by Dr. George Hermanson
What do we mean when we talk about “God’s plan?” Planning is big on our agenda, for we want to make the best use of our time, and we want to arrive without too many distractions. In business and life, the role of life coaches is expanding. These professionals sit down with us and lay out what they think is necessary to build a life or a business. In the same way, churches seek out those who will help them grow, as if there is a technique that provides a simple solution, a magic bullet for what ails us.
Planning has become our default position, the narrative that determines our sense of what is crucial as we deal with life. But when we project this planning language onto God, we are left with a serious theological issue. The idea of planning assumes control. The idea of God’s plan assumes that God is in control. This is problematic because it leads to the further assumption that God has all the power or has determined the future. Too often this theology is left unexamined and leaves us vulnerable to disappointment or criticism when God does not act. Is there another way to frame our understanding of what it means to seek God or to be led by the Spirit without one definitive plan?
As a global society we are faced with many difficult issues. The Brexit referendum is not limited to Europe: it is part of a much larger process of the confusion that underlies the crisis of “manufacturing democratic consent” in our societies, of the growing gap between political institutions and popular rage. In the US, this rage gave birth to, and provided momentum for, both the Trump and Sanders presidential campaigns. We have the rise of outrage among those who feel left out, resulting in narrow nationalism and distrust of the “other.” It affects both conservatives and liberals. Signs of chaos are everywhere —is this a reason to despair?
Churches, also, are in a process of imagining what it means to be a congregation, what it means to be a national church, what it means to be a global church, what it means to simply be the Church, at all. And it does not stop there, for individual Christians are reevaluating what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We are trying to navigate these questions in a time of unrest.
In such times we worry. We often seek just the right information to move into a far country. We think we can plan our way into the future. The irony is the best laid plans can be a dead end, because each day provides new experiences that we have not anticipated. In fact, planning sometimes causes us to miss the unexpected.
This has created difficult issues for the church regarding how to speak to our culture. We have a history of calling individuals and society to justice and compassion. The problem is, we often phrase this by asking people to “do the will of God,” or to consider the question, “What would Jesus do?” Those words fall flat in our secular society and often do not resonate even with people of faith. Simple phrases do not deal with the complexity of action.
A personal moment of transformation came when I wrote a piece for JesusJazzBuddhism. The editor pointed out that my use of the term “God” would not compute for many. I had to search for another term. As it happened, I was reviewing a piece by John Coltrane. In the piece, Psalm, he moves to Love Supreme. This made sense because one of his lines was “I will do all that is worthy of you, Love that is worthy of worship.” Thanks to Thomas Oord, I now have made this the uncontrolling Love Supreme. Coltrane’s prayer is that uncontrolling love supreme will help us resolve our fears and weaknesses.
We know that faith calls us to world care. It is not always easy to discern what is worthy of us or how to make this reality better. Too often we revert to ideology and shout at those with whom we disagree, but the better move is to search for redemptive ways that are faithful to our insights as opposed to our self righteous views.
The question, “What has love to do with this?” is compounded when we know that God does not have a plan, that God has not set out a map to follow. It feels good to hold these views, because decision making is easier. If we begin with the realities that this world does not have a straight path, that God has not decided the future, that we live in randomness and chance; we can develop a faith that will guide us without guarantees. The power of a revised faith is to bring to consciousness those beliefs that influence us. It is here that Oord’s work on the Uncontrolling Love helps us escape the idea of a meticulously planned future. Although there is no safety net, we can have confidence in our actions and agency, because persons who are open to the prompting of the Spirit of God, who is always transgressing boundaries, find creative ways to bear witness to uncontrolling love.
It takes determination to live out our Christian calling in a world that is so indifferent to values, peace and beauty. Using the idea of the uncontrolling love of God gives us a way of living that any community can mimic—setting one’s face toward the future, being spiritually alive, and taking our faith seriously.
The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson, Burnstown Ont., studied at University of British Columbia, Chicago Theological Seminary, doctorate Claremont School of Theology (studied with John Cobb Jr. And David Griffin). Campus Minister, UBC, director of United Church Education Center, parish minister, director of the Madawaska Institute for Religion and Culture. Ordained in the United Church of Canada.