Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

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Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Friday, June 03, 2011

Fatalist attitudes and the Bible

The Appointment in Samarra

Death speaks:

There is a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to buy provisions from the market and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, "Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.

She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city to avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me."

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, "Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?"

"That was not a threatening gesture," I said, "it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."


This short story, The Appointment in Samarra, is a story about fatalism. The world it describes is one where people cannot avoid their fate or situation in life. A practical implication could be that people therefore should not try to avoid their fate. You could call this attitude the 'fatalist attitude'.

The 'fatalist attitude' has an opposite attitude, which is a sort of 'can do' attitude, where you can really do quite a lot. In fact, both attitudes could probably be put on opposite ends of a scale relating to one's level of passive acceptance of one's fate or situation in life.

Both attitudes have good and bad aspects.

A good side to the 'passive acceptance of one's fate' attitude is that it helps people be content with what they have and not worry that much. Why not be content with a situation that you can never change? And why worry about things you can never affect?

On the negative side, this attitude encourages passivity and to ignore ways in which we can make a real difference to our and other people's lives.

The good side to the 'can do' attitude is that it's a hopeful attitude, and hope, the emotion, makes people happier. Another good aspect is that maybe you can do something about your situation and your 'can do' attitude will encourage you to try.

A bad side to the 'can do' attitude is that it might morph into worry if you start thinking that you can affect or control problems that you simply can't, instead of passively accepting that certain things are outside your control.

Here are some verses that relate to this discussion from the Bible:

Proverbs 19:21: "You can make many plans, but the LORD's purpose will prevail."

Proverbs 20:24: "The LORD directs our steps, so why try to understand everything along the way?"

Psalm 32:8-9: "The LORD says, 'I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you.  Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.'"

Phil 4:6-7: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Matt 6:25-34: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

1 Peter 5:7: "Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you."

At first glance, the Bible seems to be endorsing a fatalist attitude, but I'm not sure that it is. It's not really about fatalism, it seems, so much as, e.g., a child accepting that their parent will take care of their needs. That is, it seems to relate more to trust than passively accepting one's situation in life. The Bible is saying we should not worry because God will take care of our needs and us.

But I also believe that Jesus does give us a bit of practical advice and encourages us not to try and control things that we simply cannot in Matthew 6:27: "Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?" This could be interpreted as saying that, for example, suppose one has a general anxiety about the length of one's life, this anxiety will not practically allow one to control matters so that one's life is actually longer. Perhaps Jesus is practically recommending a touch of fatalism as an antidote to worry, but only about things we certainly can't affect.

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