Monday, August 23, 2010

God writes straight on crooked lines

On a blog which deals with the challenges of life after the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, a commenter asked me to defend my “bad theology" regarding my use of the phrase "God's writes straight on crooked lines." Below is the response I wrote.

First let me distance myself from an understanding or the phrase I’ve seen around LC/RC blogs where the saying is described as “Legionspeak.” During my time in the Legion, I heard the phrase only in the context of “folk wisdom.”  I believe the original saying is attributed to some Portuguese Bishop in the 16th Century. It seems that Thomas Merton also used it, referring to his feelings for some woman. I don’t believe I have used it to “defend” or “excuse” the sins of MM or anyone else for that matter. So here is the way I understand it; please do not saddle me with whatever emotional baggage the phrase has acquired in the LC/RC blogosphere.

The phrase: “God draws straight with crooked lines” is interpreted, I think, by Christians and Theologians as “bad theology.”

I don‘t understand the saying to mean: that God turns sin into blessings. I also don’t think it means that God “could” actually write in a “straight line” within the confines of “crooked lines.” Rather, for a Christian I believe the saying means: “Things don't always turn out the way we'd planned them. Despite our human failings, God still wants what is best for us. Knowing this, we can still trust Him, making sense of setbacks, adversity and changes of plan.

For instance, it doesn’t seem that God “planned” for suffering and death to be part of human existence according to the Genesis story. Those realities came to be because of the “original sin” of Adam and Eve. They include war, nastiness and “man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.”  So, to use the saying in this situation, I think it’s fair to say God wrote a “straight line” right across the “crooked” ones presented by the transgression of our first parents. He sent His Son into the world to make things right.  He used the “crooked lines” drawn by the fee will of Adam and Eve to meet us in the new reality they had forged.
Ever since then us humans are bound by time and an urgent need to make sense of the senseless. In so doing, we sometimes forget God operates outside of the confines of time and space.

As faulty humans, bound by time and a need to make sense of the senseless, we can forget God operates outside of the boundaries of time - in eternity. It's really not a concept that any of us are qualified to argue about with God. To paraphrase Karl Barth, the more we try to “say” about God (in terms of understanding Him), the more likely we are to be mistaken. All we can really know is what Jesus revealed to us. So, the  saying “God writes straight” most definitely does not mean we can rationalize any set of circumstances as God’s Will. And it definitely does not mean that “forgiveness” has anything to do with approval of behavior that is morally wrong.

If we “fast forward” to Jesus’ human “background” it is clear that some of the institutions that shaped the Jewish faith were less than holy. His ancestry did not just include the great and privileged but also the poor and the insignificant despite the fact that we often overly-idealize our “saints.”  Weakness and insignificance are important components in the continuing the story of the incarnation.

Matthew 16:18: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death (gates of hell) shall not prevail against it.” The Scriptural testimony is clear, and is confirmed by history, the Church has endured century after century despite all obstacles.

God allows evils to happen in order to bring forth a greater good; hence it is written (Rom. 5:20): "Where sin abounded, grace did more abound." At the blessing of the Paschal candle, we say: "O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!" These citations are deep in meaning.  For starters, "sin" and "grace" are loaded words; but they are familiar things. We find them whenever we search within ourselves for meaning. They determine our life.

I think of “sin” as “separation from God.” I think of “grace” as God’s personal intervention in our lives to help us discover the certainty of the eternal meaning of our life, resulting not in a false sense of goodness or self-complacency, although it does help us accept ourselves for who we really are. It enables us to love ourselves. It heals the “separation” from God, from ourselves and from others.  Grace makes us whole again, its peace leaving no space for self-hate and self-contempt.It bestows meaning on our lives. We can always count on it.

That is what “God writes straight on crooked lines” means to me. It makes no sense outside of a Christian view of the world.


Anonymous said...

Monk, since you're not around the movement anymore, you probably had no idea how badly abused the phrase "God writes straight with crooked lines" became as of February 2009, as a means to reassure the scandalized RC/LC faithful about MM's unfortunate slip into sin.

You would take as much heat if your book was named "a broken instrument can still make beautiful music" or "water can still be carried in a cracked vessel".

All these platitudes were an insult to our intelligence, and were designed to keep people feeling serene, and to discourage any of the natural emotions of people who have been hurt or betrayed.

Negative memories are permanently tied to the expression "God writes straight with crooked lines", unfortunately eroding it's original intended meaning.

Anonymous said...

Can a broken instrument still make music? Depends on the circumstances, and the instrument, and how you define broken. Can water still be carried in a cracked vessel? Depends where the crack is. In this latter case, I would surmise that SOME water CAN be carried, maybe in the part that does not have the crack, and maybe quickly if full, before all the water has run out of it.

Metaphors are just comparisons, not the real thing. And when people get hung up on the metaphor instead of what is being communicated, there is the pity. And when stones are thrown because of metaphors, well that is just plain and simple abuse.

If there was a miscommunication, the civil thing to do is to accept the clarification as given in good faith, and move on.

Castigation simply provokes more stagnation.

Anonymous said...

I hope we can all try to see the positive intent in other posters' comments. In this case, I think it's helpful for Monk to know the reason for the emotion attached to that phrase, so he knows folks aren't reacting to him personally.

The Monk said...

Sorry for my slightly belated comment here. I readily accept the first Anonymous comment. Thank you.

The second Anonymous comment I also found very helpful - thank you. I am glad you made it.

Ignatius said...

Monk, I suggest that perhaps the closest biblical parallel to "God writes straight with crooked lines" is Genesis 50:20.

In this passage, Joseph is finally confronting his brothers, who of course sold him into slavery:

14 After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father. 15 When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil which we did to him." 16 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this command before he died, 17 'Say to Joseph, Forgive, I pray you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.' And now, we pray you, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 His brothers also came and fell down before him, and said, "Behold, we are your servants." 19 But Joseph said to them, "Fear not, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones." Thus he reassured them and comforted them.

Joseph in no way diminishes or excuses the evil of his brothers' deeds. But he acknowledges that God brought great good out of this evil - namely, saving God's chosen people from a severe famine (Gen. 47).

A family of envious brothers plotted to destroy their brother, and through it God saved His people.

Years later, the religious authorities plotted to kill Jesus of Nazareth, and Judas Iscariot sold out his Lord for 30 coins, and through it God saved the world.

The credit goes all to God. The thrust of the verse, it seems to me, is not to excuse evil, but rather to mock it. How small is man, how petty, that even his most selfish, destructive acts cannot thwart God's plans.

Mark said...

Eric, That was an awesome commentary. I just want to add that earlier in the story Joseph tells his brothers "So it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt" Gen.45:8 God does not call evil good but does bring great good out of evil. For those who love God all things work together unto good. Rom.8:28