I usually feel a sort of resurgence after worship services. Our pastor speaks on a wide variety of subjects, applying scripture and faith in often creative and insightful ways. But he becomes animated, passionate when he even tangentially touches on human worth. You are worth it, he seems always to be reinforcing.
I spoke with him briefly about it last night. I was dropping some materials off for Sunday service and we happened upon each other. I told him that I felt the emphasis was a little different with him. The message I hear between the words from many mainstream churches is kind of a downer. God loves you in spite of the fact that you are a miserable insignificant little wretch.
The contrasting emphasis I hear on most Sundays from our preacher, even if it is not explicit, is that you have within you a hardcore worth that even you cannot see. God sees in you an irreducible value that cannot be touched by anything you say or do. You are worthwhile, you are valued. And there is nothing you can do about it.
I suppose each pastor has a basic theme to his message, born of personal experience and inclination. The previous pastor dealt a lot with healing. He was uplifting in a different way. He touched a different chord.
What troubles many people of faith is the problem of evil in the world. In my case, the barrier was always the evil I could perceive within myself. I spoke once with a preacher in the Washington, DC, area about that. He was a leader within a more conservative part of the faith. Yes, he said thoughtfully, that's what troubles me, evil in the world and evil in myself.
The pastor here, the previous pastor, the one whose emphasis was on healing, sometimes confronted such issues directly. One traditional answer to evil has been that we do not know why God allows suffering to happen, evil to triumph, even if temporarily. But we must have faith that there is a reason. After all, Jesus himself suffered and died as a part of God's plan. Well, okay I suppose.
But the pastor back then was not ready to agree with that. He spoke a bit of free will, then he made what to me was a startling challenge to conventional faith. I don't believe, he said, that God wanted Jesus to be crucified.
The implication I got was that the tragic suffering was, at least in part, a willingness to pay a price in respect for freedom to make a choice.
When it comes to the theological question of evil in the world, my way of dealing is not to deal, at least not with the question. I don't engage enough, but when I do engage, the situation itself is enough to preoccupy me. It isn't a decision or a conscious approach. My focus, when I think about it, is more on what I should do in response to what I see and experience. God's reasons, being incomprehensible to me, are left for another day. Not exactly chicken salad. But not really what is left in the barnyard as chickens roost. Maybe somewhere between.
Many conservatives are pretty happy with God's-will-be-done theology. That old-time religion is good enough for them. Especially those who have gotten forward toward prosperity. You don't have to have an actual disdain for those who bear the brunt in life. You don't have to maintain, as do some, that those who are crushed down by life's burdens lack the moral character to rise up. The will of God theology may afflict the afflicted. But it serves to comfort the comfortable. We can bask in the rewards as God bestows blessings on the deserving: we, of course, being among the deserving.
Recent debate remarks by Richard Mourdock, Republican Senate candidate from Indiana, were a bit startling, but they were not unconventional within a certain conservative strain of Christian thought. He confesses to having struggled with the question evil. His answer carried a sort of finality to it. Doubts erased, certainty come to life in some I-came-to-realize epiphany about the tragedy of rape.
I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.
He later protested that his words had been twisted out their intended meaning. It was not rape that God had willed. It was, rather, pregnancy.
The outrage that followed represents the political problem for Republicans as theological pondering, troubling questions of private faith, become public policy.
When a religious discussion is held about the point at which human life begins, absurdities are examined with a sort of dispassionate disconnect. Life, being a continuum with very few clearly marked points, is not so easily defined. Religious folk can, and some do, envision life as beginning even earlier than conception. That is why any form of birth control can be a matter of troubled conscience.
But societal practicality, actual legal effect, need not intrude on a pin and angel question, even an important one, when it does not go beyond a private decision.
But when a legislative decision is made about the point at which human life begins, practicalities become horrifyingly real. If sperm-meets-egg is the point at which a human life is regarded as fully formed, abortion becomes criminal. Each miscarriage is a potential case of manslaughter. In vitro involves murder, and many forms of contraception are a holocaust. If an egg fails to meet the wall of a uterus, a human being has died. For every birth, dozens of such deaths come naturally. Keeping one of those dozens from reaching that wall becomes an unconscionable killing. Every sexually active woman becomes suspect.
Just how far the law must go in protecting the sanctity of life is a question of how far we can compromise with an absolute. Will there be exceptions? Life of the mother? Rape? Incest?
Even those exceptions carry a legislated price. In Pennsylvania, a law has been introduced dealing with rape. A victim who actually does submit to Richard Mourdock's form of severe conservatism, and later applies for state aid to help care for a child after giving birth, must prove to the satisfaction of skeptical authorities that she was actually raped.
When important theologically based ethics acquire the brutal force of law, the nature of society and equality are changed. Women, under law, are to be regarded as subordinate to decisions made by others on behalf of a single celled cytoblast. After all, someone has to make decisions for those not yet capable of defending their own rights.
Might as well be your local conservative activist.
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