The Best Laid Plans (Do Not Require a Plan B)
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
–Robert Burns, “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”
This is famously misquoted in standard English (as opposed to Burns’s Scots dialect) as “The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.” In any case, the sentiment is true enough. How often do we plan something only to have events seemingly conspire to screw it all up? How often does the most meticulous planning crash and burn before our eyes? It’s not for no reason that we have the American idiom “Plan B”. This is, of course, what you do–or attempt to do–when your original idea, Plan A, fails. Sometimes we seem to run through the whole alphabet of plans and still things “gang agley”. Then again, we’re not God.
The point I’m getting at here is something I’ve alluded to numerous time over the course of this and other series of posts at this blog. In this post, I want to address the matter in a more direct and explicit manner. The matter at hand relates to the interpretation of the Fall of Man, as described in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. My main purpose in “Legends of the Fall” has been to try to find a way to understand the aforementioned Fall given our current understanding of human origins and the impossibility of reconciling that understanding with the Genesis account. I’m still pretty far out from coming to such an understanding, admittedly. Nevertheless, I think it is useful to look at issues which, while partially tangential, nevertheless have implications for the course of the main argument.
What is at issue here is not so much the Genesis account of the Fall as such. As it stands, it’s a “just so” story seeking to explain why humans suffer and die. There are no deep theological overtones in the text itself. Those come later in reflections on Genesis by Jewish and Christian theologians over the centuries–theologians, it’s important to note, who drew very different conclusions. I’m interested in the traditional Christian interpretation, as should be now be obvious. Since the Jewish interpretation has no doctrine of Original Sin, or the heritability thereof, it is much more easily reconciled to modern science than the traditional Christian interpretation, since reading the story as a myth has no ramifications for doctrine in the Jewish context, as it does in the Christian context.
The traditional Christian understanding of Genesis is more or less as follows:
- God created the world perfect and made humanity–Adam and Eve–also perfect.
- God gave mankind–represented by Adam and Eve–a test of obedience, i.e., the command not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
- Adam and Eve flunked the test and were expelled from Eden.
- As a result of this failure, Original Sin was incurred, and has passed down to all humans ever since.
- In the fullness of time, God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, who, by his life, death, and resurrection, redeems the human race and makes possible its restoration and reconciliation to God.
- Ultimately, all will be mended and the cosmos will live happily ever after, with God all in all. The End!
I think that’s a fair summary, and that anyone, regardless of their belief in it–or lack thereof–would agree it is a reasonable summary of the traditional Christian understanding (The Orthodox Church would understand Original Sin and its effects in a subtly different manner than do both Catholics and Protestants, but that is immaterial for the specific point I’m going to be making shortly). The thing which is often not remarked on here comes in at Point 3 above, specifically the counterfactual. “Counterfactual” is a fancy philosophical term for “what if”. If I say, “What if the US had lost the Revolutionary war? What if the Nazis had won World War II? What if John Wilkes Booth had not assassinated Abraham Lincoln?” and such, the suggested scenarios are all counterfactuals. Thus, the TV series The Man in the High Castle is a counterfactual–a portrayal of the “what if the Nazis had won” scenario. The entire genre of alternate universe (AU) fiction is a collection of examples of counterfactuals.
In the case at hand, the counterfactual is, “What if Adam and Eve had not eaten the Forbidden Fruit?” Just to be clear, I don’t think this was an actual historical event. My purpose is to tease out the thinking behind the theology involved. The glib answer to this question would be, “Then they’d never have been banished from Eden, sin would never have entered the world, none of the evils of the world–sickness, natural disasters, violence, even presumably death–would have ever come into being, and Adam and Eve would have lived happily ever after in a perfect world in an unruptured communion with God, world without end, amen.” The problem that comes with this, though, is that it implies a mistaken notion about the nature of God.
Any kind of “what if” is predicated on the fact that human knowledge is limited. We don’t know, and in fact can’t know, very much about the cosmos at all. Given that fact, our ability to predict the future for anything of any complexity is very weak. This uncertainty, combined with our free will, makes the future itself a “what if”. What if I choose this career? What if I marry Peggy Sue instead of Mary Jane? What if I watch Netflix until four in the morning and sleep all the following day? In various situations I may have a higher or lower certainty as to what will happen if I do a certain thing, but I can never know results with one hundred percent certainty. This is also the root of fascination with counterfactual history. World War II is over and the Allies won, and that can’t change. Still, our awareness of the tenuousness of the future and the seemingly small factors that can profoundly influence it lead us to wonder what would have happened if something had been different. The aforementioned Man in the High Castle posits, for example, that Giuseppe Zangara was successful in his attempt to assassinate president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, instead of missing and mortally wounding Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, as happened in reality. This sets in motion the chain of events leading to the victory of Nazi Germany in the novel and the TV series.
