Wednesday, July 15, 2009

This posting is in reply to the following column in the News-Leader:  Religion Requires Faith

Does God Control Anything?

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       In his essay (“Religion essentially requires faith…,” Springfield News-Leader July 13, 2009) Mark Thieme asks a provocative question: “If man’s free will comes from God, does that preclude God’s free will in allowing consequences?” Thieme assumes that human beings have free will. Traditional believers can only explain human-on-human evil in the world by affirming free will—God allows us do whatever we want, even if it means harming ourselves and others—a fairly obvious conclusion, it seems to me. God, on the other hand, must accept the blame for “natural” evil (hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc.). At least traditional believers think God can control the weather; were it otherwise they would not pray for good weather. Thieme also insists that even God has free will, and therefore does not have to protect us from ourselves; hence we suffer from our own wickedness. That is the nature of our human condition.

       My question is a little different: if God lets us do what we want, how can anyone affirm that God is in charge of anything? Even the weather appears to have free will, if one judges by “natural” disasters and the general unpredictability of the weather. Traditional believers accommodate natural disaster by appealing to “God’s permissive will”—God did not cause the hurricane that destroyed New Orleans, rather God just let it happen (for undisclosed reasons). Apparently Mother Nature does what she wants within some very broad guidelines! Darwin’s evolution theory fits this situation quite well, since its only logic is survival of the fittest. The forces of nature are not benign, but threaten our very survival. Indeed, all earth creatures must daily accommodate Mother Nature’s erratic “moods” (and prayer seems to have little influence) or perish—and that is the nature of our human condition as well.

       God did much better manipulating nature in Bible times. Since the Enlightenment of the 18th century, however, God has not done as well with nature—perhaps, because the Enlightenment was marked by the rise of science and reliance on human reason. So Thieme and I are at least partially agreed: God does not manipulate us (perhaps with the exception of the “Holy Spirit,” as some believe), and God does not usually interfere with Mother Nature. So what is it that God controls?

       Traditional believers, however, think that God is “in absolute control,” and there is no end of praying about personal health problems, economic difficulties, the weather, etc.! Maybe traditional believers are correct and God, responding to prayers, occasionally does intrude and manipulate, for the better, our wayward sons and daughters, famines, disease, tidal waves, ice storms, etc. But every one of us, in honest moments, recognizes such responses are rare, if at all—although a million stories about the answered prayers of others exist. If true, however, God’s management style must be described as management by benign neglect, marked by rare periods of selective crisis intervention—or perhaps God is, after all, only a spectator.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 8:02pm

Hi Dr. Hedrick:

As I was driving through the university campus where my wife teaches today, a student suddenly stepped into a crosswalk and nearly walked into my car. Fortunately, we both spotted each other in time to prevent an accident. This made me think, "If I had killed him, it would have been unintentional, so what would God‘s role have been in this event? Assuming the accident had actually occurred, I suppose some people would argue that it was just part of God’s grand scheme (which we, of course, cannot currently see) and that, ultimately, God, being all-loving, will put everything right. But one could also argue that God acted cruelly in this case by not preventing the accident, right? One Christian I know tells me that some religious beliefs in these areas are naturally better than others, but I can’t avoid concluding that this is just a matter of opinion and one’s definition of what “better” means. Any thoughts on this?

Regards from Abilene, TX,
Posted by Lee Penya on 4/21/2010 at 3:03pm

Hi Lee,

My latest blog on the nature of religious truth would have to be my answer to your question, I think. All religious beliefs are relative in my opinion. And if a person is claiming absolute truth for some item of faith, it is cancelled out by another’s “absolute truth.” But I think I agree with your Christian friend: some religious beliefs are clearly better than others—in my opinion (and here I am agreeing with you, since someone may disagree with my ranking). But then we all have to make those value judgments for ourselves. You asked me “what would have been God’s role in this event?” (or non event as it actually was). And I would counter with why would you think God was involved at all? I suppose if one thinks that everything that happens is manipulated by God, one would have to answer the question, but if God is granted a little distance from the world (and it is not really hard to make that case—too many fumbled situations), then whatever happened might simply be chance.

Thanks for stretching my brain.


Posted by Charles Hedrick on 4/22/2010 at 3:15pm