Richard Mourdock: misogyny, poor taste, or bad theology?

“I struggled with it for a long time, but then I came to realize that life is a gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.” That’s the quote from Richard Mourdock that lit the blogosphere on fire. So what’s going on here? Is it misogyny, poor taste, or bad theology, or some combination of all three? It really depends upon how we define misogyny. I don’t think this quote proves that Richard Mourdock hates women; I have no reason to think he isn’t a perfectly humble and compassionate gentleman to all the women in his life. But I do think that his bad theology caused him to think in abstract, ideological terms about a delicate issue with the result that he said something in extremely poor taste that does real emotional violence to the rape victims who read it. And since I’m a theologian, I’m going to focus on the theology.

When Mourdock says that rape-conceived pregnancy is “something God intended to happen,” he is articulating a view of the world in which everything that happens must be called “God’s will” because to say otherwise means that God isn’t fully in charge of the universe. This is the same theology that caused reformed megachurch pastor John Piper to claim this past spring that a group of devastating tornadoes in the Midwest were God’s punishment for somebody’s sin. In the past, I have used the word “Calvinism” as a label for this theological view, but I am going to try to be more charitable to Calvinism proper by distinguishing it from a theology of absolute determinism.

Based on what I remember from reading John Calvin in seminary and what I see Calvinists most impassioned about when they’re at their best, I would say the heart of Calvinism is the conviction that God’s grace is the only source of any good that we accomplish including our own ability to accept that grace and that God has prepared a plan for each of us in His kingdom. The point of predestination is supposed to be the assurance that it provides to believers that God has taken hold of them and will not let them fall away.

When I talk about my long journey of “converting” to Christianity (which is still in process), I don’t think I could say with integrity that I had any choice in the matter; God’s grace has indeed been irresistible to me. The closer I grow to God, the more petty and false it seems to call my life a result of my decision-making rather than an amazing gift and adventure providentially offered to me every day by God. And yet, I cannot imagine how the God I know would withhold His grace from anybody for the sake of creating a cosmic drama by which His elect can have lives with the meaningful adversity that the predestined damned provide for them (a view which Augustine who originally invented the doctrine of predestination did not have a problem with).

Calvinists often refer to John Wesley as an inconsistent Calvinist when they want to let him into heaven; I would say that I am the same as Wesley if consistent Calvinism means privileging the human logic of theological systems over the mystery of God. See, here’s the thing. I’m not willing to say that because God saved me through irresistible grace therefore God damns other people who haven’t become Christians by withholding His grace for them and also therefore every action which takes place in the universe is preordained by God, which means that therefore a child conceived by rape is “something God intended to happen.” Therefore chains do not submit us to the sovereignty of God, but rather put God under the sovereignty of our logic. The systematic theologians who play with these therefore chains have arrogated to themselves the oxymoronic role of being custodians of God’s freedom.

Paul writes a very important statement about God’s mystery at the end of the discourse in Romans 9-11 that is often bracketed and glossed over as a “doxology” without instructive content: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?'” (Romans 11:33-34). This is no mere doxology. This is a warning to those who try to make themselves God’s “counselors” by projecting  themselves onto the other side of the infinite chasm between God’s wisdom and our knowledge to say “God’s ways are higher than our ways” not out of respect to God’s ineffability but as a defense of whatever ugliness is being disputed within their theological system that presumes to “guarantee” God’s freedom.

Those who seek to systematize the Word of God are like people who try to capture wind in a bottle or clutch a beam of light in their fists. This is why John 1:5 is the most important verse in the Bible for putting our epistemology in its place: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not seize it.” You can point to light and dance in its presence, but if you close your hand around it to make it your property, it will only leave you with a fistful of darkness.

In any case, Richard Mourdock’s error is rooted in a theology that submits to the tyranny of logic rather than the sovereignty of God’s mystery. It is irresponsible and disrespectful to God’s sovereignty to speak too confidently about any circumstance in nature being the will of God. We should instead say that we believe that God is constantly creating the universe and that we believe that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins in order to reconcile us to each other and God is proof of the zeal with which God loves us. The God who loves zealously does not will harm against the creatures that He loves even though the same God who is constantly creating holds the universe in His hands. Is this a paradox? Yup.

