Perhaps the most sobering realization I have come to in the second half of my life is the role of luck in life.
I have always wanted to believe otherwise. And I suspect that most people want to believe otherwise. For that reason, many, perhaps most, religious people believe that God wills whatever happens to us: “It was God’s will,” “God took our daughter for His reasons” and so on. Even many people who are not actively religious ascribe whatever happens to God (“My musical talent is a gift from God,” “God made me gay,” “God sent me my wife/husband” and so on). Meanwhile, in Eastern religion, luck appears to play no role. Whatever happens to us is the result of karma — what we get in this life is the result of our behavior in a past life.
We humans are loath to ascribe so much of what happens to luck — good or bad — because it offends our sense of justice and order and because it seems to undermine God’s role. If I was hit by a drunken driver solely because it was my lousy luck to be driving in a certain place and at certain time — not because God had any hand in it — what role, if any, does God play in our lives?
I will answer the God question. But first, let’s figure out what alternatives there are to luck as an explanation.
The most obvious is that everything that happens is due solely to God’s causing it to happen. This became the dominant Muslim belief in the early Middle Ages. The belief arose that to ascribe any other cause than God to anything that happens is to reduce God’s power. If an arrow hits its target, neither the archer, nor the wind pattern, nor any laws of physics are responsible. It was solely due to Allah’s will. That is a major reason the Muslim world did not develop scientifically beyond the early Middle Ages. Science is predicated on identifying laws within nature. But mainstream Islam argued that if laws govern the natural world, then God doesn’t govern the world.
Of course, all of us who have traditional beliefs believe that God governs the universe, and that He created the laws of nature. If God did not will electrons to revolve around the nucleus of the atom, then there would be no universe as we know it. But that is not the same as saying that God willed every individual killed by a drunken driver on the San Diego Freeway.
Aside from the scientific problems that result from attributing to God all that happens, there are also moral and theological problems.
For one thing, if God wanted your child to be born with severe birth defects, your mother to die of breast cancer at age 35, or your wife and young daughters to be raped and then burned to death (as happened to Connecticut physician William Petit a few years ago), it would seem rationally — not to mention emotionally — very difficult to find this God worthy of love, let alone emulation or worship.
A world in which every individual killed in a tsunami, a flu epidemic, by a drunken driver or by some falling object was personally chosen by God to die at that time and in that way is a world governed by a God whose morality is inscrutable. And Judaism has believed since Abraham argued with God that God is morally understandable.
So, guided by reason, I have concluded what has to be rationally concluded: There is a lot of luck, good and bad, in life.
Two major consequences of this belief are humility and gratitude. If our life has gone well, we should be very, very humble, not to mention extremely grateful. Even “self-made men” are inordinately lucky. So, too, people can take some credit for a happy marriage, but not much — happy marriages are overwhelmingly the result of good luck, the luck of meeting and marrying the right person, and the luck that each spouse has grown in compatible directions.
As for children, parents can take some credit and take some blame. But children, too, are often the products of good and bad luck. Many troubled kids come from fine homes, and many fine kids come from troubled homes — because genes, peers, environment and free will play a huge role in how children turn out. And if we have good health, it is overwhelmingly the result of good genes and/or good medicine, neither of which we had any role in creating.
So, then, if luck is so powerful, where does God fit in?
1) God allows luck. God (usually) allows the world to proceed without His intervention. What other choice is there — that God stops every drunken driver’s car from starting? That He intervenes with nature every time cells begin to metastasize?
2) It is our task, not God’s, to fight evil and to conquer nature. Thus pacifism is immoral — it enables evil to prevail. And so is much of the environmentalist movement. It has become so worshipful of nature that it has often abandoned the need to conquer it on behalf of humans. To cite but one example, Western environmentalists have been directly responsible for the death of millions of Africans due to their having DDT universally banned.
3) Through the Torah and the Prophets, God has told us all we need to know about conquering evil. Therefore, our primary concern with regard to God should not be about what we want Him to do, but about what He wants us to do.
4) God apparently does work through nations — much more than in individual lives. That is what the Founders of America called Providence. I believe in that.
5) Because of the above, I also believe that God works in the lives of some individuals who affect the lives of others. I believe God worked in the lives of the people Israel’s patriarchs and through the life of Moses and in the lives of America’s Founders.
6) Whatever the injustices of this world, there is an afterlife. It is there that God works in the lives of each and every one of us. If there is no afterlife, luck is God.
Everyone works out these issues in his or her own way. For me, not wanting to abandon either reason or faith, I believe both in God and luck. And that, in the end, God prevails.