Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What God Wants, God Gets. by DKL

Don't look so surprised. It's only a dogma. --Roger Waters

A good friend of mine is a bit older than me. His family is Sephardic, and he's got binders full of photos and letters written in the cyrillic alphabet. As he turns through them, he can tell you exactly who went to which death camp or concentration camp, whether they survived, and who got out of Europe altogether. A few years ago he was with his aunt at the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC, and she spotted her younger brother in one of the photos of death camp prisoners that was on display there. He was very young -- if he were LDS, he might have been a deacon -- but at an age that was older, at any rate, than she'd ever seen her little brother. He died there in the death camp. My friend is Jewish, of course, and it's quite something to hear him describe it.

He told me an interesting story from his childhood once. He and his brother and his father were going through boxes in the attic, and they found a box that had some of his father's WWII stuff in it. His father had belonged to the US Army and had fought in Europe. The box included some neat stuff like knives and medals and identification cards -- the kind of stuff that fascinates young boys. They dug through the box finding treasure after treasure until they reached the bottom.

At the bottom of the box was a Nazi flag. His father explained that when he was a young man he'd taken it as a trophy from the flag pole at the city center of a town that his regiment had liberated, and he disposed of it forthwith. Years earlier, when he'd claimed it as a trophy, it had represented for him the clear triumph of freedom over tyranny. But off the field of battle, it was nothing more than a symbol of suffering and of evil.

That thrown-away flag -- it's a very salient representation of the different ways people view the impact of WWII. All too often, we hear a story about how the war went just as God wanted it to: The good guys won, the clear triumph of freedom over tyranny and all that (as though tyranny never had lasting consequences or even stood a chance). But is that what God wanted? A war and a Holocaust and the Allies riding in to save the day?

In our own time it's been said that the Soviets failed because God backed the Muslims in Afghanistan. This sounds a bit strange to American ears. We prefer to explain the Soviet fall in terms of God's partiality for Western capitalism. As rational as we like to think we are, we're as likely as anyone to see the whim of God as an ever-present moral beacon.

During the Carter administration God wanted the USA to yank support from its second-tier autocratic allies. During the Reagan administration God wanted the defeat of communism. During the George H. W. Bush administration God wanted food distributed in Somalia. During the Clinton administration God wanted to end the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia. Now we have George W. Bush's administration, and God wants the USA to rid the world of terrorism. One hears an awful lot about what God wants.

I don't know if it's worthwhile to pay much attention to the minutia, but one thing is clear: God really delivers on the big ticket items. At all times and on all sides and for all purposes, we get an earful about what God wants. And given enough time, it all happens. There is peace and there is war. There is want and there is plenty. There is health and there is disease. And the whim of God operates more like a sanitizer than a beacon; it's what God wants, and that makes so clean and contained--like the victory of freedom over tyranny in WWII. It masks the mess and complication that we'd otherwise deem "reality." It gives us license to think cleanly about unclean things.

To some degree, we Mormons rely on prophets to tell us what God wants. In the good old days, God made polygamy the pride of Mormonism -- [for some] even Jesus was a polygamist. In the good old days, God gave a simple answer to the question of who holds the priesthood and when. In the good old days, God prescribed economic collectivism. There are several schools of thought concerning the role of God's desire and human foible in each of these. Whatever else happened, it's a fair bet that God got what He wanted. And it all comes off pretty tidily when you think of it that way.

Everyone lays some claim to cosmic goodness--from utter lunatics, like the president of Iran, to otherwise reasonable folks like British Prime Ministers and American Presidents; from cranks to bona fide religious leaders; even people like you and me. After all, our lives get pretty messy, too. And come on, God really is on our side, right?

David King Landrith

Of course what God really wants is for us to live in this world and react to it, and in reacting find a broken heart and a contrite spirit. As DKL points out, if we reject humility, all we find is hubris. After all, the real purpose of this world is to be messy, to force us to choose between good and evil, for us to learn and cope and be tested, not to deem the mess the will of God and to congratulate ourselves for our place in it.

Which means, of course, that God got what he wanted in all things, except our repentance. That always remains up to us and is why Enoch saw that God was surrounded in the Heavens by glory, yet still wept for man.



annegb said...

Wow. I'm speechless. I'm going to ponder this one, and print it out. But I have nothing to add. This is just pure wisdom.

Stephen, thanks for recruiting David. It's to all our benefit.

Bookslinger said...

My Jewish grandfather's family (dad's dad) came from Poland shortly before WW I, when my grandfather was a boy.

My father was born in 1931 in the US.

My grandfather's siblings all came over, but not all his cousins, nor all of his father's siblings.

My grandmother was born here, but her parents came over from Lithuania, one of the 3 Baltic status (Estonia and Latvia are the others) which became part of the Soviet Union.

It wasn't until a second cousin of mine (first cousin of dad's on his mother's side) married a man (her 2nd marriage) with numbers tattooed on his arm that I met someone in the family who survived WWII in Europe.

He was a boy during WWII, and was put in a concentration camp. He still had rich relatives on the outside, and they were able to bribe someone to get him out of the camp and save his life.


In the Old Testament, there is a pattern that the Jews don't get persecuted or killed off in big numbers until there had been about 100 years of warnings by prophets.

In New Testament times, the destruction of Jerusalem didn't come until about 37 years after the Lord's mortal ministry.

One question I have is that "Did the Jews of Europe having warning?" Did LDS missionaries make it to Germany and Poland prior to WWII? And if so, were they able to reach the Jewish population at all?

