Gods are no longer responsible for every natural event

Friday, Aug. 17, 2012 9:46 PM

“It is God’s will.” You may have heard this said in all kinds of circumstances — the illness or death of a loved one — financial crises — even loss due to natural disaster. You may have even said it yourself. If you run in more secular circles you’ve probably heard the less theologically-based version, “Everything happens for a reason.” In the sense that everything happens as a result of precipitating factors, of course, everything indeed happens for some reason. But does everything happen because, specifically, it has a particular place in some pre-determined grand plan?

I don’t raise this question to unsettle anyone or pull the spiritual rug out from underneath them. I understand we humans, at least in this culture, turn to sentiments like these to find comfort in painful situations ... to make sense out of that which is difficult to make sensible ... to answer the question “why.”I understand that we want to push back the chaos of our worlds — worlds in which, ultimately, we have little control. And so we put our faith in some ultimate plan (religious or not), looking for an explanation.

I admit to being comfortable living more in the questions than requiring answers of Creation or of Life or even of God. Perhaps that is why I find myself wondering if we humans have always turned to such comforting certainties. I also find myself wondering if we were to fully follow the train of thought that leads in the first place to such certainties, if we’d be so eager to accept where it leads.

You and I no longer live in a world with gods responsible for every natural event. No rain gods to pray to this summer. No sun god to appease. But oddly, I think some of us do still live with a world understanding akin to the worldview of the writers of much of the Bible. When we trounce our enemies it is because God is on our side. When our enemies trounce us it is because we were faithless or God is trying to teach us a lesson. Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. God is in control and running everything.

And yet some of us (at least) see a different picture. It is a picture in which bad things happen to good people all the time. In such a world, we who choose to believe in God (whether as “person,” force, or energy) have to twist ourselves into knots to continue to assert that this God is at the same time all loving and all powerful.

Now don’t get me wrong. I very much believe God is involved with our world — drawing us, luring us, offering us ways that will lead toward the greatest good for the greatest number of all entities, not just people. As a Christian I find this Way in Jesus. I also believe in biochemical and physical causes for much of what happens in our world, and I believe in free will.

I’ve heard people say that some day we will understand how the Holocaust fits into God’s plan. Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life wrote that even if it took your mother’s being raped for your conception to happen, it was in God’s plan for you. According to the “everything happens for a purpose” train of thought, the tsunami in 2004 that killed more than 250,000 people across southeast Asia was either allowed by God or was part of “God’s plan“ —or— here comes the rarely considered possibility: God is not in control of everything at all. God is not all powerful.

If we consider the Bible as a faith history from which we can learn about how our ancestors in faith understood God’s relationship to their world (rather than as a textbook about God) then it could be true that God is not all powerful. And if it were true that God is not all powerful, without tying ourselves in knots, we could far more easily understand God as all loving, all compassionate, and all good — always drawing us/ luring us/ beckoning us toward the greatest good for all.

I know we Christians were taught to believe that God is omnipotent. We were also taught to believe that we should stone our children if they misbehaved. But if omnipotence is the nature of God, then either God allows awful, painful, cruel things to happen in this world or God causes them. Perhaps like you, I cannot understand why anyone would choose to believe in a God who had a plan for the world like that. Now, how’s that for a conversation starter?

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or