October 27, 2015

Dear Christians: I always found it presumptuous to claim I knew the mind of God

My Dear Christians column may seem a bit of a weird place to espouse Christopher Hitchens, but I'd like to share a passage from God Is Not Great that struck me a few days ago. Hitchens wrote:

But still, what a difference ewhen one lays aside the strunuous believers and takes up the no less arduous work of a Darwin, say, or a Hawking or a Crick. These men are more enlightening when they are wrong, or when they display their inevitable biases, than any falsely modest person of faith who is vainly trying to square the circle and to explain how he, a mere creature of the Creator, can possibly know what the Creator intends. (p.8)

What struck me with this passage wasn't whether Hitchens was right or wrong (although I love that he acknowledge that even the brightest among scientists and other intellectuals have biases and make mistakes)--it was that this captured not really a feeling I have now (for what I am sure are obvious reasons), but rather a feeling I had as a Christian.

As a Christian, I was never comfortable with claims to know the mind of God. In fact, it often felt like the playing field was a little stacked against us--every denomination interprets the scripture differently, so it was hard to see how any one of them could be right.

I'll give an example. We were, as you're aware if you've been a reader of this blog for a while, Baptists. As Baptists, we were strictly encouraged not to drink. Drinking was a sin in our particular flavor of Christianity--and so, we did not drink. But the Methodists in town did allow alcohol and did drink. In many respects, they were the same as us--but in this one, not so much. And yet each of our sects found substantial support for the doctrine in the same book of Scriptures.

This is but one example, but it point to the source of my discomfort with claiming to know the mind of God. If all of us could read the same scriptures, and yet interpret it in different ways, how was anyone to know what was right?

I posed this question to a youth pastor once, and he explained that we would know in our hearts. But to me, that seemed a fallible way of validating the doctrine. After all, plenty of people knew things in their heart are true that I disagreed with. For instance, I had a friend who was Jewish. Despite my continued attempts to evangelize her, she stayed Jewish because she knew in her heart that Jesus was not the Messiah, and that the Messiah was still to come. And I knew in my heart that Jesus WAS the Messiah. We couldn't both be right, because either Jesus was the Messiah or he wasn't, and yet by the standard of that youth pastor, we both were.

Making a claim to know the mind of God seemed presumptuous indeed to me. We were told that God worked in mysterious ways, that we didn't always understand him, that we couldn't understand him because we were limited and he was limitless. In such circumstances, it seemed like I would be a fool to try to fathom what his plans or expectations were.

"Personal conviction" was another term that was thrown around when I attempted to make sense of this feeling. Personal conviction was the idea that God would convict people in certain areas that were weaknesses for them, personally, but that weren't necessarily sins. Rather, these areas just represented places where that person could fall into temptation more easily than another. These then weren't strict prohibitions--they were personalized accommodations intended to prevent a person from sinning if they only took note of them.

We had a pastor once, for example, who didn't say going to the movies was a sin, but he was personally convicted against going to the movies. That means that all the congregants were free to go to the movies, but he would never do so himself.

This too seemed slippery to me: after all, even personal convictions couldn't account for all of the differences between the various denominations. I mean, of course the biggies were dealt with--Catholics were worshipping idols, Mormons were deceived, Jehovah's Witnesses were entirely confused. But it didn't really touch on the differences between the Protestant sects that seemed really normal to me. Why have Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc, if we all believed essentially the same thing, and personal convictions could account for the rest?

I will spare you the details of how I tried to rephrase this conundrum for myself, but even today, it strikes me when people claim to know the mind of their supposed Creator. Marriage equality was a great example of this for me, both as a Christian and as an apostate. There were churches on both sides of marriage equality. There were those decrying legal marriage for same-sex couples, and there were those--like the United Church of Christ in North Carolina--arguing that bans on performing the legal ceremonies for their congregants was a burden on their religious liberty, since they saw no issue with these unions. When you have churches on both sides of the issue, who is right?

For me, this is one of the reasons that the separation of church and state is critical. That neutral ground protects all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs.

It often feels like where I am, that's a minority viewpoint...and that is really when it hits me that we are arrogant creatures, especially if we believe in an all-mighty, unfathomable Creator and then presume to know what that being wants and expects of us in any meaningful way.

That's not a claim I want to make.

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