President Obama pontificating at his appearance at Moore, Oklahoma tornado devastation site: “The Book of Isaiah says, ‘And a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind,’ . . . it reminds us that God has a plan and we are an instrument of his will.” Excuse me, but who elected this guy “Pastor-in-Chief?” Could we have a little separation of church and state from the constitutional lawyer?
Does this highly-educated man, the President of the United States, arguably the most powerful man in the world, realize just how colossally stupid such as statement sounds to anyone who is not a member of the incident-stunned, credulous immediate audience or the religious-right zombies watching on television to whom he is (still!) pandering with this less than sincere religiosity? Okay, I’m being a little hard on the guy, but hearing stupid crap like that really gets to me.
We can remember the hubris of Mr. Obama’s predecessor who truly seemed to believe that his election to (and not theft of) the Oval Office was divinely ordained. Could Mr. Obama be possibly suggesting something similar by allowing that he is reminded that “God has a plan and we are an instrument of his will”? Let us give him the benefit of the doubt for a moment and assume that he was not employing the royal “We” because it is sufficient to question him on the matter of just how he comes by the knowledge that “God has a plan.”
“God has a plan,” and things that happen are “the will of God,” we hear from a good many clerical and secular mouths. It’s total bullshit of course; there is no way of even knowing if there is a God, much less if that God “has a plan” and that he micromanages the universe with his will. Such Biblical blather reflects, of course, in simplest terms that human need to assign some meaning and direction to existence. But at the same time, it is riddled with contradictions. If indeed, we are all in God’s “plan,” and fulfilling his “will,” then our human existence is pretty much meaningless, as such statements really mean we are little more than set pieces being divinely maneuvered under the illusion of free will.
Free will is what I want to talk about for a moment, because it is at the center of the whole question of whether we freely make choices, and are therefore responsible for their consequences to others, and to our relationship with that God that everyone keeps talking about. It is a subject to which we can appeal to that source of sources—the “good book.”
The discipline (such as it is) of Theology does not have much to say about free will. It isn’t even in the index of the over 800 page Official Catechism of the Catholic Church, and it is not mentioned in any of the four volumes of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia either.
Here is how a renowned public prosecutor observed curious omission.
Although perhaps no precept in all of Christianity or Judaism is more important than free will in as much as God’s justice and punishing evil doers or those who reject him could not be explained without it (i.e., how could God punish a man for doing an act he ordained that he do?) . . . Indeed, not only is there no scriptural support in the Jewish or Protestant Bibles for the doctrine of free will, but there is old and New Testament support in the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic Bibles against it. Romans 9:18 explicitly says that “God chooses to make some people refuse to listen.”
Can you imagine God on the stand under cross-examination by this guy? In fact it can be backed up with plenty of scripture that theologians like to skate by without bothering to fall into some logical crevasses. For example as when God said, “ I will make Pharaoh stubborn so he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21, 7:3), or when Isaiah 63:17 says: “Why, Lord, does thou cause us to stray from thy ways?” and Romans 11:32 admits that “God consigns all men to disobedience so he may have mercy on them.” There is more chapter and verse, but the prosecution rests, your honor. Even a supreme being cannot lord it over logic.
Not that we exercise any logical consistency in holding such beliefs and at the same time having to deal with the realities of human existence. If the terrorist, or the mass murderer is operating under the same divine plan, then how are they, and not God, culpable for such crimes. For that matter, does not the religious fundamentalist terrorist invoke the will of his divinity as justification. This is, as we know, in the philosophy of metaphysics the vexing “problem of evil” when we give God authorship for everything that happens.
But when we are existentially shell-shocked (sort of a metaphysical PTSD) by planes flying into buildings or tornados and tsunamis, we tend to apply a corollary to Pascal’s hedged bet: disasters happen and, if we believe that God has a meddlesome hand in everything that happens, then we have to accept them as part of some plan whose purposes are beyond our ken; then we can either curse God (and possibly piss him off) for selecting us to suffer under his “plan” or bow down and worship the boss (sort of a metaphysical “Stockholm Syndrome”).
So why is the president pronouncing that a destructive meteorological event is somehow an instrument of God’s plan? First, he has seen this drill enough times to know how he has to play it. Aside from the fact that such explanations make for good politics in that particular ideological (red)neck of the American woods, isn’t it that we just cannot abide more logical explanations? Would the president get any points if he said that the fate of Moore, Oklahoma was just “bad luck”? It certainly would not do to remind us that the consequences could owe to injudicious land-use planning (as this particular area has a history of being in what is called “tornado Alley”); or the result of the lack of application of appropriate building codes, which might have required the installation of storm sewers or other structural safety measures; or, in that there had been warnings by forecasters beginning a few days before the event that tornadoes were probable, a lack of good judgment on the part of people and public officials to remain in its path. Yeah, I know, you can make it complicated.
Putting it all on the divine plan has its advantages. It’s a comforting “grand delusion.” A survivor thanks God for his survival; the victim plays his Pascal card; for him it is a Hobson’s choice he sees no comfort in not accepting. So, it seems that God gets credit for anything good that happens to us, but gets a pass on the fact that there is death and destruction of his authorship, and that even the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, accepts that it is part of a divine plan. Even the President of the United States is not going to gainsay Godzwilla. If the President’s little scriptural “explainer” did not satisfy me, maybe the answer might lie elsewhere on my television.
A Note on The Philosophy of Happenstance. On the same day that I listened to the president’s little sermon, on another channel, a sports channel, I spent a few minutes listening to a discussion by former pro basketball players of a blatant foul that had taken place in a previous evening’s playoff game. The players could not agree whether the foul was blatant, although the videotape that was played several times, and from several angles, showed an elbow being delivered viciously to another player’s head. I was about to leave the channel when former basketball star “magic” Johnson held forth on the matter and said that it was not a foul at all, just something that “happened.” “These things happen in basketball,” he went on, topologically, “it just was something that happened.” Apparently, Johnson’s world is one of non-causality, where stuff just happens, and players elbows find their ways to opponents heads in some fuzzy universe of random coincidence. One wonders, whether Johnson, who had to retire from his career owing to the HIV infection he had acquired from some groupee on a road trip, explained to his wife that the acquisition his serious, communicable condition was something that “just happened.” Yeah, sure.
As my first grade catechism said: God created us to “Know love and serve Him in this world and be with Him in he next.” We got a few other things to do in this world than recover the bodies of gunned-down and kids from our schools and those drowned in tsunamis.
There, but for the grace of Godzwilla, go I . . .
© 2011 & 2016, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.19.2015)
 NPR, “Powerful Tornado Struck Moore, Oklahoma, 1 Week Ago” Morning Edition, 05.27.2013
 Like saying “shit happens” only it’s “holy shit.”
 I owe Vincent Bugliosi, Divinity of Doubt: The God Question (2011), Pp. 34-36, for insights into this question
 I must confess here that I never dared broach such concerns in my Theology and Metaphysics classes in college—we had 24 credit hours of that stuff, and pissing off your profs (almost always as Jesuit) could result in a “C” lousing up your GPA and chances for grad school. Best to play along with the grand deception. I got “Cs” anyway.