Does God intervene in history? According to the doctrine of Providence, God does. Providence means that God provides for our good. This doctrine is implied by Jesus when he tells his disciples that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God`s knowledge, and presumably, God’s consent, and that every hair on their head is numbered. The doctrine existed in ancient Stoicism; Marcus Aurelius wrote “Whatever happens, happens rightly. Watch closely, and you will find this true. In the succession of events there is not mere sequence alone, but an order that is just and right, as from the hand of one who dispenses to all their due.”
Let us consider some examples from World War II. Firstly the officers plot to kill Hitler in July 1944. The room in which the bomb was to be planted was originally an underground bunker, which would have concentrated the blast and killed everyone. But it was a hot day, so the venue was changed at the last minute to a light wooden hut with all the windows open. Von Stauffenberg and his assistant took two bombs with them in the briefcase which was to be placed on the conference table underneath Hitler’s nose. They armed one, but just as they were about to arm the other, an aide opened their door and told them it was time to take the briefcase in.
So it went in with only one bomb. During the conference, one of the participants moved the bomb with his foot, so that an oak trestle effectively shielded Hitler from the blast. The outcome is well known. Hitler escaped with a shaking, more than ever convinced that Providence was supporting him.
What interest did God have in foiling the von Stauffenberg plot? A convincing answer was given by Field Marshall von Manstein, the commander of German forces on the Eastern Front, when von Stauffenberg approached him and asked him to join them. If they killed Hitler, von Manstein argued, German resistance on the Russian Front would collapse. Russian armies would then flood into Europe which would then come under the control of a dictator every bit as bad as Hitler. There would be nothing gained. The best thing that could happen, he said, was that the German Army delay the Russian Army as long as it could, so that the Allies could control more and more of Europe. Von Manstein had a case.
Consider another example from World War II. D Day had to be postponed from its original date to the following day because of bad weather. On that day the weather was also bad, so D Day was put off till next day. On the morning of that day, the weather had not changed. Rommel, the general in charge of the German Atlantic defences, went back to Germany for his wife’s 50th birthday. However, that afternoon, the weather lifted and the Allies came over. Enemy aircraft made it too dangerous for Rommel to return to Normandy by plane, so he had to drive across France. By the time he arrived at the Normandy coast, a beachhead had already been established.
One more wartime example. Once Operation Barbarossa had been launched against Russia, the German Armies advanced with spectacular speed. But the Russian winter arrived a month early. That slowed them down and gave the Russians time to respond more effectively to the Blitzkrieg.
Providence or chance? Well if it were Providence, why didn’t Providence intervene to stop the Holocaust? Or stop Stalin trucking out the grain from the Ukraine which caused a mass famine and millions of deaths? But perhaps there was no way for Providence to stop these disasters without making it obvious that this was a divine intervention.
Well, what would that matter? it will be asked. “Wouldn’t it have been better to demonstrate intervention from God than let millions of people be slaughtered?” It would have shown that God cared. At last, demonstrable evidence of divine concern for humanity!
But perhaps it would matter. Once it had become obvious that God intervened to prevent disasters, we would wait for that to happen, and thus stop managing our own world. Perhaps it would be better for us if we went all out as masters of our own fate, with some unseen help from Providence where that could be done unobtrusively.
It will then be argued, that is always possible, since God is all powerful and all knowing. Why didn’t Hitler have a heart attack or stroke, thus getting him out of the picture entirely? Let us say that he died. What would the outcome have been? His lieutenants, Goebbels, Von Ribbentrop, Goering and Himmler all hated each other. The Nazi Government may have collapsed. Good thing? Not necessarily. There may have been extended crises in government in Germany, thus giving Stalin an opportunity to expand westwards. As with such possibilities, we just don’t know that the outcomes would have been better.
So despite appearances, it is still possible that Providence intervenes in history to provide for our good. And we should bear in mind that though death may be the end of earthly life, we may survive the death of our bodies, and live on in a better place, so that life here is just the first chapter of a book whose last chapters shed a new light on the whole story.
The suggestion here is that Providence acts unobtrusively. History, it may be, is a combination of our own actions and unobtrusive acts of Providence.
Of course, the Dawkins forces will say that Providence acts unobtrusively because there is in fact nothing going on. However, there are two imperatives here. First, that we continue to strive to master our world, and that God help us in a way compatible with that. So God has to be a hidden provider.
There may still be misgivings about this position. It seems to imply that we are never going to get evidence that God intervenes in the world, because, if we were to get it, God would not intervene! That is not quite correct. God may make it plain to selected individuals like Moses and Jesus, and less plainly to people like Joan of Arc, that He is intervening. But that may not make it evident to humanity in general.
Nevertheless, such evidence may still accumulate. It may be that converging probabilities point to that conclusion, as I have suggested above. Doesn`t that mean that the secret will be let out after all, and that providential action will become known? Yes, but it may be that it can function with that level of exposure.
Note that in virtue of the above argument, the quotation above from Marcus Aurelius is not strictly true. Not everything that happens, happens rightly. Events which flow from human agency may happen wrongly. In that case, Providence would do something further down the track. The analogy of The Persian Rug Maker is useful here. He sits at one end of the rug working, and his children work at the other. Occasionally, they make mistakes. When they do, he alters the design to accommodate the mistakes.
Reg Naulty is a graduate of this university, and proud of it.