A Tale of theodicy and idolatry: the illusion of ever forward progress
One of the outcomes of the Church’s division in the 16th century and ensuing thought about the end times being near, was a shift in how people thought about God’s providence in ordering the events of time that we call history. The big questions centred around what on earth could God be doing with all of this disease, social chaos, religious violence and war, and confusion about civil and religious authority much of which was tied to the Church’s and the nation’s subsequent divisions. The answer that emerged is known as theodicy (an explanation for why God allows suffering and pain if he is good): all of the confusion, violence and suffering is part of God’s plan to bring about the full reconciliation of all the things he made. So suspend your judgment about going to war, about torturing traitors, about people’s or your own suffering, about the horror you see around you and about your confusion. This is God’s forward progress; it’s all part of God’s bigger story. In fact, God needs and wants this to happen so that at least some people will learn the humility needed to be saved from damnation.
In contradiction to the Gospel, this understanding of history as being necessary to occur for God’s ultimate plan to be fulfilled provided justification for atrocious actions against people while simultaneously stripping people of the emotional and intellectual integrity to discern wisely according to one’s God given conscience. Between the 18th and 20th centuries, this idea of God’s ever forward progress gradually dropped God from the equation and instead inserted a variety of political and economic notions of ever better progress that allow us to justify everything from genocide to stripping the Earth of all its natural resource: don’t worry folks, it’s all just part of the never ending, ever increasing progress of us, at any cost, to anyone who gets in our way.
And for Christians, the fruit of this fatal misread of how God works with people through time, is the same fruit eaten by Adam and Eve: the demand for selfish autonomy or unchecked personal progress, leading folks to turn to themselves rather than to God. In other words, this misread of God’s relationship with people throughout history is itself partly responsible for the secularism and anti-religion sentiment we find today. Why would we need God, or neighbour, or enemy when we can achieve forward progress by ourselves … or at least do so by using other people, their land, and their resources to achieve our ideal; it’s all part of the big plan of progress and they’re better off now than they were before right?
Except that we are now having to reckon with the destruction we have wrought on entire cultures and races, entire nations and even continents, and on our environment and in turn our own, and our children and grandchildren’s health as a result of that destruction. We’re having to reckon with broken family systems where older people live without family, having become imprisoned and isolated over the last three years as they struggle with issues like depression and dementia. We’re having a mental health crisis in many Western countries because people have not learned resilience in the face of challenges, because emotions are supposed to be blunted to achieve that ever forward progress (how many square feet and how many cars are we up to now?) Too many generations never learned how to control their emotions and only learned how to get what they want through lashing out like emotionally and spiritually undeveloped toddlers. And subsequent generations find validation only through ever increasing consumption or lashing out at every provocation so that we now find ourselves with viscous social polarization often threatening or actually erupting into violence at home, in the workplace or school, or in public. And the first sin of Adam and Eve - forward progress in service to one’s own ideological vision - is exposed for the destruction of self and other that it actually brings.
Do you love me Peter? Jesus asks three times. If you love me, then serve your neighbour even though it will mean you will end up sacrificing that self aggrandizing, self securing ever forward progress you think will secure you. “That’s what I did Peter,” Jesus says to him. And so if you want a true life then you need to follow me. You need to live as I did all the way to your death. You need to let go of your ego. You need to let go of getting your own way. You need to act with self control and not like a child who can only lash out in anger when things aren’t going well. Jesus says to us through Peter: you will be tempted to seek your own good and your own way in your job, in your church, in your home, in your city and your country, and you do need to tend to yourself. But I say to you you must foremost feed and tend my sheep, not trample on them to build your ego and your figurative ranch.
When the scales fall from Paul’s eyes, his self righteousness no longer blinds him to God’s work in the world. He sees for the first time, God at work in other people who, in his blindness, he would previously have lashed out at, arrested, tortured, and killed. Your will, not mine be done, Lord. So I ask of you folks: how have you been blinded by our cultural assumptions and your family upbringing to what God is doing in the people with whom you interact? I’ll end with a prayer we recite often during MP attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that is a call to reflect on this question about your own will and your own ways of engaging others:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console others; to be understood as to understand others; to be loved as to love neighbour and enemy alike. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.