Is God arbitrary? (my point of contention with conservative evangelicals)

Is God arbitrary? (my point of contention with conservative evangelicals) October 13, 2014

god-monty-pythonIs there anything that God asks us to do for no other reason than because he’s God and he said so? I suspect that how you answer this question reflects whether or not you are a conservative evangelical. Because I believe that God is perfectly benevolent, I presume that everything God asks us to do is for our own good, whether collectively or individually. My hunch is that this makes God sound too “humanistic” for a conservative evangelical, whose main concern is defending God’s sovereignty. Can God be truly sovereign without giving some commands that we must obey for no reason other than the sake of obedience itself? If God isn’t arbitrary and rules with pure benevolence, does that make him nothing more than a giant self-help genie?

The ancient Israelites understood themselves to be dealing with a God who wanted things done a certain way just because he said so. This is particularly true about the laws regarding ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness. Chicken and beef are okay to eat. Shellfish and pork are not. Why? Because God said so. And living within his boundaries of cleanliness and uncleanliness is how you become a holy people. Now the anthropologist in me wants to speculate that ancient people probably saw others get violently ill from consuming improperly prepared shellfish and pork, and that became the basis for kosher dietary laws. But to a Biblical inerrantist, that kind of “humanistic” explanation is out of bounds. Asking speculative “why” questions about God’s law is almost as rebellious as disobeying it. If God wanted to explain that shellfish can cause food poisoning, he would have said that. Instead, the explanation he gives whenever there is an explanation are statements like “I am the Lord” or “You will be holy for I am holy.” Making God’s commands practical is cheating.

But then when I read the New Testament, it seems that almost all of Jesus’ conflicts with the religious authorities who eventually crucified him were over the “because God said so” laws. Jesus wipes out the kosher laws by declaring all foods clean in Mark 7:19. When Jesus gets attacked for dishonoring God by doing work on the Sabbath, he says scandalously, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). When Jesus gets criticized for associating with unclean people, he quotes Hosea’s declaration that God “desire[s] mercy not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13), which suggests that the point of any sacrifice God commands is ultimately to instill us with mercy towards other people. Jesus contends that the “weightier matters of the law” are not whether you “tithe mint, dill, and cumin,” i.e. following the details of God’s supposed idiosyncratic tastes spelled out in the law, but whether you serve the needs of “justice, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23), which is the ultimate end-goal of the entire system of clean and unclean.

I always scratch my head when the inerrantists try to prove the inerrancy of the Old Testament based on Jesus’ treatment of it. It’s true that Jesus made cosmic statements about coming to fulfill the law and the prophets and not removing a single jot or tittle (Hebrew writing marks) from the law. But I have not found a single instance in which Jesus defended a specific “because God said so” law for its own sake. Apparently, he just didn’t get fired up about honoring the details of the sacrificial cult delineated in Torah, which supposedly had to be performed in a very meticulous way in order to please God. What fired Jesus up was when the law was being used to hurt people, so he consistently shot down any interpretation of the law that caused harm and exploited anything in the law that could be used to promote mercy. Jesuwas never “agenda-less” in his appropriation of scripture; he brought an agenda to scripture and argued points with it beyond the original scope of meaning in the texts he used. He didn’t simply accept the authority of Hebrew scripture and tell other people to obey all of it equally and uncritically; he interpreted and appropriated the Hebrew scriptures in a very particular way to advocate for people who were being stepped on. It’s just dishonest to act as if Jesus wasn’t making a very particular interpretation and prioritization of Old Testament teachings that renders them unequal in their validity, even if he claims to be standing up for every jot and tittle as a necessary polemical gesture in his debate with the religious hierarchy.

Because of what I see in Jesus, I think that the truth that he reveals about God is God’s benevolence. Even if it’s true that God told the Israelites to go through meticulous procedures in their sacrificial law, Jesus’ revelation of God’s nature tells me that it’s not because God is anal retentive and arbitrarily bossy, but because God had some larger benevolent purpose. My understanding is that God had a benevolent purpose in setting up the Israelite sacrificial cult the way he did both for the sake of the social order at the time and in order to lay the foundation for greater things in the future. How we worship God is integrally related to how we treat other people. God uses the honor that he commands us to give his name in order to establish the beautiful, harmonious kingdom that he wants to build among us. I just don’t think Jesus reveals a God who issues commands for the sake of his sovereignty alone.

