The Vagueness of “Divine Guidance”

August 19, 2007 at 11:13 pm 19 comments

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

Entry filed under: AThinkingMan. Tags: , , , , , , .

Take THAT, God of the Gaps! Rejecting the Obvious Truth of the Gospel

19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Botscharow  |  August 20, 2007 at 12:08 am

    Excellent article. Very thoughtful and well written.

  • 2. Stephen P  |  August 20, 2007 at 2:41 am

    Good post.

    I would like to add one point to the ones you made: the evidence that divine guidance has always been exceedingly vague, even on important moral issues, and even to the church leadership. Take slavery: how many church leaders opposed slavery for the first 80% of Christianity’s existence? A handful. Even well into the nineteenth century, divine guidance on this point seems to have been woefully lacking (or otherwise we have to assume that God was suffering from a severe multiple-personality disorder).

    Although several lines of evidence point to the same conclusion, I think that this was the single most important point in convincing me that the Christian God is nothing more than a fantasy.

  • 3. StaCeY  |  August 20, 2007 at 2:59 am

    I actually agree with most everything you wrote here.

    The problem of “vague divine guidance” as I see it though… lies not with God… but with religion. Religion always diverts the masses from their unique and intimate walk in God… to some kinda “group think” thing or another… where there are leaders and experts and all kinds of “accountability” issues. blech. Who can hear God then through all that babble and diversion?

    Jesus ALWAYS went to his Father.
    He did not go to other men/organizations for truth… guidance… confirmation or power. In his one-ness with Father… was all he needed.

    If we are to be followers of Jesus…
    why is it that we do any less?
    (than going to Father for ourselves!)

    It is only when we STOP listening to the world… that we come to hear/see/read/know Father in ALL kinds of “improbable” (and “impossible”) ways.

    God/Father speaks to us in the syncronicities of life… in life signs… he opens up truths… in cabinets… keyholes… dreams… and the unfolding of our realities… and everything found there. As we are deeply ALIVE and AWAKE in each moment with him… he is there speaking.

    NOT as some “all knowing decision maker”… but as a loving mentor… pointing things out… making jokes… bringing rise to new insights… confirming his presence in vivid and awe inspiring life syncronicities… as he enjoys SHARING in our creative efforts with us… as we invite him IN FRIENDSHIP … into the creative process of our lives.

    I tell you from personal experience…
    it is our own vague creative vision…
    our own boxed up thinking…
    our own mental prisons
    that keep us from hearing God for ourselves.

    Plus the world and the churches say that we can’t.

    ok. so that sinches it…. right?
    (only crazy people “hear God”)
    (well… besides God’s ordained and annointed ministers that is. hmmm.)

  • [...] Here’s an article by someone other than me that will give the fundamentalists apoplexy The Vagueness of “Divine Guidance” [...]

  • 5. Simen  |  August 20, 2007 at 3:34 am

    Great post!

    I especially despise “listen to your heart”. If we take it literally, we’ll need to decipher devine messages in our pulses — not very easy. But even as metaphor it fails, because everything happens in the brain — so “listen to your heart” is really just equivalent to “just think of something”. And remember that the heart (i.e., feelings) are notoriously fleeting and dynamic. How am I supposed to know which of the ever-changing kaleidoscopes of feeling that’s really a divine message? It’s not as if the Bible provides a “Roadmap to Discovering Divine Messages in Your Personal Feelings”. So it’s bloody useless, really.

  • 6. jonfeatherstone  |  August 20, 2007 at 5:28 am

    Here is a take from a non-Christian source on this question (taken from a New Age book called “Conversations with God”):
    “Mine is always your Highest Thought, your Clearest Word, your Grandest Feeling. Anything less is from another source” … “The Highest Thought is always that thought which contains joy. The Clearest Words are those which contain truth. The Grandest Feeling is that feeling which you call love” (CWG, Book1, p14)
    What I like about this is that it says it’s OK to trust our feelings (joy,love) – we don’t need to keep going back to some book or another.

  • 7. StaCeY  |  August 20, 2007 at 6:04 am

    I just wanted to clarify… in light of Simen’s post… that I was NOT referring to “feelings”. I was speaking of outward signs… and symbolisms… and highly improbable occurences.

    Simen said…
    It’s not as if the Bible provides a “Roadmap to Discovering Divine Messages in Your Personal Feelings”

    It’s true. So many of the things you all say here are absolutely true. Really the christian religion is a farce. It has very little to do with Jesus at all (weather you believe He is “real” … or just a mythalogical figure).

    as a side note…
    (for whatever it’s worth)
    the bible does point to SIGNS…
    (signs of your “time”)
    knowledge “hidden” in “plain life”…
    and life stories (parables)…
    symbolisms in life events…
    (found in jesus life and miracles)
    and as well dream interpretation.
    Also impossible events.
    (and “visions” as well as God speaking audibly, or through supernatural messengers.)

