God’s Will

When something happens to us or to others and we say it is God’s will, so often we aren’t just saying God meant for that to happen, but that it happened for a reason we know and can discern.

As a result, an illusory structure—along with many unsupportable assumptions—is thrown over our life, and the lives of others. This supposed knowledge inevitably allows us to justify, or just be indifferent to, cruelty inflicted on others, or on ourselves.

We end up using the phrase “God’s will” as a vague catch-all to think less, to explain everything, to feel comforted, and to give assurance that there is always a humanly perceptible relationship between our actions and what happens to us, when in fact there rarely is.

If divine will, or simply cause and effect, are behind human events, it is behind them in such a way that our minds cannot comprehend it, and never will, let alone comprehend it well enough to justify treating ourselves or others inhumanely.

***

To give some examples from our personal lives:

If we become gravely ill, if we go through a long series of treatments and die, if we go through a long series of treatments and live—all of this is attributed to God’s will. In hindsight, it’s all always God’s will, no matter what happens, and in hindsight we know exactly what God meant to do.

Or: If our candidate wins an election, or loses—regardless, both are attributed to some human notion of God’s will; and if it’s the latter, we find some way to “make sense” of the loss as God’s will, and create a narrative that teaches a lesson God supposedly intended. And since religious people enjoy the appearance of being persecuted, there is nothing more predictable the day after losing an election than a faithful candidate or voter quoting a scripture and saying they will persevere, and that God is testing (or even punishing) them. This reaction is even more destructive, since now there is no reason to really wonder why they lost, there is no reason for introspection or a possible change of attitude, since losing had nothing to do with their actions and was probably intended by God all along.

Or: When a natural disaster or terrorist attack or traffic accident occurs, survivors always say it was God’s will they survived. But this vague notion made with flimsy words has to also support the reverse: that it was God’s will someone else drown, or be murdered. The limitations of our language and intellect, along with our perfectly human and perfectly understandable belief in a personal God with whom we can have a human-like relationship, unfortunately lends itself to the notion of a very human looking deity shielding one person while allowing the destruction of another. What is actually a mystery we will never penetrate instead becomes a human certainty concerning a human-looking God doing something that, in human terms, is reprehensible. This regrettable way of thinking about God can, and always has—and continues—to do away with the faith of many people. Or, it makes fervent believers more arrogant, more judgmental, more strident, more and more human the more they think they know the mind of the divine.

It is, after all, a human desire to see all of our ups and downs as part of a meaningful narrative. It is also a human impulse to want—but not the job of religion to provide—meaning cleanly and obviously, or for our lives to “make sense” like a movie or a novel. Nor is it the purpose of religion to create easy meaning and easy equations and easy narratives we can use as an excuse to treat other people—let alone ourselves—awfully.

The power of religion is that it can help us find meaning amid apparent chaos, and help us persevere along with everyone else.

***

For examples of other worldwide events, I will turn to a handful of quotations from George C. Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War. As I read it, I saw it contained a small pamphlet’s worth of contemporary quotations on just this topic, of the perils of pretending to interpret God’s will. The interested reader can probably compile a similar collection from any other conflict or point in history:

 

Slavery & Scripture

Slavery, of course, was thought to be Biblically sanctioned by equating the darker skinned races with the descendants of Noah’s cursed son Ham. As Rable writes, “The biblical curse of Ham that cosigned Africans to permanent inferiority—an idea that could be traced back not only to rabbinical teachings but to the early church fathers—rested on thin textual evidence and required a great leap of logic to tie the incident involving Noah’s son to any race at all, but that hardly prevented everyone from Brigham Young to conservative Presbyterians from trotting it out when needed.”[i]

Eight months after the war’s end, the Southern Presbyterian General Assembly refused to condemn slavery as a sin, and said doing so would be “unscriptural and fanatical”[ii] since Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had all been slaveholders. Similarly, one Louisiana woman, hearing a slave being whipped, wrote in her diary that “surely God will not wink at such cruelty.”[iii] Both passed the responsibility for slavery from the human beings who enacted it and witnessed it, to the God they believed allowed it or would take the responsibility for punishing and stopping it.

