Arts and Culture

Divine Providence

Third in a series

“To embrace the Christian vision of reality is not to run away from reality but to embrace the deepest meaning of the real,” says Father Lauder, reflecting on his reading of “Christian Community: Response to Reality,” by Dr. Bernard J. Cooke.

I suspect that what initially appealed to me about Bernard Cooke’s “Christian Community: Response to Reality” (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1970,) was the title. There are some views of Christianity that reduce being Christian to a kind of escapism. The Christian is caricatured as someone who cannot face reality. Christianity is described as an illusion for those who do not have the courage to live without religious faith. The opposite is the truth, and that is suggested by Cooke’s title.

To embrace the Christian vision of reality is not to run away from reality but to embrace the deepest meaning of the real. Christian faith responds to two important questions: “What does it all mean?” and “Who are we?” Cooke’s title suggests answers to those two questions. The Christian is called not to run away from reality but to joyfully embrace it. Ultimately the meaning of reality can be reached only through a love commitment.

One of the most encouraging truths of Christian faith is that God is providential. We are never alone. God accompanies us on every step that we take. I find the truth that God is providential, that God is leading history and each one of us to a deeper relationship with God, is one of the most consoling Christian doctrines but also one of the most mysterious.

In our lives how do God’s presence and our freedom co-exist? Is it true that God’s presence is a liberating presence? Reflecting on the mystery of divine providence, Cooke warns that the doctrine does not mean that we are determined, that we are not free. He writes the following:

“Since the Father of Christ is identified by Christian faith as God in the fullest sense — eternal, almighty, infinite — his rule over creation is, from one point of view, absolute and inescapable. Nothing is, except he knows and wills it. Yet this acceptance of creative omnipotence is combined with an unmistakable acceptance of human freedom. Why else would Jesus have the mission of winning the kingdom for his Father? Jesus’ work was and is that of converting men to his Father, challenging them to a free response to his Father’s love.” (p. 36)

Christians are called to believe in divine providence and to believe in human freedom. I have never heard or read any philosopher or theologian who was able to explain fully how to reconcile God’s powerful presence in history with the fact of human freedom. To overemphasize one truth at the expense of the other would be a mistake. In my own experience, I have found among contemporary Catholics the tendency, and I probably do this myself, to use God’s loving presence to excuse ourselves from taking action.

In many of the philosophers whom I have read, especially the atheists, they abandoned belief in God because they thought an all-powerful God would not allow for human freedom. I think this would be the view of Sigmund Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many others. What I have come to believe is that God’s loving presence actually can cause human freedom, can help us to be freer. Though I cannot explain completely how God’s powerful presence, rather than crush us, can cause us to be freer, I believe strongly that God is a liberator and that holiness involves an increase in freedom.

When I look for signs of God’s providence in my life, I think of my parents and my sister. Anything good about me has its roots in my relationship with my father, mother, and sister. They were exceptionally good persons. After my family, I think of the providential role that some of my friends have played in my life. I have had the same spiritual advisor for approximately fifty years. That relationship alone should wipe out any time he owes in purgatory!

When I had to make very difficult decisions in my life he was present and I think guided me wisely. He seems to me to be an obvious mediator of God’s providential plan in my life, but he is just one example. I have been blessed in my life with wonderful friends. For me, divine providence is most obvious through the loving presence of friends. I wonder if that is true for others.

When I was in college there was a spirituality that discouraged close friendships. The thinking behind this spirituality seemed to be that a close friend might weaken our relationship with God, somehow get in the way of God’s plan for us. I don’t know whether I ever bought into that view, but now it seems very wrong to me. Close friends, one of God’s great blessings, can be a channel of God’s grace and love. They seem a clear and powerful sign of God’s providence.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.