    Discernment in God’s Spirit…
    is of course impossible…
    unless one is in fact IN God’s Spirit.

    Who wants to argue that one?!
    (you can’t PROVE it.)

    I may not be able to PROVE to anyone here that Father reaches into my “reality” and “alters” it … arranges it… speaks in it…
    but it doesn’t really matter. We all see what we are open to seeing… and understand what we see… in the light of whatever lamps are illuminating our lives. You may feel I walk around carrying the lamp of dilusion or immagination… but that’s ok with me. It’s understandable really.

    Honestly… if it hadn’t been for the supernatural encounters I have had in/with God myself…
    I would probably be an agnostic today with most of you here.

    I am with you in debunking the churchianity anyhow.

  • 8. writerdd  |  August 20, 2007 at 9:58 am

    For Christian readers wanting an interesting discussion about divine guidance, I strongly recommend Decision Making and the Will Of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View by Garry Friesen.

  • 9. Brad  |  August 20, 2007 at 10:13 am

    Wow. A great question. I mean, why is God NOT meeting all of my needs today? He certainly must not exist if there is any uncertainty or vagueness in communication. After all, the rest of us never have problems communicating clearly with each other, and on the rare chance that we do, it is never my fault.

    http://seminarianblog.com/2007/08/02/anthrocentric-v-contextual-reading-of-scripture/

    Many of the illustrations in this article can easily be explained away with simply textual criticism. For example, we are told in the NT that the eating of blood is no longer “unclean” in God’s eyes (Acts 10: 10-15), and the issue of women being silent in church was reaction to a “vocal minority” of women who were probably speaking in tongues to build themselves up (see Witherington’s “Conflict and Community in Corinth” for more on this).

    The underlying issue here is not that there is inconsistency in scripture, but that it’s perceived consistency, as well as our “personal” communication with God, does not match up to our standards of perfection. Truly, it is absolutely wonderful that you desire such a thing! I do as well! And I do NOT claim that it is perfect in explaining and answering every question that we can come up with.

    Please here me on this: Scripture was never meant to be the end-all explanation for all of life. It is meant only to plant, grow, and mature our faith in relationship with God through the covenant community (notice I did not use the words “individual” or “personal relationship.”). We will not have this clarity of communication with God until the earth is redeemed. We just can’t, but it is great to desire it.

    In short, I believe this article is a non-issue, not because it is not true in intent, but because Christians have wrongly communicated their relationship with God as perfect in clarity. Also, God does not promise “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” if we simply hear Him correctly all the time. Look at the book of Job. God uses suffering to grow, mature, and temper us as “iron sharpens iron.” It is a lie perpetrated by the adoption of American culture that because God loves us we will always be happy. Relationship with Him does not equate to life without suffering, but life with suffering that has meaning and purpose behind it.

    Would faith be faith otherwise?

  • 10. athinkingman  |  August 20, 2007 at 10:31 am

    Brad

    You wrote:

    “and the issue of women being silent in church was reaction to a “vocal minority” of women who were probably speaking in tongues to build themselves up (see Witherington’s “Conflict and Community in Corinth” for more on this).”

    But doesn’t that make my point. You are using the work of Biblical scholars to illuminate the text and generate a ‘reading’ of it. I personally don’t have a problem with that interpretation of the text. However, my point is that you have had to do that. And while you do that, there are still millions of Christians that will disagree with you, and scholars that will take a different reading. And that is the point I am making. The message isn’t clear!

    And if it is true that the examples I have used can be explained away with textual criticism – isn’t that again the point! If you have to do that:
    1) The meaning isn’t clear.
    2) Millions of Christians will disagree with you and say the Bible is saying something else.
    3) Other scholars will provide different interpretations.

    The meaning just isn’t clear!

    James

  • 11. Brad  |  August 20, 2007 at 10:56 am

    James,

    I definitely think I agree with you. However…

    1.) Does truthfulness require absolute clarity?
    2.) Agreed. Some are more “right” than others, but none have it exactly right. God will judge based on our faith in Christ, not whether our doctrine is 100% correct (although better doctrine helps with having stronger faith).
    3.) See #2.

    The best we can do, is put the effort into understanding, discerning, and interpreting contextually. For a given event:

    1.) Some news reports are more accurate than others, but
    2.) Not one will be singularly objective in their retelling.

    I wrote on contextualization here:

    http://seminarianblog.com/2007/08/02/anthrocentric-v-contextual-reading-of-scripture/

    Again, I would say that your point is correct in that scripture is not 100% clear, and our “guidance” discerned to be from God is not always accurate. If they were, would “faith” be “faith”? Or would it be “common sense.” For truth is rarely common.

    My question to you is, “Does truth require absolute clarity, and what truth has been claimed with surface-level clarity?” Even science requires work, experimentation, theorizing, and interpretation of results. Yet science is more often unclear than it is clear. That does not make all of its statements “untrue.”

