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15 1 Protestant Fatalism Predestination as Emancipation Well, if I frighten you, we can always go our own ways. —Denis Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist Predestined, why not? —Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words I got so much soul in me that I am barely alive. —Every Time I Die, “Decayin’ with the Boys” IsThere a Choice? In 1525 Luther retaliated. His reply to Erasmus of Rotterdam was so drastic that the latter retorted, “You plunge the whole world into fatal discord.”1 Their dispute concerned the question of free choice. Erasmus was for it, Luther against it. Luther thereby opposed any form of Aristotelianism, since for him Aristotelians derive their concept of justice from a human (ontic) context, where it normatively describes the appropriate way of acting, and transpose it onto the (ontological) doctrine of God. In so doing Aristotelians forget the ontic-ontological difference. They believe that human beings can contribute to their salvation by means of good works because God shares our normative standards (of justice and reason): there is thus continuity between man and God. 16 · Protestant Fatalism Luther countered such Aristotelianism by pointing out that it conflates man and God: it derives an image of God from the image of the human as a free being. For Luther, however, things are precisely the other way around: God works in us even against our will, which is why true faith never begins with free choice but with a forced reorientation of one’s life. To believe is not to actualize a human capacity. Rather the origin of belief, as well as its direction, is God. The advent of faith constitutes a fundamental break in one’s life and implies that one quits relying on good reasons and normative or objective capacities. Faith begins “only where the illusion of a remote ‘inner world’ is disturbed.”2 Luther here follows St. Paul. Belief emerges from a conversion experience similar to Paul’s on the road to Damascus.3 There is no inner realm (of freedom) from which faith can emerge. Rather “my ‘inner’ approaches me radically from ‘the outer.’”4 I experience faith only when I encounter God, and I am thus forced to renew myself. This is why anyone who thinks he is free (in matters of faith) and who believes that his or her freedom is manifested in deliberately decided actions is ultimately an Aristotelian (i.e., a nonbeliever). In true faith one encounters an abyss of despair while traversing the illusion that one has anything (objectively) at one’s disposal—one learns to break with the idea of freedom as something one possesses.5 Nothing guarantees salvation, not even incessant striving for good works. On the contrary, if I presume that my works can influence God’s judgment and that there is a common measure between man and God, I end up committing blasphemy. The one who is truly free does not identify freedom with a given capacity, but instead experiences the despair that there is nothing we can do to achieve what we do not even know how to properly strive for. This is the precondition for encountering God, an encounter that forces us to believe “where [such an] event happens, a fresh Protestant Fatalism · 17 breeze overthrows my life.”6 Faith results from encountering something that I would not have believed to be possible before experiencing it. In other words, we do not have the freedom to start believing in something. Freedom is rather that which becomes absolutely necessary for me, but only after an event of faith. Faith strikes me contingently. It seems to be something ungrounded, solely depending on God’s will. It seems to result from an absolute necessity and forces me to believe. I have no power against God’s will. Freedom and belief result from an event of grace. Franz Rosenzweig rightly stated that Luther’s believer “has neither belief nor unbelief, but both . . . happen to him.”7 Hence there is no free will. Erasmus, however, was not at all happy with Luther’s radicalism , as he considered free will to be the precondition of all religiosity. If we were in the hands of a predestining God, Erasmus argued, mankind would be a mere object: we would be neither responsible nor guilty and could never achieve anything on our own. He therefore vindicated “a certain power of freedom” but also granted that Scripture contains “secret places . . . into which God does not want us to penetrate more deeply.” Freedom of the...


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