We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, April 9, 2012

God as an Agent in History

The graph on the left comes from a news posting on the Christianity Today website entitled, "Polling Evangelicals: God Causes Disasters, U.S. Should Help Victims," which was posted at the end of March.  It shows that the majority of American Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, and Catholics believe that God controls everything that happens in the world.  In the case of evangelicals, over 80% agree.  This, even though the belief has no biblical basis and makes little sense.

From Genesis through to Revelation, the problem posed in scripture is God's troubled relationship with a free humanity, which persists in abusing its freedom and God's creation.  Far from controlling everything, the biblical God is portrayed as a sovereign in search of a kingdom.  The Christian understanding of sin (rebellion against God) makes no sense if God controls "everything that happens in the world."

Indeed, from a philosophical and logical point of view, what would be the point of creation if God controls everything that happens?  If that were so, God is necessarily the perpetrator of every suffering, injustice, and evil that ever has been or ever will be.  If God controls everything, then every action we take is justified because it is caused by God.  Now, some more subtle believers in this doctrine will say that God has given humanity free will, but God is still in control.  God sets boundaries on free will and can withdraw free will at any time, and "he" who can withdraw a thing controls that thing.  This subtlety gets us nowhere.  It still leaves God being responsible for every action of every human being.  In this scenario, free will is still contingent on divine consent, which is the free will of a dog on a leash not an eagle soaring in the wind.

In scripture, by way of contrast, God created humanity with the possibility of unbounded freedom, and humanity broke free from its leash to claim that freedom—at the price of the loss of Eden.  And in our own experience as a race, we know that we are more than just our genetic coding.  We are more than just our cultural heritage.  We know that individually and together we have the power to construct our own social and cultural realities.  Evolution is a process that is both free and constrained at the same time—constrained by a set of unbending principles and processes that define the rules by which we play the evolutionary game.  Life as we know it is thus free and constrained all at the same time, but constraint by the boundaries of our created nature is different from being controlled by God.  God, to draw on a sports analogy, created the playing field and the rules by which the game is played, but God does not determine who wins and loses.  We are free to play the game for ourselves.  The problem addressed in scripture is this: we don't play fair.  We are free, and God is not in control.