A friend, responding on Facebook to recent reactions to comments by Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock about a hypothetical pregnancy arising from rape, introduced an opinion slide with the following assertion: “As I understand it, this is the christian doctrine. That all things good and bad happen at the behest of God.” But is that right?
First, let’s take note of what Mr. Mourdock actually said in response to a question about abortion: “You know, this is that issue that every candidate for federal or even state office faces. And I have to certainly stand for life. I know that there are some who disagree, and I respect their point of view. But I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have to have on abortion is in that case — of the life of the mother. 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.”
My purpose in this brief reflection is not to get drawn into a discussion of the ethics of abortion. And I am not interested in taking a position in the political context from which this question arises. Rather, as an Episcopal priest, I want to draw attention to my friend’s premise about the underlying Christian doctrine, which I have heard in many forms both from Christians and from critics of Christianity. Mourdock may have clumsily drifted into the language of this parody in what seems to me a sincere effort to quote Roman Catholic doctrine. My reply: “Friend, that is absolutely not Christian doctrine. That’s the parody.”
So what is the relevant Christian doctrine? What follows is offered in language that I hope may help non-Christians to distinguish between the Christian hope and its parody.
The Christian claim is that God created all things, and all creation is good. To be human is to be finite and free. God created humans to be friends with God and with each other, and gave us all we need to do that. Yet in our freedom we forget our identity as creature and turn from our identity as those created for friendship with God and each other. Sin is the name we give to such forgetting; it is a word that describes a broken relationship, a forgotten identity. Evil is a product of this broken relationship, this forgetfulness of what it means to be authentically human. Evil is not God’s creation. God is always creative, life-giving. Humans, when we are authentically human, also are life-giving. However, in our freedom, we can forget our identity and be life-negating, destructive. Evil is not natural to us, but it is our bad fruit. And the tragic reality is that we can’t help producing that bad fruit until we receive the gift of memory that leads us home. That is Christian doctrine, in plain terms.
My friend responded, “Wow — now that makes good sense. How did he get it so wrong?”
If I were Mr. Mourdock’s pastor, and heard his explanation in a parish gathering, I’d assume he was sincerely trying to be guided by Christian doctrine, but that his language became muddled as a result of so much cultural exposure to the parody. Unfortunately, however, speaking the truth received is all about getting the grammar right.
There is an ancient word for an all too common behavior. “Blasphemy” denotes our act of naming our evil as God’s will. Authentic humanity honors God and thus does not blaspheme. So the naming of rape as God’s will is blasphemy.
But there is also theological puzzlement here. There seems an effort to express the teaching that God treasures all life. The puzzlement has to do with the wrong-headed notion that God mechanistically causes all things, which is wrong because it forgets that God created us as free beings. In our freedom, we do evil, and when we do evil, we distort nature. Violence is never God’s will.
For a Christian, there is never a dead end. Our response to the recollection of our identity, the consequence of the gift of memory, is that we are a people filled with hope and trust in Providence, and thus able to see light even when the world sees only darkness. There is always hope for resurrection here and now.
So it would be right for a Christian to believe that even when we experience evil, even when we experience heartbreak and shame, even when we cannot imagine how life is possible given what evil has befallen us, that God will enter into that pain and that darkness and illuminate it, reminding us of who we are — God’s beloved — and drawing inexorably us back to life.
It is blasphemy and puzzlement to suggest that rape or any evil is caused by God. But given that evil has occurred, theology holds that God desires the flourishing of mother and child, and of all mothers and children, and enters into our pain to draw us to life.
I appreciate this portion of what Amy Sullivan wrote for The New Republic:
Yes, that is a helpful observation, Doug. My reflection is really a response to the ‘parody’ of Christian doctrine I mention, which attributes to Christians the claim that God causes all things, good and bad. Thanks for sharing the Sullivan post.