One Georgia Lutheran said, “I look upon the secession of the southern states as the grandest, most noble and chivalrous, patriotic and Godlike achievement ever effected by any oppressed people in the word.”[iv] That such a sentiment could be proclaimed without mentioning the very people the South were enslaving shows better than anything the great evil, the great blindness, the great arrogance that can be created within an entire people, thanks to religious certainty.

This while an Alabama preacher said to Robert E. Lee’s army, in part, “Abolish the institution of slavery, and your children and my children must take the place of that institution…. In our country, color is the distinction of classes—the only real distinction. Here the rich man and poor man and their families are equals in every important respect.”[v] Here, the elaborate theology justifying slavery is put to no better use than to uphold class distinctions—class distinctions, it’s worth adding, that slaveholders had created themselves, and were then forced to justify. But this is how it is—if the initial issue of slavery is seen as “God’s will,” anything following must be as well. Anything and everything becomes “God’s will,” so long as it you agree with it.

One of the finest examples of this blindness comes from a sermon delivered in Savannah, Georgia, on September 18, 1862, by Stephen Elliott. For him, God had “caused the African race to be planted here under our political protection and under christian nurture, [and would preserve it] until the fullness of his own times.” Elliott went on to say that slavery “is a divinely guarded system, planted by God, protected by God, and arranged for his own wise purposes.”[vi] Again, human choices and actions and intentions mean nothing here. The plight of the slaves could not overshadow the notion that it was “God’s will” that slavery should exist.

Rable sums it up masterfully, in a quotation that could be placed, again, in the context of many other conflicts and periods of history:

The relentless, often careless application of biblical typologies to national problems, the ransacking of scripture for parallels between ancient and modern events produced a nationalistic theology at once bizarre, inspiring, and dangerous. Favorite scripture passages offered meaning and hope to a people in the darkest hours and, at the same time, justified remorseless bloodshed.[vii]

And it still does now. Religious people today like to point out that Christians in America and England helped abolish slavery in both of those countries; but the real question is how Christianity could be used—and convincingly so, and for so long—to uphold and defend it, and how religion can still be used today to justify intolerance and war.

 

Seeing God’s Will in Everything

Rable opens his book in August, 1864, with Confederate Presbyterian Amasa Converse, who explains away the length of the war and the extent of its carnage as merely a matter of Confederate impiety—which did not include slavery. Rable writes: “The first great Confederate victory at Manassas in July 1861 had followed an official day of prayer. But then a period of spiritual indifference during the fall and winter had preceded disastrous losses in Tennessee. The southern people again fell to their knees during the spring of 1862, and Richmond had been delivered from General George B. McLellan’s mighty hosts. Other victories had followed, but too much faith had been placed in generals and armies, and so once again God’s favor had temporarily departed….” and so on throughout the entire war, until “following a fast day on April 8, 1864, southern armies had enjoyed a nearly ‘unbroken’ string of successes.”[viii]

Rable does not record Amasa’s reflections when the war ended and the South had undeniably lost, but once again, bloodshed and horrendous suffering was set at the feet of the simplest and easiest of culprits—a non-human one. Responsibility had shifted from human arrogance to divine will, this since the call for more piety, while appearing humble, was actually just as arrogant and murderous, since it removed the larger responsibility for continued death and destruction from human hands. Quite conveniently and cowardly, as today, human beings were largely seen as powerless to stop the violence they themselves were enacting.

Similarly, victories were seen as signs of God’s favor: after the Battle of Port Republic, General Stonewall Jackson famously remarked, “General, he who does not see the hand of God in this is blind, Sir, blind!”[ix] More telling, though, were how losses and setbacks were also seen as signs God’s favor. Later in the war, for instance, as the Southern cause began to look grim, a Presbyterian editor remarked that, “It would be extraordinary and unaccountable for God to pour out his blessing upon an army which was engaged in a lost cause,”[x] again mistaking temporal success for divine favor, and again removing the need to think too much: success means God likes you, and failure means he doesn’t—but maybe not, since if you fail for a moment, it’s just a test, because in the end God really does favor you.