    Again, I agree with you. Communication with God is often unclear, and sometimes confusing as hell!

    So what?

  • 12. Brad  |  August 20, 2007 at 10:58 am

    By “science” here, I mean specifically the results of experimentation. Sometimes what we seek to prove is not always proven, but the results are nevertheless true.

  • 13. Heather  |  August 20, 2007 at 11:41 am

    Brad,

    Again, I agree with you. Communication with God is often unclear, and sometimes confusing as hell!

    So what?

    Because there are a lot of people who say that they do have clear communication with God, and act on that “clear communication,” often in events that lead to harming others. This isn’t just Christianity, we can see this in a lot of religions.

    And just in terms of Christianity — you may say that all one needs is faith in Christ, but then you have to ask which Christ? Some Christians don’t hold that the Bible is inerrant, or that everything in it occured exactly as stated. So their Christ would differ from yours. For others, their Christ is one who took their punishment, and then someone else might have a Christ who wasn’t required to take any punishment, but rather simply rescued/redeemed.

    And yet this belief can guide every single action in their lives, including the treatment of others, or the treatment of the environment and so on. So I can see why the lack of clarity can be troubling, when it controls so much of the believer.

  • 14. Brad  |  August 20, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    “Because there are a lot of people who say that they do have clear communication with God, and act on that “clear communication,” often in events that lead to harming others. This isn’t just Christianity, we can see this in a lot of religions.”

    This is wrong, and I agree 100%. Amen.

    “And just in terms of Christianity — you may say that all one needs is faith in Christ, but then you have to ask which Christ?”

    That is a great question. My short answer is “I don’t know.” This is where having good doctrine strengthens faith. As I am sure can be verified by writers of this blog, legalism is not good doctrine and it wrecks the faith of those who hold it as well as those they are in relationships with. Truly, only God Himself knows the answer to that, and we must treat those who have differing views of Christ with love and respect, engaging in conversation on the topic. That’s why posts like this are so beneficial to understanding and discerning truth. :-)

    “So I can see why the lack of clarity can be troubling, when it controls so much of the believer.”

    Also very true. But even if the truth were unmistakably clear, there would still be people who twist it for their gain (particularly in the examples you note).

    My goal in asking the “so what” question was that this principle can be extended to all of life. Nothing, in all of life, is truly “clear.” As I said, even science sometimes has ambiguity and requires work in understanding implication and significance of results.

    This thread of discussion at least seems to be suggesting that this problem undermines the truthfulness of God’s communication. I have not been able to think of a “truth” that we are 100% aware of and clear on, that we can all 100% agree on. Thus, how can we be sure of anything based on this (completely legitimate) complaint?

  • 15. Steelman  |  August 20, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    Brad said: By “science” here, I mean specifically the results of experimentation. Sometimes what we seek to prove is not always proven, but the results are nevertheless true.

    We know that the results of any given scientific experiment are “nevertheless true” due to the fact that they are consistent. The results of scientific experiments, if all variables remain consistent, are themselves consistent, regardless of the variability of religious, political, or philosophical conviction of the experimenters. This is what allows us to confidently state that those results are “nevertheless true”.

    Due to the “argument from disagreement”, both the internal (within Christianity) and external (other religions), this agnostic/atheist has absolutely no confidence that divine guidance can ever be described as nevertheless true.

    This thread of discussion at least seems to be suggesting that this problem undermines the truthfulness of God’s communication. I have not been able to think of a “truth” that we are 100% aware of and clear on, that we can all 100% agree on. Thus, how can we be sure of anything based on this (completely legitimate) complaint?

    Which is why I don’t make the claim that there is no God, just that I really doubt it. At least any kind of God described by the doctrines of contradictory and exclusivist revealed religions, which are professed by followers who certainly aren’t lacking in what appears to be 100% confidence in the “truth” they’re communicating. Are you saying above that you’re not 100% sure that Christianity is true? If so, what would you gauge to be your percentage of doubt?

    BTW, Brad, I for one genuinely appreciate your contributions here.

  • 16. wayman29  |  August 20, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Excellent essay and great point made. At time divine guidance is merely a whisper in the ear from a church member or pastor. Nice job here your on my Blogroll.

  • 17. Eric  |  August 20, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    On the moral side, I’ve always said that people who believe that a) their religion supplies an absolute morality and b) they will go to hell if they don’t follow that morality are not making moral decisions, they are merely following “the rules” so they don’t get punished.

    Faced with the prospect of hell, it’s not surprising that there are people who are willing to support whatever their leader says is the will of god.

    This has the huge advantage that you don’t have to think about your own position on – say – gay marriage, you just need to listen to what your church says.

  • 18. Brad  |  August 22, 2007 at 10:10 am

    Thanks, Steelman. Much appreciated. :-)

  • [...] By John Botscharow | August 20, 2007 The Vagueness of “Divine Guidance” [...]

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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