In the early 1990s while thinking about converting to Catholicism I met with a Monsignor in the Church.
Monsignor is an honorary title with no real power, basically for smart guys aware of ecclesiastical problems but not actively involved in the development of doctrine.
Gifted and diplomatic, Monsignors for the most part toe the line and work their tails off ensuring all the wheels spin right within the ancient, all-male hierarchy that is the worldly side of Catholicism.
I liked this particular Monsignor. He was on the ball. Instead of regurgitating stale, varnished and philosophically weak arguments during the homily, he extemporized and used current metaphors like “Black Holes.” He also encouraged applying the intellect, a gift God gave us, to unpack and interpret scripture.
Myself, I was home from a two-year sojourn in India where I had been studying Comparative Religion. Reverse culture-shocked, adjusting to a new city and unfamiliar graduate environment, I was plunged into a whole new realm that made my India experience seem like junior school, spiritually speaking.
So meeting with the Monsignor, I told him I believed in fate, which is more of an Asian (karma), Arabic (kismet) and Greek (moira) idea than a Catholic one.
“You mean providence,” he pointedly replied.
Back then I didn’t consciously know the difference between fate and providence, but something sparked.
Providence is a theological term referring to the belief that God maintains and sustains all of creation and the plan for our eternal redemption.
The idea is found in both the Old and New Testaments. Not surprisingly, providence is partly framed by the notion of linear time, partly by a belief in eternity. We march along the walk of creation and, although we choose our lives, an eternal God is actively helping us make the right choices.
Providence also means that God freely chooses how things go by guiding us – not forcing us – through a kind of “divine government.”¹
When things go well, we cooperate with divine guidance. But we also make mistakes through original sin. God permits these mistakes, at least to a degree. God would never permit enough mistakes to, say, allow all of creation to be utterly destroyed.
That’s how some see it. Others say we are totally free so, in theory, could destroy our planet and all life on it.
For many thinkers, the idea of providence is directly opposed to fate, which points to a fixed, unalterable sequence of events. It also differs from the concept of chance, which implies a random, unregulated universe.²
The distinction between free will (through providence) and determinism (through fate) is an important one. But most writers gloss over it, probably because it’s a tricky question that nobody really understands nor has a definite answer for.
One sort of slippery theological solution to the problem of free will vs. determinism maintains that we are free to choose but God knows in advance how we will choose.
When you think about it, this explanation isn’t too satisfying. For me, the question and answer are just too big for the human mind to comprehend. It’s like a Pentium i3 trying to figure out all the mysteries of the universe and beyond. After a few moments the processor just chokes… our limited human brain, that is.
The other night I was surprised to see the topic of providence/free will vs. fate/destiny arise in an episode of Vikings, a TV show that dramatically recreates the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, Lagertha the Shield Maiden, their offspring, friends, victims and enemies.
Two of Ragnar’s sons, Ivar the Boneless and Hvitserk discuss providence vs. fate with the slightly demented, bellicose Christian bishop Heahmund. The discussion, although brief, is far better than what you’d find in most Catholic homilies or graduate seminars, for that matter (starts at time 1:26).
Opponents to the idea of providence are found in the ancient world. St. Thomas Aquinas notes in his Summa Theologica:
Certain persons totally denied the existence of providence, as Democritus and the Epicureans, maintaining that the world was made by chance.³
Other ancients add an interesting twist to the debate by claiming that natural events are ruled by God, but particular human events are not. To this St. Thomas replies with the standard Catholic teaching:
All things are subject to divine providence, not only in general, but even in their own individual being.4
Related to providence is the problem of theodicy.
Theodicy is an attempt to maintain God’s goodness given the reality of evil. If God is all powerful and in total control, why does S/He permit evil in the first place?
At some point I think these categories must merge if we are to find better answers. But most philosophers and theologians still prefer to slice up the onion of reality, trying not to cry.
¹ Van A Harvey. A Handbook of Theological Terms 1992, pp. 198-200. This is one of my favorite single reference works for theology. Concise, detailed, and not preachy. The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary (1965) says that God “ordains all things to an intended end so that His purpose of creation may be accomplished.” Just what ordains means is a bit unclear to me. And this kind of wording ignores questions about the relativity of space-time, how we all live in different space-times, and how that complicates the Biblical notion of linear time.
² Just thinking about a universe guided only by chance leaves me cold, so I won’t discuss it further. For me, those upholding a doctrine of chance are unwise and locked into a manmade, conceptually biased map of the universe.
³ Summa Theologica, “The providence of God,” Prima Pars, Q. 22