By guest author JG.
Sometime during my eternally long journey through graduate school, a professor put the following events on the board, in correct chronological order:
*John Milton got married
*John Milton wrote Paradise Lost
*John Milton’s wife died
*John Milton wrote Paradise Regained
Now, the point of this exercise wasn’t to rag on the Miltons’ marriage, but rather to make an important point: cause and effect relationships aren’t always that easy to discern. (By the way, I looked it up: Milton was married three times, and, no, I didn’t bother to figure out which wife is referenced above).
Normally, we get this. We understand that events usually have complex explanations. This is why no one goes around claiming that Abraham Lincoln was killed because John Wilkes Booth had unresolved anger problems, then stops as if that is sufficient. One philosopher, David Hume, even went as far as to claim that cause and effect relationships are impossible to prove. (This is one of the things that caused me to hate philosophy in college … or, well, I think it caused my hatred … )
The funny thing is that alot of this caution seems to fly out the window when it comes to explaining what God is up to these days. With 9/11, with Katrina, with Haiti — each time we saw prominent Christian leaders more than willing to explain to us exactly why God had allowed these things to happen, what their true cause was. I cannot think of a single instance where these “explanations” did not do more harm than good, yet there seems to remain this irresistible urge to offer them.
Personally, I don’t believe that history is without purpose or fully unknowable. Like many Christians, I affirm the providence of God at work in history, and believe that the Scriptures show me where human history is ultimately heading. The Bible claims to explain the start of history, the end of history, and give little glimpses of God at work in history along the way. Where Christians get into trouble is not in insisting that history has purpose, but in claiming the ability to trace God’s hand at every step of the way. The Scriptures are full of countries that prospered for reasons you might not expect, people that suffered where judgement was as far from the explanation as you can get, and quite a few ambivalent human and divine actions we’re still not sure how to explain fully.
Recently, Christian historian Mark Noll had this to say on the issue:
“A Christian has to affirm Providence, but a Christian historian should not assume to know the mind of God about most particular events … For most historians, I think it’s wiser to affirm a general sort of Providence and yet not presume that you as an individual can know what God intended for any particular situation in the past.” (Interview in August issue of Christianity Today)
I think that’s good advice for Christians in general.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)
Photo by VinothChandar