Friday, May 27, 2011

Chapter One

Be Ye Not Mentally Lazy

You may have grown up, as I did, convinced that the authority figures in your world were telling the truth, at least to a degree. I sensed a core of truth in what they so dogmatically said, but I knew in my gut that at some points they were wrong. I recognized that, while maybe they were right, there was more to it than they let on, and often that "more to it" was what mattered most. I also knew that some people and the views they so strongly condemned were not as bad as they were made out to be. I knew that a lot of the wrongs they attacked were not always necessarily, totally wrong. Although at the time I could not have articulated it, I was developing a core of skepticism.

But I was well socialized, so never did I consider challenging any of this. They were bigger, older, smarter, richer, and they held the power to either punish or reward. There was no future in challenging their positions.

On the other hand I knew better than to trust my own mind. In school my classmates made better grades, were better athletes, better looking, and more popular. I was not a leader; no one ever followed or looked up to me. I was painfully aware of my own inadequacies, but although I was not fully conscious of it, I was also vaguely aware of the limitations of those in authority and even of my more popular and more gifted classmates.

I was nearly fifty-years-old before I realized the full implications of those childhood perceptions. Gradually I came to see that my tacit disagreement with society somehow comprised the elements of a more honest and complete approach to truth and life. The seeds of a new way of thinking had been planted; a way I much later came to call The DIALECTIC, the theme of this book.

After floundering through life for long years, I finally learned that it is easy to become a good thinker. Good thinking, however, is in short supply both because many of us are mentally lazy and because it requires something more than mere critical thinking, keen intellect, and formal education.

On the Other Hand

What it takes to become a good thinker is to make,"On the Other Hand," your habitual response to ideas, whether your own or those of others, spoken or written, in formal or in informal settings. No matter what is presented, always consider what might be "on the other hand," because no human statement is, by itself, ever complete, something is always left out, there is always more to be said, and it is always possible that what has been presented might be wrong. Develop a deep sense and appreciation of human limitations, determine to make "on the other hand" thinking second nature, and you are on the road to becoming a good thinker. Results will appear almost immediately. You will become a voice to be reckoned with.

Is that all there is to it? No, but if "on the other hand" thinking becomes a regular practice, you will quickly become a respected thinker. I remember from my youth that the Sears, Roebuck catalog offered a choice of merchandise at varying levels of quality: good, better, and best. You already have read enough to reach the genuinely good level of thinker.

When you come to understand the larger dimensions of THE DIALECTIC--the proper name for "on the other hand thinking"--and when you add to that an elementary understanding of how logical thinking works, you will become a better thinker.

And if you are still here when we come to the last pages of the book, we will consider how you can become the best thinker that can be made out of your unique personality and place in the world.

Becoming a Thinker

Daddy was a workaholic and always gone, Mother was an old-fashioned housewife, a good one, busy doing all the work that entails, so I was pretty well left alone and by default became a lonely, lazy dreamer. I roamed the rivers, creeks, and hills, knowing I had been born fifty years too late to be the cowboy or mountain man that I read and dreamed of. I drifted mindlessly through the years until one day I found myself a high school graduate. I remember three graduation gifts, one of them in particular. Neither the creamy-yellow sport jacket nor the fancy corduroy shirt of many colors ever looked right on me, but somehow I have remembered them. More to the point was Mother's gift of a book of inspirational poetry and prose, Quests and Conquests. For years I enjoyed reading the book but was never inspired to actually do anything. The book didn=t change me, but Mother's inscription written in the front of the book, "Be ye not mentally lazy," haunted me.

Mother's admonition was based on accurate observation. I don't remember having ever thought much about anything for the first twenty years of my life, but when I read her inscription I knew immediately that I needed whatever it was that she was calling for. However, I neither knew what to do about it nor how. The problem was that I had no thinking equipment, skills, or coaching, and had no prior encouragement to think (few schools or homes teach us how to think). It would be long years before I made any progress in that direction, but Mother's words were never far from my consciousness; I felt their challenge continually.

