One of the uncomfortable scenarios that gets set up when Christians (or any two sets of religious persons, really) find themselves on opposite sides of an issue is the intuitive sense, even though both groups purport to be driven by their faith and calling from God to speak, act, and press toward a particular outcome, that one side must have it all wrong, possibly to the point of being deceived by the devil. The basis for this is the understandable notion that God cannot possibly want two incongruous or even two mutually exclusive things at the same time, can He?
But are we sure about that?
After all, within my own Lutheran tradition, we are already asked on a regular basis to accept ideas that seem ludicrously incompatible with each other but are the very foundation of our faith. Is Jesus fully God or fully man? To which we say the answer is “Yes.” Is the sacrament of Eucharist made of bread or of the body of Christ? Again, we say the answer is “Yes.” Is God in the Father, in the Son, or in the Holy Spirit? I think you see where we’re going here. In order to have a faith of this kind, one must surrender to a belief that God’s reality exists outside of the constraints of all possible earthly understanding. And as we well know, there are many who walk out on the whole thing on that score alone, who remain resolute that everything that is true must adhere to established tenants of logic.
But even within those models of philosophy and theology there exists a mode of thought that says, when considering a question of such magnitude, that the best place to start is not to ask so much “is it true” but to ask “what does it mean for us if it is true?” And so with that in mind, I ask again “Can God want two seemingly opposing things at the same time?”
I’ll start by considering an easier one that comes up a lot — a football game on Sunday initiated by two teams huddled on opposite sides praying fervently to use their God-given talents to achieve victory. Does God want all these players to play well? I would say yes. Would God be happy for either team to win? I imagine so. Does God know who will win? Probably. Does God have an active hand in picking a winner? Extremely unlikely. I would even argue that God has less influence over it than human beings watching a pair of siblings in competition. I know that as I watch my kids play games, I tend to find myself thinking that “Oh, it would be nice if _________ could win a game this time, or conversely, __________ is just goofing around; if she applied herself this would be a blowout. I have even simultaneously taken pride in one child’s opting to let a sibling win while being equally concerned in the very same moment that one of my kids isn’t learning that losing is an aspect of competition and that they should learn how to lose with grace. I oscillate in playing favorites, and even if I try to hide it, I think my kids can tell when I’m leaning one way or another and react accordingly, and often negatively.
I think God can be universally supportive without playing favorites but that the seemingly miraculous and magnificent can occur as players have faith in their abilities and themselves and their teammates, to whatever degree they may give God credit for all of that, and couple it with the unpredictable nature of chaos and probability behind a normally insignificant shift in the deflection of a ball’s angle to the hundredth of a degree. If you can allow yourself to marvel in the symphony of mathematics, physics, and the nature of humanity’s physical form, it can be quite wondrous.
However, games are artificial human constructs. The outcomes are a human designed aspect of those constructs. The consequences of those competitions are human constructs. Our battles and wars are waged along the framework of human constructs and the manifestations of those constructs ranging from what is a “humane” way to kill an enemy soldier to whether or not it is justified to eat their heart afterward are human social constructions. And those ends only serve our means. God’s constructs — his universe, his world, his people, his kingdom, his mercies and love– are the works whose results God actively pursues, regardless of how and in what ways we might be able to interact with them.
So let’s jump into the boiling over pot of the subject of abortion. Despite my other various stances, which some might describe as anywhere from “liberal leaning,” “libertarian,” and “secular,” to “Godless” or “bat shit crazy,” many people are surprised to find (particularly those who knew me in high school) that I get more and more socially conservative with each passing year in regards to abortion. This comes less from my faith as it does my experiences, of not being able to have children without great, great difficulty while reading of people callously disposing of theirs at various stages of life or development. It comes from having my children become friends with children who were born at a hair’s breadth beyond twenty weeks of pregnancy and who survived, and who are undeniable gifts, those with developmental difficulties as a result and those who are perfectly healthy. With such knowledge, it’s hard to accept the possible ramifications of abortions that occur beyond twenty weeks even as medical science marches ever onward.
And yet, even as divisive as abortion is, there’s clearly an outcome (call it a pipe dream though it may be) that would be agreeable to EVERYONE: that we somehow reach a point where every pregnancy is a result of a conscious desire and willingness to accept having a child. Whatever the level of personal responsibility, societal support, medical capabilities, governmental guidance, and (afraid so, Catholics…) almost assuredly contraception access and use that gets us to that point is unknown. Yet, keep in mind that for this utopia to work, the broken factors that contribute to the regularly brought forth exclusions would have to cease to exist. Rape would have to stop. Incest would have to stop. Irresponsible drunken teenage sex would have to stop. Shaming single mothers would need to stop. Placing an unbalanced level of value on sex in media would probably need to stop. Forcing artificial choices between family and career and harshly judging the decisions regardless should stop. Everybody from every current position would probably need to have one of their oxen gored for it to work. And I imagine that something more akin to optimum outcomes for many things would fall into this spectrum.
And here’s where the multifaceted nature of God’s desire might make sense. Human constructs are flawed because we are imperfect. We are limited in our knowledge, in our experience, and in our resultant values and opinions. Abortion supporters advocate for victims of rape because their experiences have shown them the injustices that result from rape, and the promise of hope for those victims to reclaim their lives. Abortion opponents advocate for adoption over abortion, even in those circumstances, because their experience shows the injustices of terminating otherwise viable and blameless life in the face of a human’s limited capacities for forgiveness toward their attacker or child and the promise of hope for those children’s futures, and perhaps for the victims to reclaim a different, but still beautiful, life.
It’s not possible for any of us to possess the capacity of understanding, sympathy, and unflinching love and forgiveness for every broken person of every broken nation in this broken world that God must, and perfection is so alien to our imperfect lives that I doubt we could really perceive what perfection would even mean. In fact, a number of ancient philosophers believed that the moment something reached a state of perfection it would needfully wink out of existence because it would be incompatible with our universe’s nature.
I think of it sometimes like a massive Ouija board of sorts, with everyone pushing and pulling on the lens consciously and unconsciously in accordance with their own sense of direction and having it end up somewhere nobody really expected. I do think God is like that, calling to us each in a way that uses our gifts, our passions, and our experiences to advocate for those among us whom God loves, which is everyone, in a way that we can most strongly sense and respond to. Our lives enable us to uniquely respond to God’s call in a way in which our limited selves can serve a greater good. And even if the way in which we are called to move the marker comes with direct opposing force from others who are being equally led by God, the ultimate outcome might be for all those spiritual vectors, fully embraced and pursued in prayerful communion with God, to somehow bring us to a truly Godly result that none of us can comprehend nor perhaps even be able to recognize or perceive while we are here. Yes, a house divided against itself cannot stand, but so can a house can be raised by equal forces who prop and place their walls by pushing them up from different sides and in opposite directions.
And so we disagree, and we ask “Is God with us or with them on this?” Perhaps we should consider that the answer might very well be “Yes.”