First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Joseph, MO.
It’s always nice to have retired ministers who come to church; they bring along interesting reading materials. Recently, Rev. Ray Grienke, retired United Methodist minister who attends occasionally with his wife Bev, passed on to me a column written by a Methodist writer. This writer laid out a nice argument against what he called “Calvinist” trends in American religious thought that preach a God who has determined the fate of every human before their birth and even before creation. He went on to argue in favor of what he considered the Methodist (“Wesleyan”) position of God granting us free will to accept or reject the grace of God. Often I’ve shied away from such circular theological arguments (to me they always inevitably put the actions of God into a box and resemble attempts I’ve seen to wrestle greased pigs), but in this case, I felt the author had a point, a God who determines everything ahead of time has a lot to answer for, given the state of the world these days.
Questions surrounding how much control an all-knowing and all-powerful God has over Creation and humanity have filled countless books and consumed students and scholars for lifetimes, but the academic debates have some real-life consequences when they filter down to the pews. Often I have heard “God’s will” invoked to explain what someone either does not wish to face or what is beyond explanation. I’ve bit my tongue to stop blurting out, “It wasn’t God’s will for you to lose your job. You chose to not show up for work!” Or, I’ve bit my tongue and held back tears as I’ve heard a grieving person declare, “God won’t give me more than I can handle.” Sometimes, it is preferable to believe God caused the death of someone (no matter what that says about God’s character) than to have no explanation for why someone you love is dead. Furthermore, in a culture like ours that is rich beyond measure compared to most of the world, a theology where God ordains things ahead of time can easily lead to a belief that God has chosen some to live lives of affluence and others to suffer lives of poverty. Why should a millionaire go against God’s plan?
The debate over how much God determines ahead of time goes back at least to the writers of our scriptures. For Christians through the centuries, the most vexing questions concerned who gets into heaven. Around 400 C.E., Augustine formalized what had heretofore been vague, namely that God’s grace is only given to some and not all, but it wasn’t until the reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) that the doctrine of God predetermining some for heaven and others for hell solidified. (Presbyterian friends of mine who know Calvin far better than I tell me this is an oversimplification—too which I reply, “I would hope so!”) A theologian called Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) wrote against the doctrine of God predestining some for salvation and some for damnation, and so ever since the extreme positions have been labeled (mislabeled?) “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” respectively. Meanwhile, most theology preached exists somewhere in the mushy middle.
Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I was taught that God gave me free will to choose whether or not I would become a Christian and be saved, but at the same time, I was assured that God had a specific plan for my life. Both ideas caused me a considerable amount of consternation. What if I didn’t really, really, really mean it when I chose to become a Christian, does that mean I’m not going to heaven? What if bad things are happening in my life, are the bad things part of God’s plan or did I somehow deviate from God’s path? How much and in what way is God involved in my life anyway? Although I continue to struggle with the particulars, I’ve settled into an understanding of God at work in the midst of the decisions we make as free beings. I choose to believe that much that’s wrong with the world is the result of mistakes I and other human beings have made, while the other tragedies and stuff beyond our control is the price of being in a universe where free beings exist. I choose to believe that God is at work responding to and in the middle of all of this messiness, always working for good in the midst of circumstances that are often bad.
For those who prefer their world to be less messy and less mysterious, my way of understanding God’s activity in our lives is bound to be disappointing. But I prefer a more mysterious God to a God who decides specifically who will suffer on earth and burn in hell for eternity. I believe God’s plan for all of us is to love and be loved in this life and the next; exactly how that works out for each of us is a mixture of grace, free will and mystery. I may not be a Methodist, but I do agree with the “Arminian” leanings of Susanna Wesley, wife of Methodism’s founder Charles Wesley, who wrote, “Tis certainly inconsistent with the justice and goodness of God to lay any man under a physical or moral necessity of committing sin, and then to punish him for doing it.”
Grace and Peace,