Sometimes (often) I think in pictures. As I read, a group of seemingly unrelated ideas get together in my head for an impromptu meaning and express themselves in the form of a picture or, more likely, a scene as if from a movie.
This happened recently with the following items that I picked out of the local news.
(1) President Bush, in commenting about Iraq, said that when history records the events that it “will look like just a comma.” He was roundly criticized for this - for claiming that an action that resulted in so much death and injury is trivially insignificant. No person who loses a limb, no family who loses a family member, considers such a loss insignificant. This is, in fact, much like Stalin's comment that 'one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic'.
(2) I read an analysis of Bush's comment that related it to a quote popular among evangelical. Attributed to the mid 20th century comedienne Gracie Allen, it says, "Do not put a period where God has placed a comma." In this context, what Bush is saying is that, "The situation in Iraq is not over yet. God's plan is still unfolding. This is clearly a part of his plan." Bush is not saying that this loss is insignificant. He is saying that this loss is a part of a bigger plan and the value of this sacrifice will be revealed in time.
(3) A newspaper article that I read today shows how Bush's policies have utterly failed with regard to what, in 2002, he called 'the axis of evil'. Iraq is on the verge of civil war. Iran is openly enriching uranium while its leader is threatening to wipe Israel off the map. North Korea just tested a nuclear weapon and is threatening to test-fire a nuclear missile.
The image that this created in my mind was that of Bush playing a game of chess. As he plays, his opponent takes one piece after another. First, a few pawns disappear, which happens in every game of chess, so Bush dismisses the loss as insignificant, compared to the value of winning.
Then, a few more pawns disappear, as well as a couple of larger pieces. With these losses, Bush mumbles, "Do not put a period where God has placed a comma. This is all a part of God's plan, and God will reveal his wisdom in time."
This chess player then ends up sacrificing some extremely valuable pieces. He sacrifices the institution of truth and aversion to deception. He loses the principle of checks and balances. He makes a move where he captures a pawn (some information on terrorist attacks) by sacrificing his queen (the right of habeas corpus). Yet, he still stands before the crowd and insists, "This is all a part of God's marvelous plan. God is still revealing himself through me. Just wait, and you will see a tremendous victory - made all the more tremendous of the struggle we have gone through to win it."
Then, with all of his pieces gone and his king one move away from checkmate, Bush the chess player says, "Behold the greatness of God that He can create a situation that looks this hopeless; yet, as we all know, God will win in the end!"
This play shows up in my mind as an illustration of the irresponsibility found in this way of thinking. The person who thinks, "This is all a part of God's plan," does not have to take responsibility for his own actions. He is simply acting as an agent of God, and whatever happens is a part of God's plan. This is true for any action the agent makes. Ultimately, it means that no action is wrong. Every action is a part of God's plan and God, being perfectly virtuous and wise, cannot have anything but the best possible plan.
The worst implication of this is intellectual laziness. For Bush the chess player, this means that he does not have to give a lot of thought to each move he makes. He is going to pray, and God is going to tell him how to move his pieces. Because these actions come from God, they are God's responsibility, and not Bush's.
Failure is not an option because, if the project failed, then this would be God's failure, and God cannot fail. "Failure is not an option" in this context does not mean, "We must work as hard as we can to succeed." It means that there is no state of affairs that can result from our acdtion that would qualify as a failure. No matter what the outcome is, we get to count it as a success, because it is God's will, and God can do nothing but succeed.
This is just another example of a form of religious thinking that is dangerous and is the source of misery and suffering in the real world. It is another example of how we are worse off - we life with more death, more injury, more illness, and more failure because people adopt attitudes where they can abdicate their responsibility as real agents in the real world - where they can shift blame onto somebody else and go about their lives in blissful ignorance of the harm they do to others.
One of the implications of the view that we live in a real-world universe that is indifferent as to our success or failure is that we really can fail. When we fail, our failures have consequences. Those consequences include deal, injury, and other forms of harm to real human beings. That harm is not a part of God's plan. That harm is a real-world tragedy.
It is not our fate to suffer those harms. There are actions that we can take so that we can make better decisions. We will not be able to eliminate harm entirely, but we can improve the chance of picking better options over worse options. We can increase or decrease the amount of death and misery in the world with the choices that we make.
Let us go back to the chess player and turn the clock back to a time before the game starts. Let us give the chess player an appreciation for the fact that he can lose, and that loss means real-world death and suffering for people who need not have died or suffered. Let us add to the fact that we are the ones who are going to die and suffer depending on how well this person plays the game.
Under these assumptions, we see that we have reason to try to make sure that this chess player is the best chess player he can be. We have reason to insist that he study and practice - that he learn as much as he can about the game.
We have reason to become angry if he decides to be lazy - if he decides that he does not need to study because he is putting us at risk.
Have somebody point a gun at your head - somebody who shows callous disregard as to whether the gun is loaded or, rather than checks the gun empirically to determine that it is safe, insists that his faith that the gun is not loaded is sufficient.
It is not sufficient when the agent is putting lives at risk other than his own. We have reason to insist that the chess player become as good as possible - reason to condemn him if he fails - and reason to replace him with somebody who is competent when he shows his incompetence.
In other words, we have reason to insist on a doctrine of personal moral responsibility that includes blaming people for their failures rather than allowing them to escape blame and passing the blame up to God.
"Don't blame me. It was God's plan!"