Archive for October, 2012

Recent comments by Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock that pregnancy resulting from rape is “something that God intended to happen” once again has me thinking about starting The Society for Responsible Theology.

I’m not arguing with his position on abortion, although I disagree with it whole heartedly, and would gladly argue it at other times.  What concerns me here is Mr. Mourdock’s reason for his position – the idea that God intended the pregnancy to happen.  This strikes me as a very strong statement about the nature of God, and a theology that is at best brutal and at worst shallow, inconsistent and arrogant.

There are many kinds of theology in the world, and a diversity of religious beliefs – some liberal, some more conservative – that I have great respect for.  There are responsible theologies in every religious tradition.  These theologies are internally consistent, recognize and respond to the reality of human suffering, and accept human limitations.  Most importantly, they do not presume to know the mind of God.

In other words, we cannot know what is supposed to happen.  Even if we believe in a personal God who is involved in human affairs, we cannot know what God intends.  The only exception is a theology which presumes that all things which happen are part of a Divine Plan.  I call such a theology brutal because it affirms a God who is ultimately responsible for all of the evil and suffering in the world.  If all things are part of God’s plan, then that includes not only the pregnancy but the rape itself.  It is impossible to say with both certainty and integrity that the pregnancy was something God wanted to happen, but not the rape.

This is exactly what Mr. Mourdock argued in the hours following the Indiana debate.  “Are you trying to suggest somehow that God preordained rape?  No I don’t think that,” he said.  That puts Richard Mourdock in the position of deciding what it is that God intends and what it is God doesn’t intend, and that is highly irresponsible.  No human individual should be in the position of deciding what it is that God does and doesn’t want.

There are many pathways of the spirit.  Some of them, like my own, are Humanistic and liberal; others are conservative.  Some are theistic; others are not.  Most fall entirely outside the Western tradition.  But within almost every faith, there are strains of theology which deal substantively with the deep questions of life, and others which simply prop up the believer’s own opinions and biases.  The responsible theologian approaches deep questions with deep humility.

To be fair, Richard Mourdock is not a theologian, nor does he pretend to be one.  Perhaps that is the most persuasive argument yet that matters of public policy should be determined by better criteria than “what God intends.”

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Passing the Music

Last weekend, at the tender age of five, my son was one of the featured performers at a folk festival workshop.  The workshop was “Families That Sing Together,” and when we asked him if he wanted to sing anything with us, he answered without hesitation, “I’ll sing ‘Freight Train.'”  So for a group of about fifty dyed in the wool folkies, with me playing guitar, my son sang the sweetest version of “Freight Train” you ever heard.  He had learned the song from an old Libba Cotten album, so he knew it cold, the way it was written:

Freight train, freight train
Run so fast
Freight train, freight train
Run so fast
Please don’t tell what train I’m on
They won’t know what route I’ve gone.

It was a poignant moment for me, the more so because this is a festival I had been attending since I was his age and younger.  With his grandma singing with us, three generations of our family joined together in that workshop.

What we are doing is, in a sense, not that different from what many families do.  Every family has its own traditions.  It could be a certain kind of cooking,  art, sports or politics.  We pass them down not through insisting on lessons, or through a system of careful education, but by doing things together, enjoying being together while we are doing them, and taking delight in seeing someone new learn a piece of what we love.

The rest of the weekend, my son ran around with the other kids, playing games, but with music all around, under every tree and in every corner – just like his father and his uncle used to do when we were his age.  With all the excitement of the game, I wondered if he’d forgotten all about the singing, but he asked me that night to read him Elizabeth’s Song, a wonderful children’s book by Michael Wenberg about how Elizabeth Cotten wrote “Freight Train” when she was a little girl.  He listened intently, eyes wide.   The book ends with the song, and I sang it to him quietly, huddled with him in the cabin’s upper bunk.   He smiled and listened, his eyes growing smaller, until, at the very end of the song, he fell fast asleep.

It was a moment I will treasure for the rest of my life.

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