Whose Will be Done?

Back last November the latest copy of “The World Ahead 2022” published by The Economist magazine dropped through our letterbox. In this publication, which is produced annually, correspondents working for The Economist put forward their views on how various countries and issues might develop over the course of the coming year. It’s the kind of thing that you might think would warrant a parallel publication along the lines of ‘What we said might happen and what actually did happen’. However, that’s another matter.

Included in the 2022 edition is a short piece by The Economist’s Britain correspondent, Catherine Nixey titled ‘Nearer, my God to me’. In it, she comments that over the years (centuries perhaps) God has gradually become more liberal. In particular, she draws attention to the fact that in 2021, the Methodist Conference, after ‘prayerful consideration’ voted to allow same-sex marriage in church (although church councils will have the final say as regards their local churches), the Church of Wales voted to allow blessings of same-sex relationships and in 2022 the Church of England will consider similar questions.

In theory, Ms Nixey notes, God is ‘the same yesterday, today, for ever. That is to say, God, being eternal, does not change, so how can He become more liberal? We regularly pray ‘Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. However, some historians argue that the chain actually runs the other way, ie ‘in heaven as on earth’. To quote, “Democratic, liberal nations get democratic liberal deities; undemocratic, illiberal countries get the opposite.”

What to make of this?

In his book “Re-enchanting Christianity”, Dave Tomlinson quotes a humorous letter sent to an American radio show host of clearly ‘conservative’ religious views. In it the writer asks various question touching on slavery, eating shellfish, approaching the altar if you have a sight defect etc based on various passages from Leviticus and Exodus. Exodus 21 deals with the treatment of slaves, Leviticus 25: 39-55 with the release of slaves. Verse 44 says “If you need slaves, you should buy them from the nations around you”. The writer of the letter Dave Tomlinson quotes says they’ve been told by a friend that (being in the USA) it would be OK to own Mexicans as slaves but not Canadians and wants to know what would be wrong with owning Canadians as slaves since they come from a neighbouring nation. It’s all rather tongue in cheek, but the point is that none of us would take these passages and try to apply them now.

Dave Tomlinson uses this example to argue against taking the Bible literally – ‘literalism’, he says, ‘makes a laughing stock of the Bible.’ However, at the time these texts were written they probably were meant to be taken literally. In fact, at least some of them may have represented an advance on practices current at the time. ‘An eye for an eye’, although taken to be harsh now, was better than ‘an eye and I’ll burn your homestead, take all your goods and livestock and put you and your family to the sword’. The point is that what may have been acceptable or common practice in the past is not necessarily acceptable now. Slavery is a case in point. In the past the Bible was used to justify the slave trade and the use of slaves on plantations in the West Indies, United States and elsewhere. Of course, none of us would even dream of trying that now.

In In-touch No 76 (June – August 2016) I wrote about Arminianism and contrasted it with Calvinism. In a (simple) nutshell, Arminianism (after the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius 1560 – 1609) is the view that all of us can have access to salvation. In contrast Calvinism (after the French theologian John Calvin, or Jehan Cauvin, 1509 – 1564) holds that salvation is an unconditional gift of God given to those whom He elects to receive it. If you’re not ‘on the list’ as it were, sorry. Personally, I cannot see God the way Calvinists do. It just doesn’t stack up to me that God could be that arbitrary. Salvation, surely must be available to all who would receive it, not just to a select few. So, that makes me an Arminian, as, incidentally was John Wesley.

Both Calvin and Arminius justified their views on the basis of Scripture. Which one was right? Both had a view which they believed was derived from Scripture but each came to different conclusions. We have to make up our own minds what we think.

I hold certain views and beliefs about God. For example, I believe God is freely available to all, whoever we are and wherever we are. I see God as fundamentally good, compassionate and loving – I know I’m not alone in that. The point is, that’s the perspective or lens through which I view God. Someone who emphasises God as judge will view Him differently.

During the course of last year, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a short series of readings in ‘Book of the Week’ based on “A History of the Bible: the Book and its Faiths” by John Barton, an Anglican priest and former Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford University (no relation, incidentally). I was so taken by the series that I decided to get hold of a copy, something which proved a bit trickier than expected. Although published by Penguin, the book is not readily available in the UK – in the end I got it from the USA.

