19 September 2010


A friend recently told me of a couple of remarkable incidents in his life - he had told me of them in a discussion of the existence - and character - of God.  I am Catholic; he thinks of God as ... well, I hope he will not mind if I use his words, which, I think, express very well what may be the commonest view of God:
I prefer to not use the term God when I try to come to grips with the big questions. I would prefer the Great Mystery or, the Enigma. The observable universe is a projection of, or manifestation of, the Great Mystery. Through science we can gain only partial knowledge of the Great Mystery as manifested in the observable universe. An astonishing amount is within the realm of the knowable but, ultimately the Great Mystery is more likely than not, multidimensional with dimensions extending into the unknowable. These dimensions are unknowable to us in qualities and scope.
In a subsequent discussion, he described a couple of remarkable coincidences that had happened to him.  The details of those coincidences do not matter here.  They are of the 'uncanny that that should happen to me' sort - not preternatural, just ... uncanny :-)

I do not suggest that he offers these as in any sense indications of the existence of God - I do not think he does.  What they are, though, is evidence - perhaps - of the presence of purpose - even, it may be, Purpose - in the things that happen to me.

And I got to thinking about coincidences.

Whether non-Christians ever see such things as pointing to God, it is certain that we Christians sometimes seem to.  We have all known the person - perhaps we ourselves are one of these persons - who, in time of great need, have had that need met in a remarkable way - sometimes in answer to prayer.  And I wonder: is it right to see such things as genuine answers to prayer?

On reflexion, I think I would say that either everything that happens is an answer to prayer - or nothing is.

The question rests on the idea of intentionality.  Intentionality is a broad, and somewhat vague, concept.  Here I mean primarily, though, just that meaning of the word that in our common usage we have in mind.  We all know what I mean - and it matters a great deal to our normal life.  John bumps Susan's elbow and her coffee spills.  Is Susan angry?  Well, she might for a moment be, regardless of intentionality - but if she has reason to believe John did it accidentally - she saw him trip over something, for instance, nearly fall, bump her - and afterwards he apologises and tries (to her further dismay, no doubt :-)) to clean the carpet - then she judges her anger as unjust.

But if John smirks, dodges away - that is a very different matter!  John spilled her coffee intentionally.

I suggest that, unconsciously, what we see in remarkable coincidences is intentionality.

Consider: an aeroplane flies over.  Somehow - perhaps it is a small, light 'plane with some sort of opening to the air - a golf ball falls out.  It falls, perhaps a Kilometre down - to a golf course - and lands straight into the cup of the first hole!

Wow!!  Far out!!  What's the likelihood of that??!!

Or ... a great golfer - Tiger Woods BTS (Before The Scandal :-)) - tees off - and the same thing happens!

We are equally stunned - but for a very different reason.  Because we know that Tiger intended to attempt to do that very thing!  But in this case, the likelihood is much different.  To be sure, it is a remarkable stroke.  Perhaps - for I know nothing of golfing - it has never happened in the history of golf.  Nevertheless, if we could take into account Tiger's history and skill, his record, the history of that hole in that golf course, we would make a calculation that would, I suggest, make Tiger's stroke much more probable - even if very improbable in absolute terms - than the first example.

The difference is intentionality.

And if we believe in God, then in the first case, there is - if only we knew what God intended - no question of probability.  After all, choosing a golf-ball-sized spot of grass at random, the ball's landing anywhere at all is just as unlikely as its landing in the hole.  On the other hand, if we think that God's Providence is comprehensive - and if we are Christians of any orthodoxy at all, we claim to do so - then - leaving aside the mystery of the will (both human and angelic) - God intends what happens.

And I think hidden in the normal person's reaction to the aeroplane case is an assumption of something like this.  This is not to say that most people would think of it this way.  But few would be other than stonkered by such a thing's happening.  Some would, indeed, see something at least preternatural, if not supernatural in the strict sense, in the happening.  Some would - if the event corresponded to something in the person's own life - even be converted.

We Christians are prone to remarking on this or that event as 'providential.'  And we are right to do so.  Events - such as the arrival of that unexpected money just when that unexpected expense appeared - are, indeed, providential.

But so are the appearance of the unexpected expense when no 'providential' money appears.  Either all that happens is God's providence for us - and therefore, in some sense, an answer to prayer - if not my prayer, than the prayers of countless others - or nothing is.  God is quite capable of ordering all things in such a way that they seem remarkable - but normally He does not.  The appearance of my fortnightly pay in my bank account is as much a part of God's loving providence (and all God's providences are loving, even although we do not always receive them as such and they may ultimately amount to God's wrath for us) as the legacy from the uncle I didn't know I had.  The key is living really in faith that God's providence is always there for us, is always for us, even when painful, and is complete - down to the 'hairs of our head.'

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