The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Is God the "Grand Puppeteer?", part 2

Jim V. asks, “If God is all-powerful, does that mean that He/She is the “Grand Puppeteer” and brought this pandemic upon us? If so, then why?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at InterfaithUnderstanding.org.

Jim V. asks, “If God is all-powerful, does that mean that He/She is the “Grand Puppeteer” and brought this pandemic upon us? If so, then why? Or as some say, God doesn’t bring bad things upon us, but allows bad things to just happen so good may occur as a result. If so, what is the “good” that has resulted with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic? Is God testing us here?”

Responses continue from last week …

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

The object of this question is the philosophical principle of ‘deism.’ Deism is ‘holding that God created the universe and its laws but then receded from the action’ (cf. Deism: Alive and Well in America).

I do not hold the principles of deism. Therefore, I do not believe God is a ‘Grand Puppeteer.’ I do not think God is testing us with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The free will God gives us demonstrates profound respect. Humans may choose between good and sin (evil). Building a relationship with God through prayer helps us recognize that Jesus is active or present among us. We may then conclude that God is not testing us. Jesus is guiding us on our journey to eternal life.

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

No, God did not bring this pandemic upon us. And God didn’t send the plague to teach us a lesson. We brought it upon ourselves by choices we have made— invading and destroying  natural habitats where exotic animals live, forcing them and their viruses into populated areas where viruses could find new species, (us) to invade.

God appears in the picture when we humans take ‘death’ and allow life to spring forth. That’s God’s trademark. Who knew that church attendance would INCREASE when technology opened virtual church doors? Not being able to hug grandparents or grandchildren for months on end reminds us to not take our family members for granted now that we can gather.  The pandemic exposed the impact of poverty when students without internet couldn’t learn at home when schools closed. Globalism isn’t something we can bat around politically. It is a fact brought to light by a virus which knows no countries boundaries, respects no political party, privileges no culture or race. Yes, the pandemic has brought gifts — to individuals and to the world community. First we note the gift, then receive it, and finally, if we have the courage, allow ourselves to be transformed by it for the benefit of not just self but others. This is the world of communities of faith!

My response:

I believe that God has created a world which functions according to rules of physics, chemistry, mechanics, biology, and other branches of science. We do not yet entirely understand the nature of the physical world and likely will never be able to predict all events and outcomes because there is a random element in the way particles and human beings interact with each other. Human beings have free will to act against the good or others or even against our own interests. As a principle of my religious faith, I believe that God cares about me and loves the world and infuses creation with Divine energy. However, it has never made sense to me that a survivor of a natural disaster was singled out by God for saving and that those who perished were being punished by God for their sins. It does not make sense to me that God selectively suspends the laws of the universe to protect some good people while leaving other good people to suffer, or punishes some evil people while leaving others to prosper.

Rabbi David Wolpe presented a useful image in his book, “Healer of a Shattered Hearts.” He suggests that the element of randomness, disconnecting reward and punishment from good and bad behavior, is a necessary element of the world in order to give us the opportunity to be truly good. If a child is told by his mother not to take a cookie before dinner, otherwise he will not get his favorite dessert, and he doesn’t take a cookie, he’s not being good - he’s just being smart. If, however, he knows that taking the cookie is wrong but he also knows that can take a cookie and there will be no consequences, and still he doesn’t take the cookie, then he is being good.

So I don’t believe that God is a ‘Grand Puppeteer’ controlling and monitoring and testing each one of our actions with an appropriate consequence. But I do believe that it is useful to see the world through a religious lens which understands that every choice we make and every hardship we suffer is an opportunity to bring goodness into the world.

The suffering that came from COVID-19 is not good, but if we choose, we can learn from suffering. COVID-19 has prompted tremendous leaps of science that will be applied to other kinds of medicine. It has made many of us rethink our basic values, the way we live our lives, and make changes for the better. And it has given us new tools to connect with each other and support each other at a distance.

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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