Free Will and the American Dream

Posted: April 8th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | 4 Comments »

Recent discussions and events have kept several strands of thought swirling around my head from which I’m now beginning to see connections and intersections. Given that some of these strands of thought are theological, some are political, others are cultural, and a few are more personal in nature, I find that a little odd. I’m going to attempt to pull together some of those strands in this post. I don’t know if I’ll succeed, but writing would be a boring venture if you always knew how it would turn out before you started. 😉

First I want to identify the four main ideas which have been bouncing off one another in that morass I call a mind. They are hardly the only such thoughts, but if I narrow the scope down to four, the odds that this post will be at least vaguely coherent increase. They occupy what we would normally consider different “spheres” in the modern secular world. My own inner experience has never been that neatly divided or tidy.

The many discussions sparked by Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, have often included reflections and debates about the nature of our freedom. While I reject any vision of a coercive God as a God I would never worship, that does not mean we are not, in many ways, constrained. I don’t want to sustain the image of an evil God which many modern Christian sects create, so I often under-emphasize the many ways our freedom is actually limited. We are not demigods acting and choosing above the fray as independent and completely free agents. No, the truth is much more complex than that simple vision. That’s the first thread.

Next, I have been following the particular turn toward irrationality our politics has taken in recent years. That turn has often been bizarre. Increasingly, pundits and politicians on at least one side have simply abandoned even the pretense of meaningful and factual proposals. Instead, they proudly present proposals based on absurd assumptions. Often, the proposals even fail the simplest tests of arithmetic, much less logic. And they do so with no noticeable negative impact on their support by their constituency.  I’m middle-aged now and over the course of my life I’ve often disagreed with various political ideas and proposals. But even when I disagreed with specific proposals, they at least had some internal coherence. Increasingly, that’s no longer true. And that has left me bemused.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no illusions about the integrity of any politician. I’m well aware that if standing on a soapbox and yelling that the sky was purple cheese would get them elected, many of them would immediately jump on that soapbox and start screaming. I understand that aspect. But I don’t understand why so many Americans today either believe or want to believe that the sky is really purple cheese. Why do these amoral opportunists get elected and reelected? Have we collectively gone completely off our rockers? That’s the question that keeps coming up in my mind.

Further, we all live and are shaped within the metanarrative of the American Dream ™.  I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul. Although the poem itself refers to self-mastery, in some sense we take the words at their face value. Our cultural stories revolve around those who have overcome great odds to achieve success. We proclaim that everyone can succeed if they apply themselves. We perceive ourselves as the land of free and unfettered opportunity.

It’s a lie, of course. There are reasons to be cautious around metanarratives. The times we have collectively behaved in the most overtly evil ways have often been the times we have most closely embraced those ideas. (If you have even a small amount of Cherokee blood, as I do, then you’ve certainly heard of the Trail of Tears. And that’s just one example. Our country’s history is littered with them.) There is some truth to the ideas in our American metanarrative. The best lies work from truth, after all. We have often offered more opportunity, at least to some, than could be found elsewhere. We often strive to meet our ideals about liberty and freedom, though we also often fall short. But we are not and never have been the land of unlimited opportunity and the rags to riches success stories are very much the exception and not at all the rule. But you cannot understand our country if you don’t understand this narrative.

I will note in passing that among Christians in our nation, those who most explicitly and overtly embrace the above cultural and political identity of American exceptionalism tend to also embrace the most coercive view of God. I’m sure that fact alone is worth more exploration, but I can’t do more than note its existence. I don’t understand it at all. It seems like the reverse should be true, but it often isn’t.

When I consider our current political state, I don’t actually believe my fellow citizens have lost all ability to do basic arithmetic, even though it often seems that way. (If I’m wrong and we have degenerated to that point, then we’re beyond help.) So something else is at work instead. Obviously, there is some degree of manipulation through fear, some appeal to baser motivations, and some sophisticated propaganda at work, but I don’t believe that accounts for more than a relatively small part of the effect we are seeing. I think  more of it is tied to our cultural identity. And that manifests in a lot of different ways.

