Out this past weekend was the latest Matt Damon movie -- The Adjustment Bureau. I've yet to see it, but Bruce Epperly, a regular contributor to this blog did see it and offers his thoughts from a theological perspective on the movie's message on the fate of humanity, comparing it to Rick Warren's rather deterministic Purpose Driven Life and the more open vision of Process Theology. I think you'll find this essay intriguing and thought provoking.
The Adjustment Bureau, Rick Warren,
and Process Theology
Bruce G. Epperly
The Adjustment Bureau raises issues of God’s plan, destiny, choice, and chance. Rising political star David Norris is destined, yes destined, to become the President of the United States, until a chance encounter with dancer, Elise Sellas. This apparently chance encounter leads to an intricate struggle between the angelic case workers assigned to keep him on the Chairman’s (aka God) pre-established plan and the love struck Norris, who believes that he can choose his own destiny.
The Chairman’s plan takes a page right out of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. According to the movie, God chooses the important events of our lives, steering us toward the course God has determined that will be best for us and the planet. We think we are free, when are really actors performing the script God has already written for us. The death of Norris’ parents and his brother is not accidental, but the working out of the Chairman’s plan to give Norris the hunger for political greatness, thus fulfilling his father’s dream.
Rick Warren’s image of human destiny takes a similar path in making the following affirmations about the relationship between God’s plan and human decision-making.
- God plans all the important events (genetics, gender, talents, family of origin) in our lives without our input.
- Every experience, including traumatic events, such as cancer, abuse, the death of a child, or tsunami, is “father filtered,” or planned by God for our growth.
- In every event God is testing our fidelity to God’s sovereign decision-making.
- God “smiles” when we follow directions and do as “he” says.
- God wants us to “color inside the lines.” Coloring “outside the lines” leads to meaninglessness in this life and alienation from God (hell) in the next. Those who seek to thwart God’s plan will be punished.
Warren’s belief in divine destiny led one of my friends to describe his book as the “puppet driven life.” Both Warren and The Adjustment Bureau’s image of God’s plan assert that when it comes to the most important things, freedom and choice are an illusion. Happiness and fulfillment come from following the pre-established plan.
Now the Adjustment Bureau takes two slight diversions from Warren’s spiritual determinism. Within the Chairman’s plan, chance events occur. Norris meets Sellas and the pre-established plan for his life is jeopardized. Second, the movie suggests that God can scrap certain plans in favor of others, and open the doors to choice in rare circumstances. Although neither Norris nor Sellas is aware of it, the Chairman’s plan had once included them falling in love. That plan, however, was scrapped for greater things for each of them. Nevertheless, the energy of the Chairman’s negation unexpectedly draws them together.
For both theologians and lay people alike, divine choice and human freedom have often been pitted against one another. Either everything reflects divine decision-making or we are entirely free. Perhaps, there is another alternative that joins divine vision and decision-making, human freedom, environmental and genetic conditioning, and chance. This is the multi-faceted approach of process theology.
From the perspective of process theology, every event emerges from the intricate and dynamic interplay of God’s vision, environmental influences, genetics, and creaturely choice. In the dynamic interplay of life, accidents happen – cells reproduce in ways that lead to cancer, bridges collapse, and brakes fail. In this same interplay, human choices can lead to cancer, abuse, faulty construction, and genocide. God has not willed these events, but must, like us, live with these events, seeking to make the most out of difficult situations.
Process theology asserts that God is intimately involved in our lives, providing possibilities, inspirations, and intuitions; working through the interdependence of life to promote synchronous encounters; inviting us to use our limited freedom to create a just and beautiful world; and giving us strength and creativity to respond to personal and communal calamities. God is not in absolute control, nor do we create our own realities.
Still, God is constantly innovating, working within the world as it is to bring forth the right balance of order and novelty. Within the limitations of the many factors of life, humans are also constantly innovating, using our limited freedom moment by moment to choose our pathways. While creaturely freedom may be quite limited, given the influence of the past, environment, genetics, politics, economics, and divine influence, human choices made moment by moment can lead to life-changing expressions of creativity and beauty. Sadly, they can also lead to pain and suffering.
Life is a dynamic interplay of call and response in which God calls and we respond, and God calls again, adjusting God’s vision to our choices rather than forcing us to follow a pre-ordained script. Still, from the perspective of process theology, God provides many possibilities and opens the door to many vocations, or personal destinies. There is God’s vision for a particular moment in time but this vision is part of many broader visions, embodied over a lifetime. Moreover, process theology asserts that God’s vision is neither coercive nor competitive. God creates the context for maximal expressions of freedom and creativity, congruent with the well-being of the global and local communities. Freedom is limited, but it is real.
Like a good parent, God hopes we make the right decisions for ourselves and others. But, God also welcomes surprises. Contrary to Rick Warren and the Chairman’s initial plan, innovation leads to greater and more energetic revelations of God’s presence in our lives. After God has given us the most creative visions to integrate with our freedom and the impact of the environment, like a good parent, who has supplied crayons and paper for our recreation, God whispers in our unconscious, “Surprise me. Bring something new into the world. Do something beautiful and unexpected.”
The Adjustment Bureau provides much food for theological reflection. It invites us to ponder the intricacies of freedom and destiny and God’s role in determining who we are and what we do. It suggests that we may not be puppets of fate after all, and that our calling is to take risks for love, beauty, and healing. These risks rewarded with greater opportunities for freedom and creativity in partnership with the source of all freedom, creativity, and possibility.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed (May 2011); and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.