Answering Young Steve Jobs: The Problem of Expectations


This is the fourth in a series of posts where Paul Vander Klay responds to a question Steve Jobs asked a Lutheran Pastor in 1968. The other posts can be found on Paul’s blog. 

There is a lot of wisdom in the old AA adage “expectations are preconceived resentments.” It recognizes the problem of judgment, that our judgments are based on our expectations and that we seldom own our own expectations.

Young Steve Jobs was sharp enough to see the incongruities between the world he inhabited in Palo Alto, CA in the 50s and 60s, the presentation of God he received in his Lutheran church, and the image he saw on the cover of the news magazine of starving children in Africa. The dissonance he felt brought him to a crisis in the plausibility structure sufficient to reject Christianity and the church and seek other worldviews.

Christian Roots of the Problem of Evil

The story of Steve Jobs’ rejection of the Christian faith and the church is obviously not unique. Many people have found human suffering to be a cause of doubt or rejection for Christianity. I’ve heard devotees of the New Atheists to regularly point to the problem of evil as a reason to reject a Christian worldview. The truth is that they have a point. The “problem of evil” IS less of a problem for some other worldviews.

Viewing Suffering from Other Worldviews

If you are a materialist atheist, the existence of starving children in Africa or oppressed peoples in any country should hardly justify making a magazine cover. This kind of natural selection is the engine of progress which has led to the position of supremacy for the human species. Weak people suffer and die because they are unable to compete and it is absolutely natural and perhaps preferable if their genetic material is not reproduced at the rate of the more powerful and successful. From this perspective suffering, starvation and death of other people is not a reason for personal distress, any more than the suffering and extinction of how many other plants and animals throughout human history.

The only reason young Steve Jobs was upset by seeing those pictures was because he was conditioned by Christian ideas that somehow these children had “value” or were “valued” by a divine being and that there exists an obligation to address this kind of suffering.

If young Steve Jobs had never been exposed to Christianity perhaps he might never have imagined that the world SHOULD be any different than it is today, where famines, wars, disease and injustice perpetually kill off the weak and unfortunate. Why should we imagine the world should, would or could be any other way?

Suffering and Karma

Karma is a very popular notion. Just today someone said to me “what goes around comes around, right?”

Perhaps these starving African children are paying for their moral failings in past lives? If that is the case then their suffering, and the suffering of others are the workings of justice. Don’t be fooled by the youth or innocence of these creatures, some worldviews would have them be creatures who have lived multiple times before and even though they have no conscious experience of these past lives their suffering is the workings of karma to do justice in the universe.

Protest and Response

I never met Steve Jobs nor wish to present myself as an expert on his life or his beliefs. Based on the recent biography of Jobs and my experience with other mostly secular Americans exploring Zen Buddhism and other religions within that same family of religions their spiritual seeking doesn’t normally take the form of any exceptional efforts at addressing the problem of the suffering of others. Many see the practices of these religions as ways to gain focus, a greater sense of wellbeing, self-control, better relationships with others, and a happier life.

Part of the irony of Jobs’ life is that his pursuit of Buddhism didn’t seem to take the form of reducing the amount of desire in his life and thereby reducing the frustration cause by unfulfilled desires. See the wikipedia entry for Buddhism if you want a quick primer for that religion.  Jobs’ biography is filled with stories of his demands, his angry outbursts, his cutting people down, his holding grudges, etc. It was difficult for me in fact on the basis of the biography to see exactly what outcomes Jobs sought from his pursuit of Zen Buddhism beyond the aesthetic he pursued in the products he helped produce.

Expectations in the American Church

Let me say that I believe the expectations expressed by young Steve Jobs were actually an achievement of Christianity in the western world. When people see suffering from injustice around the world and something deep within them says “this isn’t the way it should be” Christians should consider this an example of the positive way Christianity has deeply impacted our culture. It is a Christian notion that the suffering of people disconnected from ourselves is a cause for concern. All people are concerned for the suffering of their own. Christianity spurs us on to be concerned for the suffering of others. These expectations that many within our culture commonly share are the fruit of the success of Christianity in our history.

There are other expectations, however, that we should not be so quick to celebrate. We have other expectations that we seldom take responsibility for.

There is an ancient, common relational expectation that looks very much like karma. We find it in the Old Testament world keenly expressed in the book of Job. God rewards those who do right and will keep them from harm. Job’s suffering according to his three friends was evidence of divine punishment for his wrongdoing. God, however, neither explained himself nor endorsed the theology of Job’s friends.

Despite the presence of the book of Job in the canon God as author of pleasant individual outcomes is an idea alive and well in the church today. Many attend church with the implicit expectation that their moral performance, their theological purity, their identification with the Christian brand will insure divine protection and exclusion from “bad things” happening to themselves and those they love. The obvious observable truth is that no exclusion exists.

What does endure, in the young Steve Jobs as well as many others when moved by the sight of human suffering is the extension of this protection onto other “deserving” creatures in the world. God should stop this suffering.

Implicit in this is also, often the implicit threat to punish God if he fails to perform according to our expectations. If God doesn’t exclude us from bad things or protect the weak and the innocent we will vote with our feet and reject him. Job himself had this impulse many times wishing he could subpoena the Almighty, put him on the stand and hold him accountable for the losses Job had endured.

The Convenience of our Expectations

The more we own our own expectations the more we begin to appreciate how self-serving they in fact tend to be. The horror young Steve Jobs experienced at seeing the suffering of African children did not prompt him to become a crusader for world justice or economic equity. We are quick to try to hold God responsible for human suffering while we under-appreciate the responsibility humanity possesses in its own suffering. As a species we should be familiar with the reality that blaming others is instinctive and convenient while examining ourselves is abhorrent to our self-indulgent narratives.

The Christian gospel asserts that in fact God moves to fix messes he didn’t create, pay debts he didn’t incur, forgive the guilty for wrongs they couldn’t undo and bear burdens humanity piled onto itself. It's unfortunate that young Steve Jobs didn’t seem to get this message.

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Awesome job, Paul. I was struck by the statement, "The horror young Steve Jobs experienced at seeing the suffering of African children did not prompt him to become a crusader for world justice or economic equity." How often don't we hear people saying, "Someone ought to do something!" without ever realizing that the someone might be them. For Steve, the "someone" was God.

I heard yesterday that his last words were, "Oh, my! Oh, my!" There doubtless is lots of speculation about what he saw (if anything) that caused this reaction. What if those words were expressions of shock as God came to him and said, "At a young age, I had you feel compassion for the poor. Why didn't you do something about it when you were rich?"

Absolutely correct! Well put, Job's world view and subsequent outrage with suffering was most likely tailored by his youthful encounter with Christian teaching. I am actually amazed no one ever pointed this out to him. I mean, he grew up in the Civil Rights era where Christian outrage (MLK) at social injustice and suffering were on the news everyday! His outrage was actually one that Christianity would promote.  Also I love how you present an alternative Darwinian view of morality. Absolutely right on the nose! And the Karma thing, "what comes around, goes around", is a rather merciless way of looking at life. Thanks for the thoughts!