In considering how the books of the New Testament came together, John Barton argues they largely gelled together as a result of custom and practice. Those were the books that were most commonly used and relied upon by Christians. When the Church Fathers got round to drawing up the canon, much was already settled and only a few books had to be debated as regards their authenticity or authority. At the same time, Christian doctrine had also gradually gelled together. In some cases, he considers that doctrine was being fixed before texts were written. The letters of St Paul set out various elements of doctrine, thus pre-dating the Gospels themselves.

Much of Christian doctrine is not directly reflected in Scripture. There are allusions which when put together may lead in a certain direction. For example, the idea of a Trinitarian God is not explicitly stated in the Bible. There are hints and references but no direct statement. For a long time, I have felt that the formulation of Christian doctrine represented efforts to understand what lay behind the Gospel story. At one level these efforts relied upon what was related in the texts but at another what people had come to believe about what the texts related. In other words a ‘framework’ was being created that would allow us to make sense of the story of Jesus. The framework had to fit the story, but the story also had to fit the framework. As John Barton notes, there is evidence that in some particulars, some of the texts that form the basis of the New Testament were amended so that they would fit emerging doctrine.

Some years ago I read a book on Christian meditation. The author used extensive quotes from the New Testament to support his view that Jesus was teaching meditation. It seemed to me to be a classic example of having a particular view then looking for texts that could be used to support it. In no way did the author’s view derive from the texts, quite the reverse.

In similar vein, I have felt a little uncomfortable when listening to current expositions of how the Bible enjoins us to care for the environment. As we all know, climate change is a pressing issue and Christians should take a stand on it. It is perhaps natural to look to the Bible for support and guidance but I can’t help feeling that if that is what the Bible teaches, shouldn’t we have paid more attention before now?

Not surprisingly Jews and Christians view the Bible differently. Naturally, Judaism does not consider the New Testament as ‘sacred’. Christians view the Old Testament as part of an over-arching narrative that points towards the coming of Jesus. Judaism does not see it that way. In fact, John Barton’s description of how Judaism uses Biblical texts left my mind reeling. Often disconnected texts and parts of texts are linked together in highly detailed ways not obvious to the uninitiated and also taking account of what is not said to draw many different kinds of conclusion.

In thinking about all this, I can’t help but draw the conclusion that what we draw from Scripture, what we say about God and how we view God’s will does, in large measure reflect our pre-existing ways of thinking and our current concerns. Our ways of thinking about God often reflect what we have been taught in church but that in itself derives from what people have said and thought down the centuries.

So, when we pray “your will be done on earth as in heaven”, are we really praying “our will be done in heaven as on earth”? It’s a tempting to conclusion that, but I think it’s a bit more subtle than that. Naturally, we all bring our pre-conceptions with us when we approach God in thought or in prayer. God doesn’t seem to speak directly to us in conversations (although we might wish He would). Indeed, we should be rightly suspicious of anyone who declares that they (and probably they alone) know God’s will about something or other because God has told them, so the rest of us had better sit up and listen. Rather, we had better draw our conclusions with humility, recognising that we all have the capacity to get it wrong from time to time.

For a very long time I have been aware that how we view what happens to us reflects how we are inclined to interpret what we experience. Non-believers and sceptics are likely to interpret life as a series of coincidences devoid of any particular underlying meaning apart from what we give them ourselves. Others, and believers in religion are likely to view at least some events differently, seeing at least the possibility of the ‘hand of God’ behind them, that things were maybe meant to happen that way.

Perhaps, from time to time we have reflected on something that we have done and wondered about it. As an example, when my wife Sue and I were living in Norwalk, Connecticut our church was involved in a ‘soup kitchen’ once a month. I was aware of this and had been asked if I’d like to help but had not done so before. Then, one day I took it into my head to go along to help. When I got there, Kon Swee, who was running our church’s group was busily preparing the meal. He asked if so-and-so had called me to which I answered, ‘No’. He then asked if so-and-so-else had called, to which I again answered, ‘No’ as nobody had called me and asked me to go that day. It was clear that the group was short of people and desperately in need of extra help. He didn’t say, but he had probably been praying that someone would turn up. So, was I an unwitting answer to prayer that day?

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but perhaps not.

So, ‘whose will be done’? Preferably God’s but maybe we can’t always immediately see it.

First published on: 24th February 2022