Ethos Education

The Adjustment Bureau: How free is our free will?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understand the concepts of free will and determinism, and reflect on the extent to which we are free.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Students reflect upon factors restricting their ability to control their own lives.
  • Reflect upon how they would feel to discover that their free choices were, in fact, controlled by a sinister outside force.
  • Evaluate an argument by a character in The Adjustment Bureau that humans can’t be trusted to control their own destiny.
  • Analyse Bible passages to determine the relationship between God’s will and human will.
  • Analyse three different Christian theologies of predestination, and use defined terms from a glossary to identify key features.
  • Synthesise learning by writing an alternative scene from The Adjustment Bureau, featuring representatives of Calvinist, Lutheran and Arminian theologies.

STARTER:

Ask the students to work together in pairs to make a list of the things that restrict their choices in their lives. For example, parents, school rules, their genes or physical health. Let them feed some answers back to the whole class, and then discuss what they could do to get around some of these restrictions.

Draw the discussion together by asking them to answer the question, ‘Who controls my life?’ Explain that in today’s lesson you are going to be looking at different Christian understandings of the relationship between human free will and the idea of God’s sovereign will.

MAIN ACTIVITIES:

Introduce the clip from the film The Adjustment Bureau (Universal, 2011, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain that David Norris (Matt Damon) is an American politician on his way to an important meeting. Ask the students to try to imagine how they would feel to see the things he sees in the clip, and to hear the things he is told.

  • Start time:      0.20.06 (beginning of chapter 4 of the DVD)
  • End time:       0.27.52
  • Clip length:   7 minutes and 46 seconds

The clip starts with David and his friend Charlie (Michael Kelly) talking on the phone. The first line is Charlie saying, ‘Hey man, what’s up?’ The clip ends after Charlie, exasperated, asks David, ‘What is wrong with you?’. Please note that this clip includes several instances of mild swearing. If you want to avoid most of these (leaving only one instance of ‘hell’ and one of ‘Jesus’), start the clip at 0.24.05 (first line: David asking, ‘Who are you guys?’). This will leave a clip consisting mainly of David’s conversation with Richardson (John Slattery) which includes most of the important points, but loses some of the context and the exciting chase scene which establishes the unworldly powers of Richardson and his associates.

Ask the students whether they think they would have reacted in a similar way to David. How would they feel to be told that they did not make all the choices that they believed they made about their own lives? How would they feel to discover that some sinister, secretive group actually had a far bigger say in what they did than they had ever believed?

Introduce a second clip from The Adjustment Bureau. Since the last clip, David has discovered more about those who are seeking to control his destiny. He has been told that they work at the behest of ‘The Chairman’. One of the adjusters, when asked by David whether they were angels, has told him that they have been called that, but that it’s more helpful to think of them as ‘case officers who live a lot longer than humans.’ In this clip, David encounters another, more senior, Adjuster. Ask the students to think about the control exercised over David and other humans from the point of view of those who are doing the controlling.

  • Start time:     0.59.41 (beginning of chapter 12 of the DVD)
  • End time:      1.02.25
  • Clip length:   2 minutes and 44 seconds

The clip starts with Elise (Emily Blunt) watching David being interviewed on television by Jon Stewart. The first line is Stewart asking David, ‘Are you handsome?’ The clip ends after Thompson (Terence Stamp) says, ‘It’s still here. If we left things in your hands it wouldn’t be.’

Ask the students if they think Thompson’s argument makes sense. If we take Thompson’s comments at face value, what argument might David have offered to counter Thompson’s line that humanity wasn’t ‘mature enough to control the important things’?

Explain that the question of God’s will and human free will is one that Christians hold a number of different positions on.

Give out the Predestination worksheets and ask the students to work through section one, looking up the Bible passages and writing down what each one has to say either about God’s will, or about human will.

Take feedback from the students, and draw out that Christians recognise a tension in the Bible, with definite indications that God’s will is sovereign (that is to say, is authoritative) and also that humans are able to exercise free will and make their own decisions, with all the responsibility that goes with that. Although these two beliefs may appear contradictory, there are a number of different approaches that seek to combine the two. While it would be wrong to say that all Christians agree on how the paradox is reconciled, it is fair to say that there are a limited number of mainstream theological positions on predestination.

The first point to clarify, is that most mainstream Christian thought about pre-destination doesn’t concern the minutiae of life – what to have for breakfast, which shirt to wear, etc – but is more focused on eternal issues. When Christians talk about God’s sovereign will and the free will of humans, it is usually in the context of salvation and the eternal destiny of an individual, not necessarily even in big worldly questions like who will they marry or what job will they do.

Go through the terms in the Glossary section of the worksheet, explaining them to the students and making sure that they understand them, then set the exercise in Section Two. Ask the students to read the three summary statements, and to work out which of the labels apply to each one.

Here are the summary statements:

Calvinist
God decides everybody’s eternal destination, going either to Heaven or Hell. Humans have free will over everyday things – what to eat, who to marry, etc – but not over whether or not they respond to God’s grace. Their freedom in other decision making means they have moral responsibility for their decisions, and therefore all deserve damnation as all fall short of God’s moral perfection.

Lutheran
God chooses everybody’s eternal destination, predestining some to eternity in Heaven. Those who respond positively to God’s offer of grace take no credit in doing so, as they are only able to respond in this way because God has ordained that they will do so. Eternal salvation for the elect is seen as predestined, whereas eternal damnation is not – that is the result of the unbeliever’s sin, rejection of forgiveness and failure to believe. Similarly, Lutherans believe that the source of salvation is Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, rather than God’s predestining.

Arminian
God has predestined everybody’s eternal destination, subject to our exercising free will in deciding whether or not to accept his offer of grace. The range of choices available to each individual is determined by God, which of those choices the individual makes is determined by the individual. God knows in advance how each individual will exercise their choice and predestines them accordingly.

Here are some model answers, with further clarifications you may wish to make:

Calvinist: Unconditional predestination to salvation or damnation.

Lutheran: Unconditional predestination to salvation only.

Arminian: Conditional predestination subject to faith or disbelief, which is foreseen by God.

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING:

Ask the students to write an alternative version of the scene where David talks with Thompson. This time, there are three representatives of The Adjustment Bureau, one each representing Calvinist, Lutheran and Arminian understandings of predestination and arguing with one another as to how it all works. Alternatively, you could use section 5 as an assessment activity.

YOU WILL NEED:

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