With God, however, the situation is vastly different. God is omniscient–He knows everything. He knows everything, past, present, and future, and therefore has a perfect understanding of counterfactuals. God does know if the assassination of Roosevelt instead of Cermak would have resulted in the Man in the High Castle scenario; what would have happened if Booth had failed in his assassination of Lincoln; what would have happened if William the Conqueror had lost at the Battle of Hastings; and on and on. God knows all possible outcomes of all scenarios. Thus, in a sense, there are no “what if’s” for God, since He can perfectly foresee with complete accuracy the outcome of any course of action. This ability of God to know with precision the exact outcome of any and all counterfactuals is what 16th Century Spanish theologian Luis de Molina referred to as “middle knowledge”.
The obvious corollary to this is that it is meaningless to speak of a Plan B for God. A human may well have a backup plan, because we humans know that “time and chance happeneth to them all”. I may be planning a day in the park, for example, but I have a backup plan for something to do at home if it rains. God, however, knows if it will rain or not. If He were to go walking in the park, as He is said to have done in Eden (Genesis 3:8), He wouldn’t have to have alternate plans ready just in case. He would be sure already that it wasn’t going to rain.
This is how we tend to misread the Adam and Eve story. We view Adam and Eve in the Garden, naked, unashamed, sinless, and living in a perfect environment as God’s Plan A–His intention for what He wanted. He gives them a test–the command not to eat the Forbidden Fruit–to see if they will obey Him. When they don’t, He formulates a new plan which unfolds over many millennia, in which Christ appears in due time, gives his life as a ransom to redeem mankind from Adam’s sin, and sets in motion the ultimate reconciliation of the world to God. Of course, nothing about this account, traditional as it may be, is correct. The secularist meme below captures the contradictions quite well:
After all, if God is all-knowing–and traditional belief is that He is indeed–He must have known with complete certainty what Adam and Eve would do. The idea that He was “testing” them makes no sense. To test something or someone implies that one doesn’t know the outcome. I have no need to take three similar objects and then two more such objects, put them together, and count them to test if there are then five objects. I know that three plus two is five. I don’t have to test gravity by dropping an object to see if it falls. The force I feel on my butt in this somewhat uncomfortable chair is a perfect proof of gravity–no falling objects needed! God had no need to test people whose reactions He knew even before He created them. By corollary, the coming of Christ and his redemption of the world could not have been God’s attempt to “fix” the fallen world, His “Plan B”. God knew what would happen already. His schemes are not only the “best laid”, but perfectly laid–they cannot “go agley”!
In fact, the case for no Plan B is even stronger than what I’ve laid out, since I’ve been using conventional language, saying that God “knows past, present, and future”, that He “forsees” events, and so on. Of course, this is anthropomorphic language that misrepresents God’s knowledge. Time is a property of the created universe, and “before” God created the universe, time did not exist. God exists beyond time, or “outside” of time, or non-linearly–all ways of phrasing it limp. Maybe the best way is to say that He exists without reference to time. I can pick up a novel and read it in any sequence I like–beginning to end, end to beginning, alternate chapters, and so on. I could read a chapter and stop right at the point that the hero is about to unsheathe his sword and spring into battle. If I return to the book six months later and pick up where I left off, the hero is till poised to draw his sword–nothing has happened yet.
For the characters in the book, though, the action is unbroken and flows in one direction from beginning to the (hopefully happy) ending. The time as experienced by the characters in the book has no reference to time as I, the reader, experience it. This is an imperfect analogy for God’s relationship to time. To him, that which we call “past”, “present”, and “future” are all simultaneous. We are like bacteria on the Mona Lisa who perceive only vast swathes of dark or light color. God is like the human viewer who sees the whole painting at once, perceiving the pattern of all the dark and light colors, and how they make a portrait.
Similarly, it’s not correct to say that God “foresaw” the Fall of Man from the moment He created them, and the coming of Christ in due time. Rather, creation, Fall, Redemption, and the ultimate end of the world are all at once from God’s perspective. One single act of creation brings the whole universe, from the Big Bang to its ultimate conclusion, and whatever awaits us afterwards, in one single blink of God’s eye. Nothing is “foreseen” or “anticipated”–it’s all one great “now”.
It must follow, then, with absolute logic that the Fall was not, in fact, God’s “Plan B”. God, by definition, has no Plan B’s. The Fall, in some sense, must have been God’s intention all along. Even that is not a strong enough way of putting it. As we have just seen by our discussion of time, not only is the Fall God’s “Plan A”, it is His decree from all eternity. There is no meaningful sense in which the cosmos could have been otherwise. In some sense all the chaos and suffering of the cosmos were not avoidable, but are somehow integral to the final outcome–which by faith we believe to be a happy ending–of God’s cosmic plan. Thus, we should be a little easier on “Adam” and “Eve”, or more generically, the human race itself. In a fairly literal sense, we did the best we could, and it’s all part of the process–an admittedly nasty process, but one with an ultimately good outcome.
Part of the series “Legends of the Fall“.
Posted on 22/05/2020, in Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged alternate universe fiction, Christianity, counterfactuals, Fall of Man, Luis de Molina, Philip K. Dick, philosophy, religion, Robert Burns, The Man in the High Castle, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.