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Faith, Hope and Clarity

October 28, 2004 |
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The Bush administration is suddenly taking pains to calibrate the president's devoutness: yes, Mr. Bush is very religious, but he's not too religious -- not hearing-voices religious.

Last week several White House aides insisted that, contrary to the witness of the televangelist Pat Robertson, the president never said God had guaranteed him a low casualty count in Iraq. And as for those reports about Mr. Bush feeling summoned to the presidency: Laura Bush denies that her husband sees himself as a divine instrument. ''It's not a faith where he hears from God,'' she said a few days ago.

It's hard to settle ''he said, she-said'' questions, let alone ''he said, He said'' questions. But there is a way to get a clearer picture of religion's role in this White House. Every morning President Bush reads a devotional from ''My Utmost for His Highest,'' a collection of homilies by a Protestant minister named Oswald Chambers, who lived a century ago. As Mr. Bush explained in an interview broadcast on Tuesday on Fox News, reading Chambers is a way for him ''on a daily basis to be in the Word.''

Chambers's book continues to sell well, especially an updated edition with the language tweaked toward the modern. Inspecting the book -- or the free online edition -- may give even some devout Christians qualms about America's current guidance.

Chambers was Scottish, and he conforms to the stereotype of Scots as a bit dour (as in the joke about the Scot who responds to ''What a lovely day!'' by saying, ''Just wait.'') In the entry for Dec. 4, by way of underscoring adversity, Chambers asserts, ''Everything outside my physical life is designed to cause my death.''

So whence the optimism that Republicans say George Bush possesses and John Kerry lacks? There's a kind of optimism in Chambers, but it's not exactly sunny. To understand it you have to understand the theme that dominates ''My Utmost'': committing your life to Jesus Christ -- ''absolute and irrevocable surrender of the will'' -- and staying committed. ''If we turn away from obedience for even one second, darkness and death are immediately at work again.'' In all things and at all times, you must do God's will.

But what exactly does God want? Chambers gives little substantive advice. There is no great stress on Jesus' ethical teaching -- not much about loving your neighbor or loving your enemy. (And Chambers doesn't seem to share Isaiah's hope of beating swords into plowshares. ''Life without war is impossible in the natural or the supernatural realm.'') But the basic idea is that, once you surrender to God, divine guidance is palpable. ''If you obey God in the first thing he shows you, then he instantly opens up the next truth to you,'' Chambers writes.

And you shouldn't let your powers of reflection get in the way. Chambers lauds Abraham for preparing to slay his son at God's command without, as the Bible put it, conferring ''with flesh and blood.'' Chambers warns: ''Beware when you want to 'confer with flesh and blood' or even your own thoughts, insights, or understandings -- anything that is not based on your personal relationship with God. These are all things that compete with and hinder obedience to God.''

Once you're on the right path, setbacks that might give others pause needn't phase you. As Chambers noted in last Sunday's reading, ''Paul said, in essence, 'I am in the procession of a conqueror, and it doesn't matter what the difficulties are, for I am always led in triumph.''' Indeed, setbacks may have a purpose, Chambers will tell Mr. Bush this Sunday: ''God frequently has to knock the bottom out of your experience as his saint to get you in direct contact with himself.'' Faith ''by its very nature must be tested and tried.''

Some have marveled at Mr. Bush's refusal to admit any mistakes in Iraq other than ''catastrophic success.'' But what looks like negative feedback to some of us -- more than 1,100 dead Americans, more than 10,000 dead Iraqi civilians and the biggest incubator of anti-American terrorists in history -- is, through Chambers's eyes, not cause for doubt. Indeed, seemingly negative feedback may be positive feedback, proof that God is there, testing your faith, strengthening your resolve.

This, I think, is Mr. Bush's optimism: In the longest run, divinely guided decisions will be vindicated, and any gathering mountains of evidence to the contrary may themselves be signs of God's continuing involvement. It's all good.

Of course, all religions have ways of explaining bad news, and the Abrahamic faiths, with one omnipotent God, must explain it as part of God's plan. But lots of Christians do that without going the Oswald Chambers route -- abandoning rational analysis and critical re-evaluation for ineffable intuition and iron certainty. For example: maybe God gave people rational minds so they would use them; and this plan meant letting people make mistakes that, however painful, at least lead to better decision-making and the edification of humankind -- so long as they pay attention.

I was raised a Southern Baptist, and I still remember going to Calvary Baptist Church in Midland, Tex., my family's hometown as well as Mr. Bush's (though, because my father was a career soldier, I lived there only one year). I also remember the only theological pronouncement I ever heard from my father: ''I don't think God tells you which car to buy.''

People unfamiliar with a certain strain in evangelical tradition may have trouble seeing the point of Chambers's emphasis on utter surrender. But in the Baptist churches of my youth, it went without saying (though it was often said) that surrender was in no small part about self-control. Because human nature is subtly corrupt, with every temptation concealing a slippery slope, complete commitment was the only path to virtue. Chambers stresses this binary nature of devotion more than some contemporary evangelicals, and that may explain his appeal for Mr. Bush, who became a born-again Christian when he quit drinking and has stayed off the bottle ever since.

Some people who find moderation easy can't understand why for others abstinence is necessary -- and still less why it would demand a spiritual framework. I don't find moderation easy, and, even leaving that issue aside, I find being human so deeply challenging that I can't imagine it without an anchoring spirituality in some sense of the word. So I respect Mr. Bush's religious impulse, and I even find Chambers's Scottish austerity true and appealing in a generic way.

Still, it's another question whether Chambers's worldview, as mediated by Mr. Bush, should help shape the world's future. People who take drastic action based on divine-feeling feelings, and view ensuing death and destruction with equanimity, have in recent years tended to be the problem, not the solution.

Chambers himself eventually showed some philosophical flexibility. By and large, the teachings in ''My Utmost for His Highest'' were written before World War I (and compiled by his wife posthumously). But the war seems to have made him less sanguine about the antagonism that, he had long stressed, is inherent in life.

Shortly before his death in 1917, Chambers declared that ''war is the most damnably bad thing,'' according to Christianity Today magazine. He added: ''If the war has made me reconcile myself with the fact that there is sin in human beings, I shall no longer go with my head in the clouds, or buried in the sand like an ostrich, but I shall be wishing to face facts as they are.'' Amen.

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