For instance, when we discuss healthcare, we see the dynamic at work. It’s clear that many people start from the base assumption that because we are America!™ we must have the greatest health care system on the planet. And that underlying bias, as with most things impinging on cultural identity, seems largely immune from the reality-check facts should provide. It doesn’t even really matter if none of the facts support that assumption (which is actually the case with this example). It’s an a priori and largely unconscious assumption, and in its light change is interpreted in a negative light. And that reaction makes sense. If, in fact, we did have one of the best health care systems in the world, then any change would be more likely to make it worse rather than better. However, since we instead have just about the worst health care system (or non-system, really) in the first world and are even beaten on many measures by some second world countries, our cultural assumptions lead us to act as a country in irrational ways. That’s clear in the recent GOP proposal for Medicare.

Make no mistake. It’s one hundred percent certain that every person who survives to become old will require more medical care and will eventually require end of life care. The very best doctors still have a 100% patient mortality rate — eventually. How we deal with that reality is a societal, not an individual question. Ryan’s plan is to have most Americans suffer and die early, bankrupt, and with inadequate care. The only ones who will escape that reality under the GOP plan are those who die young and the wealthiest few Americans who have already managed to profit from their society during their life or the lives of their parents, and who ironically believe they no longer require the support of societal structures. (That’s a false belief and it can be shown that the actions of the wealthiest against their larger society actually work to their own long-term detriment as well. When they destabilize their society, they actually destabilize the basis supporting their own wealth. Some of them understand that truth. Many today do not.)  If that’s the sort of country you want to create, we can have that debate, but make no mistake about what you’re supporting. Personally, I call it morally bankrupt and evil. But then, I don’t pretend that matters of morality and faith can be separated from matters of public policy. Our actions, either directly or through the agency of others, reveal who and what we worship. That has always been true and remains true today. Whatever they may be, our choices and actions are rarely neutral.

And again, make no mistake. Unless you are so wealthy that cost and insurance are irrelevant factors (in which case any health care system in the first world would work equally well for you), our system is horrible whether or not you have “good” insurance. My wife’s recent experience provides a good illustration. She needed a fairly routine procedure and was simply trying to determine how much it would cost so we could budget it. A simple question, right? Not in the United States. Of course, there’s the highly-inflated billed amount which is what those who don’t have insurance often get stuck paying, if they can afford to pay at all. But nobody in the US with any sort of decent insurance actually pays that amount. What do you really pay? Well, that depends. How large is your group? How big is your insurance company? How well did they negotiate rates? There’s a different adjustment for every insurance company and every policy.

But as an individual, you cannot discover that adjustment!

Some doctor offices, like my gastroenterologist’s, are very good at getting answers from your insurance company and providing you up front an amount that will be close to what you actually pay. But many doctors and hospitals don’t do that. Instead, they quote you the amount that represents your percentage based on the unadjusted cost. We experienced that with my son recently. He needed an outpatient procedure and the hospital tried to get us to pay over $500 for our portion of insurance. We agreed to give them $50 up front. Our final bill turned out to be less than $20 and we had to pursue a refund from the hospital.

As many others have tried to do in stories I’ve read, my wife tried to contact our insurance company to find out how much the procedure would actually cost us. But all the customer service people at an insurance company can do is read you the coverage information from your benefits booklet. You can’t talk to anyone who can tell you the amount of that secret, negotiated allowed amount for the procedure — even when you have the procedure code. She finally gave up in frustration.

None of the rhetoric against health care reform makes the slightest sense on the basis of facts. It only makes sense when you realize that popular perception and fears are completely divorced from the facts. The Republicans, of course, recognized that truth and took unprincipled advantage of it. That’s why they earned Politifact’s Lie of the Year in 2010. Democrats tried, and largely failed, to counter with the facts. Cultural identity and narrative obviously tend to trump the facts.

I think this cultural metanarrative acts in many ways. For another example, the idea that we all have an equal opportunity for success leads to irrational optimism. People have to imagine that they will be a multi-billionaire one day when they embrace tax plans which actively damage our country by failing to have the wealthiest pay back a responsible, proportional amount of their newly earned wealth in taxes. That also seems to be tied to a loss of even a moderately effective Christian identity. Through most of our history, the individual passions of greed and envy were at least tempered both by Christian values and a recognition that no individual is an island and every success owes something back to the society which nurtured it. It seems to me that many people are consumed by the passion of envy to the extent that they don’t even see it anymore and optimistically believe they will one day number among the super-rich. In their imagination, greed then kicks in and they want to protect as much of this imagined wealth as they possibly can. Or maybe there’s some other reason people have continually voted against even their own basic self-interest over the past few decades?

