates the conditions by which we (or others) suffer. For we must understand, sometimes it is not what we do, but what others do, which causes us to suffer. If someone were to hit us with a hammer, we will feel pain. Likewise, then, during a pandemic, it is what we do or do not do which will determine the extent of its spread; if there is any sin involved, it is social sin, where people selfishly ignore the good of others for their own private interests.

God certainly is at work in and with his creation. But, because of his love, he gives his creation much freedom. How he engages that freedom with his grace is often difficult for us to discern. This is in part because God, even when he helps us, makes room for us, so that we can act as we wish. Providence is about the work he does to help give us the best possible outcome for our lives. God, being eternal, sees and knows all things at once, and interacts with them all in his own single eternity, but in that eternal action, we see his reaction to us based upon what we do. In this way his providence works with freedom, as Augustine explains:

However, our main point is that, from the fact that to God the order of all causes is certain, there is no logical deduction that there is no power in the choice of our will. The fact is that our choices fall within the order of causes which is known for certain to God and is contained in His foreknowledge – for, human choices are the causes of human acts. It follows that He who foreknew the causes of all things could not be unaware that our choices were among those causes which were foreknown as the causes of our acts. [5]

The key is to realize God set up his creation to have a natural order which takes into consideration the possibilities inherent with free will. For every action there will be a reaction. For every choice we make, a consequence will emerge. This is what God set up with his providential system. In this way, God is involved, and why it is not entirely out of line to talk about his interaction with us and talk about some of the consequences of our actions as being “punishments” from God. But we must be very careful and know the limit of such discussions. We must not turn providence into fate, and the consequences of our actions as being indicative of God being anything other than all loving and all merciful to his creation. We must not turn God into a bully, who, acting worse than most bullies, does not directly tell us what we have done to anger him.

We can see Buddhists have wrestled with similar issues concerning the law of karma. Karma is often misunderstood in the West as being a fatalistic system. It is not. It is rather the observation that actions have consequences. Thus, if we want to understand karma, we must first understand the meaning of the word karma itself is “action”:

Karma (also karman) means “action,” and it consists both of action and its power of influence. “Action” does not refer just to bodily movements, but also includes the actions of speech and mind. An action’s power of influence is not confined to this life but extends to future lives as well.[6]

Action requires an actor, and that actor has a variety of choices open before them. Some of those choices, and the way an actor understands those choices, come as the result of previous choices, but that is to be expected. If we went a room and locked the only door to the room, we would have to unlock the door if we want out.  And so, Peter Harvey explains, karma, though it often creates the conditions in which we find ourselves, must not be seen as fatalistic in that it does not determine what we will do:

Karma and fatalism differ on two scores: First, humans have freedom of choice; their present actions are not the karmic results of previous actions, though karmic results may influence the type of action that a person tends to think of doing, because of the character he or she has developed. Secondly, not everything that happens to a person is seen as due to karma. Any unpleasant feelings or illnesses that one has can arise from a verity of causes: ‘originating from bile, phlegm, or wind, from union (of bodily humours), born from seasonal changes, born from disruptive circumstances, arriving suddenly [due to the action of another person], or born of the fruition of karma’ (S. IV.230-I; A. v.10). [7]

Karma, likewise, must not be seen as merely individualistic. Karma can be collective in nature. We can act together, as a collective whole, creating the conditions we will experience in common as a result of our collective activity. And so, even the experience of heaven and hell can be seen as representing a collective karmic experience, as those who experience these states did so by embracing and acting with similar karmic activities:

The ideas of hell and paradise can also be explained in terms of Buddhism symbolism. We saw previously how the human realm, as well as the realm of the underworld, is created by the karmic force generated by living beings. In the majority of cases, this karmic force is created blindly; karma breeds karma, and in a mass called “common karma” causes result shared by man, an unpredictable or at least unopposable fate. For all we know, the country we inhabit, or the whole world for the matter, may suddenly turn into hell. Think, for example, how readily we are inclined to describe certain conditions as “hellish”; traffic may be “hell,” or the daily commute, and in Japan the competition engendered by annual examinations to enter high school or university is termed “examination hell.” In the same way we can recover the truth of Buddhist paradise. Paradise is a place where flowers bloom, birds sing, and the murmuring of a stream can be heard. [8]

