I’ve been reading a lot of Luther lately. He makes the point over and over that human reason is insufferably arrogant in its attempts to understand God; God’s actions may sometimes appear absurd to us, but it is not our place to judge. Faith, he says, includes believing in the goodness of God even if he decides to damn everyone; it is presumptuous of reason to question God’s mercy based on the fact that some end up in hell, even if they had no possibility of doing otherwise. Luther, like Augustine, in asserting the priority of grace over freedom (we do not have the power to opt for faith; God must work that in us), has no solution to the question of why God elects some and not others. For him, that decision is part of the hidden will of God, and it is not our place to pry into such matters.
I hear similar sentiments sometimes expressed by members of the Church. “It’s that way because that’s how God has chosen to do it, and who are we to second-guess God?” I have a difficult time with such an approach. On the one hand, I do think it’s tremendously important to acknowledge that God’s perspective is much, much broader than ours, that of course things aren’t always going to make sense to us. But I also think it’s crucial to continually place our understanding of God’s will in dialogue with our conscience, our own sense of right and wrong. The latter is admittedly culturally-bound and fallible, but I think it’s worth remembering that the former is as well.
I also think that there is sometimes a bit of a double standard with this. For example, I’ve occasionally heard comments in church about the troubling implications of the practice of infant baptism, that it suggests a God who is unjust and therefore not to be trusted. In other words, a practice is critiqued on the basis that it makes God appear unfair to our understanding– despite the fact that our understanding is inherently limited. Likewise, people in other religious traditions who worry about what is going to happen to their loved ones who died without having heard of Christ, and who dislike the idea that such people could end up in hell, are likely to be told by Mormons that such concerns are valid and important and worth addressing. Yet when Church members struggle with aspects of our own tradition that seem unjust to them, that perhaps hurt them as deeply as the mother who is told she must believe that her deceased unbaptized child is forever locked out of heaven, they are often told that they simply need to accept that this is how God does things, and it is not our place to object.
Perhaps one reason why we’re given multiple ways of accessing truth– scripture, personal revelation, church authority, conscience, reason– is that they serve as checks and balances on each other. It doesn’t make sense to me that God would give us the more internal ways of discerning truth and then expect us to automatically discount them if they conflict with more external communications (or the reverse). I don’t have an easy answer about what to do when some of these come into sharp conflict with each other. But I don’t think the solution is to say “that’s just how things are,” and dismiss further discussion of such matters as illegitimate and irrelevant.
- 3 May 2006