Several years later, I found myself in a theological seminary studying to become a minister. There I heard professor Gordon Clinard declare that the greatest weakness of Southern Baptist preaching was shallowness. Immediately I vowed that my sermons would have depth. During seminary years, I worked, without adequate tools for thinking, at exploring the depths of God's word and of human experience. I was still depending on others, teachers and books, to do my thinking for me, and I still trusted them. Yet I knew they were missing it somewhere.

When I was given my first teaching position and found that I had to teach--and thus learn--logic, I discovered, finally, a method of systematic thinking. Logic, I came to realize, should be required of all high school graduates--not symbolic logic, but traditional, elementary logic.

Now, I was a beginning philosophy teacher and confident of my ability as a thinker. But I had a lot to learn. It took a half-dozen years of teaching philosophy before all of the above began to converge in the idea of THE DIALECTIC. I completely rewrote my philosophy courses, making the DIALECTIC central, and have taught it now for more than thirty years. Mother would be proud of her easy-going son because across the years, among faculty and students alike, I have gained a reputation for making people think. They tell me they now think about things they never thought about before, and from perspectives they would have never before considered. Let's talk about how you can improve your thinking ability and practice.

But on the Other Hand

The words of a Randy Travis song suggest the way. Early in his career Travis sang about a fellow who has just met an exciting woman. She has captivated his complete attention, has him almost spellbound. As he considers the possibility of spending the night with her, he sings, "On one hand I count the reasons I could stay with you . . . all night long . . . and on that hand I see no reason why it's wrong." That is one way for him to look at the situation. But the refrain reveals the rest of the picture, as he sings, "But on the other hand there's a golden band, to remind me of someone who would not understand." He has been tempted to forsake his marriage, and might have done so if he just looked at things from the most obvious point of view, the way he felt. He sings about a strong desire to stay, but the logic of marital love and commitment tells him that, "the reason I must go is on the other hand."

This indicates the importance of DIALECTICal thinking for even the most careless of us. On one hand--every day, throughout the day--we see things we believe to be right and that feel right at the time, but on the other hand there is always more to be considered. On one hand we are ready to act; on the other hand it is always possible that we might be wrong and regret what we did.

In life too much is at stake for our conduct to be decided by one-handed thinking. President Harry Truman once told his cabinet members that he wished they would find him a one-hand economist. He said that every economist that briefed him presented a good analysis of the economic situation, and advised an appropriate course of action. However, Truman complained, once they laid all this out, they would say: "But on the other hand . . . ," and proceed to build the case for a different analysis and course of action. He wanted someone who had the answer.

The truth is that no single way of looking at anything ever sees the whole picture. There is always more. Mortimer Adler made the strange claim that the greatest contribution Greek civilization ever made to our culture was the idea of men and de. These strange words are two little particles in the Greek language, commonly translated into English as on one hand/but on the other hand. When we think of Greek culture, sculpture, philosophy, and drama, we might wonder what Adler was thinking when he made such an audacious claim. Why would he say on the one hand/but on the other hand is the greatest contribution of the Greeks? Because it is a concise expression of that which this book is about, that which we call the DIALECTIC.


The DIALECTIC will not make you a better person--that is a whole different issue--but it will make you a better thinker. It will keep you out of a lot of trouble. You will not be surprised easily or often. It will make it easier for you to understand and get along with other people. Others will begin to respect you and your ideas more than they have in the past. If you are a student, you will become a better learner, performing better in the classroom and making better grades, gaining broader understanding and deeper insight. If you are married, you will become a better and more appreciated spouse. If you are part of a team at work, you will become a better and more valuable team member.

If all this sounds as though the DIALECTIC is some kind of a magic pill or silver bullet, you are hearing it right. No matter who you are, what you are interested in, or what you do, it will fit you. It will apply directly to what you are about. All this, and it is easy to learn and put to use.

Think like an Octopus

"On the other hand." That's the silver bullet. That's all it takes to become a good thinker. It's that simple. But on the other hand, it helps to notice still another hand.

