Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Semi-Omnipotent God

Richard Mourdock has been getting a lot of press for some highly controversial comments he made about rape. In a recent posting, Sara Sentilles takes apart his argument, but not as most others have been. Most people speaking out against Mourdock have been focusing on how morally offensive the comments are. Sentilles instead focusses on how theologically, and logically, wrong-headed they are.

Underlying Mourdock's comments are the not-infrequently held belief that God is the ultimate Puppet Master. God is in complete, direct control of everything in our world. In the context of that belief, Murdoch's comments actually make a great deal of sense: God controls everything, and if a pregnancy results from rape, then God, ipso facto, made that pregnancy happen:
Imagine God up there looking down at the world and planning our days: Should the Giants go to the World Series or should it be the Cardinals? Giants. Should that woman make it through the intersection safely or should she wreck? Wreck. Should that child suffering from malaria live or should he die? Live. If God allows certain things to happen and prohibits others—if God intends certain things instead of others—then it follows that God approves of what God chooses. Then it follows that God intended you to get pregnant by being raped. He planned it; He asked for it; He wanted it.
I've spoken, many times, about the fact that you don't have to believe in that kind of a controlling God in order to be religious, or to be a believer. In fact, my theology, which is in no way similar to Mourdock's, was the topic of my Kol Nidrei sermon. I could talk at length (in fact, I have!) about why I think that that kind of a theology (which most people seem to think is "traditional" and therefore somehow better) is wrong. But, Sentilles point is that people like Murdoch themselves are often rather ambivalent about that theology, or at the very least, are unwilling to see it through. Are we really willing to look at all of the evils of the world, and declare them God's will (and, therefore, to imply that we shouldn't be intefering)?

The logic is circular: whatever happens, God meant it to happen. The very occurrence of something, then—snow, a home run, illness, rape—becomes its own kind of justification, a way to prove it’s what God wanted, which means all kinds of oppression can be cast as God’s will. So where does it end? What can’t be justified by appealing to God’s intention in this way? This essay? God intended it (as if that will stop all the hate mail I’m likely to get when this posts). Flood? God intended it. Pregnancy? God intended it. Environmental destruction? God intended it. Mass extinction? Hate crimes? Slavery? Genocide? God wanted it all.

Are we willing to accept the policy implications of this theology?
Would Mourdock call erectile dysfunction part of God’s plan? If a man can’t get it up is that God’s way of telling him not to reproduce? Not to have sex? And if it is, shouldn’t we make Viagra illegal? 
Ultimately, thinking like this relies on a theological mistake: the idea that we can really know God, or God's will, at all:
This is exactly why the notion of God as mystery appeals to me. Our words about God will always fall short. Because they’re our words, not God’s. We need, therefore, to be careful when we appeal to belief to justify any political position—because when we invoke God’s name, we don’t entirely know what we’re talking about.
If God is transcendent, then we can't really know God's will, or God's opinion on anything, with complete certainty. And, if God isn't transcendent, then God isn't really God. Either way, relying on God's will to frame policy is, shall we say, rather fraught. Combine that with our prohibition against establishing any religion as the law of the land, and you get to my favorite quote of the day:
"Every time a politician invokes a religious justification for a policy position, he or she should be compelled to articulate a non-religious one." -- Sarah Posner

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