Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Prophecy and Providence in the Potterverse

(image via Harry Potter Wiki)

Like most of you, I grew up devouring Harry Potter, but I’m not sure how many of you had problems understanding just how the big prophecy worked. I know I did. Basically, Voldemort’s stooge overhears a seer prophesy that a true adversary to Voldemort will rise, and that “neither can live while the other survives”. Much ink is spilled, both in fandom and in the canon, over just what this prophecy means. Does it mean that Harry is fated to kill Voldemort (or Voldemort, Harry) or does Harry’s free will operate outside the confines of this prophecy? If the prophecy is true, it means Harry really is the Chosen One, chosen by fate to confront Voldemort. But that could mean that Harry doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. In the final book, Harry doesn’t seem like he does have a choice; the universe seems like it’s manipulated him to the point where he feels utterly compelled to fulfill the prophecy. The conflict is between fate, or providence, and free will. If we look at real-world ideas about providence and free will, we can get a better idea of how these might work.

For this post, I’m only going to look at mainstream Christian ideas about divine providence and free will, partly because it’s the tradition with which I’m most familiar and partly because Harry strongly functions as a Christ figure. But first, let’s look at what we know about prophesying in the Harry Potter books.

In the Potter universe, divination (magic that foretells the future) is considered an art which is mostly bunk but has a little bit of truth. Dumbledore would have eliminated the subject altogether from the Hogwarts curriculum, if it weren’t for the pesky fact that he’s protecting and employing a bona fide seer. Sybil Trelawney, the seer, unknowingly spoke the prophecy that forced all the events of the Potter books in motion.

“The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies….” (source)

While prophecies aren’t an exact science, simply put, Trelawney prophesies that Voldemort would mark another as his equal, and that neither Voldemort nor the equal could live while the other survives. Voldemort’s actions would affect another person to the point where the two would have a showdown, with only one living victor. Harry is the one marked as Voldemort’s equal, and as the “Chosen One”, seems to be the one destined to kill Voldemort, or die himself. The big question here is whether or not Harry is doomed to have this showdown, or if his free will can thwart it. Is Harry destined to confront Voldemort in a boss battle, and does destiny negate free will?

This is a question tackled by many real-world theologians, and there are many answers. The Bible seems to say that some people are destined for eternal salvation, while other verses seem to support the reality of human free will. There are four major schools of thought attempting to reconcile providence with free will: Calvinism and Arminianism for Protestants, and Thomism and Molinism for Catholics. Many people today adhere to one of these complex and nuanced schools, but for brevity’s sake we’ll look at a general overview of their differences.

Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin, authors of our first two schools of thought. (via thoughtco)

  1. Calvinism embraces a concept called double predestination. In this, God chooses which people will be saved from damnation and which ones will be damned, and there’s nothing you can do yourself to affect that. John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Huldrych Zwingli, all major Protestant players in the Reformation, held these kinds of views. How God picks people is a mystery. Calvinists say that free will is so corrupted by sin that it’s impossible for us to choose God, so God comes along to the chosen with irresistible goodness. Either way, our free will is basically powerless to the forces of evil or goodness, and we have to rely on God to save us, should God choose to.
  2. Arminianism lands more on the side of free will and human cooperation with God’s plan. Like Calvinism, it says our free will is corrupted by sin and God needs to act to save us. But for Arminians, God isn’t irresistible. Instead, God empowers our free will to be able to choose goodness and God. Unlike Calvinism, Arminianism says you can lose your salvation if you decide to reject Christ. Basically, a Calvinist would say that if a person rejects Christ on their deathbed, that’s evidence they were never a real Christian in the first place, while an Arminian would say that they were a real Christian, but they aren’t anymore. God empowers humans so we can act, but it’s our choice to accept salvation.
  3. Thomism, from Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican friar from the 13th century, argues that there’s no contradiction between free will and God’s providence. Humans have free will because we are rational creatures. Our will works by choosing which “goods” to pursue. Because God is the creator of all things, God is also the creator of our wills, and is the reason we have the power to exercise our wills. Therefore, Thomists often argue that humans have the ability to choose God only because God wants us to. God is the ultimate good, so we’re naturally drawn to God (unless sin and evil get in the way). Thomists argue that our free will isn’t totally corrupted on its own but still needs God’s help to choose God. Arminians say free will is totally corrupted on its own, so it needs God’s help to do anything.
  4. Molinism, named for Luis de Molinar, a Jesuit priest from the 17th century, argues that God’s providence works through divine foreknowledge. Molinists argue that God knows what all humans would choose in all possible situations. God predestines people because God chooses to create a world where some people are saved. Of the four schools, God has the most hands-off approach to our free will in Molinism. Molinists say that God is powerful enough to know exactly what we would do before we do it, while a Thomist says that “foreknowledge” is nothing more than a really good guess. A Thomist says God is powerful enough to make someone act freely, while a Molinist says that’s impossible. Some Molinists argue that a person damned in one reality is damned in all versions of reality.

