Synchronicity – the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.
I’m a Sunday School teacher. I’ve been teaching at my church – an American Baptist Church – for over 35 years. The class I’m teaching now is made up of adults approaching or enjoying their sixties. I’ve been with this class for at least twenty years. We all know each other well. This past Sunday – yesterday, as I write this – I taught from a passage in Romans that has been a flash point for many over the years. It’s the ninth chapter; the place where Paul writes something like “What if God chose certain people to be objects of His mercy and others to be objects of His wrath?”
The reason I taught this passage is that I believe I have just found the only satisfactory explanation of it that I’ve ever seen. What confounds people about this passage is the idea that God makes the eternal/determinative choice between wrath and mercy not based on merit or on anything that the actors – some chosen for mercy, others for wrath – ever did. The example cited is that of Jacob and Esau. While these twins were still in the womb, God made His choice: “Jacob I have loved and Esau I have hated.” Stated a little differently you have the idea of God’s sovereignty over all – even the hearts of individuals – and the idea that human beings – who cannot resist the will of the Almighty are yet held responsible – and punished – for wrong choices.
How can that be fair? How can that be just? How can this be the action of the Christian God – a God of love and justice? How can He punish – for eternity – rational creatures who have no real choice in the matter?
Some – many, maybe most – Christian teachers and commentators simply cite this passage as a statement of the sovereignty of God. God is boss. This world, this universe is His creation. We are His creatures. He can do with us as He pleases. They take the passage as admonishing us mortals against even considering the question that Paul himself raises in the preceding verses:
“But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (New International Version)
Of course, God, as omnipotent creator and sustainer of the universe can do as He pleases. But if He did such a thing as to punish – for eternity – those rational creatures who He created but did not chose for mercy, what kind of God would He be? How could we rational creatures think of Him?
I’m not the first person to ever raise this question. It was on the mind of Isaac of Ninevah way back in the seventh century. Isaac is venerated as a saint in several eastern Christian churches, and he had this to say about the problem:
It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them – and whom nonetheless He created.
Ascetical Homilies, translated by David Bentley Hart
And old Saint Isaac was not the last person to be concerned with the problem. That’s what actually inspired this post. Monday, the very day after I taught on this passage, I happened across a video of Joe Rogan’s interview of Megan Phelps-Roper. Ms Phelps-Roper spent her young life enmeshed in the Westboro Baptist Church – the “church” that is infamous for picketing soldier’s funerals carrying signs that declare that the soldier’s death was God’s judgment against them. Their signs also included such slogans as “God hates America,” and “God Hates Fags.”
Megan, in an act of impressive courage, walked away from the church a few years ago. That meant leaving her mother and father and grandfather and other members of her family who more or less run that church and who consider her lost and unworthy of their love due to what they see as her apostasy. Her parents no longer speak to her.
Megan’s story is fascinating, and she is herself a balanced, thoughtful, and articulate woman. You can read her story in her new book, Unfollow, which, as they say in the movies, is available at your favorite bookstore.
But, I’m not here to sell books. I am writing because I was struck – should I say “blown away” – by a reference Ms Phelps-Roper made during the interview that perfectly coincided with the lesson I taught to my class the day before. Synchronicity.
It would have been quite possible for a person like Megan to leave the Westboro church and remain a Christian. There are churches in every town and city that do not hold to the Westboro church’s toxic beliefs. (In fact, it would be very hard to find another church anywhere that believes the same things as Westboro.) It was quite clear to me as I listened to the interview that Ms. Phelps-Roper was still unsettled in her beliefs and quite willing to listen to rational arguments that point in the direction of faith. It did not seem to me that leaving the cult-likeWestboro Baptist Church would necessarily mean for her a total renunciation of Christianity.
But, at the time of the interview at least, Ms. Phelps-Roper did not consider herself a Christian. She has talked extensively with other Christians and Jews since her departure from Westboro, and thereby deepened and corrected her understanding about many aspects of the faith – such as what it means to love our neighbors. But there was one part of the Bible that she had to reject, as she read and understood it, and she claimed that she had never been able to find anyone who could give her a coherent explanation of the passage that was not, as she bluntly put it to Joe Rogan, “evil.”
Phelps-Roper: (at 46:37) “So, this is why I’m not a Christian anymore. There’s this passage in Romans 9. I have real trouble with this . . . and it’s still hard for me to say that I think this is evil. . . but I think this is evil. There’s this passage in Romans nine that talks about . . . that gives this analogy of God as the potter and humans as clay . . . it paints this picture of God . . . creating certain individuals for the express purpose of torturing them in hell forever. . . He makes you do it and then He punishes you for doing it.”
She reads this passage as further saying that no one can question this situation. She says that she has spent a long time talking to other Christians about many of the toxic beliefs of the WBC and has been satisfied with many explanations offered to counter those ideas. “But that one . . . I have not found any explanation for that passage that makes any kind of sense, that’s consistent with the text and not evil.”
In his book, That All Shall Be Saved, theologian/philosopher David Bentley Hart takes on this very problem head first. He says that the passage has been misread and misinterpreted to mean the exact opposite of what Paul actually set out to say. He says that the absurdity – “evil” – of the notion that God creates some people for the express purpose of torturing them in hell for eternity is exactly what Paul is trying to point out in the passage. Paul is saying, according to Hart, wouldn’t it be awful if this were the case? If God actually operated this way?
And then Paul spends the next two chapters of his letter to the church in Rome to demonstrate that this notion is absolutely false – that God’s purpose in His every “election,” in his “loving” Jacob and “hating” Esau, is ultimately and finally redemptive, not just for those who are chosen, but for those who are seemingly rejected. As Esau, in the end, is restored to prosperity and reconciled to his brother, (Genesis 33: 8-11) so will all at last be reconciled within the family of God. God allows some of His creatures to stumble, but He will not allow any of them to fall.
I know that I have not done justice to Hart’s exegesis here and I don’t have permission to quote him. Let me just say that his explanation of this passage is elegant and insurmountable. Why, oh why, has no one seen this, offered this, before? It has been a great comfort to me and I think it could be pivotal for honest, earnest seekers like Megan Phelps-Roper. I’ve tried every way I know how to get a message to her to share this, all to no avail. If any of you readers have any connection with her, please tell her about Hart’s book.