“Doors have opened, providentially it seems, but these opportunities, as if in a draught, have closed too quickly. What is this providence that would come and go without what it offers being able to be grasped? Is my destiny, my fatum, which results from these thresholds, crossed or not crossed, in line with my destiny?”1

These are very legitimate questions, which should be answered with caution. As the key words in their vocabulary belong to distinct registers or contexts (providence is religious, fatum is literary), it would seem prudent to check the precise definitions of these terms and to clearly identify the context to which they belong, before outlining possible answers to these legitimate questions.

Defining words and vocabulary contexts


“Opportunity”2 – which has been part of the French language since the 13th century – comes from the Latin opportunus, whose root portus literally means “that which leads to port” (or “to the right port”) and thus characterizes first and foremost the thing or action that is appropriate (to the time, place or circumstances) or that occurs at the right time, in the right context. In this sense, to a timely thing or action, we would oppose – in addition to the direct opposite “inopportune” – the qualifiers “out of place” or “untimely”. We’ll talk about the “appropriateness of a decision” or the discussion of “the advisability of doing such-and-such a thing”. On the other hand, in French, we’d avoid using “opportunité” to designate an opportunity (“profiter d’une opportunité” = take advantage of an opportunity), or a mere possibility, a meaning that has deviated under the influence of English.

The distinction between these two meanings is, in our context here, decisive. Indeed, we need to make a firm distinction between opportunity as a possibility offered to freely perform a just or proper act, and this opportunity as an occasion to be seized in order to gain an advantage, a profit. The Hindu distinction (Bhagavadgītā) between sakāmakarman, action with desire performed with a view to its fruits (“taking advantage of the opportunity”), and niskāmakarman, action without desire (“right or proper action”), indifferent to the fruits of action and through which the being escapes the indefinite chain of consequences of actions, can be brought closer to this opposition.

“Opportunisme”, a recent term in French (1869), illustrates both the essential distinction between the two senses of “opportunité” we’ve identified, and the influence of English we’ve mentioned. Indeed, the first meaning of “opportunisme” (historically the first, and well dated to the end of the 19th century) comes from the political context, where we recognize the Anglo-Saxon favor for an almost exclusive pragmatism. It means “to take advantage of circumstances” (i.e., to take advantage of opportunities), while “compromising with principles if necessary” (i.e., renouncing right action). By direct extension, the current meaning applies to a person who “regulates his conduct according to circumstances” and subordinates his principles to his momentary interest.

Destiny, fate

“Fate”, like “destiny”, is a century older than “opportunity”: the 12th century, from the Latin destinare (to destine, to fix someone’s future, to subjugate), and until the 17th century meant “project”. Since “destiny” is defined as the individual fate of a particular person, what is said here about “fate” will also apply to “destiny”.

We must immediately distinguish three meanings:

  • That of a Power irrevocably fixing the course of events. In Greek mythology, this power is superior to the gods, and today we still speak of “blind, cruel, merciless fate”. Similar terms are “necessity”, “fatality” or “fatum”.
  • A second, relatively opposite, meaning is “chance” (rather than necessity), “fortune” (instead of fatality) or “fate”, to refer to all the events, whether contingent (chance, fortune) or not (fate, destiny), that make up a person’s life, but “considered as resulting from causes distinct from their will”. Thus, we say that “you can’t escape your destiny”, that “it was written”, “it had to happen”.
  • The third meaning of “destiny” denies both chance and necessity, making fate the course of existence, this time seen as something that can be modified by the person living it. The corresponding formulations are “to be responsible for one’s destiny” or “to decide one’s destiny”.

These three meanings therefore seem to cover the whole range of possibilities when it comes to destiny: we can decide on it and be in control of it, and if not, it can be a necessary fate or a chance (happy or unhappy).


This Latin word, which has passed into literary French, comes from fari (to say, to speak) and therefore means “what has been said” (and must therefore happen). Portuguese “fado”, for example, derives from it, a song or lament for the destiny of impossible loves, jealousy, nostalgia for the dead and the past, and the difficulty of living. Leibnizian distinctions are illuminating here, which do not at all amount to the different meanings of “destiny” noted above. In the preface to his Essai de théodicée…, Leibniz distinguishes between :

  • “Fatum Mahometanum” or “Turkish destiny”, which is an absolute fatalism based on lazy argument or “lazy reason”3,
  • The “Fatum Stoïcum”, which “gives tranquillity with regard to events through the consideration of necessity, which renders our worries and sorrows useless”,
  • And the “Fatum Christianum”, which produces “contentment through confidence in God’s goodness and providence”. Clearly, what these Leibnizian definitions add to the three cases of “destiny” indicated (mastered or suffered, and, if suffered, due to chance or necessity), is the way in which man will position himself in relation to his destiny (what happens to him): he can say to himself that “there’s nothing to be done” in the face of fate, and therefore that he can do anything without it having any consequence on his own destiny; he can espouse that wisdom which is indeed typically Stoic, according to which happiness consists in that peace of soul, firm impassivity in the face of all pain and through all the evils of life; he can, finally, experience trust by realizing divine providence (a direct consequence of God-Love). We’ll come back to this third attitude later.