I recognize that conservative evangelicals have legitimate reasons for being squeamish about the “humanistic” benevolence that I attribute to God. The only way that obedience has teeth is if it’s more than enlightened self-interest. If I’m just doing what God tells me to do for the sake of my benefit, then it isn’t costly enough (see the outcry against Victoria Osteen). I’m only really obeying God if I obey him when what he’s asking me to do makes no sense to me. I get that. But the “because I said so” God that conservative evangelicals worship has a dubious history of being exploited by conquistadors, slave-masters, wife-beaters, and others who have used God’s arbitrariness to justify their own power and their harmful oppression of others.

I’ll never forget a scene from one of my favorite movies, The Mission, about the tragic massacre of a Jesuit mission to the indigenous people of South America by savage colonialists under the blessing of the church. When a cardinal comes from Europe to shut down the mission, he meets with the indigenous chief to say that God has commanded him to leave the mission (so that his people can be captured and sold by the Portuguese slave-traders). When the indigenous chief asks why in the world God would call his people out of the jungle and into the mission only to reverse himself later, the cardinal says (very cynically) that he cannot hope to explain the mysteries of God’s judgment. So he purports to know what God’s will is for somebody else, but he doesn’t own any responsibility for explaining God’s motives to that person, because his God is conveniently arbitrary.

The duplicity of this cardinal from The Mission and his conveniently arbitrary God always comes to mind for me when I think about today’s proxy battleground for our deeper theological debates: the quarrel over sexual and gender otherness. It seems from my vantage point that a conservative evangelical can never concede any possibility of a different Biblical interpretation on homosexuality because there needs to be an arbitrary prohibition in God’s law to prevent God from being reduced to a humanistic self-help genie instead of a sovereign to be obeyed. If the fact that “those gays aren’t hurting anybody” allows us to question whether Paul was talking about something other than queerness itself in Romans 1 or that he may have had prostitution in mind in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1, then our reading of the Bible has been corrupted by that dreaded “humanism” and we’re no longer “letting God be God.” What makes me so angry about this is the way that the sovereignty of God is effectively being worked out on the backs of queer people. I can’t see how it’s costly at all to the people who are raising such a fuss over other peoples’ sexuality because they want to feel like they are following a costly sovereign God.

I’m not panicked that God will lose his sovereignty if we finally admit that he created queer people just the way they are with the same range of possibilities for holy and sinful expressions of sexuality as cisgendered straight people. I understand God’s concerns about our sexuality as benevolence: he simply doesn’t want us to be enslaved to our appetites and destroy our lives and others’ lives as a result. Sex is a potentially dangerous, powerful appetite as well as a beautiful gift from God. The boundaries God puts on sex are not arbitrary, but benevolent. And it’s not just for the sake of our individual benefit to obey God’s boundaries. Because if we can avoid becoming a hot mess train-wreck with our sexuality, then we are more fully available as disciples to share God’s love with the world. That’s the point: to be idol-free for the sake of God’s mission, not to conform to an arbitrary order just because God said so and so that we can feel like our gospel goes against the surrounding culture enough to be sufficiently “costly.”

I believe that God wants for all of us to be whole, in accordance with the shalom that is his goal for all creation. Shalom is not the fake peace that is the absence of conflict or complexity, but the peace of everything being complete and no aspect of any beauty being repressed or wasted. I believe that queer people can live holy lives within the particularity of their difference without pretending not to exist in order to spare the Bible police the hand-wringing of having to recognize that an otherwise divinely inspired first century Jew like Paul did not have absolutely perfect clairvoyance about all the mysteries of human biology. Queer people don’t need to be obedient to the need of some Christians for an uncomplicated Bible (my hunch being that the real sovereignty in question with all of this is the sovereignty of the Bible interpreter). I believe that God wants for every human being to flourish by finding the place in his song we were created to fill, because he loves each of us infinitely. My God is not arbitrary.

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