I was sitting at the breakfast table, reviewing plans for my first philosophy class of the day. I was thinking specifically about the dialectic. Then I remembered that I had a problem student in that class. I only had three problem students in thirty-some years of teaching. This was one of them. He was one of those back row, disruptive whisperers. I had spoken to him about it a couple of times, to no avail. He seemed to have a lack of respect for me. So I shifted my mind from preparation for class to preparation for dealing with this aggravation.

I spent two years in the army as basic training officer. I have experience in sounding tough, and I can make the appropriate face to go along with the speech. I=ve never used that style in teaching. However, that morning, I was considering it. On the other hand, I could quietly inform him that if the whispers did not cease, he would receive an "F" in the class. On the other hand, I wasn't sure that would be a fair course of action. In fact, he might dare me to try it (he was the kind to do that). On the other hand, I had to do something because he was disrupting the class. So, on the other hand . . . Wait a minute, how many other hands do I have?

On the other hand is the dialectical formula. It is the way. But on which other hand. Mentally, we have more than two hands. Our left hand has its own right and left hands, and they have theirs. We need to think on as many hands as possible. We need to learn to think like an octopus. An octopus can think "on the other hand" several times before he runs out of perspectives to consider.

The way to become a good thinker is to think like an octopus. Usually there are many hands to consider. Each hand has other hands itself. Don't forget the left hand. Like a construction supervisor, hire other hands if they are needed. Don't settle on an answer, conclusion, or idea until you have to because there are always these other hands to turn to. We will never have time to check them all out, but don't quit early, especially if there is much at stake.

Think dialectically, consider others, even your enemies, maybe especially your enemies, and think like an octopus thinking on all eight hands. However, if we seek to examine all hands, can we ever make a decision?

At some point we have to cut off thought and act on the best judgment we can make at the time, always realizing that what we do may turn out wrong. We have no choice, however, but to use our best judgment at the time, however incomplete it may be.

Monday, November 08, 2010

An Angry Christian

I am an angry Christian. I am angry at Christians for systematically misrepresenting God, just as you and I both would be angry with some who radically misrepresented our dearest loved one. God is not a tyrant exercising power in cruel, oppressive and arbitrary ways, threatening eternal damnation to hell, and demanding that we follow all his rules, rules that take all the fun and excitement out of life. Yet this is the vision of God that vast numbers have somehow picked up in their sermons and Sunday School lessons heard in their childhood as well as individual encounters with “witnesses.”

If you were to read the biographies of the most noted entertainers and writers of the 20th Century you would see that, regularly, this view of God and his representatives on earth is the picture of God that has haunted them across the years since they escaped the regular reminders of his wrath. I am angry because of all those who have been run off without ever seeing God as he is revealed in the biblical story. A re-vision of the biblical God is needed, so we are going to take another look at the Bible. This book will furnish a sketch that emerges from a re-view of the story.

This portrayal of God’s character is not dependent on any selection of specific biblical texts, although many can be found that paint the same picture we are going to unveil. On the other hand, the fabric of most Christian sermons, Sunday School lessons, doctrinal statements, and defenses of the faith have been woven with the threads of many single, specific and scattered Bible verses, often disconnected from any context or setting. That method will not be used here. Rather, we will view the Bible as a whole and see what God looks like in the big picture. (I am aware that there are specific scattered verses that challenge this book’s thesis.) We are going to back off and look again, re-view the central character in the story, then trace some of the defining features that emerge from the resultant revision of the way we view the divine character.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Center of God?

Louis Mauldin, sitting on a bench at a bus stop in Jackson, Tennessee got to visiting with an old man who also was waiting for a bus. In the course of the conversation, Louis asked the fellow if he had ever traveled much. The old gentleman said he had not, then Louis suggested to him some of the advantages of travel, whereupon his new friend said he didn’t need to travel; he pointed and said, “There is north, there is south, there is west, and there is east. I’ve got them all right here. I don’t need to go anyplace else. For the old man, he lived at the center of the world, Jackson, Tennessee.