“Providence” comes from the Latin providencia (from providere: “to see ahead”, “to see in advance”, “to provide”), and passes into French as early as the 12th century, initially with the meaning of “foresight” and ultimately that of “divine wisdom”, which it had in Latin as early as the 1st century (Seneca): “Divine wisdom foreseeing all and providing for all” (“providere” meaning, in effect, both “foreseeing” and “providing”).

Theologically, it is the attribute by which God in His wisdom conceives the plan of things and by His power directs the course of events, determining for each creature and for the whole universe the end to be reached, as well as the means necessary for its realization. Thus, divine providence differs from foreknowledge in that it adds the divine will.

For all that, divine providence raises two problems: that of evil4 and that of human freedom5. The biblical (and therefore Christian) solution turns these two problems into a single one: the possibility of evil lies in the (effective) freedom given to man (to oppose the Father’s Will).

Outline of a doctrine of providence and destiny

As we are now responding, not to a general philosophical question, but to the queries of a particular person, we begin by rejecting any “authority” that might be lent to us. What follows, therefore, can only be the sharing of research and discoveries, born of a personal and necessarily unique experience6. This does not mean, however, that sharing is an empty word.

What the definitions of the words “opportunity”, “destiny”, “fate”, “fatum” and “providence” have essentially shown us is the choice of attitudes that man can adopt towards his destiny as a conjunction of the expression of his freedom and the constraints that appear external to him. After reviewing those which seem to us to be the most directly correct, or to be immediately excluded, we can outline what would seem to us to be an appropriate doctrine on providence and destiny, collective and individual, in particular by dealing with the apparent paradox of predestination and human freedom.

Abandoning false destinies

The general meaning of “destiny”, like that of an individual’s particular “fate”, allows us to set aside these three radical conceptions of a destiny resulting from pure fatal necessity, pure random chance, or from a mastery that we will describe as unconsciously pretentious, or even demiurgic (which remains an illusion).

The first conception, incompatible with human freedom, presupposes an absolute determinism of the universe, which even modern science has finally abandoned. This temptation to project laws belonging to the world of physics onto that which transcends the universe and constitutes its Cause no longer even has a raison d’être7.

The second conception seems the opposite of the first, since it substitutes the most absolute necessity of the first with the most totally random chance. The radical determinism of the first conception and the no less radical indeterminacy of the second create a world from which God is absent, subject to an identical over-determinism.

The third concept, of man mastering his own destiny, is clearly out of the question, whether it corresponds to pseudo-scientific (scientistic) dreams of individual immortality (reduced to perpetual terrestrial longevity) or to postmodern economic ideologies of supposedly collective material success (including false notions of indefinite growth or macro-economic productivity). If, rather than “mastery of the world (and of others)”, we’re talking about mastery of one’s own “spiritual development” – if such a notion has any meaning at all – then we’re faced with a number of pseudo-esoteric reveries, in which the adept is blinded by his self-proclaimed election and no longer perceives his demiurgic and illusory vanity.

Instead, it seems to us that it’s better to embrace this “train station literature” formula 8: “Destiny is not what could happen, but what happens”; or what will happen. To put it another way: we won’t know our destiny until the end, so there’s no point in worrying about it as such. Nevertheless, however paradoxical it may seem, we must not neglect to seek out opportune or right action.

Timely or right action

The primary meaning of “opportunity” guides us towards the notion of right action, as opposed to that of “an opportunity that could be taken advantage of, even if it means compromising principles”. In addition to the corresponding Hindu notion of niskāmakarman (“desireless action” or right or proper action) mentioned above, we can relate sattva, one of the three guṇa or “qualities of being” of the Sāṃkhya. These three guṇa are tamas (inertia and its correspondents: darkness, cowardice, black color, fall, etc.), rajas (dynamism, energy, activity, red color, expansion, centrifugal dispersion… ) and sattva (equilibrium, serenity, luminous state, white color, ascension…), the latter literally meaning “conformity to being”9.

In relation to a cross, tamas is the half-straight line descending from the center, leading away from the Principle towards (what would be) nothingness; rajas is horizontal expansion, the realm of having, of the quantitative (in which we’ll classify the accumulation of wealth as well as erudition, virtuosity as well as sporting performance); and sattva is vertical elevation from the center, “more-being”, accession to “higher” states of being.