So how would each of these schools of thought counsel Harry in regards to the prophecy? A Calvinist might say that Harry is indeed the Chosen One, has always been the Chosen One, and was destined to triumph over Voldemort. Harry’s free will would really have nothing to do with it, because he’d be compelled to face Voldemort and given the necessary abilities to triumph. For a Calvinist, the prophecy itself could be easily interpreted as an agent of God’s divine will, giving the prophecy a certain divine power to shape reality. The prophecy would thus compel Harry to defeat Voldemort and there would be no way Harry could fail. If Harry stops pursuing Voldemort, a Calvinist would say that Harry was never really Chosen in the first place (it was probably meant to be Neville all along).

An Arminian might say that the prophecy shows us that Harry is the Chosen One, and has been given the skills he needs to be the Chosen One, but Harry could wake up one day and decide to stop being the Chosen One. They would argue that Harry had really been the Chosen One, but now he’s not. An Arminian may have no contingency plan if Harry fails to be the Chosen One, or might say that Neville now becomes the Chosen One since Harry failed.

Thomas Aquinas, by Crivelli (via wikipedia)

A Thomist may say that Harry is destined to defeat Voldemort, and that the prophecy is an agent of God’s will that makes Harry the Chosen One. Harry is given all the skills he needs to defeat Voldemort, and he does so because he’s the Chosen One. But the big difference is that the events around the prophecy compel Harry to freely choose to embrace his destiny. It’s a bit of a paradox: Harry freely chooses to confront Voldemort because he’s naturally drawn to defeating Voldemort.

A Molinist might say that Harry was destined to defeat Voldemort from the dawn of creation, and the prophecy has basically nothing to do with it other than act as nice commentary on things yet to come. They would say that it’s Harry’s choices that make him the Chosen One, and that he still would have tried to defeat Voldemort regardless of whether or not he figured out there was a prophecy. A Molinist may even argue that both Neville and Harry are Chosen Ones, because God foresaw the actions of Voldemort and knew both young men would have chosen to defeat evil if given the right chance.

J.K. Rowling has given us some authorial insight into her own interpretation of what might have happened. In a 2005 interview with The Leaky Cauldron, she muses:

I think there’s a line there between the moment in “Chamber of Secrets” when Dumbledore says so famously, ‘It’s our choices that define us, not our abilities,’ straight through to Dumbledore sitting in his office, saying to Harry, “the prophecy is significant only because you and Voldemort choose to make it so.” If you both chose to walk away, you could both live! That’s the bottom line. If both of them decided, “We’re not playing,” and walked away… but, it’s not going to happen, because as far as Voldemort’s concerned, Harry’s a threat. They must meet each other.

Later in the same interview, she ponders the nature of prophecy in her books.

It’s the “Macbeth” idea. I absolutely adore “Macbeth.” It is possibly my favorite Shakespeare play. And that’s the question isn’t it? If Macbeth hadn’t met the witches, would he have killed Duncan? Would any of it have happened? Is it fated or did he make it happen? I believe he made it happen.

It’s pretty clear that Rowling is solidly in the ‘free will’ camp and not in the “providence” camp. According to her, Voldemort wills the prophecy into reality because he decides to believe it, setting off a chain of events that puts Harry in the unique position of having the ability and the drive to kill Voldemort. Clearly there’s some element of free will, so the Calvinist interpretation is out. But I’m not so sure there’s no fate or providence at work as far as Harry is concerned. Looking at the text of Half Blood Prince, I can see some pretty significant divine providence language.

Dumbledore: “By attempting to kill you, Voldemort himself singled out the remarkable person who sits here in front of me, and gave him the tools for the job… and yet, Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort’s world… you have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort’s followers!”

Harry: “Of course I haven’t! He killed my mum and dad!”

Dumbledore: “You are protected, in short, by your ability to love! The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s! In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, just as pure as you were at the age of eleven, when you stared into a mirror that reflected your heart’s desire, and it showed you only the way to thwart Lord Voldemort, and not immortality or riches.”

Harry gets the capacity to bring down Voldemort because of Voldemort’s own actions, actions which are his response to overhearing the prophecy. But if Voldemort’s actions were the only acting force on Harry, it’s likely Harry would have been ultimately motivated by revenge or anger, not sacrificial love. It’s sacrificial love that drives Harry into the Forbidden Forest to confront Voldemort, allowing himself to die in order to save the lives of those he knew and didn’t know. While there’s no truly explicit mention of God and religious faith in Harry Potter, sacrificial love is the most important virtue in Christianity. It’s a clear sign that Harry has some mysterious, possibly divinely imbued abilities to resist evil. The books don’t talk about where Harry gets this capacity to love despite suffering, so readers are free to speculate.

Harry himself seems to fall into camp free will, too. After Harry rises from the dead but before he actually starts fighting Voldemort, Harry calls on Voldemort to repent. Harry still believes there’s hope for Voldemort to turn away from evil, should Voldemort choose to. If Voldemort had accepted Harry’s olive branch, the prophecy would have been wrong: each would live while the other survives. The prophecy isn’t forcing anyone to do anything, but people’s responses to the prophecy seem to force others to act in certain ways. As Dumbledore says, the prophecy doesn’t matter, because it’s the actions of people that matter.

