“I struggled with it for a long time, but then I came to realize that life is a gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.” That’s the quote from Richard Mourdock that lit the blogosphere on fire. So what’s going on here? Is it misogyny, poor taste, or bad theology, or some combination of all three? It really depends upon how we define misogyny. I don’t think this quote proves that Richard Mourdock hates women; I have no reason to think he isn’t a perfectly humble and compassionate gentleman to all the women in his life. But I do think that his bad theology caused him to think in abstract, ideological terms about a delicate issue with the result that he said something in extremely poor taste that does real emotional violence to the rape victims who read it. And since I’m a theologian, I’m going to focus on the theology.
When Mourdock says that rape-conceived pregnancy is “something God intended to happen,” he is articulating a view of the world in which everything that happens must be called “God’s will” because to say otherwise means that God isn’t fully in charge of the universe. This is the same theology that caused reformed megachurch pastor John Piper to claim this past spring that a group of devastating tornadoes in the Midwest were God’s punishment for somebody’s sin. In the past, I have used the word “Calvinism” as a label for this theological view, but I am going to try to be more charitable to Calvinism proper by distinguishing it from a theology of absolute determinism.
Based on what I remember from reading John Calvin in seminary and what I see Calvinists most impassioned about when they’re at their best, I would say the heart of Calvinism is the conviction that God’s grace is the only source of any good that we accomplish including our own ability to accept that grace and that God has prepared a plan for each of us in His kingdom. The point of predestination is supposed to be the assurance that it provides to believers that God has taken hold of them and will not let them fall away.
When I talk about my long journey of “converting” to Christianity (which is still in process), I don’t think I could say with integrity that I had any choice in the matter; God’s grace has indeed been irresistible to me. The closer I grow to God, the more petty and false it seems to call my life a result of my decision-making rather than an amazing gift and adventure providentially offered to me every day by God. And yet, I cannot imagine how the God I know would withhold His grace from anybody for the sake of creating a cosmic drama by which His elect can have lives with the meaningful adversity that the predestined damned provide for them (a view which Augustine who originally invented the doctrine of predestination did not have a problem with).
Calvinists often refer to John Wesley as an inconsistent Calvinist when they want to let him into heaven; I would say that I am the same as Wesley if consistent Calvinism means privileging the human logic of theological systems over the mystery of God. See, here’s the thing. I’m not willing to say that because God saved me through irresistible grace therefore God damns other people who haven’t become Christians by withholding His grace for them and also therefore every action which takes place in the universe is preordained by God, which means that therefore a child conceived by rape is “something God intended to happen.” Therefore chains do not submit us to the sovereignty of God, but rather put God under the sovereignty of our logic. The systematic theologians who play with these therefore chains have arrogated to themselves the oxymoronic role of being custodians of God’s freedom.
Those who seek to systematize the Word of God are like people who try to capture wind in a bottle or clutch a beam of light in their fists. This is why John 1:5 is the most important verse in the Bible for putting our epistemology in its place: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not seize it.” You can point to light and dance in its presence, but if you close your hand around it to make it your property, it will only leave you with a fistful of darkness.
In any case, Richard Mourdock’s error is rooted in a theology that submits to the tyranny of logic rather than the sovereignty of God’s mystery. It is irresponsible and disrespectful to God’s sovereignty to speak too confidently about any circumstance in nature being the will of God. We should instead say that we believe that God is constantly creating the universe and that we believe that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins in order to reconcile us to each other and God is proof of the zeal with which God loves us. The God who loves zealously does not will harm against the creatures that He loves even though the same God who is constantly creating holds the universe in His hands. Is this a paradox? Yup.
Now I suppose you could add another shelf to your God-box and say that God “allows” things to happen that He doesn’t “desire.” But I find it most theologically responsible to say simply I don’t know why tragedies happen in a universe that God is constantly creating, but I know that Jesus Christ has received every one of these tragedies as a nail in His flesh. Responsible theology can only be articulated in free-standing and often logically disconnected convictions that are rooted in pastoral experience framed by the lens of the canonical Bible story.
Whichever pastor taught Richard Mourdock such a confidently deterministic view of the universe was being an irresponsible theologian. The tragedy of what Mourdock said is that it mired a beautiful conviction of his that I share: every life is a gift from God. I’m not willing to say based on this conviction that impregnated rape victims should be forced to carry their babies to term, though I also share Richard Mourdock’s basic conviction that abortion should never happen. In the same way that I’m willing to let God’s mystery reign instead of my logic, I am also willing to think as a moral pragmatist instead of an all-or-nothing ideologue. I realize that moral pragmatism can be a dangerously abused concept, but I’m not willing to submit to the tyranny of logic in the form of a slippery slope argument either. I simply talk to God regularly, let Him breathe over me through His book, and then behave and speak based on what He seems to be revealing to me.