Some time back, a reader wrote me with an interesting observation:
You know, I just thought of something. I used to have a part-time job as a pest caller (phone surveys, mostly) and so I met a lot of Wiccans. (In the 90’s they congregated in phone & restaurant work, for some reason; don’t know about now.) And every single one of them was a High Priestess. Every single one. I don’t know what that means, if anything, but I noticed it.
I hadn’t thought of it till she pointed it out, but yeah, there does seem to be a glut of high priestesses and high priests when it comes to Wicca. Nobody is just a plain old priest, let alone a mere parishioner. Similarly, all Past-Life Regressives seem to discover they were Egyptian princesses and acclaimed warrior kings, and never dung-shovelers or toothless crones living in a mud hut on the Russian steppe in the seventh century and dying of a pimple on the knee. At first blush, that could appear to have something to do with the way all Catholics and ex-Catholics with a pulse and a tenuous relationship to the Church are called “devout,” all busses plunge, and all popes are constantly “cracking down” on everything.
But considered more carefully, I don’t think this is so. Why? Because “devout” Catholics, plunging busses, and Vatican crackdowns are typically the coinage of lazy journalist brains, not of the people who are being described. A really devout Catholic never describes himself that way for the same reason that monks do not go around shouting, “I am the greatest monk of all time!”
But the self-described Wiccan “high” priests and priestesses are, in fact, asking us to take this diploma-printed-off-the-Internet title seriously. That is, they are saying it about themselves rather than merely enduring it while some media ignoramus says it about them. Not surprisingly, these folks, along with angry fundamentalists, also often constitute the exception to the “devout Catholic” trope by making a habit of prefacing their diatribes with, “I used to be a devout Catholic, but then . . .” followed by a rant of such impenetrable ignorance of the Catholic Faith they allegedly used to “devoutly” believe that one is often left wondering if they ever even grasped basic monotheism, let alone the complexities of Catholic doctrine.
Now, to be sure, there’s a fair amount of self-flattery going on in all religious circles, and not merely in Wiccan sacred circles. One can, of course, discover all manner of claims to be “chosen” by God for this or that purpose f ro m religious believers all over the world. It’s bound to be the case when you are discussing momentous questions like the possibility of God noticing and caring about human beings. And, of course, many a critic of theism is quite happy to tell you that all such claims to have been noticed and even “elected” by God to this or that role in the Grand Scheme of Things are simply and solely demonstrations of massive human egoism.
Indeed, quite often the skeptic will then go on to explain that anybody who believes in such things as divine election or being “chosen” is a sucker who has not outgrown the primitive impulse to religion: that artifact of what Christopher Hitchens calls the “the bawling and fearful infancy of our species . . . a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge.” Such oracles of skepticism will then commonly declare that the real ticket is to trust in reason and the intellect, especially theirs.
Why? Because Evolution or Nature has selected them and their superior brains. The three-pound piece of meat behind their eyes has been chosen by the Ineffable Power that rules the Universe to understand the Meaning of It All and reveal it to the unwashed. Indeed, some of their representatives are quite certain that they have not only been selected, but that they are thereby authorized by the Ineffable Power of Evolution to decide who else gets selected.
Thus, Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton (concurring with so many leading thinkers of the 19th century that we are creatures who owe our being not to God, but to a fortuitous collision of matter and energy) built on Darwin’s work by founding a new science of human breeding that he called “eugenics.” Galton had no truck with the mysticism of the Judeo-Christian tradition that “all men are created equal.” As he wrote in Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences:
I have no patience with the hypothesis occasionally expressed, and often implied, especially in tales written to teach children to be good, that babies are born pretty much alike, and that the sole agencies in creating differences between boy and boy, and man and man, are steady application and moral effort. It is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretensions of natural equality.
Galton fancied himself a hardheaded scientific thinker. So he naturally constructed what seemed to him a scientific hierarchy of “grades” by which he rated the various races of Homo sapiens. It turned out that Galton rated “Negroes” very low, commenting that “mistakes the Negroes made in their own matters were so childish, stupid and simpleton-like, as frequently to make me ashamed of my own species.” Happily for Galton, he himself belonged to the superior race of Anglo-Saxons, with its wonderful genetic traits capable of “producing judges, statesmen, commanders, men of literature and science, poets, artists, and divines.” And, Galton believed, we must make it our goal to better the race still more by selective breeding and the weeding out of the “unfit.” Inferiors, he thought, should be treated “with all kindness,” so long as they complied with the demand of their betters for celibacy. But if they dared to breed, “such persons would be considered as enemies to the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness.”
If that sounds rather like atheist materialism is cribbing (yet again) f ro m the Judeo-Christian tradition, that’s because it is. Nature selecting the superior rationalist and his superior intellect and appointing him as the Vanguard of the New Race of Homo Post-Religiosus bears more than a passing resemblance to the call of Abraham, the election of Israel, and even the benediction pronounced over Jesus in the Jordan. What it lacks, of course, is any sense of modesty whatsoever. The rationalist inclined to worship his own intellect is conversely disinclined to use it.