Now I suppose you could add another shelf to your God-box and say that God “allows” things to happen that He doesn’t “desire.” But I find it most theologically responsible to say simply I don’t know why tragedies happen in a universe that God is constantly creating, but I know that Jesus Christ has received every one of these tragedies as a nail in His flesh. Responsible theology can only be articulated in free-standing and often logically disconnected convictions that are rooted in pastoral experience framed by the lens of the canonical Bible story.

Whichever pastor taught Richard Mourdock such a confidently deterministic view of the universe was being an irresponsible theologian. The tragedy of what Mourdock said is that it mired a beautiful conviction of his that I share: every life is a gift from God. I’m not willing to say based on this conviction that impregnated rape victims should be forced to carry their babies to term, though I also share Richard Mourdock’s basic conviction that abortion should never happen. In the same way that I’m willing to let God’s mystery reign instead of my logic, I am also willing to think as a moral pragmatist instead of an all-or-nothing ideologue. I realize that moral pragmatism can be a dangerously abused concept, but I’m not willing to submit to the tyranny of logic in the form of a slippery slope argument either. I simply talk to God regularly, let Him breathe over me through His book, and then behave and speak based on what He seems to be revealing to me.

65 thoughts on “Richard Mourdock: misogyny, poor taste, or bad theology?

  1. Thanks, Morgan. I may lose every friend I’ve ever had and marginalize myself with my family. I fit in with neither the “liberal” or “conservative” crowds. The personal cost of telling these truths are high. Maybe even moreso as a woman, as despised for speaking out at all in many forums. Pray that I will be bold, and if possible, gracious. I long to be perceived as gracious. (Personal, girly confession here.) I lift you in prayer often, also.

  2. How does the Numbers situation apply under grace or under Christ? Hmmm….okay

    First, realize that in this case it was NOT the woman requesting the “curse,” (likely an abortifactant used as ink) but it was the husband who requested it and the priest who enforced it. Under Christ, we would hopefully intercede for the woman and the child. However, my point here is not what choice I as Christan should make were I to find myself with a traumatic pregnancy, but whether or not God would condone my forcing my own decision upon someone else, who MIGHT NOT even be a believer.

    I first read that scripture around age 12, and even then it seemed really “iffy” to me to interpret it in the context of the uninspired title with which it was labeled in my Bible. I was in no way under any pro-choice influences at the time, and only recently had my college educated, pastoral parents or I even been exposed to the big debate concerning abortion, as this was in 72 or 73. Before that, we knew from watching westerns at a friends house that sometimes the doc had to tell a father that he had saved the mother but, tragically lost the baby. (We had no TV). I as aware of one rape victim, who had had something done to keep her from having a baby. My questions about that (at age 9) are actually what prompted my mother to tell me NOT about the birds and the bees, but about Adam and Eve and the way of a man with a maiden. : )

    I pondered that passage in Numbers for my entire life and somewhere in the past 10 or 15 years discarded the interpretive title and read it completely at face value. Having gone through both preterm labor and childbirth I can tell you this passage describes contractions. I’s kind of vague but it IS describing a miscarriage.

    Under Christ, I would choose to carry and deliver a child conceived by rape. As a woman who has suffered for 22 years from injuries due to childbirth complications (you don’t EVEN want to know) which were not repaired for many years due to insurance restrictions, and even repaired are far from perfect, I would still choose give birth.

    Now, if my life were truly on the line, I would choose to live. ESPECIALLY if I had other children. Anyone who would deny me that choice is a murderer.

    Under Christ, I could not force my will on someone else who was suffering or dying due to pregnancy. I have to agree that should be between the woman, her family and her spiritual advisor. God alone should judge their hearts or intentions.