Some years earlier Louis and I had been in a seminar where Joe Hester was presenting a paper on the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who never traveled more than forty miles from his home in Konigsberg, Prussia because, as Joe told us, Kant believed that Konigsberg was the intellectual and cultural center of the world.

At the seminary where Louis, Joe, and I studied, there was a large rotunda with a map of the world on the floor. A star placed the seminary at the center of the world.

Wherever you believe to be the center of the world, it provides the perspective from which you see all other places. If a seminary in Fort Worth, Texas is the center, then Jackson, Tennessee is somewhat marginal, and Konigsberg is completely out of sight and mind.

For thinking Christians, God is the center of all reality, which is good as far as it goes, but where is the center of God? What in God is central? Is there a place from which to get all else about God in proper perspective? There is no more agreement here than there is among the citizens of the world who would dismiss Jackson, Konigsberg, and Fort Worth and name their own center of the world.
It is very common for Christians to find the divine center in the sovereignty of God. God is in control of all things; he is ruler of the universe. He holds all power and knows all things. Others find the center in the divine freedom. Because he is the Lord God Almighty, he is free to do whatever he pleases, free to create and free to destroy, free to save and free to condemn. Free to love and free to hate. His freedom knows no boundaries. Some locate the essence in a holy, transcendent mystery, a God before whom we stand in awe and fear with no way to plumb the center of such majesty.

Might we consider love, holy love, as the center from which to view all other thought about God? The great creeds, including the Apostle’s and the Nicene Creeds, in their statements of belief in God, completely ignore direct reference to God’s love. The historical confessions of faith, including the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Baptist Faith and Message, give no emphasis to the divine love. In the Westminister Confession, love ranks eighteenth among the varied characteristics of God. The Baptist Faith and Message, in its statement of belief in God give no mention of love, except as owed to God.

When we turn to the great theologians of Christian history (except John Wesley), we find they do not give primacy to God’s love. The faith of ordinary Christians has found one of its most common expressions in the great hymns of the church. When we to turn to the hymnals to find what they say about God, we that they sing most often of the Lord God Almighty, they worship him as the powerful creator, lord and king. They express his holiness and majesty and only then mention his love, if at all. Often love shows up in a third stanza, where it is commonly left unsung.

Certainly there are wonderful exceptions that sing, “Love is the theme, love is supreme,” and “Love Divine, all love’s excelling,” but as exceptions, they only make clear that this is a neglected theme.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

God Changed His Mind.

God changed his mind. While Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites collected all their gold jewelry and asked Aaron to melt it and make them a god. So he molded a golden calf and it was declared their God that had brought them out Egypt, implicitly rejecting the God who indeed had rescued them from Egyptian slavery and intended to make of them the special people whom he would use to bring healing to his broken world. He had called them out of Egypt because he had for them a world-class task to perform.
World-class deeds demand world-class discipline. It is not easy to perform tasks of this dimension. If God’s intention were to be accomplished, if ease were to be brought to the dis-eased and hurting inhabitants of the earth, then they must trust God to do right by them and thus must obey all he requires of them. By choosing to spurn the Lord God in favor of a God made of a precious metal, they have blocked the road to hope for the rest of the world.

God was angry, angry enough, he said, to destroy them, and start over with Moses and his descendants to build a special people for this special purpose. According to Exodus, chapter 32, He explicitly told Moses, “Don’t try to stop me” from destroying them. However, Moses stood up for God’s purpose and for his people and argued that God should change his mind.

God saw that in Moses he had a leader who would stand for God’s people and purpose even in the face of God’s instruction for him to keep his mouth shut, and in the face of God’s offer to make a new start: rather than the descendants of Abraham, it would be the descendants of Moses who would fulfill God’s purpose. Quite an offer for Moses. But Moses was committed to God’s original plan and pleaded for God to reconsider his threat of destruction. “So,” in Exodus 32:14, we are told that “even though the Lord had threatened to destroy the people, he changed his mind and let them live.”

