Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rejecting the Rules

During my first semester of college, I attended a discussion between an Evangelical campus minister and an agnostic Religion professor (who is now a Unitarian pastor). After answering the question of what drew him toward the person of Christ, the professor was asked to explain what drew him away from Christ. A mere two months after 9/11, the issue of the suffering of the innocent came immediately to his mind.

“I understand all your arguments about free will and sin,” he interjected when dozens of hands shot up around the room to respond with their attempts to justify the ways of evil to man. “I understand that if the rules demand an option of evil to prevent us from being puppets, then a good God would give us the option, and that the choice of evil hurts all of creation, even the innocent. I understand retributive justice and atonement theology and eschatological justice at the world’s end. If those are the rules, then I guess that’s just the way it is.”

He paused, and then said something that still haunts me ten years later. “But... God made the rules. If something seems terrible, we have to accept it as the way the world works, but God made the way the world works. I know you’re going to tell me it wasn’t the way he intended it to be and explain a comprehensive system to understand evil, and I couldn’t necessarily tell you a different way it could have been. But I imagine that God could have. I don’t actually reject God; I just reject those rules, and I suppose if you equate them with God then it would look to you that I am rejecting him.”

Though I wouldn’t recognize it until years later, there was something of Job’s challenge to God in his words, and something of his friends’ rationalization of suffering in our theological responses. It was fitting that it came from someone on the outside, as it were, just as Job himself was outside the people of Israel. In any case, I started to wonder on that November evening if the professor’s demands for God’s goodness were more in keeping of faith than our canned acquittals were.

I bumped into that old professor this week in cyberspace. I don’t have the answer to those questions of ten years ago, but I am grateful for the way he helped me distinguish between my faith in Christ and a closed system of rationalizations that looks cold from the outside.


Mary S said...

Em, Your post reminds me (and may be related to) the problem with organized religion in general. So much of the “rules” of a religion is just as your prof described his problem with “God.” For too much of organized religion the rules must be followed, regardless of the humans and care for humanity involved. Too much of organized religion would have one follow the rules to the detriment of the person in too many cases. I am thinking one example: the recent excommunication by the bishop of Phoenix of Sister Margaret McBride and the denial of the use of the word “Catholic” in the hospital name in Phoenix in the case of the pregnant woman who would have died if she had not had an abortion. The bishop would rather have 2 deaths than save the life of the one person who had other children to care for.
This is only one such example among many other kinds (not just that of abortion) of examples where organized religion as the “spokesperson” (a corporate person, of course) would rather follow the rules than care for the humanity of the persons involved in sticky human situations.
I tend to think that it is a push for power by the people in charge that is at the crux of the problem. MCS

Em the luddite said...


As someone who just joined the Catholic Church a year ago, I certainly don't mean to sound like I'm attacking organized religion (in general or particular). The context of my use of the word "rules" had more to do with theological systems of justifying suffering, not regulations of practical morality.

I hadn't heard of the story from Phoenix. It sounds like a very painful situation, and I can understand the thinking on both sides. I pray for grace for all those involved: sister/mother/bishop. God have mercy on us all.

By the way, I try (perhaps with limited success) to keep strong indictments of those with differing opinions off my blog (internet blogs have a tendency to fall into harsh polemics, and I'm quite sensitive to that). I'm grateful for feedback and comments, but please be gentle in your treatment of those who think differently. I try at least to do the same, and you're welcome to call me out when I don't succeed! :)

All my best,