    I’m sure these ancient priests counseled the couples who came to them. They were not cardboard characters. They were human beings, hopefully wise and mature. A jealous husband was, hopefully, questioned concerning whether the child could possibly be his. If so, the curse was probably never “initiated.” A wise priest who knew the couple may have used blackberry ink if he knew the husband was emotionally unstable and prone to jealousy so as not to abort the man’s own child. (Sounds like something Andy Griffith, or maybe Solomon, would do. : )

    Anyway, then, as now, we need to not be legalistic on either side of issues nor put ourselves in God’s place. He granted free will, he makes allowance for hard hearts, he shows mercy to both sinners and victims and he will ultimately judge us all.

    Meanwhile, if we set sane limits on abortion, let us not deter legislation that will feed those children. We need to be proLife at every stage of life, not just for the unborn.

    Just so you don’t misunderstand me… I voted Republican based on the ProLife platform until this last election. I gradually became fully aware that Republicans do as much to keep abortion legal as any Democrat has ever done. If it was not an issue, they could not get elected based on the rest of their policies. The dishonesty propagated in Jesus’ name sickens me. We are losing a generation of kids to atheism due to this influence.

    • “I gradually became fully aware that Republicans do as much to keep abortion legal as any Democrat has ever done. If it was not an issue, they could not get elected based on the rest of their policies. The dishonesty propagated in Jesus’ name sickens me. We are losing a generation of kids to atheism due to this influence.” You are speaking exactly what troubles me. Preach it!

  3. I’ve been mulling this over a bit for the past two days, particularly your assertion that it is immoral “to force a rape victim to carry her child to term”. While I believe that progress will only be made by changing hearts and minds rather than through legislation, I don’t think that I can agree with this statement.

    The idea seems to rest upon bodily autonomy, which is not absolute and, if anything, is becoming less absolute. No one says you can do whatever you want with your body; you can’t use it to murder someone else. We usually say that your right to bodily autonomy ends where it impacts another, e.g. your right to make a fist ends at my nose. Over time our culture has been expanding the scope of what counts as that impact. You are free to smoke cigarettes all you want — it’s your body — but now you are not allowed to do it around non-smokers in most public spaces, and we’re going to tax the heck out of them to offset the cost of your medical care and to try to coerce you to quit. Mayor Bloomberg says you will no longer be allowed to purchase large sodas — they are legally banned, even though it’s your own body and does no direct harm to those around you. So the idea that your body is your own autonomous state to do with what you wish is already deeply untrue; your body is not private property, but part of the public space.

    The legal “right” to abortion, then, seems nonexistent if the unborn child is an individual. You’re not allowed to get your second-hand smoke anywhere near someone else, much less murder them; you’re not allowed to poison yourself with too much soda, much less poison another person within you. To hold a pregnant victim to the same standards as the rest of us — murder verboten — is not any more an act of force than the rest of the legal system.

    But that’s just the philosophy of autonomy and legality, I wanted to talk about immorality, viz your statement that it would be immoral to force a woman to bear a child conceived by rape. You are saying that a woman should not have to deal with the consequences of another person’s evil act. Do we have this freedom anywhere else in life? If an evil person attacks you with a machete and lops off your hand you will, at best, end up with a reattached hand and some plastic surgery and a physical scar, at worst no hand at all, and either way a deep emotional trauma. That person is “forced”, in your words, to live with the consequences of another person’s vile act.

    God loves us. God does not promise us freedom from suffering. Rather, in His love, God can use even suffering for good; suffering can be redemptive, we can offer it up, and that suffering may be used to save us from greater suffering (like the children’s story of the hermit who was kidnapped by cannibals, thereby avoiding dying the forest fire, and then contracted a painful, pus-filled disease, thereby avoiding being eaten by the cannibals, and who, after a whole chain of suffering, giving thanks to God for each new suffering, ended up better off than he had been at the start).

    A victim of rape has already been “forced” to deal with an emotional trauma. It is not immoral to ask someone to deal with the consequences of tragedy — that’s life, it’s unavoidable. What is immoral is to elevate certain tragedies above the rest and assert that they suspend morality, e.g. that rape is so bad that it justifies murder.