And so he accuses the theist of hubris for saying of God, “He has looked with favor on my lowliness,” while turning a blind eye to the fact that his own materialist dogma teaches him to say, “I have cast down the lowly in their weakness and lifted up myself by my own might. My own right hand has done this, for I am the winner of the Survival of the Fittest Contest! I am not merely like God, I am God and know the difference between Fit and Unfit.” In short, the atheist materialist tendency to substitute selection for election resembles the biblical tradition the way an ape resembles a man or a parody resembles reality. The atheist materialist of the Ditchkins variety most emphatically believes in Chosenness (especially his own), just not in humility.
In fairness, it is doubtful that most atheist materialists are clever enough to realize that’s what they are doing. (The stunningly ignorant naïveté about their own dependence on the Christian and Jewish traditions is one of the more fetching traits of evangelical atheists.) But for our purposes, the point is this: It’s not nearly as easy as it might seem to escape the notion of chosenness. If the fear is that the notion of being chosen could incite hubris, it appears that atheistic materialism is not the cure, but simply a toxin that exacerbates something in human nature to make the hubris worse (judging f ro m the body count of the great 20th-century totalitarian regimes).
Hitchens attempts to account for this by explaining, lamely, that any murderous atheist regime is really religious, and therefore that atheism’s blood-drenched skirts are clean. The more sensible solution to the riddle is provided by the Christian tradition, which tells us that the mysterious agent poisoning everything is not religion but “original sin,” which plays out as the lust to be the God of all creation, rather than to be a mere creature made in his image and likeness. If we try to get rid of it by getting rid of God (as the atheist proposes), we are thinking like the man who proposes to cure pneumonia by getting rid of the doctors who diagnose pneumonia, since some gods are quacks and some of the “elect” are deluded or charlatans. Result: The disease remains and all hope of a cure is banished.
For, of course, if one is going to take seriously the Western theistic tradition, it is not possible (or even desirable) to escape Chosenness at all, since the One who chooses is the Great Physician, and He alone is capable of healing the spiritual disease of sin that battens not only on notions of election, but on everything f ro m the love of God to our skin color to our handiness with a guitar as a place to suckle our pride and grow fat on our own hubris.
In short, virtually everything in nature and the Christian revelation gets abused by our stupid pride, including divine election. So what? Abusus non tollit usum. The key is not to jettison the notion of chosenness, but to understand what it really means. And to do that, the sensible approach, of course, is staked out by the inspired authors of Scripture who not only assert the wonder that God notices us, but even tell us He loves us as creatures made in His very image and likeness and, yes, chooses us. Yet they also still marvel at the sheer infinitude of the gulf between the Creator and His very fallen creature:
O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!
Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted
by the mouth of babes and infants,
thou hast founded a bulwark because of thy foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at thy heavens,
the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars which thou hast established;
what is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him?
Yet thou hast made him little less than God,
and dost crown him with glory and honor.
Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea.
O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is thy name in all the earth! (Ps 8)
That’s the biblical pattern: chosenness evokes wonder and humility, not hubris. Because the proper focus in Scripture is not on the chosen, but on the chooser. As Jesus puts it: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (Jn 15:16).
The key here, of course, is grace. The notion that it is hubris to speak of Jesus “choosing” people overlooks virtually everything Scripture has to say about our position before God. Everything in the Christian tradition tells us that the Divine Pity was drawn to Homo sapiens not by our greatness, but by our wretchedness — a wretchedness made all the more poignant by the fact that we are not merely victims, but fools and wicked rebels who took even the divine hand extended in mercy and pounded a nail through it. It is no boast of ours that God became man to save us. As Paul says:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:18-31)
This points us to the extreme paradox of Election in Scripture: namely, that the chosen are always chosen for the sake of the unchosen. Abraham is told this plainly when God calls him saying:
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves. (Gen 12:2-3)
Likewise, the call of Israel means that they are made a chosen people in order to be a “light to the nations” (Is 51:4). Ultimately, their mission is to pave the way for the Messianic Son of David, who is called a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel (Lk 2:32). And Paul, the preacher of Messiah to the Nations, is plain that it is in Jesus, the Chosen One, that we are chosen:
He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (Eph 1:4-6)
The problem that plagues each of the “choosings” we see in the Old Testament — f ro m Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to David — is that the one being chosen is the George McClellan of the war with sin and death: He brings the Election of God with him, but he also brings himself and thereby snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
The good news of the New Testament is that the mediator of the Final, New, and Everlasting Covenant is not a fallen man, but God in human flesh. No matter how much we gum things up, He can set it right in the end, because He cannot sin and can overcome our sins and failure with His grace. He is the ultimate example of the One chosen for the sake of the unchosen. Our chosenness is always in Him, and all we are called and gifted to do makes us not the Center of the Universe around which all else must orbit, but a member of the Body of whom Christ is the Head. Our Chosenness in Christ is ordered toward His glory, our neighbor’s good, and our humility and happiness.