Friday, February 19, 2010

When Secular and Christian Philosophy Cross Paths (Providence)

“Things happen for a reason.” This is what some non-Christians will say, whether they speak of “unfortunate” events or events which seem to occur without a motivation or intention as a cause.

Of course, there is something to be said about the idea that all things happen for a reason. To be sure, a reason behind many actions and events is human foolishness or frailty. However, that all things happen because of a divine motivation or intention as a proximate cause* seems less clear. One thing that is clear is that God causes all events--and no, the verbs “cause” and non-auxiliary “do” are not semantically interchangeable--whether He brings about these things directly in some instances or by a diversity of means in other instances. For example:

36 To subvert a man in his cause, the LORD approveth not. 37 Who [is] he [that] saith, and it cometh to pass, [when] the Lord commandeth [it] not? 38 Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good? (Lamentations 3.36-38)

The LORD hath made all [things] for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil. (Proverbs 16.4)

Man’s goings [are] of the LORD; how can a man then understand his own way? (Proverbs 20.24)

For of him, and through him, and to him, [are] all things: to whom [be] glory for ever. Amen. (Romans 11.36)

In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: (Ephesians 1.11)

However, there seems to be ample reason to believe that not all of God’s causing all events is done in a recurrent, everyday, and case-by-case manner of his commanding, “Let the sun rise tomorrow morning” or “You electrons over here, continue to orbit this atomic nucleus” or something like this. Based on two different kinds of texts it seems safe to say that some events are brought about by natural law or natural laws which were given long ago and continue to act consistently in virtue of inherent properties of these laws.** First there are what appear to be “fire-and-forget” ordinances, decrees or laws:

Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth? (Job 38.33)

When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: (Proverbs 8.29)

Fear ye not me? saith the LORD: will ye not tremble at my presence, which have placed the sand [for] the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it: and though the waves thereof toss themselves, yet can they not prevail; though they roar, yet can they not pass over it? (Jeremiah 5.22)

24 Considerest thou not what this people have spoken, saying, The two families which the LORD hath chosen, he hath even cast them off? thus they have despised my people, that they should be no more a nation before them. 25 Thus saith the LORD; If my covenant [be] not with day and night, [and if] I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth; 26 Then will I cast away the seed of Jacob and David my servant, [so] that I will not take [any] of his seed [to be] rulers over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: for I will cause their captivity to return, and have mercy on them. (Jeremiah 33.24-26)

(Compare Job 38.8-13, Psalm 33.6-9, Psalm 148.2-6, Isaiah 45.12, 2 Peter 3.5, et al.)

With that said, it is possible to issue a ordinance, decree or law for precisely one particular reason while also willingly allowing such a thing to act otherwise indeterminately. If I were to command someone saying, “Go and buy a new car” there is no one particular object out there in the world which the name “car” denotes in this instance or which I have in mind; the name “car” here is non-referential and only connotative. Yet the command ultimately can still have the effect of causing someone to buy a particular and real automobile, as with a rich oil sheikh’s commanding a servant to buy him a new BMW, or something on that general order. The real and actual car which is eventually bought is not something which was particularly requested by this sheikh, yet there are inherent properties of the issuing of the command which go on to produce the effect of the purchase of a particular object.

Now imagine that there are inherent properties of both natural law and physical objects, ones which God uses as He will yet also are allowed to act indeterminately. Given that the apostles Paul and Peter use the word “flesh” to speak of evil inclinations of human nature, though everything which was created at the beginning the world was good, one can then go on to imagine that fallen human nature exists as such on account of inherent properties of natural law and/or physical objects--mix two chemicals together and you get one result from the combination; mix two other chemicals together and the combination produces still another result; etc. One is inclined to believe that these are concepts which make the best sense of Scriptures where someone is said to be “given over” or “given up” to evil as opposed to being “sent” or “caused to go,” as in the following:

41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. 42 Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices [by the space of] forty years in the wilderness? (Acts 7.41-42)

21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified [him] not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. 24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: 25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. 26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. 28 And even as they did not like to retain God in [their] knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; 29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, 30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: 32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them. (Romans 1.21-32)

What this means, unless someone can explain otherwise, is that not every Scripture which speaks of God’s causing all events--both human events and events not involving human beings--is necessarily one which demonstrates that every event happens for a proximate reason. The spirit of the sentence “Things happen for a reason” seems to be one of proximate causes, and if this is so then it is questionable. On the other hand, if the purview of that sentence is unrestricted, then it is perfectly clear that everything does indeed happen for a reason. The clarity exists in virtue of the testimony of the Scriptures as opposed to what either believers or unbelievers will suppose to be intuition.

* Proximate, as in not several hundred steps-removed in a causal nexus or a chain of causality from efficient cause, to medial causes to occasion--but rather a cause with only one step or a few steps between it and its effect.

** Of course, even if all instances of God’s working all things, to use the language of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 1, were theoretically reduced to nothing more than age-old natural laws of God that He issued once and never had to issue again, it would still be fair to say that God works (present tense) all things. This can be seen by analogy of a murderer who poisons and then leaves the state of California on Monday, and lounges in Nevada on Tuesday at which time the victim also dies back in California; only those who are dead have been murdered, and so the murderer becomes such a person not before Tuesday and in virtue of a remote past action.

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