Predestination, or is life just a bunch of stuff that happened?

Is there a bullet with your name on it? Does everything happen "for a reason"? Perhaps, like Jung and Oogway, you say, "I don't believe in coincidence," and, "There are no accidents." Are you a "Que, sera, sera," kind of person? All of these have one thing in common - they are all attempts to make some kind of sense out of life. And there's no harm in trying to make some kind of sense out of life.

All of these statements could be included under the definition of "Predestination". Alternatively, we might call it fate, or synchronicity. Often it is assessed from one point in time, looking back - so we could also describe it as history written in hindsight.

The further back we go, the trickier it becomes. The Israelites, for example, were obsessed with predestination. They were experts in looking back from certain vantage points and plotting the events where God had intervened, even if these events were imaginary. The problem with this activity is that it runs the risk of crossing over into fabrication and falsehood.

Calling it "faith" does not justify the case that very few of their interpretations could be proved, so if in reality those events had not taken place, to say that they had was...well...a lie. And when one develops a religious ideology based on mythology passed off as incontrovertible "truth", firm measures will not be far behind. The lie must be protected at all costs, hence the need for the death penalty, or at least expulsion from the synagogue. The Pharisees practised shunning because they were hypocrites, hiding who they were. They had not learned the meaning of the expression, "I want mercy and not sacrifice."

Christianity developed from Judaism and naturally they carried the torch for synchronicity and predestination. Several times the gospels refer to Jesus avoiding the heavy hand of the mob because, "His hour had not yet come." (John 8:20) Paul was not shy in using the word "foreordained" and he even saw his own life-course as somehow being planned from his conception onwards. He had to make sense of living life for three decades as a Pharisee before his sudden conversion to Christianity, which was supposed to be the very antithesis of a pharisaical life. To the Galatians, he wrote, "God...set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace."

As far as my own life is concerned, I couldn't comment on whether there is anything which could be considered predestined, or synchronous. You be the judge...

Ours was a predominantly Catholic family. My mother had abandoned her Church of Scotland upbringing - much to her own father's dismay - in order to marry my father. I am the third of three boys. My father was a diplomat and his line of work meant being overseas for several years at a stretch. Consequently, there could be no better education for us than to be sent to Catholic boarding school. Age-wise, I am far enough behind the others so that when it was my turn to be sent to school I spent most of my years there alone. I have a distinct memory of being taken to Carlekemp by my parents, and watching as the car disappeared down the drive, leaving me on my own for the first time...

Actually, I was not entirely alone. That initial year was spent with my middle brother - me in first form, he in fifth, but anyone who has ever been to boarding school - probably any school - knows that this is a world apart.

Carlekemp closed down a year before I would be moved in to fifth form, and instead we headed up to Fort Augustus Abbey School a year early. Middle brother chose to leave Fort Augustus from fifth form at the same time my oldest brother left the sixth. Both Carlekemp - a primary school, of sorts - and Fort Augustus Abbey School - an upper school - were monastery-type schools run by Benedictine monks.

I missed my mum terribly, and hated my father. I felt like he had written me off. When I failed my O-Grades the first time around at the age of 16 and had to repeat fourth form it seemed like my dad gave up on me. I was a several-thousand-pounds-a-year sink-hole. He couldn't have cared less what I did with my life.

Towards the end of my time at school I began to ask questions about God. Why did he allow suffering? What was the point of life? I had a healthy respect for the Bible but I knew nothing about it. The only one I had was a miniature Bible on a key-ring which I bought on a school trip to Holy Island. No doubt I was panicking about having to leave the relative security of school and being released in to the world.

When I left school in 1983 I didn't know what to do with my life. I left it right to the last moment before opting just to copy my eldest brother and go in for Catering and Hotel Management. I scraped in to Robert Gordon's Institute of Technology in Aberdeen and found myself some digs on the outskirts of town. I was there for less than a week. I wrote some disparaging things about the landlord in a private letter. He read it, and threw me out. However, it turned out to be an eviction in my favour because the new place I found was in the centre of the city.

For the Easter holiday I went down to Rainham where the family kept its permanent home. At the end of the 70s we had moved house, and I had made friends with a boy named Richard who lived opposite. I spent a great deal time with him whenever our family was staying in Rainham. For much of the that holiday we talked about God. It turned out his mother was one of Jehovah's Witnesses, and he was beginning to take an interest. His answer to why God allows suffering was appealing to me. He talked about the earth being transformed into a paradise, that we were nearing the end of this present system of things - "Five, ten years at most." He proved what he could by referring to scriptures in my tiny Bible-on-a-key-ring. At the end of the holiday, I headed off back to Aberdeen with a thrill in my heart. I looked up the Kingdom Hall - it was a stone's throw from the new digs I had found.

