By Robert Royal
Divine Providence is an easy idea to grasp, a hard one to understand. Anyone who believes in a Creator who not only made the world, but loves and continues to be active in it (many religions, by the way, do not) must also accept that He, somehow, draws good even out of things like COVID, bloody wars between nations, tsunamis and typhoons and earthquakes, the suffering and death of heroic martyrs, hapless politicians, clueless churchmen, Synods on Synodality, and even you and me.
We count on His love and mercy, but often experience what seems like abandonment. If there’s any justification of this mystery (mysteries by definition do not admit of complete explanation), all this suggests that we must all need constant shaking up in our confident assumptions about our place in this world – even in powerful empires like modern America, even in the very Church Herself. It’s one of the worst of bad spiritual habits to fall into the belief that we’re pretty much okay on our own and are not radically, totally, at every instant dependent on God.
The world tells us that uncomfortable truth. Cardinal Newman puts it eloquently:
To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world” – all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution. (Apologia pro Vita Sua)
Difficult as all that is to take in, it witnesses to something important in any age, even in one like ours that seems particularly troubled: “And so I argue about the world; if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.”
To have to confront such problems, or again rather mysteries, is why Milton prays to the Creator Spirit at the beginning of Paradise Lost:
What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.
All of which, if we make the necessary effort to absorb the wisdom of these and many other great Christian predecessors, should remind us that the times in which we find ourselves – disorienting upheavals in many nations, mass uncontrolled immigration, corrupt and ineffective institutions, even the profound turmoil within the Church at present – are not unusual. Indeed, what is unusual is the relative calm that churches in various parts of the world – but especially in Europe and America – have experienced for brief periods.
It’s only the false impression that the Church and “the world” can be at peace with one another – a delusion that’s made a strong return lately – that makes the current turmoil seem strange. The “world” that the Church opposes is, obviously, not God’s physical Creation, which is all good. When Jesus says, “I have overcome the world,” he means the vast disorder that Newman described. So whenever the Church tries to evangelize for real and, therefore, has to contradict that “world,” “witnesses” – the faithful who are inevitably persecuted and often martyred – emerge of necessity and are seen for what they actually are: true friends to a false world.
When the Church actually used to try to convert the world without fear of “proselytizing,” Bishop James Edward Walsh, one of the first Maryknoll missionaries in China, observed: “Christianity is not a private way of salvation and a guide to a pious life; it is a way of world salvation and a philosophy of total life. This makes it a sort of dynamite. So when you send missioners out to preach it, it is well to get ready for some explosions.”
Those explosions are still going on in China. As we see daily, they’re happening with greater frequency in the “free” world as well, precisely because we’ve replaced the Christian notion of freedom – the human capacity to choose what’s right under God – with the false worldly notion of freedom as the right to do whatever we want, as if we’re masters, even of God and nature.
So it’s inevitable that any true Christian is going to, indeed must, conflict with “the world” at many points. We can seek to live and let live – though just to hold to certain Christian beliefs these days is regarded as “hate.” We can accept that – given sin and disorder in the world and in ourselves that God, in His mercy, allows en route to Judgment Day – there will be no tranquil “walking together” inside or outside the Church. Still, it’s always and everywhere what Hans Urs von Balthasar once called the Moment of Christian Witness.
So, if you’re serious about being a Christian, “get ready for some explosions.”