by Peter Sprigg
January 17, 2009
The homosexual Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson will offer a prayer at a pre-inauguration event at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday. Here’s part of what he told National Public Radio about his preparation (thanks to David Brody of CBN for this link.):
Robinson: I have actually read back over the inaugural prayers of the last 30 or 40 years and frankly I’ve been shocked at how aggressively Christian they are. And my intention is not to invoke the name of Jesus but to make this a prayer for Christians and non-Christians alike. Although I hold the scripture to be the word of God, those scriptures are holy to me and Jews and Christians, but to many other faith traditions they have their own sacred texts. And so rather than insert that and really exclude them from the prayer by doing so, I want this to be a prayer to the god of our many understandings and a prayer that all people of faith can join me in.
NPR Host: The god of many understandings?
Robinson: “Yes. I was treated for alcoholism three years ago and grateful to be sober today. And one of the things that I’ve learned in 12 step programs is this phrase, ‘the god of my understanding’. It allows people to pray to a God of really many understandings. And let’s face it, each one of us has a different understanding of God. No one of us can fully understand God or else God wouldn’t be God.”
NPR Host: I’m not sure that a God of many understandings has been invoked at an inauguration before?
Robinson: Well, I’ve done a lot of things for the first time in my life and I will be proud to do this one.
Let me note a couple of things here. Robinson says he is “shocked at how aggressively Christian” inaugural prayers” of the last 30 or 40 years” have been. Forty years ago would have been the inauguration of Richard Nixon, which was probably the first inauguration I ever watched, and I think I’ve watched all but two of them (when I was overseas) since. I haven’t actually done the research Robinson has, but I don’t remember any as “aggressively Christian.” My impression is that prayers at such events tend to be blandly, generically monotheistic, while perhaps also being “aggressively” patriotic. Giving an altar call would be “aggressively Christian.” Simply praying “in Jesus’ name,” or quoting from the Bible, is not.
Secondly-does it strike anyone else as odd that a Christian clergyman, a bishop no less, takes his theology from a twelve-step program? Such programs have helped a lot of people, and I’m glad Bishop Robinson got help for his alcoholism-but didn’t the man ever go to seminary? A Christian seminary, even?
Robinson is right in a certain sense when he says, “No one of us can fully understand God or else God wouldn’t be God.” But Christians believe that our own incapacity as finite humans to figure out God on our own is the very reason why God took the initiative to reveal himself to us, both in the person of Jesus and in the words of Scripture. That’s where Christian theology goes beyond the twelve-step theology.
With that said, though, Bishop Robinson seems to be mis-applying even the twelve-step theology. The idea is for each individual to pray to “the god of my understanding.” That is not the same as one individual praying to “a God of many understandings,” which is what Robinson is pledging to do.
I would submit that when a Christian clergyman prays at a public event “in Jesus’ name,” he is doing exactly what the twelve-step program calls for-praying to the “[G]od of [his] understanding.” It is those who would deny him that right-not the Christian clergyman-who are guilty of the worst form of intolerance.