Guest Columnists

Living with Faith in the Face of Random Events

by Hugh F. Kelly

Two particular categories of individuals seem most highly sceptical of alleged coincidences. The first are street-wise cops. The second are spiritually-wise believers in God’s Providence. Each for their own reasons instinctively look to “connect the dots” to find patterns in apparently random events.

Consider this unlikely chain of occurrences.

• I received a phone call in 2005 from St. John’s University, asking that I fill in as an adjunct professor for a philosophy course. (Father Robert Lauder was behind this call, I learn. Even though I graduated from Cathedral College, Douglaston, in 1970, he still believes he can assign me homework.) I declined the invitation since I was already teaching two courses in economics at NYU.

• But my interest was piqued. I hadn’t been to a philosophy conference in decades, so I registered for the meetings of the American Philosophical Association in Washington, D.C. I learned that there is a Karl Jaspers Society, honoring a philosopher I had researched under Father Lauder’s direction.

• The members of the Jaspers Society suggested I write a paper for one of their meetings. The paper, “Judgment: Imagination, Creativity, and Delusion,” was published in Boston University’s Existenz in 2008.

• A psychiatrist at the University of Texas read that paper and called me in 2011 about a conference he thought I’d be interested in attending. It was about the intersection of medicine and faith. The sponsoring group was the Jewish Science and Medicine Group. I mentioned that I’m an Irish-Catholic economist. Not to worry, he said, you’ll enjoy the discussions. He was right: The conference was terrific.

• The conference was in Atlanta but, amazingly, I discovered a bunch of Brooklyn connections. Go figure. The Texas psychiatrist, it turns out, grew up about 10 blocks from me in East Flatbush. And I wound up sitting next to Dr. Alan Astrow, the head of oncology/hemotology at Maimonides Hospital in Borough Park. I mentioned to him that my brother Paul had suffered a stroke and was under the care of several Maimonides doctors. I named them; he knew them all.

• In August, 2012, Paul was diagnosed with cancer in his left kidney. He needed an oncologist. Dr. Astrow was already in my e-mail address book. He said, “Of course, I’ll be your brother’s doctor. I know just the team he needs and will put it together.”

It is often said that God writes straight with crooked lines, but connecting those particular dots would still seem to be a huge challenge. Who could forecast or predict such a series of outcomes or believe that a course of philosophy studies in the 1960s would set the stage for a referral to a cancer specialist in 2012? Yet, so it has turned out.

In the sciences, probability is calculated mathematically. That calculation is based upon some basic premises. There are real cause-effect relationships – in nature, events don’t emerge out of thin air. Knowing a pattern of causes helps us to anticipate effects; that is why scientific theories are tested by their ability to be predictive.

Not Perfectly Predictable

Science would be easy if the world were perfectly predictable. Scientists in various disciplines have to cope with a degree of randomness, though, and that is one thing that makes scientific prediction hard. Some scientists view random change as a major challenge to any view claiming cosmic or divine design.

Evolution, for instance, proceeds by unpredictable mutations setting the stage for the selection and survival of the fittest. Climatologists see periodic oscillations in temperature and sea levels over geologic eras but recognize that all it takes is an asteroid strike, even a good-sized meteorite or a large volcanic eruption (not to mention human-caused carbon emissions) to alter those natural cycles significantly. In my own discipline of economics, orthodoxy holds that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” shapes the market in efficient, even deterministic ways, but is subject to episodes of “creative destruction” that give rise to real innovation.

It is pointless to argue with the scientists on the issues of natural determinism and randomness. Trying to fit “God’s will” into natural events explainable by physical causality, tempered by random variations that are embedded in complex interactions, acts as a straitjacket to our faith. Does God will the destruction brought by Hurricane Sandy? Does God will the breakdown of my brother’s health by cancer? Does God somehow will the economic inequalities that afflict our city, nation, and world? I don’t believe so.

I do believe that God gives us a remarkable insight into what His will actually might be. Scripture is replete with that insight. God’s will is understood to be about a personal relationship, a call and response, a dialogue of “I and Thou” in Martin Buber’s famous phrase. God’s will is chesed, the Hebrew word translated as “loving-kindness” in English. St. Jerome translated this word as misericordia (“mercy”) in the Latin Vulgate Bible. Earlier, the Greek-speaking authors of the New Testament translated chesed as agape (“self-giving love”).

Nature can and does challenge us with random events that are life-diminishing and even life-destructive. How we respond, though, is not random. Our actions are not entirely determined by external forces, and most certainly not limited by the laws of materialism. The odd and unpredictable sequence of events that began with an interest in philosophy and ended with the establishment of a doctor-patient relationship for my brother can only be made sense of as a series of choices. Those choices were guided by a common search for truth, by an understanding of how persons relate to one another and by a care and concern for others. In those ways, the apparently random events do exhibit “intelligent design.” That design is not externally imposed; it emerges interpersonally in loving-kindness, mercy, self-giving love.

One last observation: The “success” of that design is not dependent upon my brother’s cancer being cured. The cure is in the hands of the doctors, dependent upon my brother’s constitution and willingness to participate in his recovery, and in the support our family and friends can provide. Whatever the near-term result, though, there is no getting around mortality, for my brother and for each of us.

The success of the “design” of loving-kindness is in the doing. Chesed is a value in its own right and is a manifestation of God amongst us. To refrain from loving-kindness is to depart from the will of God, I am sure. To live in the spirit of loving-kindness, though, is to transcend the world of the scientific and to inhabit the world of grace.

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