“What luck!” says the woman with the secular vocabulary. “No,” says the man whose mouth is full of theology, “It’s providential.” Does that exchange make any sense at all?
Yes and No, I would say, if asked. (On a blog, you don’t have to wait to be asked; it’s one of the best things about blogs.) It is true that “lucky” and “providential” are alternative explanations of an event, along with “fate” and “karma.” The bulk of my academic work has been spent dealing with what we call “causal attributions.” We “explain things” to ourselves by attributing causes. This happened because I was too dull. That happened because his explanation was obscure. Two causal attributions and, as it happens, one internal (I was too dull) and one external (he was too obscure). That pattern of internal and external is pretty common and if you pay attention, you will discover that your friends tend to specialize in one or the other. If you pay even more attention, you will discover that you, too, specialize in one or the other.
Both of these attributions, it turns out, are external, but it is the positive flavor of both explanations that caught my eye this time around. We say, sometimes, that people have “good luck” or “bad luck,” but when we just say “luck,”—as in “he was lucky”—it is always good luck we are referring to. Similarly, when those who use the word “providential” say that some event was “providential,” they mean that it was a good thing. No one says, “Oh well. It is sad, but it was providential.”
Why don’t we say that? This argument is going to turn theological in just a little bit and when it does, I will use “Providential” with the characteristic capital P to refer to the Providence of God. The word used this way refers to the intentional ordering of things by God. I say the quip once that “Providence” is the word Christians use instead of “history.” That isn’t precisely true, of course, but it does give you a sense of the scale of the word. Does this picture illustrate Providence?
We get the word from provide. If you pronounced it “pro-VIDE-ence,” you would see that right away. So Providence is what God provides. But God, the argument goes, “provides” based on what He foresees. That’s how the etymology works, anyway. The root is the familiar videre, “to see.” God sees pro- (a version of pre-) ahead of time, so He knows what to make available to us. You could argue, as some do, that what is—what we see around us—is what God has “provided.” Or you could argue, as others do, that what we see around us is the result of what we have done with the opportunities and resources with which God has provided us. The theologies are different, of course, but the word works the same way.
From the standpoint of faith in God’s work, we can say that Providence is good. We can say that about events we believe to be entailed in God’s management of things whether we like the particular things or not. Contrary to the way we use the word, Providential means only that it is a part of God’s plan; it is something He has provided. So the magical availability of a parking place could be said to be “Providential,” as could the maddening hour-long search for a parking place. The fact that we appreciate the parking place and deplore the hour-long search says nothing at all about whether both or neither are entailed in God’s management of things. God’s Providence is, in other words, an inference, not an observation. And it isn’t a very useful inference either, from a cognitive standpoint, because you can’t say by looking that some things are Providential and some are not. Some things actually are Providence, however. Here is a picture.
Here’s how I came to this dilemma most recently. The last scene of Oh God, with John Denver as Jerry Landers and George Burns as God, illustrates the dilemma. Jerry has done all the things God asked him to do and his doing of them has had certain consequences. He has been fired from his job as the manager of a supermarket. He has become a public laughingstock. Probably, he as lost his wife and kids, too. The movie doesn’t say, but they are a big part of the plot and then they disappear. So, is this Providential? Yes. It is. I have George Burns’ word for it.
The scene goes like this. Jerry is driving out of town when a phone rings in a phone booth he has just passed. He back up, goes to the phone, and discovers God in the next booth, talking to him.
Jerry: We failed, didn’t we?
God: What are you talking? We did terrific. I gave you a message of encouragement. You passed it along. Now we’ll see. You did good. We both did good. We’re covered.
Jerry: Do you think anybody got the message?
God: Do you think we have enough apples in the world?
God: We’ve got all the apples we need. You’re Johnny Appleseed. You drop a few seeds and you move on. If the seeds are good, they’ll take root. I gave you great seeds. The best.
Jerry: I lost my job, you know.
God: There are other cities. Other supermarkets.
Jerry: Everybody things I’m a nut.
God: Galileo, Pasteur. Einstein. Columbus. You’re in good company. Hold on.
So there you are. God cares a great deal about the seeds, about whether they will grow. It is God’s judgment that the cost to Jerry of this exercise is well worth while. The movie doesn’t show us just how Jerry takes that argument. I think I would find it hard, myself. Then I would remind myself of two things I know to be true.
The first is that you can’t tell by looking. I experience the costs, certainly, and in Jerry’s case, the satisfaction of doing the right thing, just as God told him to do it. In order to appreciate whether the benefits—the Providential ordering that could not have happened if I had not done what I was asked to do—match up with the costs, I would have to know what the benefits are. Not the benefits to me. That would be hard enough. THE benefits—the good that will come of a certain proportion of these seeds taking root and growing to full maturity.
So here I am, yearning for a nice clear cost/benefit justification and I find that I can’t measure the benefits. Only the costs.
The second is that you can do without the reassurance of cost/benefit analysis if you trust that things are Providential and that it is God who is asking you to do your part, however difficult that part might be. Paying the costs is hard for Jerry, but knowing what God wants him to do is not. God tells him exactly what he wants him to do and dazzles him with miracles. Jerry still remembers the miracles, I am sure, but now he is trying to live down the reputation he got from doing what God asked him to do and he is looking for a job and, as I see it, trying also to stay in touch with his estranged wife and his kids. He is remembering the miracles and he is living the life that his behavioral choices—God’s choices for Jerry’s behavior—brought him.
So what shall we say to Jerry? “Don’t worry. It’s Providential?” That would be hard. I wouldn’t want to be the one to have to say that. Of course, I have my own causal attributions to make and my own behavioral choices as well and I don’t have Jerry’s certainty. And I really don’t want to lose my job and my reputation and my marriage and my kids.
But if somebody has to, on what grounds, exactly, would I say that it shouldn’t be me?
 From here, some go off to theodicy, a “justifying” of God’s management of the world and His management of us part-timers who live here for a little while and who are supposed to keep the place in order. That’s not the direction I am going here.
 Jesus used the same metaphor to make a different point. Three different points, actually: one in Mark 4, another in Matthew 13, and yet another in Luke 8. All of them imagine that the seeds themselves are, as George Burns says, “the best.”