This is not to discount the suffering of non-Jews in WWII, or to accuse those who suffered of any sin. My question is whether we can tie it back to a biblical pattern or principle.

Watt Mahoun said...

Kundos, DKL.

As I understand you, this is about "God" getting what he wants because god is an excuse/justification for people getting what they want/deserve. No?

Now you have this comment from Bookslinger...

Bookslinger, think about what you're saying...this is what I'm hearing: God punished the Jews...For not hearing/accepting Mormon missionaries.

Is this what you're asking? Are you asking for confirmation of this idea?

Barb said...

That is a powerful message! I remember my high school history teaching saying that we know about a historical event as time passes than we do after the incident. I think that I learned this first hand when during the first Gulf War everyone was bragging how near perfect perficion all of our artillery was. Later, in History of Mass Communication, I learned that much that was exaggerated at the time. And the sad thing was that people seemed to be using that as a sign that it was what God wanted. Whether that war was a Just War or not is certainly beyond my ability to debate and I do not profess to know the mind of God in the matter.

I hate how messy life gets. Give me the cleaned up sanitized version please after you edit away anything that does not fit with your thesis of life making complete sense. :)

Good to see ya, DKL!

Sarebear said...


And that last sentence of yours, Stephen . . . the DEPTH of that, the infinite and eternalness of it, the MEANING . . .

From God playing hockey puck with us tonight, to God weeping over us, is quite the range of thought for me tonight.

Not trying to be facetious, but driving home from Stansbury park, and I-80 west was the new practice arena for the US. Olympic hockey team . . . and I felt like I was on God's ice rink, and we were the pucks.

BUT. I do have a point. Somewhere in here, lemme see . . .

Okay. I am so humbled by the relation of others' experiences with the world, particularly the cruelties of life and man. War . . . which used to seem and feel so distant from my life.

Two springs ago, I had an experience, through another's eyes but it became, in part, MY experience, that brought death, loss, and the impact of war HOME to me, that I am going to blog about.

DKL's post inspires me to write it well, I hope.

Thank you both. I have been in a very dark place, and am trying to claw my way back.

Thank you for giving me ideas and things to use as handholds.

DKL said...

annegb, thanks for the kind words. I'm really glad you like the post.

Bookslinger, given my views on Old Testament authorship, I see the prophecies about the travails of the Jews as being contemporary accounts of their bad treatment; e.g., at the hands of Babylonians in the major prophets and at the hands of post-Alexandrian monarchs in Daniel. Thus, I don't see any connection between the millennia of Christian anti-semitism and the Bible. Searching for that kind of Biblical pattern is one sort of "clean-up" that I'm disparaging in my post.

Watt Mahoon, thanks for the kind words. This post is partly about "about 'God' getting what he wants because god is an excuse/justification."

But I hope that I've gotten at a lot more than that. I also intended this post as also something of a hat-tip to the problem of evil. And I'd hope that people read it thinking in terms of the actions that God takes on his own behalf versus the actions that are taken on his behalf (e.g., the First Vision vs the Restoration of the Priesthood vs the Official Declarations). And so it's partly about how God's desires are defined by mortals, as though Heaven is just a passive participant, and Earth is where the action is. There's something about the way that peoples, persons, and religions view God and we participate in this as Mormons and as Christians and as mortals. It's wrong to take everything said about God literally, but it's also wrong to dismiss it all as an opiate. Nor do I personally tend to think that the truth (for lack of a better word) is somewhere in between.

My own thoughts on this issue are rather scattered, as you may be able to tell from this post. This is an area where my mind goes in many different directions. I'm still not at a point where I can create an outline for an argument or even formulate very many questions. Maybe I never will. This post represents an angle on, or maybe just a grasp at, some of these issues, using as a rhetorical starting point the question of how we use God as opposed to how God uses us.

One thing that I am not trying to do is play the moral equivalency game; i.e., I am not trying to beat the tired everyone-says-god-says drum.

Barb, thanks for the kind words. You're right that time adds a perspective that makes dispassion and rigor appropriate.

Sarebear, I'm very pleased that you've found this helpful. Thanks for implying that the post is well written. Ethesis saw the early drafts, so he can attest that it didn't start out that way.

Jim F. said...

Like others, I'm glad to see you posting, David, especially with such a thoughtful post. Thanks.

dkl said...

Thank you, Jim. It's nice to be posting (thanks, Stephen!), and it's nice to be read. Thanks for the comment.

lchan said...

Great post, DKL. You need your own blog.

Christian Y. Cardall said...

DKL, nice post. What I take away from it is that your title is ironic: God doesn't really get what he wants, and our claims that he does are not so much reverence for God's greatness as hubris on our part. Like us, maybe more than us if believe Enoch, God suffers and weeps.

DKL said...

lchan, thanks for the kind words.

Christian, the title is intended to be ironic. I intend for it to have many, many meanings. The notion of "what God wants" is the kind of thing that grants a level of moral clarity than I'm trying to avoid altogether in the post without adopting relativism as a moral framework. I hope that the title reflects that.

Also, at the end of a comment on my "Testimony" post at LDSLF, I alluded to the notion that as mortals we have "set sail in an ocean of moral-ambiguity." I'm hoping that this post reflects one small strand of my thinking along those lines. I'm not trying to say that the proper choice isn't often both obvious and morally clear. Toward this end, I'm glad that Stephen brought the image of a suffering and weeping God into play. Much of what good guys do is preventative in nature, and it is heroic largely because of how thoroughly entrenched evil was allowed to become. Is this the kind of thing that makes God proud of His creation?

James Landrith said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James Landrith said...

That was a thoughtful piece and well worth the time to read.