Are we to understand that a human being can argue with God and win? Are we to understand that the eternal Lord God Almighty can be persuaded to change his mind? This goes contrary to the entire history of Christian orthodoxy. Historically, Christians have always believed that God was immutable, could not change. It was understood that God was perfect–else he would not be God–and that for him to change in any sense would take away from his eternal perfection. Perhaps there is some other way to understand the biblical statement that the Lord changed his mind. Or, can we at least consider that here the Bible means literally what it says? Is it possible that we also should consider changing our mind about what God can and cannot do?

God changed his mind again. Prior to the Israelite occupation of the land of Canaan, God has appointed their leaders, Moses and Joshua, then a series of judges. They had neither the prerogatives nor the authority that goes with royal status. Samuel was the last of these judges, and in his old age the people who had greatly respected him had no respect for his sons. They came to Samuel and asked that he choose “a king to be our leader, just like all the other nations.” In I Samuel 8:7 The Lord told Samuel, “Do everything they want you to do. I am really the one they have rejected as their king.”

At the foot of Mount Sinai they rejected the Lord God as their God and chose instead the golden calf, so now they have spurned God as their king. They have done this out of their desire to be like all the other nations, even though God intended for them to become a separate nation with a holy purpose, a special purpose that distinguished them from all other nations. This time, however, rather than threatening their destruction, he had Samuel warn them that with a king they would have taxes, military draft, involuntary servitude to the king and all the things that kings burden their people with.

Even with this warning, the tribes of Israel still wanted to be a nation with a king, so, God changed his mind. Even though he wanted them to see him alone as their king, he told Samuel to give them a king. Not long afterward, God told Samuel to anoint Saul, the son of Kish, to be their king. God did not want them to have a human king, but when Israel insisted, God changed his mind and gave them a king, a king of his own choosing.

We could go on along this line. Saul was God’s choice, but Saul proved a disappointment and God rejected him and named David king in his place. Later, having chosen and anointed David’s son, Solomon as king, God rejected a failed Solomon and divided his people Israel into two nations, one retaining the name Israel; the other becomes Judah.

In the story of Jonah, God’s word to the evil city of Ninevah is, “Forty days from now, Ninevah will be destroyed.” This is God’s word. But the people of Ninevah heard, believed, and changed their attitude and their ways. So God did not destroy them as he had said, unconditionally, he would. In other words, in light of their response to his prophetic word, God changed his mind and preserved them.

God continues to struggle with a recalcitrant Israelite people, sometimes they trust and obey, other times they rebel and choose what they believe will be better ways. Finally, in the days of his prophet, Jeremiah, God acknowledges that the agreement he had made with Israel has been broken beyond repair. In Jeremiah 31:31-34 God indicates that in the future, at an appropriate time, he will establish a new agreement, covenant, testament with Israel. Israel effectively and repeatedly has stymied God’s loving action on behalf of the world. So God makes a change in his plans and prepares for a fresh start. Again, God has changed his mind.

Why have I insisted on reciting these instances (there are more) where God changed his mind? Am I trying to make it look like God has less control of his world than we have thought? Am I trying to bring God down to human capacity? Am I in some sense attempting to diminish God to make him easier to deal with? No. I want to demonstrate something of what it means to say that God is love.

Rather, I am using biblical evidence to show that god is not an uncaring, removed, autocratic ruler who will always get his way, no matter what his subjects think or do. Rather, God cares and is actively involved in his world; he and his human creation have an interactive relationship in which each often influences what the other will do. God’s core relationship with humanity is not one of power and control, but of caring, responsive love. God’s words and actions are intended to affect what we do; our words and actions affect, to some degree, what God does.

Moreover, if God is affected by what we do, this not only means that God sometimes changes his mind, but also that God has affections, that God has an emotional life. This contradicts the ancient idea that one of God’s attributes is impassibility, that he has no feelings, remains untouched by anything outside of himself. Otherwise, it was believed that is anything affects the divine equilibrium, it would mean that God changes. The traditional doctrine of immutability says that God cannot change, and the traditional doctrine of impassive means that God remains unaffected by anything. He is always the same, untouched by the human situation. Not so. The biblical story of God shows repeatedly that he has an active emotional life, that his feelings change from time to time.

