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Grace and the Fellowship
Bar Harbor
A recent post from siderea included the sentence The whole Protestant work ethic thing is based on the notion that you can tell where you stand in God's eyes (and your neighbors') by how "prosperous" you are. This reminded me of some thoughts I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now.

A year and a half ago, when it dawned on me just how much my colleague Shane was willing to commit to our joint project, I had an unusual (for me) set of reactions. Gratitude, of course, but also a sense of disbelief and unworthiness, mixed with wonder. I was deeply grateful that it was happening, but I did not (at that time) understand WHY, nor did I understand what was going on inside my own emotional world.

As I struggled to find language to express these feelings, I kept returning to phrases like “blessed” and “by grace of God”. As a near-lifelong atheist, I noticed something odd was going on. I was experiencing emotions that didn’t seem to map to any prior models EXCEPT explicitly religious ones. This didn’t actually change my (non-)belief in God, but I do recall thinking “THIS is what they mean when they talk about ‘grace’.”

Then, being who I am, I integrated this into my existing moral framework with reference to a 20-year-old computer game :-)

From the mid-80s to the early 90s, the Ultima series of computer games spent an unprecedented (and never-yet-repeated) amount of effort on mixing gameplay with serious explorations of moral systems. These explorations were in many ways very limited, but the degree of engagement caused by mixing them with interactive game systems led to some uniquely powerful lessons. For me, anyway.

1992’s Ultima 7, the last one to deal with morality in any organized way, had one particularly cogent lesson.U7 introduced a new religion to the fantasy world, called The Fellowship. The Fellowship would ultimately turn out to be bad guys. Their moral principles had been carefully designed to make intuitive sense on a cursory reading, but to have distinctly regressive effects when actually put into practice.

One of The Fellowship’s principles was “Worthiness Precedes Reward”. Humans (primates) are hardwired to seek out “fairness”, even when we have to invent it. When positively valenced, this finds expression in ideas like “I worked hard to get where I am today” and “self-made man”. But it has a darker side as well. “You brought this on yourself.” “You must’ve been asking for it.” And so on…

This brings us back to where we started, with the Protestant work ethic. If you are poor, sick, or otherwise disadvantaged AND we live in a “fair” universe, then you must DESERVE to be in such a state. (And those who are better off, of course, have no reason to help you out.)

Of course, despite what our primate wiring would have us believe, the universe is NOT fair, not even close. Yes, there is such a thing as cause-and-effect, but the web of causality is so interconnected and complex that that really isn’t any help. Unfair stuff happens all the time.

I had been used to thinking about the unfairness of the universe when BAD things happened to me, but it was new to me to realize so viscerally how, sometimes, the unfairness could happen in a GOOD way. We are stuck with the bad breaks and no way to avoid them. When unreasonably GOOD things happen, we must accept this as well – with “Grace”.

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Worthiness Precedes Reward reminds me of a thought I had around 1990: "What would an ethical system look like in which the statement 'He got what he deserved' was a tautology?' It wasn't until a few years later that I looked back at that and realized the answer was " pretty useless"—it wouldn't offer any guidance whatsoever.

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There are terms for what you are talking about: Immanent Justice aka the Just World Fallacy.

It goes way beyond the Protestants. I understand that in Asian cultures that believe in reincarnation, being visibly disabled or deformed is widely taken as prima facie evidence you must have been a terrible criminal in your previous life, and are worthy of scorn and contempt now; disablism in such cultures is consequently astonishingly persecutory.

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