Christian Meaning and Divine Providence
In my series on the importance of “meaning” to evangelization, I’ve already covered (a) the crisis of meaning in modern culture; (b) the natural thirst we have for meaning; (c) the methods proper to the human person for finding meaning; and (d) the special claim of Christianity to be a trustworthy system for arriving at meaning. It is time to look more closely, then, at how Christians perceive meaning in their lives.
We see immediately that Christianity affirms everything we have already discussed about the human capacity to see reality whole, to discern patterns within this reality, and so to intuit the purposes and ends that animate both ourselves and the entire universe. After all, Christianity teaches that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God by virtue of his possession of intellect and will. This immediately confirms our own intrinsic recognition, first, that we can figure things out, and second, that the ends and purposes we discern demand a moral response.
From the earliest and most primitive descriptions of reality found in the book of Genesis, God is understood as a rational Creator Who sees all His work as “good”. God also gives man dominion over nature to bring His own work to its proper fulfillment. Thus our native human mode of knowing is reaffirmed by Christian revelation. God even leaves the naming of all creatures to man, because man can discern their natures; and God gives man express moral commands, consistent with man’s own nature, and expects obedience to these commands.
To put this another way, in Christian revelation we find an explicit delineation of meaning and moral order which confirms and fulfills the universal human experience of conscience—the innate human sense that we are expected to discern the meaning of reality and act in accordance with that meaning. Moral actions are, of course, impossible unless things have meaning. Every human person senses that he lives under a moral evaluation, that there is both a lawgiver and a judge. Divine Revelation confirms and sharpens what is implicit in the human experience.
In fact, as I have remarked before, this universal human experience of the faculty of conscience is actually one of the strongest arguments for the existence not only of God, but of a God who cares how we act, and Who therefore can be expected to reveal Himself and His will. The great Blessed John Henry Newman regarded this as the single most powerful proof not only for God but for a providential God, a God who protects and guides all things towards the ends for which He has created them.
The Mark of Paganism
Interestingly, the denial of Providence always turns out to be a denial of meaning; this denial is the hallmark of all forms of paganism. Pagan beliefs are universally characterized by a sense of meaninglessness, the idea that human destiny is intrinsically indecipherable or random. In modern culture this idea is expressed in the myths of materialist determinism. In earlier cultures, it tended to be expressed in terms of “fate”, by which the course and end of a person’s life were ultimately determined either by the caprice of the “gods” (who conflicted with each other and did not act rationally) or the impersonal influences of astronomical bodies, such as the stars and the moon.
The human perception that things appear always to have personal meaning, but also constantly escape our control, can lend itself to the creation of such shallow myths. But these myths, by the very futility of their explanations, destroy hope and make of man nothing more than an enigma in a universe which has no correspondence to his moral impulses. Such paganisms destroy our innate perception of meaning, reducing it to something fleeting and illusory. They are incapable of actually unifying and fulfilling our perception of meaning in a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of reality. Paganism, in fact, always results in a crisis of meaning, and so tends toward despair.
We see this once again today in both the general culture and the hopeless arguments of the so-called “new atheists”. Indeed, when confronted with the swirling mystery of meaning, paganism is always propelled by centrifugal force out to the edges and into the void. By contrast, Christianity strengthens our innate perceptions and engraces their natural centripetal tendency. Christianity propels toward the center. It brings things to a point in the very Being of a providential God.
To repeat, Providence is God’s protective care and guidance of all things toward the ends for which He has created them. This is an enormously powerful concept in what we might call the “world of meaning”, more powerful even than many Christians seem to realize. After all, too often we still use pagan expressions such as “Good luck” or “Boy, was I fortunate!” (deriving from “fortune”, which is another term for “luck” or “chance”). We are also prone, in our weakness, to bemoan unpleasant things that happen to us, as if we cannot (in God’s Providence) use them for our good.
But difficult as it sometimes is to live consistently, the Christian belief is that God disposes all things according to His infinite love. The ancient Jew would have said that God wills everything that happens. Thus we find in Exodus and elsewhere that God is described as responsible even for resistance to His will, as when God “hardens” the heart of Pharaoh. Though Jews certainly understood something of the different ways God has of exercising His will, the Hebrew idiom tended not to distinguish, as Christian theology does, between God’s “active” and His “permissive” will.
Speaking of God’s will in a more nuanced way, Christians nonetheless understand that nothing happens apart from God’s will. Sadly, the recognition of this profound truth leads some to reject the idea of God because He encompasses within His Providence so many apparently bad and even cruel things. But the Christian remembers the lesson of Job. He knows that our perspective is inescapably limited, and so we simply cannot fully understand how God’s Providence works. The Christian cannot always see how it is an expression of God’s love. But he knows that it must be so. He places his hope in Jesus Christ, who advised us to consider the lilies of the field (Mt 6:28), and who said:
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. [Lk 12:6-7]
The Christian faith in Providence was perfectly captured by St. Paul when he said “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rm 8:28).
When Christians embody this Providential understanding of reality, they convey the deepest and most attractive attitude toward meaning in life. This is so because, in Christ, meaning is inseparably linked with hope. And so we begin to see the profound link between meaning and evangelization.
To put it as clearly as possible, trust in God’s Providence is an indispensable precondition for preaching the Gospel. It sets Christians apart, ensuring their fundamental peace and joy. This recognition of Providence gives the Christian that truly remarkable wholeness—profoundly human, yet beyond the human mode—which is the deepest desire of the human heart.
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Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Apr. 09, 2015 10:44 PM ET USA
My daughter is completing her second year at a large, government-funded university. She decries her difficulty in making lasting friendships for the reason that the American university system has become rigidly pagan, intolerant of expressions of truth, and a silencer of true religion. She now understands that the method of the modern government university is indoctrination into the paradigm of paganism practiced by those who St. Paul cited for their altar "to an unknown god."