Friday, June 3, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau -- fate/destiny vs free will

Director: George Nolfi, 2011. (PG-13)

The Adjustment Bureau weaves a love story against the backdrop of the philosophical question of fate vs free will, and delivers on both, with only a few plot holes in between. Like Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, this is yet another film based on a (short) story from the pen of prolific sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. Not quite as good as those, it still stands favorably against most films in this genre.

Matt Damon (Invictus) stars as everyman David Norris, the youngest congressman in the history of New York state, now running for senate. On the brink of winning, events from his youth emerge that cause his rival to jump in the polls and Norris is poised to lose. As he prepares his concession speech in a hotel men’s room, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria), a dancer hiding from security. Their kiss sparks a nascent romance that is destined to bloom into a full-grown love between them, if permitted.

There’s the rub. Men in suits and 50s-style hats show up at David’s workplace to remove from him her phone number, the only link he has to Elise (since he only knows her first name). As they freeze-frame everyone except David, they are able to chase him and corner him. Then they command him to never see her again. It seems they are agents of fate, working for the Chairman. (Why David is able to run, while everyone else is frozen, is unclear, but he risks being reset, which is akin to being lobotomized, if he does not comply.) They are working to ensure the Chairman’s plan works out, and they constantly refer to the cool books that somehow diagrammatically show the plan as it constantly progresses.

At this point it becomes clear: the Chairman is a synonym for the Sovereign God. Though never seen, he is the one in control of all events. And the agents are angels, with hats not wings.

Angels are true biblical creatures, ministering spirits rarely seen by humans (Heb. 1:14). When they are seen, they often evoke fear (“Do not be afraid” being the most common things angels say to people, e.g. Matt. 1:20; 28:5). But as in the film, angels are simply messengers who do God’s will. They do intervene occasionally in ways that become visible or known to man (Gen. 19), but for the most part we know little of their interactions with humans (Heb. 13:2).

Without Elise’s number, David is unable to track her down. Time passes. But his memory of her remains. He is smitten. When he sees her three years later, he casts everything aside and races after her. Yet reuniting also brings the agents back out in force against him.

Only Harry (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker), one of the agents who questions whether David and Elise ought to be together, offers some support. He tells David some of the secrets of the “business” and why this is happening. It seems, David’s fate portends great things for him and Elise is destined to become a great dancer. Alone, the loneliness of their souls will result in a drive for achievement. But together, neither will achieve greatness; their love will satisfy their souls leaving them in mediocrity.

The Chairman needs their greatness for the benefit of the world, not their mediocrity for their own mutual benefit. With arch-agent Thompson (Terence Stamp) on his trail, a “man” whose heavy-handed tactics never fail, David has to choose love or laurels. He has one chance to prevent Elise making a life-long mistake while evading the men in hats.

Damon and Blunt have a compelling chemistry and are easy on the eyes. But the plot gives minimal backstory and spends little time in developing their relationship. It seems their fateful kiss is all that is needed to send them spinning head over heels in love. Life is rarely like this.

The big theme of The Adjustment Bureau is fate. But it poses the question of whether mankind possesses free will, or whether destiny is dominant. In theology, this is the question of free will versus predestination, or the sovereignty of God.

The Bible is clear that God is sovereign (2 Sam. 7:22). The apostles spoke of the divine purpose, indicating God’s will and foreknowledge of events (Acts. 2:23). Moreover, Jesus in his earthly ministry clearly recognized the events of his life as fulfilling the plans of God predicted by the prophets (Matt. 4:14, Jn. 19:28). The gospel writers underscore this, as they point to fulfillment of prophecy (Matt. 2:5, 17, 23). Further, Paul focused specifically on election and predestination in Romans 9-11. Preceding this, he declared directly on predestination (Rom. 8:28-30):
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Yet the Bible also points to the free will of mankind. Jesus offer (Matt. 11:28), “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” suggests a free choice inherent in each person. Further, the concept of responsibility and accountability for individual sin implies free will. If we are not free to sin, we cannot be held accountable as moral agents.

This tension has been held for centuries. In the film, writer-director Nolfi comes up with a solution, though it seems somewhat unsatisfactory. David is told, humans have the free will to choose in minor decisions, such as what toothpaste to use, what to eat. But they are not free in the major decisions, such as his love for Elise. However, some humans who resist forcefully may eventually win the right to total free will. In other words, the majority of these sheep never know that they have no free will, but a few find out and fight back, and win even against the Chairman and his agents. We just never know who these few are.

Biblically, this same tension has been resolved in different ways. Some tip the balance to free will, adopting an Arminian position. Man’s free will trumps God’s sovereignty. His predestination is then redefined as foreknowledge of what man’s choice will be. There are issues with this. Others go to the other extreme, taking a Calvinist position. There predestination, or even double predestination, becomes primary, and man’s free will is underplayed until it virtually disappears. Others look for a middle ground.

One theologian who offers a balanced perspective is Millard Erickson in his book, “Christian Theology.” He borrows the term “compatibilistic freedom” from Anthony Flew whereby free will is compatible with God’s predestination because God has rendered certain everything that occurs. He posits,
the key to unlocking the problem is the distinction between rendering something certain and rendering it necessary. The former is a matter of God’s decision that something will happen; the latter is a matter of his decreeing that it must occur. In the former case, the human being will not act in a way contrary to the course of action which God has chosen; in the latter case, the human being cannot act in a way contrary to what God has chosen. What we are sayingrenders it certain that a person who could act (or could have acted) differently does in fact act in a particular way (the way that God wills) (p.357)
Our freedom, then, is true freedom though what appeals to a person in making a decision may be controlled by God. The limitations placed on our desires by God will determine what we choose and allow his will to be fulfilled. We have freedom but within these limitations.

However we come out on this spectrum, The Adjustment Bureau encourages us to think about this tension. And that must be something that God wills for us!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. Fate and destinyIs there such a thing as free will?

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