Free will, self determination, identity politics, and God

The idea of these four things or concepts don’t always seem to go together but between a sermon I heard the other day and knowing a little about what’s going on in my denomination of Christianity and this project to read and blog through the whole Bible, I’m feeling a little lost. I’ve been trying to talk about next steps here and there and where my feminism is going, but it’s impossible to ignore thoughts on these four things and how they do or don’t go together.

I’ve always been a believer in that God gave us free will and doesn’t mess with it. I even went through a whole bit back when I was blogging about Exodus that really struggled with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and recently read something that made sense out of that violation. It came from a text book called Encountering Ancient Voices by Dr. Corrine L. Carvalho and suggests:

If we remember that this text is making fun of the Egyptian believe that Pharaoh was a god, then Yahweh’s manipulation of Pharaoh is really showing Yahweh as the more powerful god.

That was not something I considered when I read that part a few years ago. It doesn’t suggest that God doesn’t generally leave us to our free will, just that one can’t claim to be more powerful than god and expect to not be proven wrong on that front. So, my thought process of free will is still in tact though it has not been specifically mentioned in the Bible as a thing.

Speaking of things not mentioned as a thing in the Bible, there’s destiny or self determination for all. I’ve been discovering more and more as I come to them that the flowery phrases people love to quote are generally God saying something to someone specific. The whole “I knew you before you were born” thing is actually about the prophet Jeremiah and there’s more to even that verse that doesn’t get quoted because it wouldn’t make a lovely tweet sized epitaph for anyone using the whole thing. It’s also really inconvenient to make it obvious that He could be talking about prophets as given special attention and not exactly every single person in existence.

Given free will, it only makes sense that we would have self determination in where we’re going in the world. Reading through the path of the Israelites from Exodus to the end of Second Chronicles makes it clear that God wants us to do the right thing but doesn’t force to, nor does He force to love Him. Honestly, much of the Old Testament so far seems like a parent dealing with a five year old child. They can do what they want and will, they won’t have the best logic, they’ll sometimes do exactly what you told them not to. Now, I wasn’t there when they were doing these things and I see how some stories make it seem like they were making the best decisions with what they had to work with, particularly when they doubted God would rescue them and all that does make sense from the human perspective, but in relationship to God, they just didn’t do what they were told all the time. Sometimes it was out of ignorance and others out of rebelliousness, both of which are things that we still see today, so I’m not passing judgement on the ancient Israelites. They exercised free will, sometimes to their detriment and that of their relationship with God.

Current issues in the US with identity politics and the many Protestant denominations are going through troubles along a similar line. Are they asking God what He wants them to do or making the best decisions with the information they have available to them? Well, the answer for that is in the heart of each decision-maker, so I don’t know. What I do know is that identity politics have taken over the United Methodist Church in recent years and the inability of the leadership to handle it up until now has caused splinters that threaten to turn into fractures. An amputation may be necessary. And that was what the recent sermon I heard was about.

How do we respond to culture when it comes knocking on the door of the church?

Well, I suppose the first part of the question is which culture is seen as the problem here. Are we liberal who see the culture of conservatism holding us back from delivering God’s love and message to people of all identities? Are we conservatives who see the culture of liberalism forcing us to embrace sinful identities and therefore consecrate sinful unions?

That was the beauty of the message, the pastor takes neither side but asks us to deliberate. Well, not deliberate, but pray. The bishop of the New England conference, Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, wrote a prayer for the church to pray so that God might lead us to the answer. Personally, I love this approach. It’s what God wanted over and over again in the Old Testament. Reading through the whole thing together as I have been has convinced me that the reason for this is that people are ready for different stages of God over time and just because He didn’t approve of homosexuality in the Old Testament doesn’t mean that He doesn’t approve of today’s version of it. Perhaps we were told not to do it because we could not yet handle it, much like a hundred things the Israelites couldn’t eat according to the Law of Moses that we enjoy today.

I don’t know and I appreciate that the church appears to recognize that they don’t really know right now either. Here’s the prayer:

God help us!
Help us …
to take the next faithful step forward
not based on …
doctrine, tradition, or theology;
judgments, fears, or convictions;
notions of who are the righteous and unrighteous.
God help us!
Help us …
to take the next small faithful step forward
that is neither …
right or wrong;
good or bad;
for or against;
left or right;
pro or con.
God, help us!
Help us …
above all else,
to simply take the one next faithful step forward,
out of love.
only love;
nothing less,
nothing more;
just love;
undiluted love.

Then …
only then,
can we know …
that the way forward is with you …
our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come.
Then …
only then,
can we know …
that our way forward is through you,
the Way,
the Truth,
the Life.
God, help us …
Help us as we take the small faithful next step forward …
to reflect your grace and glory,
to embody the Word made flesh,
to move freely by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We offer our prayer in the precious name of Christ Jesus.

It’s the part where they ask that the decision not be based on “doctrine, tradition, or theology” that gives me hope for the decision. Obviously, I lean toward total acceptance of all identities within the church, but if that’s not what God feels we are ready for, than Old Testament accounts make it clear that He will make it a way for it to be okay anyway in the mean time. I’m not sure if that means that those people who are pushing for it will be given some sort of peace about the decision or about branching off or whatever. Clearly, the Old Testament Israelites had no idea what form God’s help would take for them either. The point is that they are asking Him what He wants us to do with His house.

That’s the thing, right? Within faith, it’s not our house to do with what we will, to make decisions about on our own. It should never be, though it has been in the past and will continue to be in the future, the choice or prerogative of the people to allow things that God is against in His house. This is not some drunken teen party that gets out of hand and the parents come home to a wrecked house. It’s His house and His decision. But I know from other reading (Love is an Orientation) that some people feel called to minister exclusively to the LGBT community. I know from other sermons that Jesus told his disciples to go to the “outcasts” which, in my mind, would include those communities that we often exclude from our ideas of the norm such as LGBT. I know from the history of the church and racism that the conservatives can be wrong but also that the liberals can be. So what do we do?

I guess we do what God has consistently asked us to do in the first place. Pray about it and listen for an answer, but don’t just wait for the one we want to hear, act on the one we’re given.

Does anyone out there belong to a denomination that’s already made it’s decision? I know others have. How did it go? What side of the aisle did your church fall on?

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