Richard Mourdock's Mystery of Faith

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Whatever else the campaign news of the past week accomplished, it demonstrated that difficult theology makes for difficult politics.

From my seat in the religion bleachers, two of the toughest issues for Christian theologians to approach are theodicy and the question of free will. That a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate managed to plunge into both in a single sentence is more than a little amazing.

You've probably seen or read Richard Mourdock's answer during a debate to a question about abortion. He explained why he only supported abortion rights to save the life of a pregnant woman and not for victims of rape (or, presumably, incest). Here's the money quote:

"I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something that God intended to happen."

Cue the political to-and-fro-ing. High dudgeon here. Clarification there. Mourdock says he didn't mean that God intended rape, but that he intended the creation of life. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney quickly distances himself from Mourdock's statement. Romney's own opposition to abortion (echoing the official stance of his Church) includes the rape and incest exceptions.

Whether or not I agree with anybody here, Mourdock's position seems more consistent than Romney's. And his articulation of it isn't exactly news.

Let's unpack the theology, shall we?

While the term cropped up in several mainstream secular blogs in the aftermath of Mourdock's statement, "theodicy" is still a word unfamiliar enough for most people to get a challenge in Scrabble. It's all about the apparent contradiction in how some faiths define the nature of God with the reality we all experience.

If the Creator of the universe is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good and has demonstrated a willingness to intervene in the affairs of humanity and has set standards of morality and justice that he is expected to meet, how do you square that with the Holocaust? Or with the murder of two blameless children by their nanny? Or with a storm that kills dozens or hundreds of people? How can such a God allow such things to happen?

There are religions that find a logical escape hatch from this sort of question. Hindus and Buddhists don't believe in anything like the Christian God. But they do believe that nothing bad happens to someone that doesn't deserve it. Karma is their scale-balancer. And reincarnation is the way that balance is trued. (Some Orthodox Jews also believe in reincarnation, believe it or not. And for exactly this reason: it helps them explain the suffering of apparent innocents.)

Islam avoids at least some of the issue because of a subtle difference in the nature of Allah: for Muslims, God isn't bound by any rules, even those he sets for us. Islam's God utterly transcends what mere humans define as rational. So whatever other problems posed by human suffering, the nature of the Almighty isn't necessarily part of the mix.

The best that Christians and most Jews have to offer is in the book of Job. God basically tells Job that it all makes sense if we could only see events from the Divine perspective and that Job (and the rest of us) don't even have the right to ask the question.

"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?" God thunders.

We're simply supposed to have faith that God somehow makes it right.

So if God knows everything, then he knows that the rape will happen and the woman will become pregnant. And he lets it happen. In fact, depending on your Biblical proof text, it absolutely can't happen without God willing it to be so. Consider just one verse, Matthew 10:29.

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father."

Where is free will in that? So how can we be responsible for something that was willed to happen before the foundation of the world was set? How can we try to block the progression of events that God himself permitted to be set in motion?

As is true for the theodicy question, any answer about free will is a mystery of faith held by those who have that particular belief. You can easily find many detailed religious explorations for how it might make sense. Here's an interesting analysis of free will through the lens of Calvinism.

Back to Mourdock. He's a Christian of the sort who believes that God says human personhood begins at the moment of conception. And who believes in a God whose will undergirds all things. These are not matters that fit easily into political discourse. But he's honest enough to share with voters how his religious beliefs inform his ideas of governance. Romney could take a lesson from that.

Give all that, his answer was pretty much inevitable. If God's will allows, nay wills, the rape to happen and the conception to occur, and if God says that a zygote is a person entitled to all the rights and privileges thereof, then God's will is that an abortion of that fetus would be murder. Even while condemning the actual rape as a sin. That's a position that millions of Americans -- though far from a majority -- would find utterly unremarkable.

I admit to not understanding how people who believe all of those things about any other conception -- talking to you again, Mitt -- justify an exception for rape and incest.

Yes, this theology logically demands that a woman who is the victim of rape and/or incest and becomes pregnant be forced to face nine months of what could be additional unspeakable daily suffering as her very biology is hijacked. And a lifetime of suffering, depending on what happens to the child. And a child born of such a union must deal with those consequences.

How to reconcile such lived realities with belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God? For those who believe, it's a mystery of faith and theology how God can turn evil things to good.

Whether that theology should be imposed on a populace that mostly does not share the belief is a mystery of politics.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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