“So, when a ship has overcome the dangers of the sea, although the result be accomplished by great labor on the part of the sailors, and by the aid of all the art of navigation, and by the zeal and carefulness of the pilot, and by the favoring influence of the breezes, and the careful observation of the signs of the stars, no one in his sound senses would ascribe the safety of the vessel, when, after being tossed by the waves, and wearied by the billows, it has at last reached the harbor in safety, to anything else than to the mercy of God. Not even the sailors or pilot venture to say, I have saved the ship, but they refer all to the mercy of God; not that they feel that they have contributed no skill or labor to save the ship, but because they know that while they contributed the labor, the safety of the vessel was ensured by God.” – Origen, De Pricipiis, 3.1.18
One of the many criticisms laid at the doorstep of theists is that we attribute to God that which seems to be easily accounted for by natural factors. A person suffering from a great illness recovers after consulting a physician and undergoing the physician’s recommended treatments. A husband safely navigates icy roads to come home to his concerned wife. A student, after long hours of study, finally passes the last exam and wins for herself degree and title.
If the patient, man, and woman are theists and devout, they will thank God for the outcome.
This seems like foolishness to those who believe firmly that we live in a world of simple efficient causality. In a mechanistic universe where no room for freedom exists, no room for multiple causality can exist. But the Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or any other religious person, need not hold to a purely mechanistic universe. And, even if we did, the causation of God’s intent would still by no means be ruled out.
Let us put aside the question of mechanistic/non-mechanistic universes and consider a thought experiment with regard to causation. We will see if we cannot get at what theists mean when they attribute to God some good event.
Imagine a man walking down a mountain path, hurrying to bring medicine to his daughter which he has acquired in a nearby village. The man is suddenly set upon by a mountain lion, and prays to God for help. In what seems a miraculous event, a fall of rocks at that moment crushes the mountain lion, allowing the man to pass by safely and rescue his child’s life. And so begins the story of a young woman who grows up to save her nation from poverty, despair, and invasion.
In a mechanistic appraisal of these events, we might say that the events could not have happened any other way. What appears to us as a shocking and favorable coincidence is, indeed, just one of the many patterns that emerges from the complex interaction of the factors of the universe. Those rocks would have fallen at that moment whether the man’s prayer had happened or not. Perhaps they would have fallen even if the man and mountain lion had not been there. Perhaps the motions or weight or sound of the mountain lion shook them free. Indeed, we could trace the physical causes of those rocks, that lion, and that man back through billions of years of determined causality to the moment of the Big Bang and say that the “why” of that moment was the exact formation of the energy and matter that first expanded in that principal moment.
Yet, we may see the events in another way. The “how” of the rocks falling and killing the mountain lion is also that I, the story teller, have made it happen. I have told the story, not putting the Big Bang first and leading up as a result of its form and matter to the inevitable encounter between man and mountain lion. Instead, the man’s experience, or the daughter’s life of heroism, are the center of the story. The story goes outward from there, and we follow it back to give it context and history. The “how” on this level of the events is my will and act of creating the story. It need not “begin at the beginning” if by “beginning” we mean the first chronological event.
Both “how’s” can exist together, simultaneously, but the mechanistic “how” exists due to the “will and act” how. This leaves out entirely the question of “why.” The why is also my will, but perhaps then it is my will that the young woman should save her country, or that the man should save his daughter, or that the wife of the man might not be widowed. In each case, though, the efficient causes are human efforts, or natural events. Each person would be right in saying that, though they did their part, the accomplishment of their goal was given by the author of the story.
Benedick and Beatrice spar their way toward each other, but it is the Bard that is to be thanked for their marriage. Frodo may put in the very last of his strength to climb Mount Doom, but it is Tolkien who has ensured that the task is complete.
That we live in a story and not an accident of random events is a matter of perspective. One cannot demand scientific proof that we are in a story any more than Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy might. There is no experiment to run to tell us if we are in a narrative prepared with vast cosmic backdrop for our little lives of love, hatred, jealousies, nobilities, defeats and victories. One either considers the many elements and recognizes the master hand of the master storyteller, or one does not.
But it is clear that it is not contradiction or foolishness when, as the much maligned giant of Christian thought, the second and third century theologian, Origen, relates the situation of sailors above. For it is rooted deeply in the mystery of St. Paul’s teaching, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13).
It is in the will of God that Christians identify their salvation in both mundane and spiritual things. This is not merely theologizing, for the idea itself is contained in the scriptures. For St. Paul speaks from the Areopagus speaking of God as the one “In [whom] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).
I bring this last point up because some people who have not read much from the ancient world have an assumption that many of Christianity’s arguments are newly minted to defend an old system. But the argument for mechanism/fate is older than Christianity. The Stoics, as best I understand them, held a fatalistic view of a mechanistic universe. Origen, quoted above, lived at the end of the second century into the third century.
The debate is an ancient one, one that Christianity has been very active in from the beginning. And from the beginning we have maintained a very clear idea of (at least) two “how’s” of causality.