In the Face of COVID Mutation, it is Time to Honor Chance

Arden Mahlberg

Randomness produces the beauty of the snowflake, the security of encryption, the method of evolution, and now, the deadly COVID variants. Randomness is both neutral and powerful. It shapes our universe, our lives, and our deaths.

Randomness threatens many parts of our lives. Fear of randomness is currently active in the collective mind due to the real possibility that random mutations of COVID-19 will not be controlled by the vaccines that have been created. Many individuals in cancer treatment live with the real possibility that at any moment random mutation will produce cancer cells that are not controlled by their treatment, killing them, and devastating their families. Some heavily populated parts of the world have been thrown into chaos from the increase in unpredictable and extremely destructive weather events that come with climate change.

It matters how we relate to chance and uncertainty. To start, we need to be able to simply tolerate the reality of chance and what it does, both to ourselves and to those we care about. Unfortunately, when people we care about respond to uncertainty with anxiety or anger, many people, including ministers, deflect attention away from it, trying to reduce the distress that came with misfortune rather than aiding in facing it. They deflect attention away from chance to what they believe to be certain. If that helps at all, the results are usually temporary and contingent upon how events proceed.

Some deny chance and randomness because they fear, wrongly, that chance makes things meaningless. But where does meaning reside? To look to external events for meaning makes us dependent on them. We do not need to believe that chance happenings are somehow purposeful, like “everything happens for a reason.” This is false attribution. Looking for reasons behind chance events can be painfully futile, as it was for Job. And failing in that search for a reason evokes feelings of inadequacy. Of course, it is adaptive to look for opportunity in any kind of situation. But finding one does not mean the event happened for that reason. That is reasoning backwards. Similarly, saying that God uses randomness in evolution disregards the overwhelming number of species that have gone extinct, due to no fault of their own.

Unhampered by the constraints of monotheism, the Greeks and Romans integrated chance by recognizing its importance and its integrity. This allows for correct attribution. Weather events are not acts of God. They even gave chance the status of a goddess, Fortuna to the Romans and Tyche to the Greeks. The importance of this is that it cuts down on false attribution, where we put blame or credit where they do not belong, on ourselves, others, and, frequently, God. This is a problem for both blame and credit.

Fortuna was closely tied to Virtus, the virtue of courage. Courage is the best way to face uncertainty, much better than hope. Hope is more fragile than courage, too easily shattered by external events. Courage connects us with strengths that are internal as well as beyond ourselves. Courage carries people who are in hopeless situations.

Chance, or probability, also provides a better explanation for some things than causal explanations do. This is the case for things like personal success or failure (right place, right time), which we prefer to take credit for. Randomness also is required to understand the behavior of subatomic particles.

But for all it helps to explain, chance is disturbing. We prefer certainty and predictability. “Leave nothing to chance,” as if that were possible. When Einstein’s colleagues were finding great value in developing probabilistic theories, he famously objected that God does not play dice with the universe. He was wrong about that and his analogy was biased. Chance is not a game, even though there are many games of chance. Chance is a method for how many things work, both in creation and destruction.

Chance is also morally disturbing. Chance violates our sense of fairness. Some depictions of Fortuna show her blindfolded. Her actions are not selective. We hate this! We prefer to believe that the universe is guided by merit, not neutrality. This gives us some semblance of control and deserving. We want good things to happen to good people and bad things to happen only to bad people. We protest when bad things happen to good people and when good things happen to bad people. As a result, many people all over the world believe in karma as a law of the universe. As commonly understood, karma includes the idea that people somehow deserve the circumstances they are in, even at birth, even genetically. This makes the denial of chance a justice issue.

In Jesus’ campaign for compassion, he had to contend with false attribution in the belief that fortune, and misfortune reflect merit. Life circumstances were thought to show how God regarded a person. Good fortune meant the person was blessed by God while misfortune meant the absence of God’s favor. When Jesus encountered a man blind from birth, for example, those with him asked whose sin he was suffering for. This was the worldview that threw Job and his friends into agonizing contortions. How can you explain his misfortune if not by faulting him or God? Chance, of course.

Jesus recognized this attitude toward chance happenings as a justice issue and addressed it. If he let it stand, people would continue to believe that those in power are so due to God’s blessing. The rich are blessed by God and the poor are somehow unworthy. This belief in life as a merit-based system directed by God results in widespread acceptance of injustice. Jesus countered this philosophy by proclaiming that the poor are blessed. This is incomprehensible without the acceptance of chance and the total independence of the consequences of chance from God’s love and blessing.

Jesus taught about Fortuna without naming her when he said of God, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:45) Here he is saying that God is like Fortuna in not playing favorites.

We can also see Fortuna in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. In this parable, a farmer broadcasts seeds everywhere, regardless of where the seeds will land. Like the sun and the rain, this farmer is not selective. He did not choose to seed only fertile soil and avoid sending seeds to places where they would not germinate. What he was doing was random, like Fortuna blindfolded. The parable is is a demonstration of fairness based on chance, not merit. It is not the grace of God that keeps us from misfortune that is outside our control. It is luck.

The luck of the circumstances of our birth is not based on merit, nor is merit gained or lost from those circumstances alone. Which caste we are born into is not based on merit, nor should privilege be derived from it. The luck of our genetics, the supportiveness and connections of our families, the occurrence of trauma or unusual opportunity – none are based on merit nor is merit gained or lost because of them. We are all subject to falsely internalizing our life circumstances. If the victim of trauma, we feel unworthy. If the recipient of good fortune, we feel deserving. This creates and sustains injustice.

Acceptance of chance makes it easier to consistently love God, neighbor, and self. The distressing question of “Why?” that hampers recovery is not activated. Our relationship with God is not conditional, not conflicted by false attribution. There is no vacillating between blame and praise. Accepting chance also makes it easier to love neighbor and self, as blaming and shaming do not occur. Being a victim of something reasonably outside our control does not alter our sense of self or other, no damaged goods. It is easier to stay with compassion. And when good fortune is freed from judgments of worthy or unworthy, fair or unfair, it is easier to enjoy it ourselves and share in the joy of others.

With COVID mutating, the time is ripe for us to acknowledge the reality of chance and make our peace with it on its own terms.