We’ve seen that sort of false optimism before. Though there were many complex reasons underlying it, this was one of the reasons so many poor Southerners supported slavery even though they did not own slaves and the presence of owned labor actually made their poverty worse. Many of them dreamed of becoming wealthy slaveholders. And the ones who actually were, of course, took full advantage of that fact. It’s essentially the same dynamic at work today.

So how does this all tie back to free will and my own life experiences? In the theoretical side of the theological debate, we tend to emphasize human freedom in order to avoid portraying an evil, coercive God. (Well, those of us who reject such a God — which includes the vast majority of Christians — are careful to do so.) However, that can reinforce the idea that we are indeed masters of our fate and captains of our soul. And perversely, it can also produce a lack of care for others who suffer. You can see that attitude among Job’s friends. You must have done something to deserve what you’re experiencing.

It’s your fault. Three of the most damaging words we can think or say. Even when we’re right, the judgment behind those words is still damaging — as much or more for ourselves as for the one judged.

The reality is much more complicated. Our choices and opportunities are constrained by the circumstances of our birth, our family and friends, and the actions of others both near and far. We live within a complex and sometimes mysterious web of relationships and connections and our wills are often far from truly free. While it’s true that we are not helpless before the fates, nevertheless, a person born into poverty in an oppressive society will not be offered the same choices a wealthy, white American male is offered. Our will is, at best, effective only within the range of choices our reality offers us.

But that’s at best. To one degree or another, none of us grow up with an undamaged will in any circumstances. We are all … broken — some worse than others. And most of the time, you can’t look at someone and discern their state. A person who has, for example, been damaged at a young age to the extent that they develop a personality disorder does not have the range of choices available to someone with a less damaged will. I would never say that excuses the evil anyone does to others, but I do recognize they have fewer available choices.

And that’s certainly one of the things I appreciate about Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church does actually treat us as Jesus treats us. It emphasizes healing and it works with people as they are, not according to some ideal. Yes, the icon is always Christ, but we are to do what we are able, work to avoid evil, and trust our Lord’s mercy, his help. He is never distant, but is always facing us where we are. However damaged we are, however we are bound, we need to turn toward Christ as much as we are able and do what we can to follow him and obey his commands. If we do that, Jesus says, we will come to know or experience the truth (by which he means himself) and he will set us free.

However damaged we might be, we all have at least some will remaining. And it matters how we direct it — even if we can only make small choices.

Finally, I can see the interplay of these forces over the course of my life. For a poverty-stricken teen parent twice over who had some other strikes against me on top of that, I’ve done quite well. In some sense, it would be possible and perhaps even reasonable for me to adopt the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality and look down on those who have started with more advantages and achieved less. But I know that story is false. I was never without advantages. I had a well-educated immediate and extended family, so I always had a strong sense of the possible. I’m a white male and that still confers advantages in our society. I was born with certain talents and abilities. At the worst moments, I lived in a society that at least tried to take care of its weakest members. (Unfortunately, that trait has faded significantly in the US over the past several decades.)

But mostly I was lucky. Most people who start their adult lives as I did are not so lucky. Yes, when opportunities presented themselves, I took advantage of them more often than not. But tons of teen parents never get those opportunities. I was fortunate in circumstances where many are not. I’m remind of Will Munny in Unforgiven. “I was lucky in the order, but I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ folks.” I have a career and I’m both good and successful in it. But I never planned a career of any sort. I stumbled into one. My work is different than Munny’s, of course, but I’ve long been lucky in it.

It’s also only in retrospect that I see the subtle hand of God gently creating the opportunity for me to know, love, and choose him. That didn’t happen in a vacuum. It mostly happened in and through people, most of whom probably never knew the impact they ultimately had on me. Sometimes we can only do small things. But very often those small things mean more than we ever imagined they might. It’s not our job to change people. We would certainly screw it up if we tried. In fact, we demonstrably cause problems because we constantly try. We are to love as best as we are able. Love is truly all we need, but love is hard and love is frightening.

And it’s only when we love that we see God — that we know God at all.


4 Comments on “Free Will and the American Dream”

  1. 1 Young Mom said at 10:15 pm on April 11th, 2011:

    I saved this so I could comment, and I still can’t think of anything coherant for some reason. 🙂 I loved this post, it is so so true. I’m tired of hearing how “anyone can do it if they really wanted too”, because that is not the case at all. We are all shaped by our backgrounds and our personalities and gifts. I’ve heard this mentality from wealthy people all the time, “the welfare mom is only on welfare because she wants to be” sort of thing. That being said, I’ve also heard from the same people about how “they do the best they can” and refuse to continue growing in any area of their life, because they have already figured out all the answers, and that drives me nuts too.

