I do not believe that human beings can or do make the conscious and “free” to choice to follow God. My life experience tells me this, but also my understanding of scripture does as well. There may have been many people who followed Jesus because they thought it would be a neat idea, but the disciples — Simon, Matthew/Levi, John and James the sons of Zebedee, Saul of Tarsus — were the people Jesus called. People Jesus came to while they were minding their own business.
In calling them, he invited — not commanded, as I don’t see God commanding so much as inviting, but maybe compelled, in the better sense of the word — them to follow him and do his work. Not just to believe, but to do. And to be a people called. It was understood as an overwhelming experience, an encounter in which the one called understood there was no saying “no,” no not following. For whatever reason.
That’s been my experience. And not just as a follower of Jesus. I was a Muslim for 15 years, and was so because it was also something of a calling. I am grateful for the time I spent with brothers and sisters in Islam, and met a great many Muslims who are better at being “Christians” — at loving their neighbors, and of caring for the “least of these” — than many Christians are. And while I am Christian now because of my experience at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, it is not because I somehow decided that I could no longer “believe” what I had believed about God or belong to the community of people who submit to God as Muslims. (Because I still miss being part of that community. I miss it very much.) It is because, standing beneath the towers, watching them burn, watching people die, standing powerless in the midst of this event*, I understood that I was met by God that day — and would later come to appreciate that the God who met me was the risen and resurrected Jesus Christ, thanks to the love and compassion of other Christians. It was Jesus who told me, that day, in the midst of fire, terror, fear and suffering: “My love is all that matters.” And: “This is who I am.”
So no, I don’t believe for a minute we “choose” to follow God. God calls us. God gathers us. Forms. Sometimes, even, against our own will. Israel did not ask to be freed from slavery in Egypt, did not appeal to God to do something. Israel simply groaned. It was God who yanked Israel out of Egypt, unwilling, unasked. And promised them something they never wanted, never asked for, never demanded.
Questions of will come up at this point. I don’t know what to say. Predestination makes my head hurt, and I simply do not believe in double predestination of any kind. God is not an intellectual puzzle, a set of ideas, concepts bounded by an introduction and a conclusion, something we try to tie up neatly in a little fancy box. We experience God in all God’s awful glory. I don’t know what to make of human will when it comes to God. More importantly, I don’t really care. I know, like Matthew at his tax booth, that when Jesus said, “follow me,” I followed. I didn’t really see myself as having any choice. My “will” was irrelevant in the matter. Because I knew that in order to live with myself, I had to follow. I know when I have met others who have been called to follow. We compare notes, and we follow together. We extend that invitation to others, but mostly, I don’t care about those who have not been called.
Because I really don’t know how they’ve been called. Or not. I’m not interested in saving the world. God has already done that in and through Jesus Christ.
But there are lots of people who do believe we can — and do — choose to follow God. I may not buy it, but it a huge part of the American religious landscape. And I think I get the appeal of “choice theology,” the ability of the human will to make a conscious moral choice to follow God and adhere to God’s teaching. Choice theology is both radically egalitarian and democratic on one hand, and extremely conservative on the other. It is a critique of predestination (especially double predestination) on one hand, and universalism on the other.
Choice theology is radically egalitarian and democratic because it makes every human being, regardless of social position, wealth or stature, utterly and completely equal before God. Every human being is capable of making the choice to believe in God and God’s promises, to follow God, and through that faith, receive the promises made by God. No human being is destined for Hell, all can choose to be part of God’s kingdom. In this, it is incredibly empowering. It gives a great deal of agency to human beings, a great deal of power to decide individual fates and communal belonging. Where dour Calvinism had to invent signs of election for the uncertain, choice theology gives a certainty that “I have chosen” or “I continue to choose.” It makes the choosing, the confession of Christ, the mere acknowledgement of the majesty of God, the central act of worship, because that is what makes the Christian community. The Christian community is created not by God calling it out, or Christ gathering it together for a meal, but by the Christians who confess. It is a true community of choice. It is, in fact, the ultimate community of choice.
And anyone in the community can adhere to the teachings of God. The teaching is democratic too.
But that’s where choice theology also becomes very conservative. I read recently (somewhere online, in a fairly reputable essay — wish I could cite the source) that English establishment Christianity (and even dissenters like the Methodists) in the late 17th and 18th centuries believed in a kind-of casual universalism. That all Christians in a Christian society would be saved. Pietism — and that’s what Methodism was — sought a greater expression of what it means to truly be a follower of Jesus in a society where everyone is baptized (by law) and thus Christian. Choice theology does not say everyone is saved. In fact, you must actively choose to be saved. Otherwise, you are not. In creating a community of choice, it also creates a community defined almost entirely be shared confession — by ideology. It becomes a much less tolerant community of intellectual difference (as ideological communities tend to be, even when they are “diverse”). Confessional conformity and adherence to the teaching are essential elements of belonging to the community, and failure to do so gets someone kicked out of the community, since confession and adherence are all that are seen uniting people. (As an aside, as liberal Christian confessions are becoming ideological communities, they are becoming significantly less tolerant of intellectual difference, even as they pursue “diversity.”)
What choice theology does is emphasize the human will, and seeks to square the omnis of God with the ability of human beings to make moral choices. Since the Second Great Awakening of the early-to-mid 19th century, choice theology is the strain in American religiosity that cannot be avoided. That’s why I am at great pains to preach that God gathers the community — in baptism and communion — and why, despite not wanting to, I had to recently defend the ELCA’s position on homosexuality — because God gathers the community. And if God gathers and calls people, who are we to argue? Even if it means we must live in the tension of what God’s teaching says or appears to say. (Arguments of equality and fairness are made from the basis of the American civil religion, and have absolutely no basis in scripture.) The sanctified community is not formed by right-thinking people who choose to create an alternative community, but rather is formed by God, who has called God’s people — and God calls all kinds of people — out of where they were into the wilderness to form them. And give them teaching. And forgive them when they are utterly incapable of following it.
* I believe the experience of and encountering God in utter powerlessness is actually an important one for a life of faith. Bourgeois religion, whether it is Islam or Christianity, is about control, about the exercise of power, about the organizing of the world. Perhaps responsibly, but it sees powerlessness as a vacuum into which power and agency must be poured. But it is in real powerlessness, in the real admission that we have absolutely no control, that we truly are found and met by God.