There’s a low-hanging cabinet over my desk that I have been meaning to move for years, and as I was sitting down (finally) to start a draft of what you are reading, I hit my head on that cabinet really, really hard. I saw stars, lost vision for a second, and sat with my head down on the desk for a long while.
Here are three possible interpretations of this minor event (although it seemed major enough at the time).
1. God, who foresees and is the cause of all things, sent me a message to get my attention, wake me up, and invest my writing with greater significance. (In fact, I went back upstairs, and stalled a few weeks more. Although that could have been part of it, too. Hmm.)
2. God foresaw that this piece was going into Commonweal, and felt that a concise message should be sent to me about that intention. (Have other Commonweal contributors experienced sharp blows to the head recently? Please report this to the editors.)
3. This event has no divine significance, and is simply the result of my lazy reluctance to do something about that cabinet.
This is not a definitive list. It simply suggests the complexity to which a spirituality based on divine micromanagement can lead. In fact, here is yet another explanation. Since my purpose in sitting down at the desk was to address this very issue-call it Purpose-Driven Spirituality-I prefer to conclude that the man who is at least the proximate cause of my head injury is Rick Warren.
“Before you were born, God planned this moment in your life. It is no accident that you are holding this book.” These are the first words in Pastor Rick’s The Purpose-Driven Life (Zondervan), probably the biggest spiritual seller of this century. I suspect most Commonweal readers have never seen the book, but more than 25 million Americans have bought it in hardcover. Before you write it off as just another Wal-Mart bestseller you’ll never understand, I should point out that even at my upper-middle-class Catholic parish, many people love this book, and several parishioners even head over to the local Evangelical church to participate in Purpose-Driven discussion groups. Bestsellers on this scale move by the case, and P-DL (as its fans refer to it) has been fueled by thousands of small church groups using it in quantity. Warren’s spirituality has enormous popular appeal.
It’s not hard to see why. Divided into forty chapters in a breezy workbook-like format, P-DL has the effective, bite-sized packaging of a self-help hit. And in fact, when the book gets down to advice about how to shape up and live a Christian life, there’s little to take issue with. Join a church and tolerate its imperfections. Pray. Read the Scriptures. Give up chasing success for its own sake. Be responsible for your actions. Help the poor. If it takes clunky prose and icky purple ink to get people headed in those directions, let’s give at least some grudging approval.
In fact, Rick Warren seems a likable guy, as pastors go. Dumpy, Hawaiian-shirted, wearing wraparound sunglasses, and, above all, enthusiastic, Warren is as likely to be written up in Fortune for his genius in building a thirty-thousand-member, small-group-based church as he is for the enormous aid effort he has recently orchestrated for Rwanda. We can sniff all we want about his Christian-rock California liturgies and give-the-people-what-they-want marketing; for Catholics he provides a reminder of what can happen when a church plays offense rather than defense. Maybe God really does want people to read Warren’s book.
If so, it’s a sign of God’s eternal willingness to overlook big imperfections, in this case the spiritual determinism that is at the heart of the P-DL approach to life. Every detail of the world, goes P-DL reasoning, is the way God intended from the day the plan was locked up. (“He deliberately chose your race, the color of your skin, your hair, and every other feature. He custom-made your body just the way he wanted it.” I hope that’s true-mine certainly isn’t the way I want it.) In the world of P-DL, there has never been such a thing as a random event. It’s as if allowing even the possibility of an event without God’s written intention would undermine the whole thesis that life has a purpose. Instead, every single thing that happens is laid out in advance, and your job is to arrive at some insight into what God was thinking eons ago when everything was worked out in such detail.
Several years ago, a clergyman in formation told me that he had incontrovertible evidence of God’s plan for his life. Circling a downtown block desperately looking for a parking place before an interview related to his vocation, a space opened up at the last moment right in front of the very building where he needed to be. What clearer evidence could there be that the path he had chosen was the right one?
I suspect he is not the first person you have heard about who tells stories like this with the utmost seriousness. (Especially, for some reason, about parking. God’s active management of this area is so widely embraced, it’s surprising no parking-related parables are related in the Scriptures.) Yet to all those who have received a timely parking spot thanks to God’s intervention, I can only say: Someone else (probably I) was fuming in the car right behind you.
