Monday, October 10, 2016

More Complicated Than It Appears

Cause and effect are not simple things.

Lots of people would really like them to be. Whether an effect is ultimately good, bad, or a little bit of both, they would like the question “Who did it?” to have a single, obvious answer.

John Calvin taught a deterministic view of the universe that remains exceedingly popular in Christian circles today — largely, I think, because of its simplicity. It reduced all causes to … God.

Plain and Simple

Calvin said simple, clear things like this:
“Those who have learned from the mouth of Christ that all the hairs of his head are numbered (Matthew 10:30), will … hold that all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God.”
Then there’s this, from the Institutes of the Christian Religion:
“[God] so overrules all things that nothing happens without his counsel.”
That’s a very simple view of the universe: if something happened, God did it. You can feel free to turn off your brain now.

Equally Simple but Slightly More Defiant

At the other extreme is pop songwriter Charlotte Eriksson, who says:
“Hear that people? It feels good
because I am the slave and ruler of my own body
and I wish to do with it exactly as I please.”
That’s simple too. You are the ultimate cause. As Eriksson says elsewhere, “All I wanted was my art and the chance to be the creator of my own world, my own reality.”

(Yeah, yeah, I know: I could have set Calvin against Jacobus Arminius. But where’s the fun in that? Also, Arminius was not as extreme in his views as some Calvinists would make him out to be.)

Eriksson’s view is as clear and simple as Calvin’s. One ultimate cause: Me. My will, my choice. And just like Calvin and the Reformed congregations that propagate his philosophy today, lots of people are fans of Eriksson’s take.

But nothing is that simple.

It Was From the Lord

For the pagan, no proof of his own ability to create and control his own world is required. He merely asserts it and to him it is so. So I won’t waste a lot of time arguing with Charlotte Eriksson. Something she can’t control will prove her wrong eventually. Cancer, maybe. One hopes not.

But those who hold to Calvin’s dictum about “all events whatsoever” being governed by the secret counsel of God must wonder (assuming they observe such things) why the writers of scripture constantly make distinctions like this one:
“But Samson said to his father, ‘Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes.’ His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines.”
Aha, says the Calvinist triumphantly, “It was from the Lord! You see?”

Hmm. If so, why single it out? Why make the statement at all?

The Exception, Not the Norm

It sounds to me like an exception, not a general rule. The very fact that a writer of scripture makes it a point to note that “Jehovah hardened the heart of Pharaoh”, or that King Rehoboam “did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word”, or that (prophetically), “God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false” carries with it the implication that, normally speaking, God doesn’t.

He doesn’t harden all hearts at all times. He is not in every instance the reason rulers do not listen to their people. He is not actively and personally responsible for every delusion under heaven. If he did and if he were, then the phrase “This was from God” and its equivalents would be so hopelessly redundant that no writer of scripture would bother to employ them.

The obvious inference drawn by any mind not absolutely conditioned to see determinism always and everywhere is that direct interventions by God in the affairs of man are exceptional, not normative.

Right in My Eyes

That’s not so simple. And the writer of Samson’s story tells us the Philistine wife was Samson’s choice as well as God’s. “She is right in my eyes,” he told his parents.

So both statements are true. Samson made a bad choice because he saw a girl who attracted him. Who hasn’t done the same? And God both anticipated Samson’s bad choice and used his choice as part of his larger purpose.

Perhaps God even singled out Samson’s particular genetic package prior to his birth precisely because it carried with it the propensity for the chaos and bad choice-making for which Samson is primarily known. And supposing Samson had managed to conquer this particular instance of lust through self-control and conscious obedience to God, it’s very possible he would later have fallen prey to a similar temptation about which it could equally be said, “It was from the Lord”.

All of that may be easily conceded by those of us who reject Calvin’s “all events whatsoever” thesis.

More Complicated Than It Appears

But to make God approve of Samson’s choice — to make God initiate that choice, or to aver that Samson’s sin itself was God’s will and not just the sin’s consequences — is to go well beyond what scripture actually says here. Did the Lord need to make Samson sin to accomplish his will? He surely did not.

The reality is simply more complicated than it appears at first glance.

We should not be satisfied with easy answers. Perhaps it would even be prudent to recognize that many of the answers lie beyond the capacity of some (or all) of us to resolve at all.

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