Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 5th January 2011
Predestination was not something to which I ever gave much thought. It was in the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion and was where the Church of Ireland agreed with the Presbyterians and disagreed with the Methodists. John Wesley’s suggestion that all people could be saved ran against the idea that some people were predestined for salvation, and, presumably, others were not. It always seemed a matter of doctrine though, not something that demanded much consideration. A couple of years ago, though, there was a realization that talk of predestination affected the way in which we presented the Christian faith to the outside world and the way in which we dealt with pastoral issues.
Our book club selection in our parish book club was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. It is a fictional reflection on the experience of the Nazi occupation of the island of Guernsey during the Second World War and the story is told through letters written by the characters in 1946, a year after the war has ended. There are moments that are silly and trivial and other moments that are profound, a little like life itself, but there is also one very serious theological point. Juliet, the leading character, describes a meeting of the literary society at which is present Remy, a Frenchwoman who has survived Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.
Juliet writes, “Two hours of lively discussion on Original Sin and Predestination followed. At last, Remy stood up to speak—she’d never done so before and the room fell silent. She said softly, ‘If there is Predestination, then God is the devil’. No-one could argue with that—what kind of god would create Ravensbruck?”
Of course, Christians would argue that Predestination does not suggest that God creates evil things, only that he has foreknowledge of them. Yet the substance of the objection remains, if God has foreknowledge of evil, why does he allow it to happen? If God knew the camps were going to happen, if this was part of some Predestined history, what sort of God is he?
Jesus talks of God’s foreknowledge of things. Look at what he says to James and John in the Gospel reading, “to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
Predestination is a step further than foreknowledge, it suggests that there is a deliberateness in God’s plans, that foreknowing is just one part of God working out his purpose. Saint Paul writes in Romans 8:29-30, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified”. There is no mistaking Paul’s belief that God doesn’t just know what is going to happen, but that there is a plan underlying the way things turn out. The argument is taken up again in Ephesians 1:5, “In love, he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will, “ and in Ephesians 1:11, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”.
The God whom we meet in the New Testament is a God who is working his purpose out in all that happens, whether it’s in who sits where in heaven, or in the lives of the individual believers. When the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion setting out the faith of the reformed church were written, an understanding of Predestination was an important element. Article 17 says:
“Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation”.
Predestination has been part of our faith. If it was not, we would have to ask, if God does not know the future, then how can he be God? If we did not believe God to be in control of things, then he would not be much of a God. But, if we believe these things, then how do we answer Remy’s complaint in the book, ‘If there is Predestination, then God is the devil’?
It is a question that reflects thought after the Holocaust, how can we hold on to our traditional beliefs in God in the face of the overwhelming evil in our world? The church has often given trite, and sometimes flippant, answers, thinking it enough to simply repeat forms of words.
How do we deal with Jesus’ words, “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared,” and at the same time say that although God has foreknowledge, there is also freewill in the world, and that evil is not part of God’s plan? Can you have a world where predestination and freewill go together? Can you have a world where God knows about Ravensbruck, but is not the devil?
Perhaps help comes from an unlikely source, from the work of Hermann Minkowkski, Albert Einstein’s mathematics professor, Minkowski saw space and time as being not separate, but being one thing. He talked of them as being space-time, according to which says science writer Marcus Chown, “the Universe can be thought of as a vast map. All events—from the creation of the Universe in the Big Bang to your birth at a particular time and place on earth—are laid out on it, each with its unique space-time location . . . But the map picture poses a problem. If everything is laid out—preordained almost—there is no room for concepts of past, present and future”. Minkowski’s most famous pupil, that Swiss post office clerk who became know for the brilliance of his scientific thought and uniqueness of his hairstyle, wrote, “For us physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion”.
Einstein can lose me in less than a sentence, but what he seems to say is that space and time were complete in a single moment. If one was able to look at the Universe from the outside, one would see not only the whole of space, but also the whole of time, for the two are one.
For a Christian, the idea of space-time would seem to suggest that God, looking from the outside, would in a single moment, see the whole of creation and the whole history of that creation. God has foreknowledge because he looks at a map where everything has happened in an instant; seeing the whole map, he knows the destiny of each person. Marcus Chown, writing from a scientific viewpoint talks about things being preordained, traditional Christian doctrine talks about things being predestined, and if the idea of past, present and future is only something that exists in our finite minds, then physics and faith are not far apart.
Does it matter? Yes, it does. It’s more than just an academic point because it means that there is freewill; it means that life in that space-time map is what we make it, that and that there is no such thing as fate.
“These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared,” says Jesus. Seeing the whole map of space-time, God knows who will occupy those places. We who are still within that map have freedom of choice. Freedom can produce a world that allows the evil of Ravensbruck or a world that seeks the Kingdom of God. Freedom means we have no excuses about the choices we make.
A deep sermon indeed, I wonder what your Epiphany eve congregation makes of it!
I too am fascinated by the relationship between theology and science. Just as theologians wrestle to reconcile predestination with freewill, so physicists struggle to reconcile the geometry of space-time with the statistical nature of quantum theory. Perhaps it is quantum uncertainty that makes our freedom to choose possible?
I feel sure revelation is not confined to old books. God continues to reveal himself in the workings of the universe he created, which scientists strive to tease out – a continuing epiphany, no less. I am suspicious of those who harp on about ‘the faith once for all entrusted to the saints’!
Our sixteen faithful souls seemed to engage well with it.