While waiting to get off a plane last week, I overheard a serious young woman explaining a recent theological insight to her half-asleep and equally young husband. “You see,” she began, “what I just learned is that though He owes us nothing and does not reward us for our good deeds, nonetheless, He takes pleasure in them.”
As the flight was from Mytilene, Lesbos to Athens, I guessed that the young couple had come from the United States to my island to assist the refugees. I imagined that the young woman wanted to do good deeds, to help others, and to please her God. At the same time, she seemed to be struggling with Lutheran, Calvinist, or Anabaptist doctrines of justification by faith alone and predestination. I suspected that she had been told she must accept the teachings of church authorities on faith as the correct interpretation of the word of God. Her new insight was attributed to someone else.
I tried for a moment to put myself in her shoes, wondering what it would be like to believe in a God who “owes us nothing.” This of course is the radical theology of the Reformation. The reformers rejected the doctrine known as “prevenient grace,” which says that God infuses the world with grace because He created it. No, the Protestants insisted, the created world and humanity as part of it, fall so short of the divine goodness and majesty that God in His wisdom not only has the right to condemn every last one of us to hell for our sins, but even to predestine us to heaven or hell before we have a chance to do good or evil.
Reflecting on the young woman’s theology, I recalled my thought process when I recently discovered that I am descended from Priscilla Mullins and John Alden who came to America on the Mayflower, survived the first winter when half of their number died, and went on to “increase and multiply.” To be a Mayflower descendant can be viewed as an honorable legacy (or not), but it does not make one part of a select group. Priscilla and John’s first daughter, Elizabeth Alden Pabodie, from whom I am descended, had an estimated 82 grandchildren and 556 great-grandchildren when she died in her early nineties. There may be ten million descendants of the Mayflower living today. But I digress.
When I discovered that I had Pilgrim ancestors, I spent a day or two trying to figure out if the Pilgrims held any theological viewpoints I would want to claim as antecedent to my own. Priscilla’s parents may have been Separatists who felt it necessary to “separate” from the doctrines and practices of the Anglican church of their time. In contrast, the Puritans who followed them to America hoped to “purify” the Anglican church without separating from it. I could identify with the Pilgrims’ decision to separate from the church of their time. Beyond that I could not go. The Pilgrims and the Puritans shared a belief in the God described by the young woman on the plane: the God who owes us nothing.
Last week on FAR I wrote that the doctrine of divine omnipotence can be viewed as the ultimate homage to male dominance as control. I quoted philosopher Charles Hartshorne who wrote that theologians accepted the “tyrant” ideal of power, failing to recognize that it flies in the face of everything we know about love, justice, and moral values.
In developing their doctrines of justification by faith alone and predestination, Luther and Calvin elevated concern for divine power as omnipotent over concern for divine love as omnipresent. Their theologies informed the young woman’s view that “He owes us nothing.” What horrible theology! I wish I had been able to explain to the young woman that such a theology is massively wrong.
Surely a God understood as Creator and Father of the world owes it something! The idea that a human father might create a child and then conclude “I owe it nothing” is repugnant to most of us and is not condoned by our legal systems. Why then do we insist that it is perfectly fine for a Divine Creator and Father to think and behave in such a fashion?
In her struggles with the Calvinist theology she was taught, Mary Baker Eddy concluded that God must be at least as loving and kind as her own mother. The idea that “He” is not, is (to my mind) quite simply, bad theology. Yet sadly, bad theology continues to trouble the hearts and minds of many.
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Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.
Join Carol on the life-transforming spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Space available!