Interestingly, rajas is the passage from tamas to sattva. For example, in terms of simple moral progress, a rajasic act could be the antidote to a tamasic tendency (such as the heroic action of a habitual coward) and, more generally, we would recommend rajasic conduct for tamasic people, then sattvic conduct for rajasic people. On a spiritual level, denial of Transcendence is tamasic, and positioning Cause or End in the axis of the world’s unfolding, i.e. confusing the Above with the Below, is rajasic.

In Sufism, these three tendencies are al-‘umq: depth, al-‘urd: breadth and at-tûl: height. Thus, in Sura al-fâtihah (“the one who opens”), which is the introduction to the Koran, we read:

[…] Lead us on the straight path, the way of those on whom Thy grace is, not of those who suffer Thy wrath, nor of those who wander.

Speaking of these three tendencies, the Prophet drew a cross: Eç-çirâtul-mustaqîm, the straight path, is the ascending vertical; divine wrath acts in the opposite direction; the dispersion of those who wander, the Ed-dâllîn, is in the horizontal 10.

This “opportunity”, this “opportune” or “right” action to be sought will therefore be that of “breadth” (Sufism), which brings us into conformity with being (Sāṃkhya). In Christianity, we speak of “doing the Father’s will”, that is, according to Christ’s teaching, of “seeking first the Kingdom of God” (Mt 6:33; Lk 12:31), which is “within us” (cf. Lk 17:21). Such inner centering is, specifically, the path indicated by the Virgin Mary. It consists essentially in self-denial (Abneget semetipsum)11, to proceed to anattā: the annihilation of the self (Buddhism) or the “neantization of the self”12, i.e. discovering that you are a non-me; or achieving al-fanā’ (extinction, in Sufism) or nirvāna (extinction, in Hinduism) or that “centering in the hub of the cosmic wheel” (Taoism).

The obvious conclusion is summed up by Christ’s teaching in S. Matthew, of which we have mentioned only the first part (“seek first the Kingdom and its justice”), but which continues with “and the rest will be added to you”. It can be “interpreted, metaphysically, as ‘seek first the Absolute – and the relative will be given to you by surcroît'”13.

So it’s a question, radically, of distinguishing between the love of God and the love of the world, between the Kingdom and the earth. The only relevant destiny is in God; what remains is the appropriateness of right action with regard to the earth.

Predestination or providence?

We have seen that providence is that attribute by which God directs the course of events (cf. the meaning of “to provide”), having determined, for each creature, the end to be attained and the necessary means (cf. that of foreseeing); what about predestination?

In the broadest sense, predestination is what makes it possible to receive any particular grace. Strictly speaking, it refers to “the eternal and infallible design by which God decides to lead to salvation whomever he wills”. This revelation comes from St. Paul: “Those whom God foreknew, He predestined, and those whom He predestined, He called” (Rom 8:30)14, a doctrine that can clearly be read in S. John too, even if the word “prophet” itself is not used. John too, even if the word itself is not used: “No one can come to me unless my Father draws him” (6:44).

This predestination, which enables man to receive the grace of salvation15, is exclusively “positive”: on the one hand, God has obviously “known in advance” all men (and therefore predestined and called them) and, on the other hand, He is by essence diffusive of Good (“Deus caritas est” and Good is a diffusion of itself (Bonum diffusivum sui esse).)).

The two pitfalls to be avoided are, firstly, that of confusing predestination (etymologically: “vocation”) with any kind of determinism, which would deny the freedom given to man, and, secondly and above all, of thinking that its inversion: a “negative” predestination of the damned, would be affirmed, or even only implied16. In fact, God’s foreknowledge makes him aware of anyone who refuses Him (this is his freedom), while preserving his vocation (predestination) to salvation17.

Understood in this way, predestination is man’s ultimate destination: his salvation, and providence is what God has foreseen and provides for man on his path. The first grace is essential and corresponds to eternal Heaven; the second is providential and accompanies the earthly passage.

Let’s return to this predestination, in the light of God’s Love – too abstractly pointed out (“diffusive of the Good”) – and following the indications of Jean Borella18:

[…] God’s love is necessarily a love of choice, a love of election. It seems to me that the whole of the Old Testament teaches this. When God loves someone – and God loves everyone – he loves them with a unique and exclusive love that distinguishes the beloved from all others. The call is addressed to the many, but love is addressed to the one, for love is personalizing. Between call and election lies the distinction between creation and deification. God creates things and beings by calling them into being, and this concerns the multitude of beings and things, at the same time as this creation is a call to know God. But election is always and each time the election of a single person, for it is each time a single person who responds to the call to God that is each creature. […] Election is of a different order from calling. The call is of a cosmic order and can, in the case of earthly creation, be subject to quantity; election is of the order of grace and is no longer subject to quantity. [Election is outside the realm of numbers. […] This is the implication of Christ’s answer in Lk 13:23: “Master, will there be few (oligoi, a few) who will be saved?”, (oligoi as in Mt 22:14). And Jesus answers neither yes nor no, but “strive to enter by the narrow gate” […]. The door here is thura, the door of a house or room, not the monumental gate. What is a narrow door? It’s a door that can only be passed through one at a time.


