Thursday, March 26, 2009


A plane crash-landed into the Hudson River and everyone aboard survived. Christians around the country were claiming it was God's providential care that kept those people alive.

Two weeks later a plane went down in flames in Buffalo. 50 people died. To be consistent we have to explain where God's providence was in this second case. Was it inability on God's part? He just didn't catch it in time? In which case God is not omnipotent as traditionally claimed. Was it God's will? Did God have some reason for killing those 50 people and saving the ones in the Hudson? Could there possibly be rational gymnastics sufficient to resolve the dilemma in a way that is consistent with the claim that God is just and merciful?

To be clear, I won't accept the usual cop-out, "God works in mysterious ways." That is not an answer, but a way of avoiding an uncomfortable question.

There is a more reasonable, simpler, and more likely to be correct answer: God was not involved. God did not save the first group and ignore the cries of terror from the second. The first group was saved by a combination of circumstance and human action, and the second doomed by the same combination. There is no moral to be gleaned from the continued existence of the people on the Hudson, or from the deaths of the people in Buffalo. It is arbitrary and sad and unfair. End of story.

But of course, the story doesn't end, because we are storytellers we humans, and many of us survive to attempt to make some meaning out of apparently meaningless events. Such meaning making is strange, but necessary, and it can and does result in good things. Various survivors on the Hudson commented to news outlets that seeing their salvation as an act of God gave them renewed courage and deepened their desire to live lives of gratitude and service. Choosing to make meaningful experiences out of meaningless events is how we weave a narrative which informs our actions and gives them context. Everyone has such a personal narrative.

Providence is just this: people making meaning out of their lives by situating them in a grand narrative that includes the inscrutable purposes of God.

As a meaning-making technique it is neutral, neither good nor bad. It is bad, in my opinion, when it turns God into a monster by attributing horrible things to God's will. It is also bad, when it is used as a bludgeon to suppress the emotions and doubts of others. It is good when it helps someone overcome a tragedy, or dedicate themselves to a noble cause.

But bad, good, or indifferent... is it true? Are we just lying to ourselves? Is there any reason to see the hand of God in any particular event, whether positive or negative? Isn't everything adequately explained, even better explained, by natural causes and human behavior?


Paul Wise said...

Aric, your framing of this discussion has already precluded any answer save the silence of God.

Also, I propose that we abolish the phrase, "God works in mysterious ways," and replace it with what we really mean when we say it: "I don't know."

Aric Clark said...

So feel free to frame it differently. I am not trying to close down discussion, but just recording my thoughts, where I am, at the moment.