Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Hand of God

In 1986, Diego Maradona scored the first goal of the World Cup quarterfinal match between Argentina and England by punching the ball into the net before England's goalie could get to it. The referee thought it had been headed in and counted it. After the game, Maradona famously referred to it as being scored "a little bit with the head of Maradona and a little bit with the hand of God." Of course, Maradona just cheated, but the flair has stuck.

I'm interested today in how (whether?) the hand of God is "in" even those things that are wrong.

If you're reading this post later, the context in which it was composed was that a BYU religion professor recently said* some pretty racist stuff, including that God was blessing blacks by not letting them have access to the Mormon priesthood before 1978 because it would prevent them from potentially becoming sons of perdition and going to outer darkness. How nice, right?

I join the many others who have condemned these remarks as racist, hurtful, wrong, etc. That folklore does not deserve to be perpetuated, regardless of which long-dead church leaders can be quoted as believing it.

But I want to talk about the ban itself. My personal opinion, after reading a lot of history and thinking and praying, is that it was not inspired by God but rather a product of inherited 19th century culture creeping into church policies. Other people who hold this view often describe the ban as thus being against God's will. And while I agree that God, if he had been making the decision himself, would not have instituted the ban in the first place... God also tells us that he is offended by, or that his wrath is kindled against, those who "confess not his hand in all things."

Now for a four-paragraph semi-digression.

The prototypical test case for this scripture is the Holocaust: how could God's hand be "in" that thing? I confess I don't know how best to answer that question. Does the scripture mean that God cause the Holocaust, as some who posit an all-powerful and all-history-controlling God might claim? It seems like that could only happen if it was an overall good (unless we want to abandon the notion that God is good). Certainly the atrocious actions of the Nazis set the stage for heroism and amazing examples of faith and selflessness, but it's difficult to say that the net result was positive. Of course, God's "net positive" is not always ours--eternal perspectives change things a lot--; and yet, it's hard to conceive of that godawful time being a "good." I don't like this interpretation much at all.

But maybe that's not what God means when he says his hand is in all things. Maybe he's not saying that his hand is behind (meaning "causing") all things, but that whatever happens, his hand will be in it, meaning involved in it to some degree, working to mitigate the hatred and pain that occur. Thus we can say that the Holocaust was not God's "will" but that once it was underway God interposed himself and his grace into it where he could (D&C 122:7 - "all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good" comes to mind here). But this makes God sound incredibly weak--surely he could have interposed himself in such a way as to bury the Nazis in the bottom of an ocean a la Pharaoh's troops, so even if God didn't want the Holocaust to happen he surely could have prevented it.

One final (and more radical) interpretation of the scripture: perhaps God is not saying that his hand really is in all things, only that he wants us to look for it in all things. This would be then a commandment towards optimism: look for the good even in bad situations; sometimes it may not be there, of course, but erring on the side of finding good is surely more appealing than the opposite. Then again, this could also be spun as God commanding us to delude ourselves at times and/or to ignore the truth when it hurts.

In the end, I guess I'd pick interpretation #2 (God doing what he can in the context of human choices to commit evil acts) as the least-bad option. But this post isn't about theodicy in general, it's about the priesthood ban. /tangent

But that's the thing. Even if the priesthood ban was a mistake (aka "wasn't God's will"), we have to assume that he allowed it to happen for a wise purpose in him. Again, this is not to say that it was "right"--it may well have been, and I believe it was, a net bad--but in some way God's hand was "in" it. I want to struggle to see how that could be the case.

There are a lot of useful lessons we can draw from the priesthood ban. One is humility. We need to remember that, even if we believe this is the "only true and living church" (which I do), we don't have the final word. We never will until it's all said and done. We should always look forward with faith and perhaps some degree of impatience to those great and important things yet to be revealed.

I just don't think it's so easy to say "this was against God's will" and dismiss it completely. We can say it was wrong, but if we don't confess God's hand in it then apparently we're going to be making him angry.

What do you think? How can you find the good even in the truly bad? What would you say if Brigham Young (or the church tomorrow) declared that the priesthood ban was instituted "a little bit with the head of Brigham Young and a little bit with the hand of God"?

* Assuming the quote is accurate. I don't doubt that the gist is accurate--this professor had said basically the same things in other venues before--but the particularly ugly wording could have been trumped up somewhat for publication (or simply due to a misunderstanding).