Certain things please God, other thing anger him. God does some things according to his own good pleasure. He is at times frustrated. There are things he hates and despises.

Jesus wept over Jerusalem and at the tomb of Lazarus. He despaired on the cross and was thirsty. On the cross, God in the flesh suffered.

[These last paragraphs only outline the idea. In the next day or two I intend to fill it out and clarify it.]

Monday, October 04, 2010

A Religion of Rules?

Something about hard-edged and inflexible rules invites rebellion. We persistently search for loopholes, and routinely plead mitigating circumstances when we have disobeyed the law. When loopholes are locked shut and nothing is allowed to mitigate the harshness of punishment, we either submit or rebel. Human frailty feels the need for a little flexibility on occasion. Most of us believe that there are times when the law should be bent a little, if not broken. Most societies understand the dangers of rigid rules that demand obedience or else. Rules are essential; they must be followed; a society cannot exist without certain disciplines, but clear-thinking societies know that sometimes the law should be administered with a degree of moderation.

A religion of rules without emphasis on relationship breed rebellion against the rules and thus, against the religion that seeks to bind its adherents to the letter of the law, or else, it breeds those who believe in the literal letter of the law, ignoring its spirit and purpose. The apostle Paul tells us that the law was intended as a tutor helping us to understand major features of how love goes about its business. Rules, Paul says, are not an end in themselves. They serve a purpose: to lead us beyond the law to the freedom of following the spirit of the rules, to accomplish that which commandments by themselves cannot ever achieve.

But on the other hand, a religion of relationship, a religion of love without rules reduces religion to fickle feelings. We cannot love by a rule book, but love without boundaries risks a disconnect from the very meaning of love. Relationship requires rules, yet we cannot establish and maintain good relationships if we live purely by a set of rules.

Rules sometimes are intended to be rigidly adhered to and strictly enforced. On the other hand are rules of thumb, rules that tell us what, in general, what most of the time, we should do. Law guides behavior and educates us in the ways that work most effectively.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Bible Is Relative

The Ten Commandments commonly are understood by Christians and Jews as universal and absolute, binding on everyone. But they are not. They are relative to the people of Israel, as surely as the Sermon on the Mount is relative to the followers of Jesus. The Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites shortly after their escape from Egyptian bondage under the leadership of Moses. They were not given to the world. In them, God did not address all the peoples of the earth: they were not given to the Cherokees, the Finns, the Yoruba, the Saxons, nor the Aztecs. In introducing the Decalogue, “God said to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord your God, the one who brought you out of Egypt where were slaves,” and then begins telling them, “You shall, and you shall not . . ..”

“You” specifically, not everyone. He has a claim on them because he had rescued them and established a covenant relation with them, therefore he lays out the fundamental demands of that covenant. He has established no such relation to the Mongolians, the Germans, the Hittites, or the Egyptians. The Commandments are to be understood as relative to Israel and their covenant with God. They are to be understood as relative to the formative time in their history. Paul of Tarsus, in chapter 2, verses 12-15 of his letter to Roman Christians, tells that God will deal differently with those who do not have this Law; he will deal with all according to their situation.

The case is similar with the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus retired to a mountainside with his disciples and began teaching them the nature of his kingdom. Again, he did not address the Romans, the Poles, the Syrians, nor the Iroquois. The Sermon on the Mount is to be understood as teachings for those who would commit to Jesus. God does not expect the same of unbelievers.
The Bible as a whole, and in its parts is relative. It does not deal in absolutes. It does not tell of God in abstractions, but always in relation to the human situation. Our knowledge of God is not complete, we know in only in part, only as he has chosen to reveal himself to us. In the big picture, Genesis 1-11 is relative to the rest of the Bible. It lays out the background against which the need for redemption is seen and provides the setting in which the story of redemption is told. We are to understand Genesis 12 and all that follows as God’s response to the conditions laid out in Genesis 1-11.

