Monthly Archives: November 2014

The problem of ‘god’s will’

Usually I open one of these columns with some story, some episode that reminds me of something else, etc., etc. Today I’m jumping right in the deep end of the metaphoric pool because my spouse is an occasional Presbyterian and has me thinking about the old school Presbyterian conservatives still embracing predestination. I find this annoying. If you don’t know, the short definition for predestination it is that everything is fate, determined in advance. It is a scripted fate and we are just actors in a play who are only given a few pages at a time, with the ending changing (or occurring) at any moment. In response, allow me to use a weighty theological term: rubbish.

The best friend of predestinationists, like fundamentalists (of any religion), is rationalization. That’s because no human can adapt these simplistic, rigid theologies without rationalizing all the obvious and daily events that make their theology absurd and logic impossible. When something good happens to them, it is god’s will. When something good happens to their enemies then god’s will is a mystery. And have you ever noticed that folks with these narrow theologies always have a long list of enemies? Me, I have secret admirer type enemies. They don’t know who they are, but I remember the last time they crapped on me. Mercifully, it’s a short list. One of those was a boss who bullied me and just got fired. He’s off the list now. Once justice kicks in, I’m cool. I never took it personally; after all, he was just another misogynist. Plenty more out there.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s new book, Small Victories. I do enjoy reading her books and find someSmall Victories amusement and inspiration. Here I am on a holiday week-end, thrilled to not be schlepping off to work where people will be telling me what to do – or at least strongly implying it. I get to sit home in my sweats and read.  Yippee.  Then Lamott slips (I hope) and writes: “…that could not possibly be God’s will for us…” (p.245). Lamott is frequently sarcastic, which I love, so maybe it was that kind of reference. I still found it disturbing. I don’t mean that in a reluctant or funny way either.

The biggest problem I find in touting a god’s will vernacular is that it eliminates human responsibility. Those rationalizing away may suggest that the human experience is about seeking that perfect Will. Again: rubbish. I recognize that as a Westerner, I have probably been infused with too much individualization and not enough community. That said, if my own human experience is not mine to define, then what is the point? I don’t see a cosmic or theological value in stumbling through the fog to figure out a mysterious plan by a seemingly arbitrary, and often capricious but omnipotent deity. No thank you. Of course it’s true that I regularly feel battered by life. But those miserable events were not prescribed by the God of Job allowing the Devil to keep throwing shit at me to prove whether or not I’m faithful.

What I am reluctant to admit, is that I’m a person of faith. That is because, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m a role model. It is also because when people talk about faith, it is usually because they really want to talk about their own ideologies. Faith is deeply personal and can’t be imposed by others. We can only figure this out for ourselves, like it or not. That, I believe is a life-long process.

I have been visiting and collecting data on weekly worship for more than a year. When my research is concluded, I will have been to every place of worship within two miles of my house, stretching to 10 miles in order to fully cover most denominations and religions in proximity. Because this country has a Christian majority, I have been to only Christian churches so far. For the most part, I wanted to see for myself if churches are dying and why people go. What I have found, and for this I have sufficient data, is very few churches are welcoming and friendly. I determine this by observing whether I am invited back and if anyone greets me – other than the usher who is assigned to that as a duty. I do my best to blend-in, I smile endlessly (but just short of crazy) and don’t really speak unless spoken to, so it’s not that they read my blog or know what I’m thinking. (Whew.) The majority are neither welcoming nor friendly. Yes, the majority.  (One example follows.)

 “Open Door” – Closed Minds

I have another observation, but it is more anecdotal: the more rigid and ideological the church, the less welcoming and friendly. I have been sitting in a number of these churches where both the subtle and overt message was about god’s will. People seem to climb into this thinking as if it was the lap of a good parent. I observed it to be more of a comfortable indulgence, than the discomfort of being challenged to be a better person or help the suffering. The other observation I’ve made, which is also anecdotal, is that the more the church engaged in service to others outside their own club, the healthier the church seemed. For many churches, I have felt anger or pity. For the churches which are driven to help others, I felt hope and saw vitality.

I have faith that life is about experiences and compassion. It is more about learning from my own mistakes, for which I accept responsibility, than prayer for a divine map. In this Anne Lamott is right in identifying “Small Victories.” Sometimes that’s all we’ve got. Many religions talk about grace, though using different words for it. The Lutherans think they own that word, they do not. If I were to pray for grace, I would imagine it as a way to respond to life’s crap with more compassion than bitterness. And I would further request the grace to notice the suffering around me and work to find ways that I am capable of responding. I do request help from the Universe in this pursuit, not because it’s God’s will or to earn an enviable placement in heaven, but because life gets really difficult. I fail a lot – again, I’m nobody’s role model. But I do not need to be forgiven for not following a plan I don’t know about. I just need a little help to get back up, and to recognize those “Small Victories” along the way. – J.B.