  2. 2 Scott said at 7:45 pm on April 12th, 2011:

    Thanks. I’m glad it made sense to someone other than me. Answers are overrated. Good questions are usually better than good answers to bad questions. 😉 However many answers I find, I’m always looking for the next question. And a lot of the time that means I go back and toss or change an old answer. Some people, though, are so constrained that growth is difficult. The hardest growth for any of us, though, most often lies in areas where we did not know we needed to grow.

  3. 3 Joy said at 12:16 pm on May 7th, 2011:

    Hi Scott, I haven’t seen you in awhile, so it was great to visit EE’s site and find this post from you. It’s like mental contortionism to read Orthodox writing because its perspective on God and people is so different from what I have always heard. I really want to wrestle with it though, because so much of what you’ve written (and I too followed what you were saying) reflects the direction I find myself headed. We are free, but we aren’t absolutely free. We are broken and in need of healing, but so often find ourselves in prison instead of a hospital for church.

    I’d really like to find an “orthodoxy for evangelicals” that can help me grasp the basics. So many of the websites I’ve visited don’t have an obvious entry or starting point and I’m just lost. Can you recommend any books or sites (or a series of yours?) that would spoon-feed it to me?

  4. 4 Scott said at 9:11 pm on May 7th, 2011:

    It’s weird. Even though I’ve only been “evangelical” (more or less) during that piece of my life in which I’ve been Christian, it tends to be easier for me to understand and follow Orthodox writing and thought than it is for me to attune myself to evangelical thought.

    When it comes to introductory books, though, the best English language primers are probably those by Timothy Ware (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware), The Orthodox Church and the The Orthodox Way.

    When it comes to sites, I would probably recommend Frederica Mathewes-Green and Father Stephen Freeman to someone who wants to understand Orthodoxy coming out of a Western mindset. On Khouria Frederica’s site, click on Essays and they are organized so you should be able to find helpful topics. Do start with what she calls The Basics to understand her journey and perspective and some of the basics about Orthodoxy. On Fr. Stephen’s site scroll down the right side bar to the section on the things he has made pages. You will particularly want to read his essay on Christianity in a One Storey Universe (and may want to consider his book fleshing out those ideas) and the page with The River of Fire.

    On my own site, it’s hard for me to say what any given person might find helpful. Look at my categories. A lot of evangelicals, especially those with a more Calvinistic history might find my series on Hell helpful. I’ve also explored Scripture and, at least as important to me, the thread of early Church interpretation of Scripture on the Eucharist in that category. I have some thoughts on sola scriptura if that topic bothers anyone. I even have one post under Atonement on Penal Substitutionary Atonement, though that’s not something I tend to write about a great deal (mostly because I don’t much think about it).

    Hmmm. My reflections on the books Thirsting for God and For the Life of the World might help someone wondering about Orthodoxy even if they don’t read the actual books themselves. But again, that’s hard for me to say.

    It’s my observation that the hardest thing for many Western Christians to grasp about Orthodoxy is that they don’t hold forth any single, one size fits all, rule-bound path. Yes, there is only destination in the will of God — for all human beings to be conformed to the image of Christ, the only true eikon of the invisible God. And yes, there are “rules” about what it means to be a human being — again rooted in the teachings of and about Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, there are ascetic rules of discipline. But the point is never the rules. The point is Christ. And for all the rules and canons, there is economia — a concept hard for many to grasp. And it’s in that economia that an Orthodox priest can ask someone if they are willing to forgive someone who has deeply hurt them as I once heard Fr. Thomas Hopko describe. If the person says no, they can step back and ask if that person wants to be able to forgive that person. If the answer is still no, they can ask the person if they want to want to forgive. It’s about finding a place to begin. Moreover, to those whom much has been given (for instance a devout family and a life of relative wealth and privilege) much is expected. Someone who is more damaged may be capable of much in and through the Spirit (there are examples in the saints), but often may not be capable of very much at all — at least in the beginning.

    Orthodoxy is also not about trying to get God to love or accept us. It’s an a priori assumption — grounded in Christ — that God is a good God who loves mankind. No caveats. No limitations. God loves Osama bin Laden just as much as he loves Mark Driscoll or John Piper or Rob Bell or (fill in the blank). The problem is that we need to learn to love God. And we can only do that by learning to love one another.