God’s Will and Human Action

November 2, 2012

“Everything happens for a reason…” “It’s all part of God’s plan….” Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear someone say one of these phrases, or something very like it.  I always wince.

These phrases are often meant to offer comfort after some unhappy event.  Perhaps a hoped for job offer doesn’t come through. Perhaps a romance comes to an unexpected end.  A friend then consoles you with these words: “everything happens for a reason,” or “it’s all part of God’s plan.”

These phrases have been on my mind this past week because of what Richard Mourdock, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Indiana said in a debate with his opponent.  Asked whether he believed abortions should be allowed in cases of rape or incest, Mourdock said “I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

The remark may cost Mourdock the election. He has been criticized for insensitivity, for not taking the occasion to decry rape as a violent crime. He’s been chided for political miscalculation in speaking against abortion in these tragic situations when most Americans support abortions in cases of rape and incest.

I’m interested in something else: the phrase “something God intended to happen.”

Others have focused, instead, on his statement that “life is a gift from God.” That has especially been the focus of those who oppose abortion under any circumstances Says Kathleen Parker, for example, ““Obviously, he wasn’t endorsing rape. He apparently belongs to that sliver of pro-lifers who insist that even babies conceived of rape are worthy of protection. They, too, are God’s children.”

Similarly, the editors of the National Review declare, “Reason persuades us that it is wrong to will the death of human beings, regardless of their age, location, or state of dependency; and wrong, as well, to withhold legal protection on such bases.”

But why then did Mourdock add that these terrible occurrences were “something God intended to happen?”

Those same editors of the National Review distance themselves from this statement.  They add,  “Our argument does not, that is, proceed from any claim to special access to the mind of God.”  I take it they are saying that they do not know whether any particular human action was part of “God’s will,” or “something God intended to happen.”

There is an important religious issue here.  Mourdock, I think, must believe that “Everything happens for a reason…” and “It’s all part of God’s plan….” Everything we do, everything that happens, all falls within God’s plan; nothing can happen that is not part of what God wills.

I disagree with Mourdock about many things, including abortion.  But I think he is just being faithful to his religious beliefs when he says, “it is something that God intended to happen.” Mourdock isn’t talking about rape or incest in particular; he is talking about everything – absolutely everything.  He is making a consistent theological statement, but also one that is seriously in error.

If you believe God wills everything that happens, what choices do human beings make? Are we just playing out a script already written? Are we just puppets in a play?  Why should we bother to fret over what to choose, why should we ever strive to do our best, if whatever we do – whatever! – turns out to be God’s will in the end.

“’Unde malum’ ‘Where does evil come from?’ is one of the most profound questions we wrestle with as Christians and has been from earliest Christian history,” writes Susan Thistlethwaite, professor and former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary. She adds, “When you make God the author of conception following rape, you make God the author of sin. This is a huge theological error, and one that Christian theologians have rejected since the first centuries of the faith.”

How can God know everything and yet not know what I will do next? That’s a huge theological puzzle I’ve come to realize is beyond my understanding. How can God’s will not embrace everything that happens? Ditto. There are limits to human reason.

We have to realize that we are called to do God’s will, and we also need to realize that we may fail to do God’s will. Sometimes humans act despicably, and that is no part of God’s will.  Everything does not happen for a reason. It is not all part of God’s plan.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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