I always found it funny that God said to Moses “but I, meanwhile, will harden Pharaoh’s heart”. The text goes on to confirm that, indeed, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, so that he would not obey the Lord’s will and heed their warning.”
I can imagine Moses biting his lip, trying to work out how to say to the Omnipotent Deity “Great plan, really love it…but do you think it would all run just the teensiest bit more smoothly if you didn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart? In fact, it might be even easier if you softened his heart instead…”
But if you follow that logic through, there’s no need for Moses. God could’ve just jump-started Pharaoh’s compassion for the enslaved Israelites and implemented sweeping industrial relations reforms.
The omni in omnipotent means He could have done just about anything to bring about the end result. Instead he chose conflict and drama to drive home the point that “All Egypt shall know that it was I, the Lord, who raised my hand against it, and brought out the sons of Israel from its midst.”
It’s a recurring theme. The old Catholic Encyclopaedia has an excellent entry on divine providence with references from scripture, the Church Fathers, and systematic theology, where you can find evidence of a pattern:
“Evil, therefore, ministers to God's design…if the universe be considered as a whole it will be found that that which for the individual is evil will in the end turn out to be consistent with Divine goodness, in conformity with justice and right order.”
The nuances of theodicy are not easy, and the early Fathers of the Church admit that providence will remain “more or less a mystery”. But on a personal level, it helps to remain open-minded about the end result, rather than dwelling on the magnitude or extent of various evils.
From a traditional, classical, or orthodox moral perspective, the creation of same-sex marriage and its effective endorsement by the public and the state is wrong because it affirms and promotes false constructs of sexuality and identity which, aside from being false, may also mislead vulnerable people in our society.
Nonetheless it happened. And as with so many other ethical issues in the post-war West, we can either focus on how terrible it all is, or in light of providence ask “What good could come of it?”
Individual freedom and autonomy
Autonomy is the central theme of the many ethical innovations of the past 60 or so years.
“Do what you want, so long as you’re not hurting anyone” is the de facto moral principle of the present era. The problem is that “not hurting anyone” is difficult to quantify.
Anonymous sperm donation used to pass the “not hurting anyone” test, until enough people came forward to demand transparency and the right to know their own genealogy.
Surrogacy has been passing the “not hurting anyone” test too, even though developing countries are increasingly blocking wealthy Westerners from renting out the wombs of poor women.
A cynic might say the real principle of autonomy is “do what you want, so long as you can get away with it”.
But for all the abuses and excesses, autonomy has rolled on. And from a providential perspective it’s hard to ignore the trend. Same-sex marriage is a perfect continuation of the theme: “let us do what we want, we’re not hurting anyone.”
With each new wave of autonomy-driven social change, society itself becomes increasingly individualistic.
Individualism pushes back the paternalism of the state, on the one hand allowing people the freedom to do what they want for better or worse, on the other hand forcing everyone to decide for themselves what they will do, and how they will do it.
Same-sex couples have won the freedom to marry, but in the process marriage is redefined and everyone else must figure out where they stand and what marriage means to them.
This moral individualism mirrors the economic individualism that offers ever-expanding freedom of choice for consumers. The customers are always right, and, boy, do we know it!
As consumers we expect ever greater flexibility, accommodation, and functionality from our goods and services. Moral and social individualism are expressions of the same trends.
What we’re heading towards is a society and a state that mirrors our patterns of consumption and expression in the online, consumerist world. We’re approaching a service-provider state that facilitates autonomy while remaining agnostic about the content of our choices.
Like an internet service-provider, we will increasingly expect the state to keep us connected and free from unwanted interference, the perfect venue for the exercise of autonomy.
And despite its association with various ethical issues, autonomy is not a bad thing. It’s a part of our humanity and deserves exercise and respect.
The rise of individual autonomy is not intrinsically evil, nor was the paternalism of the past.
But with providence in mind, the overall trend suggests a development or evolution of our social and political structure, and it’s no accident of history that the rise of individual autonomy came on the heels of the most horrific expressions of collectivism and statism.
In search of an authentic identity
Paraphrasing Augustine, the Catholic Encyclopaedia states that “in this world man has to learn by experience and contrast, and to develop by the overcoming of obstacles.”
In this light, the unprecedented push towards novel sexual, gender, and even racial identities provides a new dimension of contrast for us to work with.
As society becomes more diverse, the option of the traditional mainstream has disappeared. We can’t take for granted our membership of the “silent majority”, nor can we rely on the state or other organisations to shape our identities and define our values for us.
Even those who might wish to live traditionally are forced by societal change to actively define or redefine themselves as “traditionalist”. The freedom sought by minorities forces decisions upon everyone.
But the construction of new identities is not just about freedom, it’s also about authenticity.
Authenticity is not something to be afraid of. It implies being honest with oneself and others, and is a prerequisite for change, even if it is sometimes abused as a license for doing whatever one likes.
If the state is becoming more like an ISP, then authenticity is analogous to how we shape and express our online persona.
We might recoil at some of the identities people have crafted, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong to seek to find and communicate one’s authentic identity.
We all find, after all, that life changes us. We learn more about ourselves. Our opinions, our perspective, and even our self-concept can change.
Exercising autonomy and seeking authenticity are good in and of themselves. Paternalism and conformity for the sake of moral security are good too, but instrumentally rather than intrinsically.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t need to enforce rules because everyone would do the right thing of their own volition. We don’t live in an ideal world, but it’s clear nonetheless that the world is changing, and there are positives despite all the negatives in that change.
If we had to choose between a safe world of paternalism and conformity, and a dangerous world of autonomy and authenticity, many of us would pick the safe world.
But that’s not what our theology tells us.
Religious freedom and authenticity
Inauthentic believers have long been a dark mark against all religions in the eyes of the world.
Faith should not be reducible to paternalism or conformity. On the contrary, real faith is both authentic and individual.
Christians have spent centuries trying to prove to an Enlightenment society that Christianity is rational and reasonable, and a worthy contributor to social mores and the guiding hand of the state.
But it seems the West has moved on. The battles are no longer about steering a paternalistic state, but about facilitating individual autonomy, and our social mores no longer urge conformity except in support of personal authenticity.
It’s not paternalism and social conformity that makes us religious. If individualism and authenticity are the driving forces of this new era, well what could be more authentic or more individual than the human being who seeks to know his creator, or uncover the mystery behind all existence?