I started studying the bible with a young couple, and liked what I heard, but it only lasted four weeks before I had to go and work in a hotel as part of the course practical. I failed the first year of college and was thrown off the course, but by then I had decided that I wanted to be one of Jehovah's Witnesses and I returned to Rainham, found work in a shop, and carried on my studying. I was baptised on July 26, 1985, much to the resigned consternation of my parents.

In 1989 I moved up to Sudbury in Suffolk. My girlfriend at the time knew someone who knew someone who knew a couple living over the Kingdom Hall. They were expecting their first child and were about to move out. I rang the elders and they agreed that I could move into the flat. There was an older couple living in the flat next door. My girlfriend didn't want to come with me.

In the same month as moving to Sudbury, I went on a week's driving holiday to Scotland with Richard. While visiting Aberdeen the young couple who had first taught me the ways of the Witnesses informed me that two of the elders from their congregation had recently moved down to Ipswich to a neighbouring congregation. I got in touch with them, and they invited me over so that I could meet people in Ipswich. Through my new friends in Ipswich group I met Katherine Smith, and we got married in 1991. (One of my brothers went out with a Kathryn Smith, but that's a different spelling.)

In 1993 I was appointed an elder. That same year, my mother died.

The week in Scotland with Richard several years earlier had just about done us for the next twenty years. We barely saw each other after that. A few years after he departed from my life, however, I was introduced to another Richard - we'll call him Richard II. We shared a geeky interest in Star Trek, among other things, and we generally hit it off.

My father passed away in 2000. Both parents being dead, and having to sort out the family estate with my brothers, lead to a fair amount of introspection. Being made an orphan can do that. Katherine had been watching Oprah and told me about the tell-it-like-it-is psychologist, Dr Phil McGraw. Through his writings I learned the term "the authentic self". What he said woke me up to the fact that my life was a mess, and had been for a long time. I started trying to sort out my state of mind, and I began to feel a lot better for it. The idea that our lives are inauthentic made a great deal of sense to me. We live by scripts that have developed throughout our lives, and what we need to do is go back and see certain events in our lives for what they really were.

I was so enthusiastic about this new discovery that I thought I could employ some of the techniques in my ministry as an elder, but I came unstuck when I wrote a private letter to a member of the congregation making some suggestions that might improve her outlook. I included a set of questions gleaned from one of the books I had been reading. She passed these questions on to one of my fellow elders, and I soon found I was having to explain myself. It was felt that I had overstepped my bounds.

Richard II would say that he encouraged me to stand my ground, but I didn't need much encouraging. Soon I was before the whole body of elders, and they took the decision to dismiss me as an elder. I appealed the decision and the Special Committee that was set up to review my case was chaired by my best man's father. They upheld the decision. Once again, a private letter had got me evicted.

Around about this time, in an article published in the Watchtower Society's Awake! magazine, I came across a reference to Feeling Good, a book by Dr David Burns. The article was discussing negative thinking and it listed several distorted thinking methods from Feeling Good. That book helped me through the disappointment of being deleted as an elder. It was a necessary step in helping me reassess my motives. However, Burns encourages eliminating "should" and its derivatives from your mental vocabulary. This is a suggestion that jars when the Society's literature is replete with "should" statements. Also, I couldn't help noticing in the original article mentioning Feeling Good, that this particular negative thinking trait was conspicuously absent.

Also at this time I came across the works of child therapist Haim Ginott. I must have been loitering carelessly by the "Parenting" section in the local library. A random book plucked off the shelf at the library was going to result in a life-changing experience. The book was by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Essentially channelling the parenting ideologies of Haim Ginott, Faber & Mazlish make successful parenting seem eminently achievable. A year later our first daughter was born, in August 2004.

Along with children comes the inevitable question of school. Katherine had been averse to home-schooling, but after reading John Holt she changed her view. Of course, Holt does not advocate schooling at home. It is more akin to trusting that children are willing learners and that they will absorb what they are interested in. To my mind, Holt's relaxed philosophy, that no pro-active teaching is required as children are essentially self-taught, clashed decisively with the indoctrination practised by Jehovah's Witnesses. I know which one made more sense to me. Little did I know that it was another nail in the coffin.

Ignoring the red flags that had begun to wave, I carried on trying to bend my thinking to conform with the organisation's. By now I was reading Dorothy Rowe. Her suggestion that we ought to be able to find a "therapist" among our nearest and dearest harmonised with my own opinion. She included the view that ministers could work in the same capacity. Despite "elders are not therapists" being the mantra among the hierarchy of Jehovah's Witnesses, I felt that with a little adjustment I could carefully employ some of the tools I had developed, and before long I was reappointed to serve as an elder. It was 2007. Our second daughter was born that same year...December 21st.