Purpose-Driven Spirituality is great when the plan you have discerned seems headed in the right direction. Signs of God’s activity appear to be everywhere-even your past failures, missteps, and trials can be understood as necessary precursors to decisions that changed your life (and perhaps some of them were). The trouble comes when God’s “custom-made” plan for your body, or your soul, is a painful one, and for some of us, there’s no other way to describe the way life turns out. God’s “plan” can easily bring anything from depression to degenerative disease to, well, a sharp smack to the head. If you like the idea of God’s micromanagement of your affairs and everyone else’s, you also (sorry) have to buy into the idea that everything rotten that happens is just as much God’s specific, active intention for your life as the parking spot, the great new job, and Rick Warren’s book. I, for one, trust that God is not the type to take a manager’s satisfaction in the achievement of his long-standing aim of global warming.
But there’s a more serious problem with the God of the Plan. A marvelous spiritual director I had years ago kept repeating that everything about the spiritual life is centered on trying to discern not just where God is-but equally important, where God isn’t. “Where was God present? Where wasn’t God present?” was her constant query. What, after all, is the discipline of the examen of conscience except a retrospective look at the day’s encounters, uncovering where the life and presence of God appeared to us, called us, and goaded us, and discerning where God was not present, where events that seemed significant at the time were simply, well, distracting events.
If there’s any kind of spiritual life, surely it implies that our lives are a mysterious mixture of the random and the significant. A visitor may be a divine messenger, or simply a pest. Getting fired may be God opening a door to something new, or maybe it just stinks. Like the mighty wind and the earthquake where God was most definitely absent to Elijah, sometimes God is simply not active in the spectacular (or not so spectacular) things around us. Not everything that happens is sent by God to test us, reward us, punish us, or demonstrate that he’s in charge. We have to be willing to say that some things just are.
You could certainly say this isn’t a great “plan” on God’s part-that the world would be a lot easier to deal with if God’s activity were as tightly wrapped up as an annual budget. But our divinity clearly doesn’t seem to know as much about marketing as Rick Warren. The evidence is everywhere that what God is up to is so big, so overwhelming, that to call it a plan makes God as uninteresting and gray as, well, a guy managing a business chained to an unchangeable plan. “Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days?” complained Job. Why indeed. And yet, a God this mysterious is clearly more fascinating than the alternative. Rather than complex, interesting, desirable, inscrutable, loving, changing, a Planning God is someone who is well past the creative phase of his life, and is just waiting to watch the world speak lines he wrote long ago.
As a way of reducing my future time in purgatory, I once managed several Internet businesses. Everyone always asked me, “Do you have a business plan?” The only honest answer at any given time was: Yes, about six of them. In the real world, things happen too fast for any plan fashioned by humans to be valid for more than a few ticks of the clock. Things change, people change, the world changes. Then the plan changes, even though you might pretend it doesn’t. That’s the way human plans are. It may sound frustrating, but in reality, it’s endlessly fascinating, surely far more fun than a game where the rules never change.
At the risk of edging into heresy, I’m not so sure God’s plan is all that different. At the very least, God must love change and a bit of a flyer now and then, to have created a world where evolution, chance, growth, birth, and death are so much at the heart of it. It may sound impossible, and perhaps unmarketable, but God is someone who can take an interest in our every prayer but is also engaged with a larger vision than micro-organizing his creation. Maybe God loves us too much to manage us too closely.
As our Catechism says, the ways of God are often unknown to us. That may mean not just that we don’t always understand the secret purpose and meaning of events, but that sometimes the secret is, there is no secret. Seeing God everywhere may be just as idolatrous and belittling as seeing God nowhere. I, for one, hope we don’t keep turning God into the kind of human who has no further surprises in store. I worked for a guy like that once, and frankly, he was tiresome. Sometimes I hope the random things that happen to us, and the brilliant creativity we sometimes show thanks to the Spirit, are just as surprising to God as they are to the rest of us.
And yet, come to think of it...by hitting my head, I finally got a way to start this piece. To whoever arranged that, all I can say is: Clever idea. But don’t make a habit of it.