Portrait of Luis de Molina, the almost heretic (via wikipedia)

Dumbledore is probably not a Calvinist, since he is such a proponent of free will. He’s probably not a Thomist either, because he tries so hard to make Harry reject the idea of destiny. Dumbledore’s philosophy is probably closest to the Molinists, because he puts such little stock in the power of the prophecy itself. Molinism seems to be the most helpful school of thought to help us understand what Rowling’s trying to tell us about the prophecy. The story leaves us with the idea that no one is fated to be good or evil, saved or damned, but it’s our free will that makes all the difference.

Dumbledore is often Rowling’s mouthpiece, so his more Molinist position reveals to us how Rowling wants us to interpret the prophecy. Calvinism, Arminianism, and Thomism all emphasize the very active role that God plays in who gets saved. Salvation, providence, and fate are all closely tied together. It doesn’t matter so much that there’s no explicit deity actively working in the Potterverse. The prophecy and the characters’ understanding of fate can easily take that place. Because Dumbledore and Harry understand the prophecy to be mere commentary on one possible version of events, it seems like Molinism is the most helpful school of thought to get deeper insight into how prophecy works in the Wizarding World. In some way, Harry is the Chosen One because this is the version of reality where he defeats Voldemort. But Harry’s status as the Chosen One comes primarily from his own choices, primarily in how he chooses to respond to the actions of others. The prophecy doesn’t compel anyone to do anything. In fact, if it did, this would shift the blame away from Voldemort and onto fate, providence, or the universe. Voldemort wouldn’t be as responsible for his evil actions, and Harry wouldn’t be the same remarkable force of goodness. It’s ultimately more meaningful to take personal responsibility, because it gives us readers hope. All of us, not just the special select few, are capable of greatness. We too can have hope for “salvation”, because it’s up to us to embrace it.

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4 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Prophecy and Providence in the Potterverse

  1. While I’ve heard of Calvinist predetermination, I’ve mainly only learned in secular settings about determination, free will, or compatibilism. I don’t know if I fully get the theological distinctions you made here but the layman’s Christian explanations I’ve heard usually were about how most Christians I have met, believe predetermination makes sin meaningless and no one has choice so no one can be punished in hell or rewarded in heaven, so most believe God gave people free will and he can’t control what they do with it. Idk which school that thought that aligns with.

    Stories about self-fulfilling prophecies are pretty intense and full of frustration for the reader, and I liked that part of Harry Potter, the idea that Voldemort was so scared of the prophecy but all along he was wrong to just believe it, that if he’d ignored it then this child wouldn’t have been a threat to him. Helping to orchestrate his own downfall or demise adds a sense of how much he deserves it, and I guess it’s a big part of the theme of the book that fear is crippling, fear can take you places you shouldn’t go, fear should be overcome with bravery rather than given into, that’s one of the morals here by Voldemort’s fear of the prophecy ultimately seeming to give Harry the powers he needed to defeat him – most directly by making Harry a horcrux and literally marking Harry with that scar, and giving Harry a peek into his own soul and experiences and even giving some of his skills. The books moralize about love but also about bravery in this way, through the prophecy… And they also consider, time and again, love to be a choice, to act lovingly even if you feel like it’s without thinking, is usually a powerful and good “choice” for a hero it seems like…

    • Sounds a bit like Calvinism. Luther in the Reformation has a famous metaphor for sin and grace (grace being the power of God that makes us good/saved), and Calvin probably would have agreed with it. Luther says that we’re basically dunghills, because our souls are so infested with sin, that Christ comes along and covers us up with pure white snow. We’re still crappy, but we look good because Christ. As a Catholic myself, I find the idea that our dunghill souls are transformed, not covered, more appealing. The dunghill metaphor makes it seem like our sins don’t really matter as long as God chooses to save us, like you say. Most Christians I run with tend to argue that free will is real and it’s up to us to act like good Christians. But the problem with that is that it can make it seem like we’re the ones who save ourselves, which is a big no-no in Christianity.

      “And they also consider, time and again, love to be a choice, to act lovingly even if you feel like it’s without thinking, is usually a powerful and good “choice” for a hero it seems like…”

      YES. I agree so much.

  2. The main reason pre-destination is confounding is that it lacks a how; the story skips over the way prophecy functions and simply demands that we accept it does. No one objects to predictions like, “Harry will be upset when he finds out his parents are murdered”. It’s being both infallible and sourceless that makes them both interesting and artefacts restricted to fiction.

    That said, the question of whether choices we make are something we choose – whether any of the factors affecting our choices are under our control – is very real and complex.

    (As a materialist, I think that if any part of our choices isn’t thoroughly pre-determined by cause and effect, then its determined by random chance and the only reason we continue to believe in free will is because it is a beneficial illusion.)

  3. Pingback: Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Monergistic vs. Synergistic Election in Geek Media — Chosen One or Choosing One? | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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