    • If you were a rape victim who had carried your baby to term, then your statement might have credibility though I generally agree with your critique of the paradigm of individualism. I am not willing to engage in the exhaustive casuistry of the scholastics. Generally speaking, I’m a situational ethicist in which the two Great Commandments are the rubric. I realize as a computer programmer, you’re wired to always think in terms of “If A then B then C and so forth.” I can’t do that.

  4. He may also believe God caused a man to suffer some trauma so that good might come out of it. So misogyny is not necessarily inferred here. However, that child does deserve to live as much as any other but it’s not our job to force the rape victim to go through with that.

    Even the Bible makes allowance for abortion (Numbers 5, beginning with verse 11) in the case of suspected infidelity, though it clearly places the guilt for it on the adultress (if indeed she actually is one). This is another case where God allows something due to the hardness of human hearts, which might well be to allow the victims (woman and child) to escape the consequences of an angry husband’s harshness (esp if the baby really was his). If God grudgingly allows for divorce and abortion due to hard hearts, might he not show mercy to a pregnant rape victim?

    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=numbers%205&version=NIV

      • Numbers 5:21-22 “Here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—may the Lord cause you to become a curse[d] among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.” The bitter water induces abortion.

      • Even if we accept the interpretation that Morgan outlines, Levitical law allowed for many immoral acts simply because the Jews were not ready for the truth yet. (See divorce, and Jesus’ explanation.)

  5. First, conception is not the beginning of life. The sperm is alive. The egg is alive. Conception is a continuation of life that began approximately 3 billion yeas ago.

    At the moment of conception and for some time after that, it is not a person. Until then it is not immoral to end the pregnancy.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective. I’m not sure I agree, but I do agree that saying absolutely that life begins at conception comes from the same all-or-nothing logic that says everything that happens in creation must be God’s will or else God is not in charge.

      • Don’t be silly. Saying that human life begins at conception comes from SCIENCE. At the moment of conception that fetus is scientifically classified as homo sapien and contains the genetic code which it will maintain throughout its life.

        The question is not, “Is it human?” Science has already answered that. The question is, “Is some human life worth less than others?”

    • I’ve heard more than one woman share a very clear experience of when, during her pregnancy, the soul of her baby arriving.

      (I’m trying to remember, for what it’s worth, *when* they said it happened, and I’m only remembering an impression of mid-to-early pregnancy. In any case, not at conception.)

      Like Richard, I’m *NOT* suggesting some kind of alternative all-or-nothing logic… not suggesting women assume it’s not a life — I really respect this being a question for personal discernment… and respect the “at conception” point-of-view. Heck, I’ve *LIVED* it — chose to marry in response to a surprise pregnancy, partly because I cared about what I perceived as life, and what I perceived as making a loving choice.

      But like Richard, I don’t see it as an all-or-nothing question, or right-wrong answer. (If righteousness could have been by a law, then righteousness would have been by “the” law.) I see it as a matter for getting into a loving space, and really being present to “What would love do?”… or related discernments (Gal.5:22-23, as Richard shared above).

  6. Thanks, much, Morgan — beautiful stuff, much as some may not experience such abstractions as beauty:)

    For me, simply:
    — Jesus said we know a tree by its fruit.
    — Paul said the fruit of the spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness…” [you know the verse].
    — I find that “Is this loving?” is a much more Spirit-presencing test, of a thought, than is “Is this logical?” (I use both, but I’m clear which one wins… moment by moment, for years… I trust the loving thoughts.)

    Thanks again, Doug

      • Wow… I heard plenty of times people share they loved / were inspired by that verse… I guess it’s just the first time I’ve heard someone (other than me) say they used it as a litmus test.

        Thanks for sharing — great energy….

      • Must be a confidence, I’ve been meditating on the fruits of the Spirit a lot lately, and been wondering how the world would look if Gal 5:22-23, 1 Cor 13, and parts of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount/plain would be the litmus test for being called a Christ-follower…

        Ley Your Kingdom come, Let Your will be done!

  7. Morgan I thought when Mourdoch said “God intended……” that he was referring to conception and not the actual act of sexual assault.