The North was capable of such theological juggling as well: after they lost the first Battle of Bull Run, and while Confederate preachers saw this as a sign of God’s favor, Connecticut Congregationalist Horace Bushnell was able to say there “must be reverses and losses,” since without the “shedding of blood there is no such grace prepared.”[xi] While this is a genuine and perhaps wise observation on the nature of sacrifice, in this context such notions only got more young men killed.

Sometimes people were even more presumptuous, as when Confederate General William Nelson Pendleton, in a letter to his family, compared the Southern cause and their setbacks to the passion and death of Jesus: “And if, for such purposes, although impenetrable to us, He sees fit to allow our enemies to triumph, we can, I hope, submit to Him… as did our Savior under the hands of his enemies,—‘Not my will, but thine, be done.’”[xii]

As Rable writes, “Faith in one’s cause became a circular argument for God’s favor,”[xiii] as it always has. Later on he says,

[T]heologically questionable and logically slipshod interpretations of the war produced dogmatic assertions of providential intent. In doing so, the chief defenders of such a position, Union or Confederate, ironically left the door open for other, and, to their minds, less congenial understandings of divine purpose.”[xiv]

In this sentence, the entire unfortunate history of religious interpretations and their false application (and all the violence they encourage) are summed up.

Fortunate as they were to have two military geniuses on their side, the South’s adulation for men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson became fraught with theological difficulty. One Virginia woman was sure that “God leads Jackson and Jackson his men, just where it is best they should go”; yet she worried that, “[i]f we idolize him, he will be taken from us.”[xv] After Jackson was killed in battle, his own sister-in-law thought the same: “They made an idol of him, and God has rebuked them,”[xvi] while Tennessean Eliza Fain warned of excessive veneration for Robert E. Lee: “God will be honored,” she said, “and if we in any way rob him of the honor and glory due to him alone he will bring us to see the evil of our ways.”[xvii] Here, human violence—which human beings started and could have stopped—was buried under not just piety, but paranoia over impiety, assumptions about being on God’s side, and also in not making that favoring God mad, since he might swipe at you at any moment.

God was blamed and praised for everything, and the possibility of human actions bringing an end to the conflict human beings had started was rendered impossible: a Maine volunteer was sure not that soldiers and generals and careful reflection would bring peace, but only that God would, “in His own good time and way.”[xviii] Hearing of the fall of one Southern city, Tennessean Ellen Renshaw House stated her certainty this way: “Surely this state [of affairs] cannot last much longer. God will not permit it.”[xix] Meanwhile, Northern soldiers at Gettysburg “credited God with providing the Army of the Potomac a strong defensive position along Cemetery Ridge and even arranging the tactical deployments.”[xx] And a Virginia Baptist, echoing thousands on both sides, could say that the illnesses of soldiers—fevers, rheumatism, or a cough—“came not by accident.”[xxi]

While it might seem unfair to nitpick at such statements, it was just these sentiments, and the religious beliefs which allowed them, that brought so much suffering. As Rable writes

Such confidence in the workings of providence greatly simplified the understanding of everything from bloody battles to individual deaths. It offered comfort and reassurance but also laid the groundwork for disappointment, disillusionment, and even the loss of faith.[xxii]

As it still does today. Only recently, an actor who had won an award thanked God, “because that’s who I look up to. He’s graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand.”[xxiii] This is not to denigrate the actor’s faith in God, only his assumption that there is a connection between his faith and his success, and a connection between other actors’ failure and their (apparent) lack of faith. And worse, since almost immediately that quote was found online beside pictures of God saying, “Sorry Africa, got to make sure he gets his award.” Such cheap shots at religion are only possible when religion itself is cheapened.

 

Actual Wisdom

On many occasions in Rable’s book, actual wisdom—that is, actual humility, uncertainty—is found.

