The Will of God

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.

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4 Responses to The Will of God

  1. Colleen says:

    Ah, the Catch-22.

  2. Since I don’t believe in God, I find it hard to assume that in searching for ways to be good, I’m looking to read the mind of an entity that doesn’t exist. It would be interesting to discover whether when humans first invented gods (as an explanation for the inexplicable) they immediately associated goodness with their gods, or whether goodness came along later (since a lot of early gods were very arbitrary indeed).

    BTW, there’s an interesting scientific angle here: Perhaps a certain amount of goodness is innate in human beings. I’ve just read Michael Tomasello’s book Why We Cooperate, which also includes essays by several other people doing related research, and he posits that humans evolved to be helpful, based in part on studies of very young children and their willingness to help out. In the book, Joan Silk suggests that there is some innate altruism in human beings — something I think Tomasello disagrees with. Tomasello is running a program on evolutionary anthropology. Silk is an anthropologist. The book also includes essays by two psychologists and a philosopher.

    So now I’m thinking that maybe the mind of “God” that we’re supposed to divine is , hmm, genetic? Actually, I also think culture has something to do with it, as do these experts. But there seems to be something in our biological mix that differentiates us from other apes when it comes to working with our neighbors and families.

  3. In her memoir of growing up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses (see Web link), Kyria Abrahams illustrated the practical disadvantage of morality separated from free will. From her JW perspective, everything was wrong for the same reason–Jehovah says so–and therefore everything forbidden is equally wrong. Freed from the moral restraints of her childhood religion, she describes the difficulty she had in finding her own moral compass.

    I appreciate religions that teach a process of discernment, that help practitioners differentiate between their own desire and a more transcendent idea of goodness. It is the folks who don’t believe they are interpreting that scare me. You, on the other hand, reassure me. The fact that you are suspicious of your own answers is probably the best proof you have that you are headed in the right direction!

  4. dianesilver says:

    All I can say is an unqualified “Amen” to all of you!

    Colleen — Isn’t that the ultimate Catch-22?

    Nancy — Thanks for the references and info. This work sounds fascinating, and isn’t it interesting how this goodness-is-in-our genes idea invalidates Original Sin? Of course, even if the genetic theory proves to be true , we still have to determine how to stay on course, get back on course and handle all the emotional weirdness we’re prone to as imperfect humans.

    Mathew — Welcome! It’s great to hear from you. I only recently began to learn of religions that do teach that process of discernment you mention. I’m also beginning to wonder if learning how to discern good from evil actions — whether one is churched, unchurched or vehemently athiest — is the next great frontier of human development. Thanks for the reference to Abrahams’ book. I love its title: “I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed.”

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