    • That’s true. He wasn’t being maliciously misogynist, just stating his heart-felt beliefs without thinking about how his words would be interpreted. The problem is the absolute determinism of his theology. The paradox of God’s sovereignty is that more that we say with certainty what God wills and does, the less we are allowing Him to be sovereign.

      • True. Although I disagree with determinism I felt like he could possibly be correct in his assessment. We don’t know God’s will but we do believe that God is creator and sustainer of all life but we live in a fallen world. So to the Christian there should be some tension there. To completely disregard Mourdoch’s statement (not applying that you are at all) is to not deal with that tension or that mystery of God’s will. I felt that us(Evangelicals on the left and the media) intentionally conflated his comments for political points or failed to really listen to what he said. I wouldn’t put Mourdoch (on this issue) in the same boat has a Todd Akin or Joe Walsh. Even his temperment when asked that question was rather careful and less matter-of-fact then some of his peers.

        • Yeah what I would say is he shouldn’t have asserted himself with as much certitude. The misogyny is not in the intent but the perception and you’re absolutely right that the media sensationalized it and politicians tried to score cheap points off it.

  8. “The God who loves zealously does not will harm against the creatures”

    Well, no, God does not desire harm against creatures, and he never ultimately wills harm.

    But he providentially sends harm. He even can be said to will it providentially, not merely allow it. And we have to deal with that. Does it provide all the answers? No. But sometimes it’s better to wallow in antinomy than declare a falsity.

    I think you might be interested in this podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko, former dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary:

    http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/understanding_evil_9_11_remembered

    He is not a very “tow-the-line” sort of fellow. One of my favorites.

    • You’re right that that particular sentence leaves something to be desired. There is probably a better way of wording it. I have certainly been providentially disciplined by God through painful situations. But if we define “harm” as “meaningless suffering,” then it’s not something I want to accuse God of even though He’s in charge.

  9. From what I’ve heard of what Mourdock has subsequently said, it’s not that he believes that God wills all things, but that only God can create life. Therefore, when a tornado hits a town it is not God’s will, but when a child is conceived — regardless of the circumstances — it must be God’s will.

    Which is just to say that his theology may be bad, but not in the way that you suggest.

    • I agree that only God can create life and I agree that we should love the lives of unborn children regardless of the circumstances of conception but I’m unwilling to support forcing a rape victim to carry her rapist’s baby to term.

        • It’s not okay for me to do it. And if you try to engage me in a never-ending debate, I’ll give you the last word on your next post so don’t go there.

      • I don’t understand your reply. Can you elaborate?

        Are you saying its a free will thing? That it’s morally wrong to commit murder but that you would leave the choice up to the individual? If so, why have laws at all?

          • So your aim in this blog is not to be understood but to…. think out loud for your own benefit? On Oct 24, 2012 10:20 PM, “Mercy not Sacrifice” wrote:

            > ** > Morgan Guyton commented: “Like I said, you get the last word. Bless you > friend.”

          • You’ve got a track record of endless argumentation and I’m not going to go down that road with you. I love you though.

          • I’m not saying you’re wrong; I’m asking you to explain what you mean in your initial reply. On Oct 24, 2012 10:33 PM, “Mercy not Sacrifice” wrote:

            > ** > Morgan Guyton commented: “You’ve got a track record of endless > argumentation and I’m not going to go down that road with you. I love you > though.”

          • Okay. [Sigh]. There is a difference between what is morally permissible for me to do and what I am compelled to tell the state to force others to do. It is both immoral to kill an innocent unborn child and immoral to force a rape victim to carry her rapist’s baby. That is the position that I’ve come to after years of thought and prayer and I’m not going to submit it to the tyranny of logical argumentation.

          • I completely agree with the first (complete) sentence.