The wisest among them come from Abraham Lincoln, who said of the South a full six years before the war, “They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.”[xxiv]

Following Lincoln’s assassination, the Reverend Charles Robinson remarked (“with a modesty all too rare in the clerical fraternity,” Rable says), “I do not know the meaning of this awful transaction”; this while a Wisconsin chaplain, attempting to console his soldiers, simply said, “let silence speak.”[xxv]

An Illinois surgeon, refusing all easy piety and all garrulous and pious patriotism, simply said, “There is no God in war. It is merciless cruel, vindictive, unchristian, savage, relentless. It is all devils could wish for.”[xxvi]

And here is part of an editorial that appeared in the Charleston Mercury in November, 1864: “Human reason is incompetent to [explain] the ways of God to man, and therefore humility, submission and trust are the heights of wisdom.”[xxvii]

And in response to those who welcomed war and welcomed the glory of it and assumed prosperity was a sign of God’s approval, one Virginia Baptist said, “The Lord’s purpose toward his people in this world is not to make them happy but to make them holy,”[xxviii] a holiness that probably had little to do with temporal affluence or success.

There was also the Confederate Episcopal Bishop Richard H. Wilmer, who, Rable says, “rejected the idea of praying for the southern cause with the expectation that God could be bought off like some ‘mercenary.’”[xxix]

And there was the Presbyterian Charles Hodge, who remarked that God doesn’t offer “worldly prosperity … not dominion over nations, but the forgiveness of sin, the renewal of the heart, reconciliation with God, and eternal life.”[xxx] This while another Presbyterian, Robert J. Breckinridge, accusing fanatics North and South both, wrote of “the destructive extent to which religious opinion can be made to take the prevailing hue of a fierce enthusiasm, or an intolerant fanaticism, which reigns around it.”[xxxi]

Finally, Rable writes that Confederate Vice President, and Georgia Senator, Alexander Stephens, “who was melancholic enough under normal circumstances, took to reading the book of Job before breakfast.”[xxxii] This is about the wisest thing anyone could do, especially assuming that if Stephens brooded over the war and its meaning, he perhaps imagined himself as Job’s self-righteous and certain friends, and not as the bewildered sufferer. But this is unlikely.

As Rable stresses again and again, “Americans exhibited much more spiritual hubris than spiritual reflection,”[xxxiii] and it’s worth emphasizing, again and again, that the cheapest and most popular and most rampant forms of religion have been in the service of hubris rather than reflection, arrogance rather than humility, certainty rather than uncertainty, condemnation rather than understanding, and hatred rather than empathy.

The worst of religion allows for all of this, and more, and gives permission for every evil act, from the smallest personal slight, to the beginnings of discrimination, to violence towards those who are different from us in any way, to the transformation of other human beings into animals or objects or less-than-human, or just personifications for our own fears and insecurities, and finally to actual war, to actual destruction, to genocide, to endless rivers of blood—all of which are justified by and described as variations on “God’s will.”

But if God’s ways are inscrutable and mysterious and impossible to know, then they are inscrutable, mysterious, and impossible to know. And when faced with seventy years of life on earth, filled with many experiences but few answers, there is only humility; and after humility, empathy for the suffering and the lonesome all around us, since they too are in a world without answers.

This kind of world requires humility and companionship and empathy even more, does it not?

 

[i] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 15 (also 35).

[ii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 392.

[iii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 278.

[iv] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 53.

[v] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 279.

[vi] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 190.

[vii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 4.

[viii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 1.

[ix] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 138.

[x] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 307.

[xi] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 79.

[xii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 273.

[xiii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 68.

[xiv] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 224.

[xv] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 138.

[xvi] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 263.

[xvii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 263.

[xviii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 203.

[xix] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 361.

[xx] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 268.

[xxi] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 173.

[xxii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 264.

[xxiii] Matthew McConaughey, accepting an Oscar in 2014; found here: http://www.vulture.com/2014/03/read-mcconaugheys-very-mcconaughey-oscar-speech.html.

[xxiv] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 22.

[xxv] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 377.

[xxvi] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 342.

[xxvii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 348.

[xxviii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 153.

[xxix] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 308.

[xxx] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 26.

[xxxi] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 48.

[xxxii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 389.

[xxxiii] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 56.

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