After little more than a year I began to realise that I had changed too much to serve any more. Trying to shepherd members of the congregation, I soon found myself feeling uncomfortable. My spiritual views were changing and developing, and I was having to juggle with words to feel at ease with some of the topics I was given to talk about. After I received a phone call from an elder in a neighbouring congregation questioning certain aspects of a public discourse I had given as being too worldly, and being more concerned with methods of psychology, I decided to step down as an elder. From then on, I began to take less of an active role in the congregation.

Soon after this, my old neighbour from over the Kingdom Hall put an acquaintance of hers in touch with me. Apparently he was having some doubts about his beliefs. We agreed to meet for coffee. He was having more than doubts, he was on the verge of quitting. He encouraged me to read a couple of books by Raymond Franz. From very early on as one of Jehovah's Witnesses I had been familiarised [sic] with this name. Once a member of the Governing Body, now ex-JW and Society whistle-blower, Raymond Franz was the organisation's very own Emmanuel Goldstein. I resisted and resolutely toed the party line. After several meetings for coffee and a few weeks of e-mail correspondence I suggested that it would be best if we did not meet any more. We kept in touch via e-mail, though, and he gently refuted my argument that Franz must be a bitter old curmudgeon by simply saying that he had never got that impression from his writings.

So, one evening curiosity got the better of me and I searched for Raymond Franz on the internet. I came across four chapters from his book Crisis of Conscience and decided to download these and read through them. They were the four chapters in which he gives the account of his own dismissal from the governing body, subsequent deletion as an elder, and eventual eviction from the organisation. His experience spoke to my heart and I knew that the observations he made were similar to my own. I purchased both of his books and realised that my house of faith was built upon a foundation of sand. Particularly persuasive were his demonstrations that the Society has not always been honest about its own history. As he said, "I now began to realize how large a measure of what I had based my entire adult life course on was just that, a myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic."

Through Raymond Franz I discovered two new authors. One was M. Scott Peck and his book A Road Less Travelled. Peck talks about serendipity - chance, good fortune, happy coincidence - and he ties this in with what he calls the miracle of God's grace. Grace is an elementary notion now somewhat alien to us. Basically it is love, mercy, kindness which does not expect anything in return. According to Peck, opportunities presented to us which lead to a self-discovery, and the freedom and joy which results, can be put down to nothing else but the all-embracing presence of grace.

The other author was James D Smart. I purchased a book with an intriguing title and this piqued my interest enough to purchase his dissertation of the book of Romans, "Doorway to a New Age". In there he references the existential theologians who describe the sinful man as the "inauthentic self". I felt as if two tunnels being dug from different ends had somehow met in the middle and broken through.

By this time I had stopped all activities with Jehovah's Witnesses. I had no desire to shake up anybody else's faith, and so I was not viewed as a threat, and the local elders decided to leave me to my own devices for the time being.

Katherine once tearfully said that she had been asking God for some kind of sign. It has not dawned on her that she was instrumental in my departure from the organisation. She has introduced me to several writers that have had such a dramatic effect on my life. My coffee-shop friend and his wife are the same age as Katherine and me. They have two little daughters about the same age as our two. These are not the signs she was looking for.

It was also Katherine that questioned me about being pro-active. Discussion with Richard II sometimes covered the same ground. He might even say that it was he who encouraged me not to remain silent. I decided to put my spiritual and theological views down in writing and publish them online. I just open up a blog and put them out there. I went public in August 2011.

Mid-September 2011, barely four weeks later, it was discovered. I have no idea how. Only a week earlier I had spoken to my oldest brother and talked about my journey. One week later, Richard II told me that he'd had a phone call from my elders. They have discovered my website. Thankfully he knew nothing about it.

(Just by way of a curious diversion: The very next day, I cleaned windows for a Mr Smith. We talked about religion. It seems he too had been on something of a spiritual journey. His wife had recently been dismissed as an elder in their church. His outlook has led him to question certain things. The way he was talking sounded very familiar. How would he describe his position now? "I don't like labels," he said, "but the closest you could get would be called 'progressive' Christianity." I had only been on their forum that weekend after reading Spong and his view of the Bible which seemed sympathetic to mine. "May I suggest an author," he said, and pulled out some books. The blurb appealed immediately, and I pointed this out. It referred to Jesus as a "religious revolutionary". I agreed and explained that I didn't think he was the Christ, that this was an Israelite view, but that he saw something others couldn't see. Mr Smith told me that this is the same conclusion that this author has reached. The author's name is Borg. None of this seems to be particularly relevant to my situation - both of these leads were dead ends - but it is interesting nonetheless.)

