God, airlines, and questions of sovereignty

If there’s a God who controls floods and earthquakes, does the deity also have a hand in an airline’s mechanical problems? … [Southwest Airlines] recently added “mechanical difficulties” to the list of acts of God and other events for which the carrier will not be liable if travel is delayed. — Southwest: Breakdown is now an act of God, Arizona Daily Star, July 24, 2010

Southwest-AirlinesIf the famous atheist and evolutionist Richard Dawkins was flying to a debate with Rick Warren, and his flight was cancelled by an Act of God, could he sue the airline for hiding behind a non-existent deity?

“Act of God” is a legal phrase that describes the intervention of a force majeure (an overwhelming external force), making it impossible to fulfill the conditions of a contract. Acts of God affecting airlines are normally weather events, but the recent Icelandic volcano that shut down air traffic in Europe is a noteworthy example, along with earthquakes, wars, and other uncontrollable events.

If the owners of Southwest Airlines are Calvinists, their claim that mechanical failures are the work of a sovereign God are perfectly understandable, since (according to John Calvin) a sovereign God is pretty much the first cause of everything. I suspect, however, that this expansion of God’s domain in Southwest’s contract of carriage has less to do with theology than with lawyers being clever.

I find it interesting that such an archaic phrase as “Act of God” still survives in our secular, post-modern world. It’s an anachronism, of course. Enlightened westerners no longer believe that a sovereign God directs the forces of nature or causes flat tires on jet aircraft. We believe in the power of the individual to make free choices and that nature is self-perpetuating. We admit to being subjected to natural forces, and yet, we also believe in the possibility of rising above those forces.

For instance, a great many believe in man made climate change. If the earth is heating up because of errors we have made, as inhabitants of the earth we must live with the consequences. But our theory of man’s sovereignty over nature also leads us to believe that we can undo the damage we’ve done and restore the climate to a more “normal” mode of operation.

In another example, some women with certain genes are more susceptible to breast cancer and are undergoing prophylactic mastectomies, believing that they can overcome nature and eliminate their chances of getting a very dangerous disease.

Most secular rationalists would say that the weather that canceled Richard Dawkins’ hypothetical flight is more likely an Act of Man, since it is man that has altered the earth’s climate and, in theory, increased the severity and frequency of storm activity.

Are we pawns in a game controlled by a sovereign God, free agents in control of our own destiny, or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

While various Christian traditions differ on the extent to which God controls events, most orthodox Christians believe in a God who is engaged, responsive, and who is nudging human history along toward the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and the glorification of his Son, Jesus Christ. Most Christians also believe that God answers prayer, and in that way takes an active role in the events of everyday life.

The LORD frustrates the plans of the nations and thwarts all their schemes. But the LORD’s plans stand firm forever; His intentions can never be shaken. — Psalm 33:10-11, NLT

We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps. — Proverbs 16:9, NLT

This is what the LORD says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen.” — Jeremiah 29:10-12, NLT

The great and unfathomable mystery of Christianity is that God has given us freedom to enjoy the blessings of life and to make our own choices, for good or ill. We are not robots. And yet, God carries out his plans.

I believe God has withheld his sovereignty, limited his authority, if you will, to make room for human free will. And yet, while we act in true freedom, we necessarily live and move in the context of the outworking of a plan that God is directing, a plan that cannot be thwarted by us or any power in the universe. It is a plan that is moving history inexorably toward a time when we will be judged for what we did, and failed to do.

The secular alternative is to believe that there is no sovereign power higher than that wielded by every individual, except as we individuals band together into a society and have created laws and governments that have been granted sovereignty over us.

This is the Enlightenment view espoused in the Declaration of Independence when it says:

That to secure these Rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…

The government is granted power in order to secure the rights of the individual. Government sovereignty, in this view, is necessary to protect individual sovereignty, meaning that individual sovereignty is sometimes, necessarily, limited by a higher calling upon the state to safeguard the rights of the community. Even in the context of western secular thinking, therefore, individuals only have limited sovereignty. As members of a governed society, we are swept along by the plans of the state, whether we like them or not.

We may be sovereign individuals, but we must all now purchase health insurance, or else.

In this respect, Christians and secularists see the world similarly. They both live in a world in which personal sovereignty is limited, sometimes by Acts of God, sometimes by Acts of Man, sometimes by Acts of Congress. We are free, but rather like a dog on a leash is free.

We acknowledge and generally live within the laws placed on us by the State. The question we ought to ask ourselves is whether there’s more to it than that. Is there an even higher law, a higher authority, a Sovereign God to whom individuals, governments, and all of human history must ultimately bow down?

If we conclude that there is indeed a Sovereign God who reigns over all of creation, then let me borrow from the Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer and ask the most important question of all: How should we then live?

Photo credit: OregonLive.com

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Comments

  1. “The great and unfathomable mystery of Christianity is that God has given us freedom to enjoy the blessings of life and to make our own choices, for good or ill. We are not robots. And yet, God carries out his plans.

    I believe God has withheld his sovereignty, limited his authority, if you will, to make room for human free will. And yet, while we act in true freedom, we necessarily live and move in the context of the outworking of a plan that God is directing, a plan that cannot be thwarted by us or any power in the universe. It is a plan that is moving history inexorably toward a time when we will be judged for what we did, and failed to do.”

    I love it. I couldn’t have said it better. What confounds me about the strictly deterministic view of at least some brands of Calvinism is the limitation that it places upon God. Any human authority has the power to delegate choice, decision, and responsibility to a subordinate. But apparently some people believe that God does not have that authority or that it would somehow diminish him if he exercised it. I don’t know how much of what goes on around me is being micro-managed by God. Like, did he cause there to be aphids on my rose plants? But I do know that I have been given the power and responsibility, under God’s sovereignty, to make many consequential moral and ethical decisions, and that I will be called upon to answer for my use of this power. If that is not the case, there is no meaning at all to the universe.

  2. This one gnawed the neurons and shorted the synapses. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus – and take us with You this time. Revelation 22:20b

  3. I just have to add something: For some people the ultimate in greatness and power would be to have absolute control over everything that happens in the universe, from the landing of an aphid on a rosebush to a human being’s moral choice. But God’s power is greater than this. God can take all of the evil and bad things that happen, including our wrong choices, and ultimately weave them in with everything else that happens in order to realize his eternal purpose for this creation. I have no idea how he can do this. It is strictly an article of faith, that God will leave no string dangling at the end of time, and that what he is accomplishing will be revealed to be a perfect manifestation of his justice, grace, mercy, and creativity. It is more challenging to believe this than it is to believe in total control. But so much greater will be our amazement when we discover the God in whom we have believed. Isaiah 25:9.

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