Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #055. First published in the St. Cloud Times Feb. 28, 2012

Has there ever been an election in the United States not designated “the most important in our lifetime”—except, of course, those declared “the most important in history”?  I doubt it.  And 2012 is certainly no exception.  We are told repeatedly that the fate of the universe hinges on what happens Nov. 6.

What does seem unusual about the rhetorical overreach this time is the degree to which God is claimed to be on the ballot.  It’s as if every decision a voter makes is either a vote for God or a veto of God.  When an election is framed as a referendum on the divine, a civil discussion is hard to manage.

I’ll get to the problem of this sort of discourse when applied to large matters of public policy, but first, the danger of God-talk, even in more restricted settings, was highlighted in the recent Times investigative report (Feb. 12-13) about serious trouble in foster care and adoption.

Paula Dunham wrote this in a blog shortly after the near loss of their third son: “All of the sudden we realized what a precious gift each and every child was.  About that time we had been doing some reading about the Lordship of Christ over all aspects of your life, including child bearing.  We decided then that we would allow God to give us as many children as He saw fit.”

Apparently what God had in mind was nine biological children and 15 adoptees.  The Times report makes clear that if this was God’s plan, it wasn’t a good one.  Stearns County eventually initiated 15 child protection cases.  As County Attorney Janelle Kendall summed it up, “This was one big mess.”

Having kids, adopting kids—these are good things, and the Dunhams had worthy intentions.  But when balance, moderation, common sense, and human welfare get swamped by a conviction that “we know what God wants,” whether in small things or large ones, big messes happen.

This year there are candidates for public office, including the presidency, who know with absolute certainty what God wants: that gay people remain both chaste and celibate, and that no one use contraception.  Many of these candidates rest their case on the authority that is claimed by religious officials, even when those officials have not persuaded their own followers that God wants these things.

I’m certainly not immune to the appeal of divine certainty.  I believe that God looks with favor on gay marriage, and I believe that contraception is, literally, a godsend to help the human race responsibly forestall demographic and ecological catastrophe.   But I don’t consider it my civil right, or my religious responsibility, to try to shut down discussion by saying that if you don’t agree with me you are shaking your fist at God.

Underlying much of the “God’s way (which is my way) or the highway” bombast is an assumption that the Bible, interpreted literally and narrowly, is itself an authority not subject to question, with a  corollary that the Founding Fathers held the same opinion.  The “orthodox Christianity” of those worthies is a colossal legend (for starters, see Thomas Jefferson’s cut-and-paste New Testament), a legend especially dangerous at a time like the present when America has become an intense experiment in religious pluralism.

An old book is instructive.  It was precisely 1600 years ago that St. Augustine began work on “The City of God.”  In this monumental and magisterial treatise, the bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa establishes a contrast between the heavenly city and the earthly secular city, but he refuses to identify the church with the former or to relegate the latter to outer darkness.  Augustine had no doubts about God, but he didn’t claim to know for sure what God wanted from day to day.  In Augustine’s view, politics is an arena for the exercise of human intelligence and wisdom, not for theological bludgeoning.

Let’s cool it.  We’ve got serious issues to discuss, but they are human ones.  God is neither in the dock nor on the ballot.