The point of reflecting on karma, then, is to try to understand how things work and interact together. Those actions which lead us to experience suffering are classified as non-virtuous karma, while those which end up causing us to experience some sort of joy or beatitude, are virtuous:

There are three kinds of karma: good, bad, and unvarying. Of these, bad [karma] is associated with the desire realm exclusively, because it occurs in conjunction with nonvirtuous states of mind. Good [karma] also is associated with the desire realm exclusively, because the manner of its ripening is not fixed. Unvarying [karma] is that which is constant in relation to its ripening. [9]

Karma, just like the notion of natural law (when not abused), is indicative of the system in which we live in, and the way actions produces effects upon those who act. Karmic studies attempt to map out the relationship between particular actions and particular effects, but it is understood that only a Buddha is capable of knowing everything needed to know how everything will interact to produce various karmic effects. Even then, a Buddha’s knowledge does not force actions upon others. He only knows what effects such actions will cause and will do what he can to encourage the best actions and help alleviate the consequences of bad karma.

Karma, just like the notion of natural law (when not abused), is indicative of the system in which we live in, and the way actions produces effects upon those who act. Karmic studies attempt to map out the relationship between particular actions and particular effects, but it is understood that only a Buddha is capable of knowing everything needed to know how everything will interact to produce various karmic effects. Even then, a Buddha’s knowledge does not force actions upon others. He only knows what effects such actions will cause and will do what he can to encourage the best actions and help alleviate the consequences of bad karma.

With our freedom, we create the conditions which we will experience in our future. We do this by shaping ourselves and the way we see and view the world but also by what we do to the world at large. Our freedom is real, but it is not unlimited. It is conditioned and connected with and interdependent with the rest of creation. We can and will create conditions for ourselves which will often put limits our freedom: this is what sin does to us. On the other hand, God, in his love for us, consistently offers us the grace to break free from those limits which we make for ourselves due to sin. God gave us freedom, and he does what he can to help us return to it whenever we do something to ourselves which would otherwise hinder it. Fatalism offers a view of God which is unreal, because it offers a view of God which ignores God’s love. Love makes room for the other. God empties himself of absolute control because of his love. While this means we might and will often have to suffer and experience various negative consequences for our actions (and often, through them, see a reduction in our freedom), God is always at work to restore our freedom to us, to limit the harmful consequences of our actions.  Those who are fatalists do not understand grace and its effects on us. Indeed, it can be said, by their denial of the power of grace and its ability to offer us freedom, they deny grace, and so risk their own impoverishment.


[1] Even if there is some element of truth which can be had from such a statement, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for us to know what that truth is. We would have to know why the judgment was made so that we can do something about it. The judgments of God are for our reformation. But what we often see is a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument, with some person suggesting something which they do not like as the reason for the judgment, such as those who say “the coronavirus is because the Pope supported the Amazon Synod.”  The fact of the matter is, with the evidence we have, could say “it is because the synod did not gain enough support that the virus has spread.” In other words, often those who make this kind of argument do so, not because they have any direct revelation from God, but because they want to abuse the situation for their own ideological ends, and people can make the same claim in reverse and it would be equally valid. Sadly, it is clear, people often proclaim the judgment of God on others, not because there is a judgment, but because they want to control and manipulate others, and so they use their ideology to justify their claims instead of seeking the real will of God.

[2] John Scotus Eriugena, Treatise on Divine Predestination. Trans. Mary Brennan (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 107.

[3] Global warming is a prime example of this truth.

[4] St. Augustine, City of God. Books I – VIII. Trans. Demetrius B. Zema and Gerald G. Walsh (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1950), 261 [Book V].

[5] St. Augustine, City of God. Books I – VIII ,259 [Book V].

[6] Akira Sadakata, Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins. Trans. Gaynor Sekimori (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company, 1997), 71.

[7] Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 23.

[8] Akira Sadakata, Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins, 182.

[9] Artemus B. Engle, trans. The Inner Practice of Buddhist Practice. Vasubandhu’s Summary of Five Heaps with Commentary by Sthiramati (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 281 [from Sthiramati’s commentary].

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