It seems to us that the only possible conclusion lies in the mystery of this paradox of all human action, which is to be both useless and necessary. “Useless”, because only God’s grace supports all destiny; “necessary”, because man’s freedom is ultimately expressed in his voluntary centering (where the Kingdom is), in his bringing into conformity with being (sattva), in short, in abandoning his own will to espouse that of the Father.

The conclusion is certainly also to be found in this radical distinction between hope (espoir) and hope (espérance), for the expectation of some conceivable good is not the expectation of an unspeakable ; “Let Him kill me, and I will still hope in Him”, said Job (13:15).

If we want to complete these two ultimate and radical indications (which necessarily remain paradoxical in appearance), let’s say that the practical choices to be made in daily life should simply be ordered by them. We could say: “Don’t lose sight of the essential, for the sake of secondary things”. Indian “wisdom” speaks for itself here, distinguishing the four goals of man (mokṣa, dharma, kāma, artha)19, and specifying above all that they must be pursued hierarchically, simultaneously and harmoniously.

So as not to remain too cautiously sibyllin and give practical advice, let’s say again that the answers must come from within. Some would say: “you have to ‘clear the air’, so that the answer, necessarily unique to each individual, can appear”. This “emptying out” involves two closely related aspects: the abandonment of one’s own will (as in Zen archery training, practiced with eyes closed) and trust in providence, which has thus been given room to express itself, all the more so as it is “the Spirit himself [who] prays for us with ineffable groanings” (Rm 8:26).


  1. Questions from Madame S.A.[]
  2. The elements gathered here are taken from Larousse (3 vol.), (new) Petit Le Robert, Vocabulaire de la philosophie et des sciences humaines (Morfaux, A. Colin), Dictionnaire étymologique et historique du français (Larousse) and Dictionnaire théologique (L. Bouyer), s.v.[]
  3. “Lazy reasoning (or argument) (logos argos) is the sophism of fatalists, who conclude from it that effort is useless and we should abandon ourselves to fate”[]
  4. How can we understand evil in a context where everything comes from God? is a frequent question.[]
  5. It should be noted here that to attribute everything that happens in the universe to God – which theology does not do – would be to deny both the freedom given to man and his relative contribution to Creation.[]
  6. Metaphysically, two things that would be identical in every respect would therefore be one and the same thing. This multiplicity of things, necessarily different but forming a whole, finds its analogue in the multiplicity of (human) beings and the mystery of their unity in Christ: the Mystical Body of which He is the head and humanity the members (St. Paul) or the Vine and humanity the branches (St. John).[]
  7. Insofar as a deterministic system would admit freedom in God but deny it in the creature (so-called theological determinism) or, although “admitting” God, would deny that He is free (so-called metaphysical determinism), it is the absence of intervention in the world by both God and man that should be condemned. In one case, immanence is denied in favor of a truncated transcendence; in the other, man’s freedom is rejected.[]
  8. Frédéric Dard (San Antonio); the “train station literature” formula is his own.[]
  9. These “tendencies” apply equally to the macrocosm and the microcosm, the universe and man.[]
  10. cf. Titus Burckhardt, Introduction aux doctrines ésotériques de l’Islam. This comparison may seem a little forced[]
  11. Si quis vult post me venire, abneget semetipsum, et tollat crucem suam, et sequatur me” (“If anyone wishes to follow me, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me”), Mt 16:24. []
  12. In the words of Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945).[]
  13. Jean Borella, Problèmes de gnose, forthcoming, L’Harmattan, 2007 (chap.6, section 3, § 6.[]
  14. cfr. also Rom 8:28-30, I CorII, 7, Eph 1:5 & 11 and Mt 20:23. These texts can be compared with what God said to Jeremiah in the Old Testament: “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you; and before you came out of her womb, I had consecrated you, I had made you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5-6).[]
  15. cf. Denzinger-Bannwart, 321-322 & S. Thomas, S. Th. 1a, q.23 & 24. & 24.[]
  16. The Second Council of Orange, in 529, defined as the orthodox doctrine of the Church the full and entire faculty for all the baptized to save themselves if they so wish.[]
  17. André Dumas concludes as follows: “Predestination is therefore the theological term that attests to the anteriority of God’s love in relation to our free adherence. Against destiny, it is a call from God, and against determinism, a response chosen by man”, Encyclopædia Universalis, s.v.[]
  18. Private letter, February 2007.[]
  19. Deliverance, duty, wealth and pleasure.[]