by Beth Wesson
This week’s episode is called “Free Will”. I’m really happy about that because it has given me a chance to share my favorite Christian Theology story! Never saw that coming! I was told the story came from a book called “Great Church Fights”. I never challenged that, but I thought if I was going to blog about it I had better do a little fact-checking. Yep, in 1972, Leslie B. Flynn wrote a book about church controversy and how to solve it. I’m totally paraphrasing, but here goes…
A church was divided on the issues of free will and predestination. It had gotten so bad that they were on the verge of the church splintering into two groups. They were meeting in the basement of the church and everyone had picked a side. The freewill people were on one side of the room and the predestination folks were on the other, all that is, except for one lone soul who stood in the middle. He was still undecided which group he should join.
Finally, he went to the predestination side of the basement.
“What are you doing here?”, the predestination folks asked.
“I came of my own free will!” the man said.
He was not welcomed, and group members pointed him toward the other group.
“What are you doing here?”, the free will people asked.
“I was sent”, said the man.
I remembered this story while reflecting on this episode “Free Will”, and like the great church fight, I’m sure there will be a split in the fandom over this episode. I might be that poor fellow in the middle. The book purists will love it. Others might question how spending an entire episode in Beardsley’s House of Horrors advances the story. As a book lover, I am of two minds about the issue. Maybe I should just “pick a side or up and away” (thanks Murtagh). But, of my own free will, I’ve decided to write about…free will and how it affects this storyline and let the fans decide which side of the basement they will stand on.
Free Will vs Fate
This whole episode could have been used as a lesson in a theology or philosophy class. As I understand it, the Christian theologists believe that God gives free will to man because he desires our love. He wants us to choose to live for him He has the power to force us to do as he bids, but to do so would negate choice and therefore real love. We must be free to choose if we are to truly love. The irony is that he already knows what we will choose, hence the belief in predestination. Philosophers have spent centuries trying to answer the same question of whether we have free will or are just the puppets of fate/determinism. Are we free to make our own choices or is every choice the result of cause and effect making us the product of our past experiences.
Free will is defined as “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.” It is extremely hard, in my humble opinion, to know where free will begins and ends. I am of the mind that we are inextricably connected to our experiences and circumstances and that they invariably inform our choices. We may sometimes move beyond what is expected, of what is the norm, and as a result, we perceive we are acting at our own discretion. It is comforting to believe we have free will, however more times than not, we make a choice that is clearly within the boundaries of the life path we are on, the constraints of necessity or fate are always there. Then again, personally, I believe in miracles and grace…so…yeah, you can see why folks have been discussing this one for centuries.
Breaking Free of Fate
Everyone in this story is held in some kind of bondage to their nature or to necessity. Claire starts off the episode with a voiceover about growing mold. She is tempting fate because she cannot live with having knowledge that would save lives and then doing nothing. It is an odd bird this time travel thing. She affects history every time she saves someone’s life and yet every time she consciously tries to change history she fails. But, she tries again. She is trying to create penicillin 157 years before its time and daring the fates to stop her. This made me smile. It would appear Claire has exercised her free will by forging ahead, consequences be damned. But, does she really have a choice, she is Claire after all. This seems consistent with everything we know about her nature, she has no choice but to choose as she does. She is destined to try to help and heal, and we love her for it. The episode did a wonderful job of showing us a kind Claire who cares deeply about everyone who crosses her path, be it a bondservant, abused wife, or the man who abused them all.
art credit to Sylvia
Jamie has been walking between two fires for as long as I can remember. He has been an outlaw trying to stay alive, an outlander at Castle Leoch, an outcast Jacobite leader trying to care for fellow prisoners, a man without a heart trying to live without a heart, a changed man asking to be loved for the man he was, and a laird trying to protect loved ones on opposite sides of a revolution. Better than anyone, Jamie knows what it is like to be the plaything of fate. It feels like very few choices have been his to make. So much has been out of his control.
I was so glad to see the return of the anchor that holds Jamie to his course in life, his faith . For the most part, it has been sadly missing in this series. The Jamie that stands by Claire’s bedside thanking the Lord for his blessings is the Jamie I know. He has always been grateful for his blessings and thoughtfully prayed over the decisions in his life. His choices are always colored by his Catholicism and his God. He could of cursed God for all of his sufferings, but instead, he chooses to live his faith. Throughout the episode we see Jamie keeping his word and living his faith. He is not perfect, he makes his share of mistakes, but he also chooses to live with honor and the kind of mercy that gave Beardsley a choice.
Jamie’s life would have been much easier if he had never met Claire. He might have lived a more solitary and selfish life, join the watch and become a soldier for pay. But, I want to exercise my free will and believe he was fated to love Claire and that that choice changed everything. I was tearful as I watched the reunion scene, they need each other, they are soulmates.
Fannie and the Beardsley twins are an uncomfortable example of how necessity affects free will. Imagine living in servitude since you were a toddler and facing a future of completing a 30-year term of indenture to a man who beats and starves you. Josiah took whatever opportunity there was to escape. His choice to leave gave them the possibility of a future, but what choice did Josiah really have? It was a matter of survival, necessity.
Fannie is a frighteningly accurate portrait of an abused woman. She feels betrayed by her father, given to a man who beats and abuses her. Imagine living with the knowledge that you are this man’s fifth wife and fearing that your grave will soon be under the Rowan tree with the others. It is no wonder that she finds herself capable of such cruelty. Her free will had been beaten from her and her choice to give her rage permission to act its revenge, although horrifying, is at some level understandable. Her conversations with Claire revealed that she wasn’t always as she appears. Her fears for her child’s future and her wish that the twins find some happiness showed us that despite the evidence, she is still a human who can feel pity and concern. Her choice to leave her child was one of necessity and I felt her desperation as she left the trading post as the damaged goods Beardsley’s choices had created.
We Are the Sum of Our Choices
The episode reminded us of some of life’s truths about choices. Claire reminds us that we can’t be responsible for the choices others make, Bree and Roger that no matter how much we prepare, life can throw us curves, and Jamie that some choices require sacrifice. One other truth found in the episode is that in the end, whether governed by free will or necessity, we are the sum of our choices. Mr. Beardsley is the visceral embodiment of that truth. The scenes in the trading post were beyond my expectations. I knew what was coming and was still shocked. The slow reveal of what Fannie did to her husband built on the horror. When the truth is clear, Claire states the obvious, “What you must have done to deserve this”. The fact of the matter is Beardsley is reaping the repercussions of his selfish and evil choices. When he most needs mercy there is no one in his world willing to dispense it.
The most chilling part of this episode for me was when Jamie offered the paralyzed man a quicker death, an escape from his torture. “Let it be his choice, his will”, he tells Claire. He gives the man the choice of being treated by Claire or an assisted death. His only request of the man was so true to Jamie form. Knowing Beardsley was a wicked man, he does not want to take his life and risk sending him to hell. He asks if the man will not pray for forgiveness. I found myself breathlessly waiting for the second blink. This for me was the most disturbing of the choices we were shown, whether made of his free will or of necessity, he chose hell. Maybe he chose to be defiant even unto death or maybe he felt he deserved eternal damnation. We will never know, but he will forever stand in my mind as a wretched cautionary tale.