The Adjustment Bureau

Last night we had the (now rare) opportunity to go into town and catch a film. We chose The Adjustment Bureau. It’s a film based on a short story by sci-fi legend Phillip K Dick and stars Emily Blunt and Matt Damon, plus that grey haired guy out of Mad Men and Terence Stamp and other luminaries.

I haven’t read the original short story but it’s a great film, a nail biter, a love story and thought provoking. The central premise is that there is an architect who has a plan and that there is a bureau of men who, bureaucratically, keep important lives on track with that plan to ensure that we don’t destroy ourselves.  It’s a meditation on free will and predestination.

All belief systems have their brush with predestination: for Buddhists it is found in yuanfen which delivers predetermined principles that determine for instance how you will relate to others;  in Christianity the most typical were the Calvinists who believed/believe that God has chosen a number and they will be saved while the rest will be damned. Reassuring if you are a confident person, soul-destroying (literally) if you aren’t.

It’s an interesting question on a broader level – do I believe that God brought my husband and me together? Yes, for a variety of reasons – mostly private! Do I believe that’s the only way it could have been for us? Not so sure. Do I believe that I have one and only destiny to follow? No. I believe that my future is my own, to muck up or make a success of – barring world events! But what I do know without any doubt at all is that God works to make even the worst situation better when he is allowed to. That’s why we have to be open to him as much as we can, because it’s only through us that he can make life better, not just for ourselves but more importantly for those who can’t help themselves.


4 responses to “The Adjustment Bureau

  1. In 410 Rome was sacked. The nuns of Rome were raped by the invading armies. Some of them fled to Christian communities abroad, where they were mocked for not committing suicide. The sack of Rome prompted Augustine to write the most important and influential work of theology in the whole of Christian thought, The City of God against the Pagans.

    What did Augustine say about the mass rapes? He said that the nuns must have been proud of their chastity, and that God humbled their pride for their own good. He said that if any of them were not proud of their chastity, then presumably God must have known of some unseen cancerous sin growing in them, which he excised by having them raped. I.28.:

    “even such faithful women, I say, must not complain that permission was given to the barbarians so grossly to outrage them; nor must they allow themselves to believe that God overlooked their character when He permitted acts which no one with impunity commits. For some most flagrant and wicked desires are allowed free play at present by the secret judgment of God, and are reserved to the public and final judgment. Moreover, it is possible that those Christian women, who are unconscious of any undue pride on account of their virtuous chastity, whereby they sinlessly suffered the violence of their captors, had yet some lurking infirmity which might have betrayed them into a proud and contemptuous bearing, had they not been subjected to the humiliation that befell them in the taking of the city. As, therefore, some men were removed by death, that no wickedness might change their disposition, so these women were outraged lest prosperity should corrupt their modesty.”

    I think this passage, along with others in Book I where Augustine explains why it was God’s will that people starved to death after the sack of Rome, or why poor people deserved to be tortured to reveal the location of money they didn’t have, is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever read. But Augustine thought he was explaining “how God works to make even the worst situation better when he is allowed to.”

  2. I agree. I think this is a disgusting passage. And yes, I’m sure Augustine did think he was finding a way to explain something horrific as part of God’s plan. Making things better spiritually for the nuns.

    I think you’d find it difficult (not impossible certainly) to find a modern theologian who would agree with him on this point. And yet you are right to say that City of God is an important and influential work in Christian thought, a milestone in Western thinking. (I would argue that it is one of the most influential works not the most influential work – but that’s a different blog post). So what are we to do with repulsive writings in what Christians look to as the father of theology?

    One of the difficulties about Christians is that they are flawed. Not perfect. Because they are human. Augustine was a product of his time, just as we are a product of ours. To him and to those who read him first this was a legitimate explanation for an appalling situation. Any theologian who tried to argue this now would be shot down in flames.

    The annoying thing about our understanding of God is that it is not writ in stone. Human understanding of God is a continuum from the call to one man, through the call of a nation to the extension of that call to all nations. From a God that puts an end to human sacrifice, to a God that demands social justice not worship, to a God that does away with the propitiary sacrifice culture once and for all. As our understanding of God changes so our view of his actions in the world changes too. I have tried to read City of God and found it pompous and long winded, and yet this is the man who argued for the return of the lapsed to the Church and as you say his work formed a milestone in Christian thinking so it can’t all be bad!

    This is all by the by, what you are saying by your reference to Augustine is that I would believe the same things in reference to outcomes for that horrific rape. I don’t. And I stand by what I said, God works to bring good out of bad if he is allowed to. Bringing good outcomes out of bad is not the same as saying that it is good that bad things happen. That good can be spiritual development and very personal or it can be changes in circumstances and attitudes. And was God doesn’t do is look for bad things to happen or encourage bad things to happen or want them to happen. Look at the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to see an example of what I mean. His circumstances didn’t get any better, in fact he was killed days before the war ended, yet his relationship with God became deeper and more secure and more filled with love the worse his circumstances became.

    It is not good that bad things happen, God does not will bad things to happen. The question of why we live in a world which is at times unbelievably harsh and where humanity is so inhumane is one of those that can destroy a faith or cause it never to be born. And yet – how do we know these things are bad? What actually gives any value to human life? The universe of which we are physically a part certainly doesn’t. We certainly won’t solve that question here. But if you want to look at an interesting theory on this then I refer you to Why there almost certainly is a God by Keith Ward.

  3. Lectio, I wouldn’t think for one moment that you would agree with what Augustine said in these passages. I quoted it because it is shocking but it is the extreme end of the spectrum of possible conclusions if you think that God intervenes in the world, as you do. Whatever Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, he clearly believed that it was caused by God for his own good (2 Cor. 12.7). There are numerous other examples throughout Christian history, such as Milton’s opponents’ belief that he was struck blind by God for his republican views. When I was a Christian I preferred to think that God didn’t intervene in the world at all because I couldn’t resolve the problem of why God deserves credit for the good things but is blameless for the bad. I still don’t understand how a survivor of a natural disaster or serious illness can thank God for saving them without wondering why he didn’t save the person in the next house or the next ward.

    I’m not so sure about all modern theologians. Here’s a quick example (far less extreme than rape, of course, but along the same lines): a number of Church of England bishops claimed that the floods of 2007 were the judgement of God on modern society, and one even claimed that it was God’s judgement on pro-gay legislation, according to this report. You might say they’re not theologians, but I bet they think they are.

    I read some of Keith Ward’s book a couple of years ago – my parents have a copy so I was reading it at their house and didn’t finish. Perhaps I should try it again.

  4. Pingback: The Adjustment Bureau | According To The Sunnah·

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