Review: The Drunkard's Walk

October 8th, 2013

I think of advanced mathematics the same way I think of a regulation-height basketball goal. Both are within my vision, as well as my desire. Neither is within my reach.

That doesn’t stop me from dreaming though. I look with envy upon those who can propel themselves high enough above the earth to dunk a basketball. I do the same with people who can understand complex equations that help explain the physical universe.

People like Leonard Mlodinow.

Mlodinow’s biography puts him in the running for “most interesting man in the world.” The son of Polish immigrants who had spent time in the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II, he has gone on to make significant contributions to quantum theory, co-author books with Stephen Hawking, and work as a screenwriter for Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver. You don’t build that kind of resume by chance.

Or do you?

Perhaps you do, according to The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives. Mlodinow argues that we humans are terrible when it comes to reading the odds of our surroundings, and even worse when it comes to estimating the amount of power we have over our future. In short, no matter how much we want to believe we are in control of our lives, the fact is that randomness plays a major role in what happens to us.

Even more disturbing, our human brains are lousy at determining what choices put the odds in our favor. In virtually every circumstance, we will overestimate the amount of control we have over a given event and fail to see which choice gives us the better chance of a favorable outcome.

What does this have to do with Christian discipleship? A lot more than we might think.

From a theological perspective, the understanding of randomness and chance pokes holes in the notion that God manages every detail of our lives. In the face of tragedy or mystery, people often say things like, “God is in control” or “It’s God’s will.” Those may be comforting platitudes, but their literal application is more than a little frightening. Any god who allows or authors so much suffering is incompetent at best and cruel at worst. The Drunkard’s Walk gives us good reason to re-examine our understanding of how God works (or does not work) among us.

Mlodinow also applies probability theory to interpersonal relationships. He encourages us to understand two things about life as a game of chance.

First, he says, our primary response to one another should be compassion rather than judgment. Two people with the same ability, commitment, and work ethic may work toward the same goal, but only one succeeds. The determining factors in that case are quite possibly not a matter of personal shortcomings, but of chance occurrences beyond either’s control.

Second, Mlodinow encourages, don’t give up. Success may not be a certainty for anyone, but not trying at all guarantees failure. If we learn from our mistakes and continue to put ourselves in a position to succeed, we increase the odds that random factors will eventually line up in our favor.

We church leaders have a tough time remembering those two lessons. The internal and external pressures to find the right program, get the right training, or grow a superstar church are unrelenting. We glorify those who have dramatic success and pity those who do not, and we often shape our self-perceptions around the visible results of our labors.

But attitudes like that reflect modern American biases toward anything big or wealthy or attractive. Jesus never skews his favor toward his more glamorous servants. If anything, he promises to watch most closely over those most easily overlooked. He does not tell us to build religious empires. Rather, he tells us to live a certain way in the world, and as we do to pray for his kingdom to come.

To me, a struggling pastor who works in the midst of a struggling institutional church, The Drunkard’s Walk is an oddly yet profoundly encouraging book. It reminds us of something we Christians should already know: that success is a lousy measure of worth.

Regardless of what our religious culture may tell us, great service to God is not a matter of flashy results. Our task is not to find more clever ways to control the outcomes of our labor. Our task is to live together in compassion and love, and to continue to work alongside Christ despite our tangible victories or failures.

Jesus has set these goals within our vision. They may not always be within our reach. But still we dream and still we work, and we cannot give up.

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