Saturday, April 19, 2008

Can you read God’s mind? I know I can’t.

Posted in the St. Louis Post Dispatch Civil Religion Blog on 04/19/2008 2:47 am
The Wrath of GodI woke up early Friday morning to our house shaking. Realizing it was not in a tornado or something that required an immediate evacuation, I thanked God for the safety we were in and tried to go back to sleep. But this strange question popped up in my mind: Were there any gay parade scheduled in a near by city?
Of course, this is not my usual reaction to geological phenomena. It just happened that a couple of months ago I read something linking gays to earthquakes, and I wanted to write a posting about it. The latest realignment of tectonic plates in the Midwest seemed to be the right backdrop for that posting. Here it is.
Religious people feel a strong connection with God. A personal and warm sense of proximity to our creator gives many of us comfort, strength, and enough boost to carry on when the going gets tough. Some people, unfortunately, get a bit too close.
I, like many others, may occasionally feel tempted to gage how much God is happy (or unhappy) with me. If I have a good week at work, is it because God is smiling upon me? If my car breaks down in a very untimely fashion, is it because I did not focus enough on my duties to God? I think a tiny little bit of that is not bad. Being aware of God’s presence, and that He notices us, is not a bad thing as long as we do not jump to conclusions about Him immediately responding in a divine fashion to every thing we do - that is to say, as long as we do NOT claim we KNOW why God did, or did not do, something to us or to someone else (for example, neighbors’ car stolen because they do not go to church, or a boss deserving a serious heart attack for being mean to his/her employees).

Unfortunately what may be, in a very limited fashion, OK for each of us individually, could become a seriously dangerous thing to do by someones who claims, or are perceived, to have a special connection with God.
Main Street Methodist Church
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
Main street Methodist church, Bay St. Louis, MississippiThe images of Hurricane Katrina are in our collective memory, with close to two thousands killed, whole cities destroyed, and hundreds of thousands uprooted from their homes. But to some, it was not the laws of physics, meteorology and statistics at work. It was a Divine decision to teach us a lesson. Pat Robertson seems to think Hurricane Katrina is related to the legalization of abortion (see video there). He and Jerry Falwell blamed September 11 terrorist attack on abortionists, gays, and the ACLU. John Hagee stated that the hurricane was an act of God, punishing New Orleans for “a level of sin that was offensive to God” and that it was actually meant to disrupt a gay pride parade in New Orleans.
Seven thousand miles away, another ‘man of God’ disagreed with Hagee regarding why God’s wrath descended on the poor people of New Orleans. It was not the gay pride parade. It was the US foreign policy. “Hurricane Katrina is a punishment meted out by God as a result of U.S. President George W. Bush’s support for the Gaza and northern West Bank disengagement”, Israeli Shas Party spiritual leader and former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said. But when it came to gay people and their impact on the laws of nature, Hagee found an ally in a member of the Israeli parliament from the same Shas party who blamed gays for earthquakes in Israel: “A cost-effective way of averting earthquake damage would be to stop passing legislation on how to encourage homosexual activity in the State of Israel, which anyways causes earthquakes”. That funny statement was the reason behind the weird thought that came to me soon after I felt the quake.
Flawed thinking underlies all these people explaining what God really means when we have a tsunami, a failed space shuttle mission or when tectonic plates find a new position of equilibrium. This is not restricted to Christian or Jewish hyper-religious figures. Similar efforts to read God’s mind occur amongst some Muslim preachers as well. In all of these case, the ‘men of God’ are comfortable telling us that God used nature to send the rest of us a message endorsing the political agenda that they support.
How arrogant of them on one hand, and demeaning to God on the other.
In all the holly books of Abrahamic faiths, God used a lot more reason to persuade us than he used indiscriminate, disproportionate, and actually misdirected forces of nature. The wisdom of God’s actions - be it a natural disaster, a good harvest year, victory or defeat in a war, or simply catching the flu - is impossible to decipher. Could these events, great or small, have a divine reason behind them? Yes, but none of us is capable of reading God’s mind or knowing his specific intent.
The Quran tell a very revealing story about Prophet Moses, peace be upon him, insisting on joining a Holy man to learn a bit of how God works. “May I follow thee on the understanding that thou wilt impart to me something of that consciousness of what is right which has been imparted to thee?” (Quran 18:66). He was warned that it is too difficult for him to fathom, “[The other] answered: ‘Behold, thou wilt never be able to have patience with me for how couldst thou be patient about something that thou canst not comprehend within the compass of [thy] experience?” (Quran 18: 67 & 68).
The story gets more exciting from that point on with the sage killing the child of two God-conscious parents, putting a hole in the boat of orphans that helped the sage and Moses cross a river, and finally the sage helped build a wall for the villagers that were hostile to them. Moses gives up at that point, the sage explains to him the wisdom behind the strange series of deeds and they part (Quran 18:70-82).
If Moses could not understand God’s wisdom of simple everyday events, who are we to claim that we can read God’s mind?
Fellow bloggers and readers: tell me what would be your religious perspective on man reading the mind of God.


  1. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef should remember what the Talmud says happened when of the most important and revered Talmudic sages, Rabbi Eliezer, claimed to know the mind of God.

    A group of sages were debating about whether a certain type of oven could be made kosher or not. Rabbi Eliezer said it could, everyone else disagreed with him. Frustrated, R. Eliezer said "If God agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!" A miracle occurred: the carob tree moved a hundred feet!

    But the other rabbis said, "No reasonable proof can be brought from a carob tree."

    Again, he said "If God agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it!" And there was another miracle: the stream of water flowed backwards!

    But the other rabbis said, "No reasonable proof can be brought from a stream of water."

    Rabbi Eliezer said, "If God agrees with me, let the walls of this courtyard prove it!" -- and, yes, there was a miracle, the walls of the courtyard started to fall inwards. But Rabbi Joshua scolded the walls, and they stopped falling.

    Again, Rabbi Eliezer said "Let God himself prove that I am right!" -- and a beautiful heavenly voice called out that Rabbi Eliezer was right, the oven could indeed be made kosher.

    But Rabbi Joshua pointed out that God Himself had said at Mount Sinai that in matters of open dispute, we must follow the majority's rule. Then they took a vote and made Rabbi Eliezer leave the house of study.

    In a prophetic dream, Rabbi Nathan asked what God did at that time. And he was told that God chuckled with joy and proudly said "My children have outsmarted me!"

  2. I was asked by a friend what connection my comment had to your post. I should have continued to explain:

    Obviously nobody can "outsmart" God. The point of the story is that God wants us to think for ourselves, to act rationally and to use reason.

    Anyone can claim that an earthquake or a hurricane is "divine proof" that they are right. But no reasonable proof can be brought from an earthquake, or a hurricane.

    (the story of Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenus and the oven is told in the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mezia 59a-59b)