Saturday, November 13, 2010


I'm reading Karen Armstrong's A History of God and it's got  me thinking about perspective. More specifically, about how the meaning of a story changes depending on whether you're at the beginning, watching its writing, or at the end, listening to it being told and retold.

My answer to the question of Free Will vs Predetermination used to be, "When are you asking me?" I irritated a couple of teachers by trying to explain my theory that when I woke up this morning I had complete freedom of will to wear whichever shirt I wanted to, but now that choice is set and immutable. Perspective. This morning I had free will, now it is a fixed decision. It sidesteps the question of whether I always was going to choose this shirt, but from a practical standpoint, from the perspective of the one making the choice, the difference between actual freedom and the illusion of freedom is minuscule.

This led me to miracles. The word "miracle" gets pretty abused, from all sides. We identify as "miraculous" things that are really fairly commonplace and easy to explain, and discount as "trivial" things that, even as we learn more about how they work, are truly amazing. That's what I love about biology; life isn't miraculous because it's inexplicable, it's miraculous because it works at all. And the more we learn about the hows and whys of it, the more awestruck I am by the complexity and simplicity of it all.

So perspective. A lot of the debate around miracles focuses on whether God (or other supernatural force of your choice) could commit some action which violates or supersedes the laws of nature. For me, though, this is a matter of our perspective, looking at things from the end of the story. If nature is God's creation, then the natural laws are also of God's making. The question of whether God could break these laws, then, is moot because these are God's laws, either self-imposed or the working conditions under which God created the universe. It's less like asking the umpire to cheat on your behalf, in other words, and more like asking the inventor of baseball why it's 3 strikes instead of 7. The game could have been designed that way, but it wasn't; the game we're playing only gives you 3 strikes per plate appearance, gravity is (mostly) a constant, and living things age in one direction only.

From our perspective as characters in the story, looking backwards, these natural laws seem fixed and ordinary. If we could have seen creation over God's metaphorical shoulder, we would see their miraculousness.

There's a parable that certain key objects were formed at the time of creation, and held waiting for the moments they would be needed. Jonah's giant fish and the ram Abraham sacrifices in Issac's place, for example. I like this "Bill & Ted" -esque explanation of miracles. It's the same trick good writers do in an extended series (in any medium): toss a ball in an apparently arbitrary direction early on, ignore it for several chapters, then turn and catch it, seemingly out of nowhere, right when it's needed most.

In real life, though, we can't tell, from our perspective, whether the ball was thrown deliberately by someone trying to help us, or if we were just fortunate that it was there when we needed it. The difference, as with free will, is minuscule - from our perspective. The miracle is not that the thing occurred - we can explain that easily enough - it's that it happened at all, and at just the right time.

The only reasonable response, then, is gratitude. Not necessarily to anyone or anything, but simply gratitude that it happened at all. There is a continually growing body of research showing many emotional benefits to expressing gratitude: our ability to empathize improves, dependence on material items decreases, negative emotions effect us less severely, and, most of all, positive emotions are experienced more strongly. The decision is ours, whether or not to be grateful or just write things off as the vagaries of fortune.

It's all a matter of perspective.

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