The elders decided not to act on the discovery of my website. Everything went quiet and another few months went by. Then in February of this year I got a phone call. Another elder: "We know about your website. Could we meet for a chat?" The passing of a few months had crystallised my resolve. Had they asked to meet with me several months ago I would probably have declined. Now I felt ready to defend my position.

I met with two elders. The discussion was frank and friendly. In the process I asked why they have left it until now to talk to me. "We've only just found out about it." What this meant was, they had only just found out about it. The original group of elders had obviously chosen to keep it to themselves, but now it had come to the attention of a wider group. It was plain from my answers that I was not interested in altering my position. Several weeks later I was called to appear before a judicial committee - three elders chosen by the body of elders to judge my current position and decide whether I was guilty of a sin which required punitive action. The charge was "apostasy" - the refusal to accept the doctrines of the religion as truth. It was not a long meeting. They decided I must be expelled from the congregation. Such a decision would mean that no one in the organisation is allowed to associate with me. All associations must be curtailed - including family. The announcement was made to the congregation on April 4, 2012. The next day they celebrated the death of Jesus.

One Richard helped me in to the organisation, another Richard helped me out. And while the second Richard can no longer associate with me in view of my disfellowshipped state, I have since discovered that the first Richard has himself faded from the organisation and he is now back in my life again.

I might have been thrown out of an organisation I had devoted half of my life to, but on the other hand, I had made a much greater discovery: I had found my authentic self.

Like Paul, I am left to fill in the blanks myself. I don't know the story behind my arrival into this world. Coming four years behind the middle child, was I perhaps a surprise? Unwanted? Was a mental adjustment needed by my parents, an adjustment my father wasn't fully able to make? Had they already decided to send us to boarding school, or had the arrival of one more child sealed the deal? I don't know. These are questions I may never know the answer to, but considering them helps to heal the rift I felt between me and my father.

The story of Adam and Eve is the story of every person. We gasp breath in to our lungs when we are born, becoming a living soul, beholden to our parents for everything. At some early point we strike out for independence, bringing us in to conflict with them, like Eve eating from the tree she was told not to touch. An event introduces us starkly to our vulnerability. Shame divides us off from ourselves. Gerhard Von Rad says of shame, "it always has to be seen as the signal of the loss of an inner unity." We desire to decide for ourselves what is good and bad and not have this decided for us. It might be as seemingly insignificant as using mum's make-up when she has specifically told you not to. The Genesis account ties being naked in with shame.
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

(Genesis 3:6-11)
The Israelites had a saying which was eventually woven into the story of Job: "Naked I came out of my mother's belly, and naked shall I return there." Only by identifying our shame and the events and experiences surrounding it can we once more stand naked and unashamed. Doing this will uncover the real you.

So, if there is any predestination, it is this: It all leads back to you. We are pre-programmed to find ourselves. God is referred to as the Alpha and the Omega - the beginning and the end. Every man's life has the potential for being a journey of self-discovery. This capacity is within all of us. We go in through the out door.

Can we plot the points and join the dots that lead to our enlightenment?

If you are reading this, what has brought you here? Retrace the steps back to your own Genesis experience. Don't worry about missed opportunities. Whenever you are circling around the town centre there is always another turning further up the road.

Once your eyes are opened you begin to see the seed scattered everywhere, from Inception ("What's the relationship like with the father?") to Kung Fu Panda ("There is no secret ingredient,") yes, and even in the Bible. You are not selling out just because you can see some wisdom hidden in all the blood and thunder.

But, hey, maybe it is all just meaningless drivel. Perhaps, after all, life is just a bunch of stuff that happened.

Oh, by the way, at one point M. Scott Peck suggests that certain beliefs are formed even when we are unaware of it, in the first few months of life.
Frequently (but not always) the essence of a patient's childhood and hence the essence of his or her world view is captured in the 'earliest memory'. Consequently I will often ask patients, "Tell me the very first thing that you can remember." - The Road Less Travelled (page 204)
It got me thinking about my own situation. Was my first feeling of rejection really that time I was dropped off at Carlekemp and watched my parents disappear down the drive? Then I had a memory of leaving Pakistan when I was very little, no more than two or three. There is a group of people crying in the porch. Among them is the ayah (nanny) I have spent much of my little life being looked after by. I had obviously grown very much attached to her. That was my first memory of disharmony - being taken away from my ayah at a very early age. And then it struck me. I remembered her name. It was Grace.