The Vagueness of “Divine Guidance”
If you had a personal relationship with a divine being, wouldn’t you want to know what she or he wanted? I mean, how can you have a personal relationship if the other being doesn’t communicate – certainly theoretically possible (just about), but practically very difficult. I mean, I might need to know if God wants me to change job or not – hearing the divine view could be very important.
On the face of it, advocates of religion would argue that it is often clear what God wants and that the issue is not the clarity of the message, but our willingness to hear it. So, for example (and the examples I give will be drawn from Christianity, simply because that is the dominant religion in my culture and the one I am most familiar with), Christians would argue that it is pretty clear what the Bible (and therefore God) expects about sexual morality, but most people in the West (at least) no longer want to hear it or obey it.
Despite the prima facie strength of that argument, there are several things wrong with it.
First, it is not always clear what the Holy Book is teaching. The book is collection of individual documents written thousands of years ago in a range of cultures. What they meant in the context of the culture in which they were written is not always clear. When we then find that books in the Holy Book written in different cultures appear to contradict each other, what the Holy Book is teaching today becomes less clear.
One example will illustrate the problem (although there are many that could be given). You would think that at least with the New Testament, we ought to be on clearer ground – there is less cultural diversity in it than in the Bible as a whole, and it is closer to our time historically. And yet … and yet … Take the issue of women in the priesthood. Some members of the church have taken Paul’s injunctions from various epistles that women should be silent in church and not have authority over men, as teaching that there should not be women in the church leadership. To them, this appears to be clear. Then come along the scholars and say that you have to interpret it in the context of the time where women weren’t educated and temple prostitution in other religions was common. And then someone says what about Junia, the female apostle mentioned in Paul’s letter to Rome? What appears to be clear, isn’t.
Secondly, even those who advocate that the Holy Book’s teaching is clear, are inconsistent in the parts they seek to enforce and edit out parts that seem culturally unacceptable to many today. So for example, some Christians pounce on verses in Leviticus 18 to condemn homosexual practice, and yet fail to get excited about the commandments to refrain from sex during menstruation from the same chapter or the eating of blood from the same book. And few Christians today would advocate stoning those caught in adultery, the plucking out of eyes because of lust, or the regular washing of each other’s feet, or insist that Church services be held on Saturday rather than Sunday (despite many serious commands to honour the Sabbath). If we can pick and choose, how can the meaning be clear?
Given that all churches outside the Roman Catholic church lack a strong, centralized body for maintaining doctrinal conformity, and given the growth of the independent churches, where the level of ministerial education and training can best be described as “inconsistent and variable”, it is not surprising that in the church as a whole, there are millions of different voices teaching many different things about the same subject.
Thirdly, even if we grant that the meaning of the Book is clear, any apparent clarity only applies to general moral conduct – about loving our neighbours, for example. The clarity doesn’t extend to the guidance that most religious people want from their divine being about the important decisions in their lives – about marriage and singleness, about families, about jobs, about money, about just about anything that they feel concerned with.
In response to the third problem churches have traditionally said: look at what the Bible teaches on the subject (but the Bible has little, if anything, to say about who I should marry or what car I should buy); listen to what your Christian community and church leaders say (but why should I trust these fallible human beings who know less about my life than I do); and listen to your heart (but my heart might be misguided – doesn’t Christianity teach that I am flawed and fallible? – and my heart changes from day to day).
So “divine guidance” is usually vague.
In addition to this facade of certainty that even today causes so many problems at both a macro level (religious wars in communities and between countries) and a micro level (religious teaching that harms individuals and groups), I also feel angry about two other issues arising out of this facade.
First, it encourages a dependency culture and discourages thought. As a talented, significant human being, I have to go to a divine being for help in making a decision, or to a church community. I accept that getting input from others can be important, but in religions it seems a requirement because of my own inability to decide, and the quality of that input is so often variable and confusing. The irony is that, for the Christian at least, the teaching is that she or he is a talented, significant, human being made in the image of God. Despite that theology, Christians are not encouraged to use their divinely inspired creativity and make up their minds alone. Such thinking debases humanity.
The second thing that angers me is that the facade of certainty in divine guidance perpetuates the myth that you can make the perfect decision. The perfect decision just involves knowing what the divine will is, and once you know that, you can rest easy, knowing that everything will be ok. As a therapist I used to see numerous Christian couples in marriage crisis, convinced that their marriage was failing because they had been wrong about choosing God’s partner for them – and since they had been wrong, shouldn’t they get out of the marriage now?
At best such thinking removes responsibility from me. If my marriage is failing because I failed to find God’s partner for me, there is nothing that I can do now to rectify it. There is no point in overcoming the communication problems or the sexual difficulties, and there is no point is trying to change the character flaws.
Such thinking also delays the decision process and can lead to months and years of paralysis as I chase the cloud of the perfect decision trying to work out what God’s will is. It would be far better for me to accept that the perfect decision doesn’t exist and that I am responsible for my choices. I seek good input, evaluate the evidence, and make the best choice I can at the time. And if things turn out badly, it isn’t because I have failed to understand some divine plan, it is because I was a fallible human being living in an imperfect world with other fallible human beings and I made a mistake. But if I have made a mistake, I can work to put it right.
Listening to “divine guidance” just clouds the issue.
– A Thinking Man