Friday, January 15, 2010

Everything Happens for a Reason, Part 1

The Pat Robertson Brouhaha continues to both Brou and Haha throughout the internet and the world at large. Robertson's epitaph will undoubtedly refer to his death by Foot-in-Mouth Disease, a terminal case if ever there was one.

The question that is being asked throughout many Christian blogs revolves around whether or not God actively causes or allows disasters, such as Haiti's earthquake, as a punishment or judgement. Many of us, myself included, disavow the idea that events like Haiti's earthquake are any sort of divine reprimand or sign from God.

So where does that leave us? Do we deny the possibility that God could use death and destruction to achieve some sort of eternal purpose?

It puts Christians who want to view God's goodness as his Ultimate attribute in a sticky situation; if God doesn't interact in such a way with humankind, then we must explain most of the stories of the Old Testament in some way that isn't an avoidance of the idea of Divine Retribution.

One approach to take with biblical literalists/inerrantists would be to point out that in most of the Old Testament stories of God's divine judgement, people are warned beforehand. They are told of the impending doom headed their way, and if they repent of their wickedness, they are Ninevah in the book of Jonah. I don't recall any prophets proclaiming that God was going to destroy a large portion of Haiti by an earthquake if they didn't break their supposed pact with the devil. It's only people like Pat Robertson, who like to play Monday Morning Quarterback, who make connections between disaster and God's judgement, at which point any message from God is moot.

A day late and a dollar short.

They might as well be reading chicken bones and tea leaves, because after-the-fact warnings are always based on speculation and trying to find reasons for things that have no discernible reason.

The Bible has competing themes communicated within it; one theme which confirms everything that happens as part of God's will, and another theme portraying God's will as less certain and changeable.

The idea that God fore-ordained everything, that He is in control of every action and every consequence, is at the heart of how the Israelites made sense of the world around them. If they wanted to know what God thought about something and hadn't felt that they had heard from Him, they would cast lots, consulting the Urim and Thummim to divine His will, or uncover information. If a husband was uncertain of his wife faithfulness, the priests would make her drink a special drink. If she got sick, or died, then that was proof that she had been unfaithful, if she had no ill effects, then she must be innocent of the charges.

A God who operates through the inference of disaster, lots, and poison drinks is the kind of God that operates the way Pat Robertson thinks he does. There is no difference between the two.

However, as Christians, we don't deal with God that way, and He is not said to deal with us that way. This is a break between the Old Testament portrayal of God and the New Testament portrayal of God. The Old Testament portrayal of God is of a God who is very precise and particular. He cares about details and ceremony and exactness.

Profaning God's holiness in some way, like accidentally touching the Ark of the Covenant, or burning the wrong kind of incense, or performing duties only meant for priests, resulted in quick deaths for the profaners, however accidental or purposeful their acts were.

But, in the New Testament, is that completely lost?

Maybe not. Paul talks about people dying for taking communion unworthily, and we have Ananias and Sapphira suddenly keeling over after misrepresenting the size of their donation, and Herod dying and being eaten by worms because he let people attribute God-like qualities to him.

The examples of Paul's unworthy communion eaters and Herod's death could possibly both be explained as early Christians reading into the events the idea that everything happens for a reason. Therefore, the conclusion they reach seems to fit within the overall view of a God who is in control of all things. However, this is a loose inference, not a claim of direct revelation from God. Paul frequently states conclusions based on his own logical if/thens without making any claim to have received a clear word or explanation from God.

While discussing those unworthy communion participants he writes:

1 Corinthians 11:18-19
18In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval.
Really? Why do there have to be differences among them?

This is a holdover of Paul's background beliefs. He makes no claim to knowing that the differences are from God. He just simply assumes that they exist because God must want it that way.

When trying to explain God's sovereignty, Paul uses his rhetorical skill once again:

Romans 9:19-24
19One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" 20But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' " 21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
It's important to notice that Paul doesn't say these are the exact reasons that God has done certain things. No. Paul is simply arguing a point from what appears to be logical and consistent to him and his view of God. Once again, it's not a direct claim of knowledge about God's reasons, just a likely explanation in Paul's mind.

Yet....many people have taken Paul's strong opinions as direct communication from God, instead of simply taking them as an honest attempt by Paul to offer an explanation that makes sense to him and will hopefully redirect some of the problems the churches he is writing to are experiencing.

I'd liken it to what happens in life when we are discussing things we don't have an answer for. We comfort each other and propose theories about why such and such did, or didn't, happen to us. Maybe we lost our job because God has something better for us. Maybe we became sick in order to learn gratitude for the things we have in life. Maybe we missed that plane that wound up crashing without us on it because God has a plan for us. Maybe every trial we face is supposed to teach us a lesson of some sort.

These are the types of suppositions we all put forth in times of crisis, but we can never declare such ideas as completely true....and most of us would hesitate to put forth these speculations with any level of certainty.

1 comment:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

There is a tension here, but I think your point about the warning is important. The number of times God punishes Israel is few over a 2000-year period - it just seems like a lot of them to us because we read about them back-to-back. For other tragedies that happened in-between, I'm sure there were plenty of people declaring "God is punishing us for (blank)." People always do that. It seems a natural response from the human personality, and our essential narcissism, to believe that we could have avoided disaster by choosing Door #3 instead. The stories preserved where we apply that formula now are the ones that everyone decided afterward, sometimes many years afterward, that the attribution of God's judgment for sins was in fact true, in that instance. One of the deciding factors on this was previous predictions by holy men (and occasionally women), of what later did occur. The chaff - a lot of chaff - got discarded over time.

Also, there is very little of God telling even the prophets why he was doing things to other nations. The rare occasions He did all involved their dealings with the Jews. If and when God sends catastrophe on a particular people for a particular reason - on Uzbeks, or Hutsis, or Haitians, there is no indication that he is going to tell any Americans why.