Religion is a man-made construct. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” In our quest to understand the nature of the universe and our place in it, we turn to others who are like-minded, decide together what we believe, and find strength and community among kindred spirits.
Faith and spirituality spring from within the human soul. In our quest to connect with the unseen Spirit that inhabits us all, we cling to what we believe. Sometimes, in our worst moments, we attack the validity of the beliefs of those who see God through a different human lens. And even in our best moments we are often confused by why anyone would believe what others believe.
Today’s post is the first in a series that will explore what I think people misunderstand about the religion I’ve chosen to help me understand my own spirituality, my own place in the universe. I don’t pretend to be a theologian. These posts will simply offer my own thoughts and my own understanding as I’ve come to see God through Christianity—and, in particular, through Presbyterianism.
I invite you to respond—to help me understand what I might not about your own religious community and practices.
Part One: “Don’t they believe in predestination?”
This is a question I’ve come to expect from other Christians. It is the first question I was asked after I began attending services at a Presbyterian church because I was attracted by the beautiful old brick building and the kindness of the pastor, a man whose child I taught.
Wounded by a religious community in which men wielded power and women were forbidden from speaking in services, I found the rituals and the quiet time to think in my new church comforting. My parents had rejected the church of their childhood—a community that told my mother she couldn’t cut her hair and couldn’t wear pants, jewelry, or make-up. And those were only the surface restrictions of her family’s religion, one that had a long list of “Don’ts” for everyone—and in particular for women. Though she was one of the most spiritual people I’ve ever known, she feared for most of her life that she would spend eternity in a fiery hell.
When I wandered into that Presbyterian church one Sunday as a young adult, I wasn’t drawn by theology or doctrine. I was mesmerized by a message of grace—the first sermon I’d ever heard that didn’t end in an altar call that reminded me I was one breath away from that fiery hell my mother feared.
I first told a friend from an evangelical church, one much less strident than my relatives’ church, about the beauty of that Presbyterian service. I was still a little in awe of every aspect of the service, beginning with the music of that majestic pipe organ and culminating in a sermon about Thomas in all his beautiful, human, questioning doubt.
My friend burst my bubble when she listened quietly to my description of the service, tilted her head to the side, and looked at me skeptically. “Don’t they believe in predestination?”
I had no idea then what Presbyterians believed. But her question batted away the balloon of my euphoria, and I stood like a child watching helplessly as my balloon sailed out of reach into the clouds. She and I had attended a church together as teenagers, one that railed against Christian denominations that taught that once you were saved, you were always saved. Predestination and the need of a priest to intervene between humans and God were views they considered particularly dangerous to our souls, and they taught us to quote scripture to refute those beliefs.
Drawn by the grace of the Presbyterians, I ignored what my friend and I had been taught and continued attending services, though I couldn’t bring myself to become a member until years later.
In all my years as a Presbyterian, I have never heard a sermon suggesting that God decides before we are born who is going to heaven and who is not. I have never heard the term predestination spoken from the pulpit. I have never heard anything to suggest that God takes away our humanity and leaves us no choice about the destiny of our lives. In fact, we most often hear variations on Micah 6:8:
O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The answer to that question is fulfilled in the life of Christ, who teaches us the ultimate destiny for all of us who call ourselves Christians. In those years since I was first asked if my religion believes in predestination, I have read much about that doctrine argued forcefully by John Calvin in the 16th Century. Presbyterians believe in debating ideas, and this one can’t possibly be argued in a blog post.
But I do believe that God’s destiny for me is to be the Spirit’s presence in the world. And if I believe that God is all-knowing, then God knows in advance the choices I will make—and how close I will come to fulfilling that destiny. It does not mean, however, that our Creator shaped us with the intent of favoring some of us and destroying others.
And when I fall short of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly, why doesn’t God do something to get me back on track again? God is all-powerful, right? If God did that, all of us would be predestined to do the right thing, then, wouldn’t we? We would all be more humane, but I’m not sure we’d be human.
Ultimately, I’ve come to believe that we are predestined to live out our humanity. I believe that the Spirit is always and everywhere present in the muck I may sometimes make of it. What is predestined? That even when I fail to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly, God determined before time began to be with me in the midst of it all.