This will teach me to tune into PBS. Tuesday night I was watching Abraham Lincoln grapple with the religious implications of the Civil War when my brain spit out a disconcerting thought: In searching for goodness, am I really seeking to discern the will of God?
As I watched God in America, the thought was an obvious one because the show portrayed Lincoln’s agony as turning on issues of good and evil, right and wrong. To find answers, Lincoln realized he had to “discern the will of God.”
Oh dear, is that my intent?
The answer is both yes and now. How frustrating is that!?
As screamingly non-Christian as I am, I suspect the answer to “What is goodness?” may well be the same or close to “What is the will of God?” After all, God can be and is often defined as the ultimate goodness. (I’ll ignore the Rev. Fred Phelps and his God-is-hate brethren right now.)
To do God’s will is to commit acts of goodness. In that sense, my question about goodness can only be answered by understanding God’s will. But that answer leaves me itchy. Something isn’t quite right, and it isn’t just my gut reaction to traditional religion that leaves me feeling twitchy.
The key problem is that seeking God’s will is to look for answers outside myself. Even worse, it is to abdicate responsibility for my own thoughts and actions and none of us — not even the devout — get to do that.
Even the most religious people on the planet must choose their own interpretation of God’s will, and they have to do it every minute of every day. There is no one answer, no matter what the world’s clergy may argue. Devout Christians may well adhere to the Bible, but they still must decide which bits of it to follow and which to ignore. As Robert Wright has shown, following one verse of The Bible takes you down the path to compassion. Following another creates the Fred Phelps of the world.
So, even the churched don’t get a free pass on free will. Deciding to follow God’s will still means you have to work through your own ignorance, emotion, prejudice, twisted and not-so-twisted psychology to discover the will of the divine. And that takes us back where we started with each human being having to take responsibility for discerning our own understanding of goodness.
So here I am: I’m desperate to discern the will of God, in other words, to discern goodness, but I can’t hand over my responsibility to do that to anyone else — not even a supernatural being.
But there’s a problem with depending on myself for answers. I’ve lived long enough to know that I can be woefully inadequate. Delightful? Oh yes. Funny? Often. Deep thinking? To a fault. Confused/unknowing/ignorant/driven by dark emotions? Too often.
What’s the answer?
Perhaps there’s only one possible: Keep trying. Stay humble.