And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, ‘Lord, … show us which one of these two thou hast chosen.’ … And they cost lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias. Acts 1 vv21-26
I wonder how Justus felt when the lot fell on Matthias. Disappointed maybe, rejected perhaps – or just relieved? Maybe others felt he would have been more suitable than Matthias. At any rate, it didn’t take the church very long to abandon this method of election. Imagine if the Catholic Church simply drew lots to elect a new pope from among the cardinals; it might make for some interestingly unpredictable appointments. But of course they don’t make decisions in that way, and neither do the rest of us. I think the main reason for that is that we understand that as ‘Fallen’ humanity we cannot abdicate our responsibility to make choices as best we can, informed by our knowledge of good and evil – even if we don’t always make objectively wise choices. Ever since what Genesis mythologises as the ‘Fall’, we have been embarked on a course on which we cannot comfortably leave important matters to chance if they are within our control. There are of course many things which are either not important or not under our control, and we needn’t fret too much about them. But our problem is that our ‘Fallen’ consciousness and intelligence keeps bringing more and more important things under our control, and sometimes we struggle to feel able to deal as responsibly as we’d like with the consequences of having attained our new powers. And then we like the irresponsible luxury of leaving things to chance.
Or, as religious folk might put it, to God, and more specifically to a god-out-there. In drawing lots to select a successor to Judas Iscariot, the early church was behaving a way that was very much of-a-piece with other first century religious practices designed to relieve people of the responsibly of deciding what to do. They believed that God would ensure that the right man was chosen for the job by, so to speak, manipulating the straws. I don’t think any church people would believe this now, because if they did, they’d surely continue with this apparently foolproof selection system, which they don’t. And they don’t, I think, because they do not believe that God operates like this. They may even believe that to attribute to God a power and a willingness to act in this way is to misunderstand what ‘God’ means, where ‘God’ is located and how ‘God’ acts. Perhaps, maybe without being fully aware of it, they have come to believe that ‘God’ is not an ‘out-there’ God but a God who animates our better selves and can be appealed to to assist with decision-making without relieving our conscious selves of the need to take our decisions seriously and to accept responsibility for them.
Our problem with responsible decision making shows up acutely with some issues in particular. Birth control has long been one. From the beginnings of agriculture until about a hundred years ago, human society needed as many babies as could be produced because many, sometimes most, babies died before adulthood, and each older generation as it aged needed a larger younger generation to support it. The religious prohibition on birth control was understandable in such a setting. Thanks to our medical and technological ingenuity, conditions have now been transformed, but some religious teaching hasn’t adjusted itself; it still advises the faithful to leave conception to chance – or, as they would put it, to God. Our ‘Fallen’ powers of intelligence and consciousness have given us a problem, but some people of a religious cast of mind feel uncomfortable using that same consciousness and intelligence to deal with the problem thus created. This strikes me as dishonest: if you really want to abdicate responsibility, you’d surely want to be consistent and stop using your intelligence altogether. We can’t do that of course, and so most people now accept that ingenious birth control is an appropriate way of dealing with the problem of population that we have created through our ingenuity.
Birth control appears now to be a relatively easy case; the argument has been had and is largely won. There is however a matter that is becoming an even more acutely difficult issue for our sense of responsibility: call it ‘death control’. I suspect quite a few of us have witnessed the long, slow decline of someone we have grown to love and respect, from the active, engaged, self-aware person we knew, into the mere husk of that person, bereft of reason, of interest, of the ability to interact meaningfully. Those who are left have ‘lost’ the person they loved, but cannot mourn as they would a death. There is no disguising the horror of this increasingly common situation. And why is it increasingly common? Because we have got better and better at defeating the diseases and infections that until recently used to carry most of us off not so very long after the prime of our lives was past. I’m pleased we have: too often those diseases and infections carried off happy, active, engaged people, whatever their age. But we have as yet no answer to the question, ‘If not from this or that defeated disease or infection, what are we supposed to die from, and at what point in our lives?’ I can’t answer that question either, but I’m sure it has to be asked, and sure too that we are going to have to find an answer that we can be responsible for, just as we are responsible for the medical progress that has made it such a pressing question. Just now, we are at the stage of being uncomfortable with leaving death control to chance, or God, even as we seize almost every opportunity to lengthen life. That we cannot finally be satisfied with that is one of the unavoidable consequences of the ‘Fall’.
Dealing with the problems raised by steps we have taken as a result of our ‘Fallen’ consciousness and intelligence has been a characteristic of human development. The early Old Testament repeatedly records worries about the consequences of developments we now take for granted because we have ways of managing their downsides. But finding those ways was neither easy nor straightforward. Controversy was, and will surely always be, part of the process, because it is through controversy, and experiment too, that we come to understand where ‘God’ is leading us.