“50 Answers,” a new book by Glory White, explores 50 distinct answers a wide variety of religions provide for our biggest, most compelling questions. The following excerpt provides an exclusive sneak peek into how religions tackle the all-important subject of fate.
Where do we come from? What happens after we die? Religions have been answering these questions – and many more – for millennia. But while most of us are familiar with the answers of major world religions, answers from lesser-known or historical religions are often overlooked. An insightful new book sheds light on how a rich tapestry of religions answer life’s biggest questions.
Fathoming Fate and Faith
The word ‘fate’ is derived from the Latin ‘fatum’, or “has been spoken”, suggesting that fate is predetermined. But what exactly is fate? For the ancients, fate was personified. In fact, many ancient mythologies featured 3-9 goddesses tasked with controlling human destiny. The most famous of these are undoubtedly the Greek Fates, or Moirai, a triad of elderly sisters venerated in at least three temples throughout ancient Greece. The Fates’ ability to enforce fate was so powerful, it was thought to trump the will of the Olympians themselves. To ascertain that every human and deity lived out his or her predetermined destiny, the first sister, Clotho, spun the thread of fate, while the second sister, Lachesis, allotted it to each individual, thus dispensing misery and suffering unequally among humans. The third sister, Atropos, then cut the thread with a pair of scissors, and in doing so determined one’s inescapable moment and manner of death.
What exactly is fate? For the ancients, fate was personified.
As the years went by, fate evolved into a virtually unrecognizable abstract idea, which was increasingly applied to milder, non-lethal events. Its predetermined nature was gradually stripped away, freeing humans to take control of their fate. “I am the master of my fate,” wrote the Victorian poet William Ernest Henley, reflecting the modern concept of a malleable fate wrested from the hands of invisible entities. Capitalism, too, played a part in how fate came to be viewed by encouraging individuals to work hard to shape the course of their mortal destinies. But while the option to actively improve our lives is reassuring, what of the afterlife and our posthumous fate? Is it also possible to control that kind of fate? Capitalism, laser focused as it is on the here and now, is admittedly ill-equipped to answer such questions. Fortunately, religions have been providing answers to our most compelling questions since time immemorial, solving conundrums in unexpected and often insightful ways. So do we control our fate? Let us explore the fascinating, yet somewhat contradictory, answers provided by three religions.
The Calvinist Answer
Calvinism is a branch of Protestant Christianity based on the teachings of the 16th
century religious reformer Calvin, who denounced this designation for his followers. Indeed, most modern-day Calvinists do not call themselves Calvinists; instead, they are known as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Reformed Christians, etc.
John Calvin was born to a devout Catholic family in France in 1509. His father wanted all his sons to be priests, and had young Calvin enrolled in college to study theology before he was 14. But by the time Calvin turned 20, he had reached the conclusion that Catholicism was flawed. His association with others who held similar beliefs led to trouble with the authorities, and Calvin was forced to flee to Basel. While in Basel, he published an extremely influential book on his reformist ideas, which led to his being forced to flee yet again, this time to Geneva. Calvin became a pastor in Geneva, was exiled for a few years over a disagreement regarding communion, and then invited to return by the Council of Geneva.
Calvin’s opinion on fate was similarly heavy-handed. He believed that while people are created in the image of God, they are totally corrupted by sin.
Back in Geneva, Calvin established a theocracy. He banished all members of other faiths and banned dancing, games, and all forms of entertainment. Genevans were forbidden to wear anything but the plainest of clothing, and could only name their children after Biblical figures. Attending church was mandatory for everyone in the city, and women were oppressed and frequently convicted of witchcraft for anything from experiencing a difficult birth to owning a pet. Calvin also passed laws that censored the press and criminalized any questioning of his reforms, and punished every minor infraction with exile, torture, or execution. The Calvinist theocracy in Geneva was later replicated in Puritan New England, where skipping church resulted in a fine, adulterers were forced to wear a scarlet “A” on their clothes, male supremacy was considered God’s will, and people accused of witchcraft were executed in the infamous Salem witch trials.
Calvin’s opinion on fate was similarly heavy-handed. He believed that while people are created in the image of God, they are totally corrupted by sin, and that sin affects every possible aspect of our souls, down to our will. This results in “total depravity”, or the complete inability to avoid sin. In other words, people don’t really have free will, since they cannot choose not to sin. According to Calvin, we are all sinners who deserve to be damned, and there is nothing we can do about it – not even repent. Calvin took this bleak outlook one step further, positing the doctrine of double predestination, according to which some people are predestined by God to be saved while others are predestined by God for eternal damnation. It is impossible for people to know what God has chosen for them, as the difference between the two groups does not depend on what members of either group do – they’re all utterly incapable of avoiding sin, anyway. The only difference between the two groups is that divine grace was bestowed upon the elect. And it is this grace, in Calvin’s view, that ultimately frees the elect from sin, allowing them to choose good over evil. In other words, Calvinism postulates that righteous people will not be saved due to their righteousness; being predestined for salvation is what yields righteousness in the first place.
The Mormon Answer
The Mormon Church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was founded by a farm boy named Joseph Smith in New York in the 1820s. According to Smith, he had been praying for guidance regarding the Christian denomination he should join when God appeared to him, informing him that all of the existing denominations had strayed from God’s path, and that he would be the one to establish the one true church. According to Mormon tradition, an angel led Smith to find golden plates buried in a hill. Smith translated the text on these plates from a “reformed Egyptian language” to English, producing the Book of Mormon. The plates were then returned to the angel, and Smith began to preach the Book of Mormon’s message.
Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon chronicles the history of an Israelite family that left Jerusalem and sailed to the New World around 600 BCE. Their descendants were Native Americans who worshiped Jesus long before his birth due to prophesies of his life and ministry. According to Mormon tradition, Jesus even appeared to these pre-Christian Christians when he visited the New World after his resurrection. The Mormon Church also teaches that the Garden of Eden was in the Americas, and that when Jesus returns, he will visit the American state of Missouri, where New Jerusalem is destined to be built.
Mormons believe that while God has foreordained people for certain callings, it is up to us to choose whether to fulfil these callings.
The Mormon Church is famous for its semi-abandoned practice of plural marriage, or polygamy. Smith, who was considered a prophet by his followers, had up to 40 wives, some of whom were already married when Smith married them. His followers were also introduced to the practice of polygamy, which quickly became the young religion’s best-known, and most scandalous, characteristic. This resulted in the United States Congress’ fear that Utah, where most Mormons lived, had become a polygamist theocracy. Consequently, Congress refused Utah’s application for statehood for decades until the Mormon Church abolished plural marriage in 1890. This prompted several groups of Mormons who viewed plural marriage as a requirement for salvation to leave the Mormon Church and found new churches. These “Mormon fundamentalists” practice polygamy to this day.
Mormons believe that while God has foreordained people for certain callings, it is up to us to choose whether to fulfil these callings. This is why “saving ordinances”, or religious rituals required for salvation, are reserved for willing participants. Baptism, for example, is performed when a child is old enough to make a conscious choice to be baptized into the Mormon Church. And while Mormons have been known to perform saving ordinances by proxy on behalf of the deceased, they believe that the spirits of the deceased are free to reject these ordinances. The Mormon emphasis on free will is derived from the belief that all humans were once spirits in the presence of God. God gave these spirits the option of receiving bodies on Earth and sinning so that they could then be saved, and two thirds of the spirits agreed. The remaining spirits, led by Satan, rejected God’s plan.
Mormons believe that our Earth is but one of many inhabited planets in what may be interpreted as a multiverse. But why are there so many planets similar to ours? The answer is that Mormons who choose to fulfill their divine calling are saved, and as a reward, they are allowed to create and rule planets. In other words, not only do we control our fate, but if we play our cards right, we can end up gods with our very own worlds to rule over.
The Shinto Answer
Shinto, loosely translated as “the way of the spirit”, is a Japanese nature religion with prehistoric roots. Though it lacks a central authority, in the 19th
century Shinto was co-opted by the imperial regime to promote nationalism and emperor worship. Countless rural shrines were replaced with imperial shrines, and evangelists traveled throughout Japan to preach the new, nationalist version of Shinto. This continued until 1946, when the emperor was forced to declare that he was not a deity in his famous “Humanity Declaration”, which constituted an integral part of Japan’s surrender to the Allies at the end of World War II.
Today, Shinto is officially Japan’s largest religion, though the vast majority of Japanese citizens do not define themselves as Shintoists. The cause of this discrepancy? Unlike many Western cultures, Japanese culture simply does not view religions as being exclusive. Consequently, most Japanese citizens incorporate both Shinto and Buddhist practices into their lives, sometimes blurring the line between the two.
At its core, Shinto is a polytheistic religion that venerates kami, deities that are believed to be present in all things. All living creatures are thought to be inhabited by kami, as are objects, natural forces, and even natural disasters such as earthquakes. In fact, some Shintoists believe that there are eight million kami! Unlike Western deities, Kami are not considered to be fundamentally different from humans; in fact, it is possible for humans to become kami after death. Neither are kami held to be immortal, omnipotent, or omniscient, though interestingly, they are known to enjoy music and have messengers who can take animal forms.
Some kami are specific to families or even individual houses, while others are revered by a whole community or throughout Japan, which is why kami are worshiped in both private and public shrines. These shrines often contain objects inhabited by kami, such as mirrors and swords, which are sometimes hidden in boxes that even the shrine’s priests are forbidden to open. Since kami can punish bad behavior with disease or death, visitors to shrines use prayers and offerings to mollify kami.
The Shinto understanding of fate is charmingly noncommittal.
Unlike many other religions, Shinto lacks scripture to codify its tenants. Consequently, the way Shinto is practiced varies widely among different communities and even among individual Shintoists. The absence of doctrine also means there is no standard view on the afterlife or religious morality; instead, Shinto tends to emphasize the performance of rituals. Washing and purification rites, for example, play a central role in Shinto life as they achieve the spiritual and physical purity necessary to approach the divine. For Shintoists, the world’s greatest dichotomy is not between good and bad, but rather between pure and impure. The implications of this principle range from the relatively minor custom of purifying a sumo ring before a match, to the historical custom of moving the Japanese capital after each emperor’s death to escape the impurity associated with death. Intriguingly, many kami are believed to have originated in purification rites, reflecting the importance of these rites in Shinto.
The Shinto understanding of fate is charmingly noncommittal. At many Shinto shrines, believers can obtain small pieces of paper known as omikuji in exchange for a donation. These omikuji contain a prediction of one’s future, though this prediction is far from fatalistic. Believers who are displeased with their predictions are free to tie the omikuji to trees, an act thought to avert the predictions’ realization. In other words, while Shinto does embrace the concept of fate to a certain extent, Shintoists believe that one has the power to reject an unwanted fate.
White, G. (2022): 50 Answers: How World Religions Grapple with Life’s Biggest Questions. Amazon affiliate link. If you buy through this link, Daily Philosophy will get a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!