            You have nothing to fear from logic! God gave it to us to better know Him. It’s not tyrannical, but illuminating. On Oct 24, 2012 10:48 PM, “Mercy not Sacrifice” wrote:

            > ** > Morgan Guyton commented: “Okay. [Sigh]. There is a difference between > what is morally permissible for me to do and what I am compelled to tell > the state to force others to do. It is both immoral to kill an innocent > unborn child and immoral to force a rape victim to carry her rapis” Respond > to this comment by replying above this line > New comment on *Mercy not Sacrifice > * > > *Morgan Guyton* commentedon Richard > Mourdock: misogyny, poor taste, or bad theology?. > > > in response to *Dan Fowlkes*: > > Im not saying youre wrong; Im asking you to explain what you mean

          • The tyranny of logic is the reason that Protestantism exists, because to a Protestant, mysteries only exist to be resolved exhaustively.

          • I ran with a very different crowd as a Protestant, I guess. I was told that God is mysterious and that it is pointless to try to unravel those mysteries and heretical to expect theology to be logical. On Oct 24, 2012 10:58 PM, “Mercy not Sacrifice” wrote:

            > ** > Morgan Guyton commented: “The tyranny of logic is the reason that > Protestantism exists, because to a Protestant, mysteries only exist to be > resolved exhaustively.” Respond to this comment by replying above this > line > New comment on *Mercy not Sacrifice > * > > *Morgan Guyton* commentedon Richard > Mourdock: misogyny, poor taste, or bad theology?. > > > in response to *Dan Fowlkes*: > > I completely agree with the first (complete) sentence. You have nothing to > fear from logic! God gave it to us to better know Him. Its not tyrannical, > but illuminating.

      • Dan Guy –
        No one has said that it is “okay” to “murder” an innocent at all; in fact, Morgan has said almost the exact opposite. He has also said that it is not okay for US to force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term in instances of rape. The statement that it is not okay fOR US to impose our morality on another person with God-given free will says NOTHING about the rightness or wrongness of the actions of the other person.

        You have completely missed the point.

        • Exactly. It is both immoral to kill an unborn child and to force a rape victim to carry her child to term. This is a paradox but it’s a true paradox.

        • What I disagree with is the confidence of proclaiming something unequivocally as God’s will and thus scandalizing the name of God. We need to remain more in the realm of mystery than that in order to avoid alienating people.

          • Same here.

            Based on his givens he believes that certainty is possible here. I see things differently.

  10. Morgan, you raise the key element right away — for Mourdock and other ultra-conservatives, conception and abortion are an abstract principle, the tyranny of logic, as you say, into which the messiness of life must be ordered. I think Jesus would call that the law, not the spirit. The issue isn’t faith so much as power and control.

  11. Morgan, from what I think I’ve read, you have more issue with the second sentence of the quote than with the first. I agree with you, but the challenge is how does one present the sanctity of human life as primary in this particular situation. Clearly God does not condone violence in any form and clearly the unborn child is not the initiator of the violence. The theological issue ends up being: does care for the victim of the violent act supercede care for the innocent consequence of the violent act? If all were equally aware of God’s mercy, care for both the mother and the child would result, but this is where the secular world and the kingdom don’t necessarily overlap. We can’t impose a morality on the world, but we can speak truth. I believe that God would desire for love of both mother and child to result. This is a truth that we as Christians haven’t been able to articulate very well (I include myself in this assessment).

    • “We can’t impose a morality on the world, but we can speak truth.” As long as we’re in agreement on that, I agree with everything else you’ve said.

      • I think that is the problem with the entire abortion debate. Morality can’t be legislated, and if Roe v Wade were overturned tomorrow it wouldn’t result in any hearts being changed. I believe that my faith informs my morality, but it doesn’t give me the right to impose that morality on anyone else. My pastor has a favorite saying he learned from his grandmother; when you point your finger at someone else, three more are pointing back at you. I believe that those of us who profess to believe in the sanctity of life should spend more time helping/loving women in difficult situations than trying to shout them down.

        • Exactly. If the pro-life movement were Christlike in its approach, so much more ground would have been gained against abortion. For the most part, it seems like the Catholics do a lot better job than the evangelicals because for the Catholics it seems like it really is about the babies but for the evangelicals I’ve known there has always been an undercurrent of sticking it to feminism.

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