To touch on just a few of the relativities of the Old Testament, Abraham is important as the father of God’s covenant people. He is not important in and of himself, and yet, all the rest of the Bible is about him and his descendants. (Genesis 1-11, in contrast, deals in universal terms, with universal peoples.) Moses and David are important in their role as leaders of Israel; Elijah and Isaiah, along with the rest of the prophets, deliver messages from God relative to Israel (later, Israel and Judah).
In the New Testament, the first three gospels are relative: Matthew to the Jews, Mark to the Romans, Luke to the Gentiles. The epistles of the New Testament are relative to the unique situation and needs of the church to which they are written; the epistles to Timothy and Titus are relative to their pastoral responsibilities.

God speaks to people in all subsequent ages through the words of the Bible, but our understanding of what he has to say is relative to the original setting and purpose. You will search in vain for anything generic or absolute in the Bible.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

God Is Relatively in Control

The sailor cannot control the wind, but can control the set of his sails and thus reach his destination. The wind cannot be restrained but the sails can be regulated and the boat directed. The management of the boat requires both the wind and control of the sails. The sailor is dependent on the wind and on his knowledge and skill in making continual and appropriate adjustments of his sails to the wind. Moment by moment the wind determines what must be done; moment by moment it is in control, but the long-term direction is under the control of the competent sailor.

When Christians give assurance by saying, “God is in control,” what do they mean? Do they mean total control, or the kind of control the sailor has over his boat, relative control, control relative to the wind in case of the boat and control relative to human activity in case of the course of history? Some seem to think that God is in control of every single event and decision, just as a sailor might set his direction and move in a straight line toward his destination rather than having to tack back and forth before the wind. Control is an ambiguous concept.

“Don’t worry, God is in control,” I heard the morning after the attack on the world Trade Towers in September 2001. For a long time this offended me. I asked, “Was God in control of the terrorists who flew the instruments of death and destruction?” It seems blasphemous to think God was in control of those airplanes or the crew that had taken control of the flight. Who was in control of the event? Clearly evil was in control in this event.

To be “in control” is to be able to determine what takes place, relatively. Control is never over every detail unless you choose to believe that God preprogrammed creation and history down to the least particular. On a basketball court, who is in control of the game: the referee, the coaches, the captains of the teams, or the spectators and cheerleaders? The referee and umpires make the game run according to the rules. The coaches control who plays and, to a degree, what plays will be run. Each individual player has immediate control over his own actions. The team that has the ball can be said to be in control of the ball, but a team that continually has the leading score is said to control the game. Control is a relative matter. Not even the most effective tyrant can control all times, places and persons that are under his subjection. The mind and actions of the individual can never be under total control.

And God is not a tyrant, although some ideas of absolute divine control make God, in effect a tyrant who bends everything to his will. God is love and his control is that of a loving father who allows considerable freedom to his children. Loving control is a guiding control; it is freeing rather than restrictive. God sets the rules of the game of life. He trains and coaches those who are responsive to his guiding control.

In the big picture, everything goes in God’s providential direction, but he does not dictate all the details. Many of these are left to human free choice. The wind can blow hard against God’s desire and purpose, but as the expert helmsman sets his sails to take advantage of whatever wind blows, so God works all things together, including all that is counter to his will, to accomplish his will. In a world where the fierce, unpredictable winds of freedom and chance blow, God maintains overarching control.

At the World Trade Towers, as in the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge regime of genocide of the 1970s, the Ruandan genocide of 1994, and all the other unspeakable atrocities of history, the heart of God bled as he saw the evil his imago dei creatures imposed on each other and suffered at the hands of each other. God was not in control of these events as he is not in control of the evils we bring about and suffer in so many of in our individual lives. Nonetheless, God is wounded, but not defeated. The battle is long and hard, but it is not done. In spite of all appearance, God does not lose control. In spite of all that seems to count against him, he remains the only force that can be trusted. Yes, God is in control.