He gives his snow like wool: he scatters his hoarfrost like ashes. . . . He sends out his word and melts them: he causes his wind to blow, and the waters flow. - Psalm 147:16, 18
The past few weeks might serve as a reminder that we should not be too impressed with our technological achievements. The forces at work in the world around us are a good deal more impressive still.
A machine is a kind of amplifier. A very simple machine, a lever, enables us to move things that our muscles alone could not budge. With gears and wheels, a bicycle enables ordinary people to move at sustained speeds well beyond the limits of Olympic runners. When we begin to use additional sources of energy, we wind up with cars and trains and airplanes that enable us to get where we want to go with a speed and comfort that was unthinkable even a century ago.
But just to make sure we keep things in some proportion, every once in a while there will be a blizzard or a hurricane or a Mt. Helen’s eruption that is quite beyond our control. Then we realize that we have “tamed,” if you will, only a very small fragment of our little world. We can heat little volumes of space in our homes, we can—usually—clear little avenues for travel. The rest of the world goes its own way. If we opened the windows of all our buildings and turned our thermostats up all the way, it would not make much difference to the town of Bridgewater, much less to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, United States of America, or the northern hemisphere. It would make a big difference inside our buildings, though.
Obviously, we do not decide what course the jet stream is going to take. That seems to be determined by some quite impersonal factors, and those factors seem to be regular enough that we can predict what will happen as much as a week in advance.
Chaos theory, though, says that we will never be able to collect enough data to arrive at certainty. Strange as it seems, the fluttering of a moth in Ohio might start a series of reactions that would affect the course of a typhoon in the Pacific a couple of weeks later. Last Friday, I shook out the cloth that had been under our Christmas tree. No one has the slightest idea what the meteorological consequences of that will be. It might have been amplified or canceled out by the wake of the next truck that went by.
Our theology tells us that these factors are not so impersonal or mechanical as they seem. It insists that everything which is not under our control is under the Lord’s control. Divine providence extends to every detail, and the Lord turns over to us only those decisions we can and need to make. The Lord controls the effects that are beyond our control.
When we stop to think of it, this is a staggering claim. How many different lives have been affected by the storms of the past weeks? How may different effects has the weather had? How many plans has it frustrated, how many people has it brought together or kept apart? How many neighbors have helped each other out? A blizzard would seem far too insensitive, far too clumsy, for providence to adjust to so many nuances of human wants and needs.
Here chaos theory suggests an answer. A blizzard is not simply one huge powerful event. It is incredibly complex. There is far too much going on for anyone to perceive—billions of snowflakes, wind shifts, drifts. Our physical senses register a fraction of this, and our attention cannot take in more than a fraction of the messages from our senses. That is, our particular wants and needs have a significant effect on our perceptions of the storm, on what it is for us. Perhaps we can speak of a single blizzard, but we have to think in terms of countless distinctive experiences of that blizzard. We might do well to imagine that there are as many storms as there are people.
When we do, we may begin to glimpse how providence can be tailoring something as massive as a blizzard or a hurricane to our individual situations—through our individual perceptions of it. This in turn presses us to consider what that providence is concerned with. Swedenborg stated it quite simply and clearly: “Divine providence focuses on eternal matters, and on temporal matters only to the extent that they coordinate with eternal ones” (Divine Providence 214).
These “eternal matters” are our own attitudes toward each other, toward ourselves, toward our world, toward our Lord. We know from our own experience that these attitudes can change over the course of the years. Our choices affect us. We may become more sensitive or less so, more considerate or less so, and the obstacles we meet play a major role in this process.
Jesus said, “If you love the people who love you, what credit is that to you?” In a similar vein, it is easy to be generous when everything is going well, when it does not call for effort or sacrifice. The test comes when we cannot have everything we want, and have to choose.
It struck me forcibly this past week that this is one of the first principles Swedenborg expressed in the first theological work he published, his Arcana Coelestia. In his introductory outline of the spiritual meaning of the six days of creation, he identifies the first state as the one that precedes regeneration, as a kind of spiritual infancy. The Lord’s mercy oversees this, and the first step toward heaven is when we begin to realize that some things are ours and some are the Lord’s—the waters below and above the firmament. This state of awareness, he says, “rarely happens nowadays without trial, misfortune, or unhappiness, which make physical and worldly concerns (“our own” issues) quiesce and virtually die” (Arcana Coelestia 8).
“Trial, misfortune, and unhappiness” are clearly not magic bullets that unfailingly slay our materialism. Our defenses can be remarkably effective. We can respond to difficulty by circling our wagons and taking care of number one. We can throw our snow into our neighbor’s driveway, so to speak. We can lose ourselves in self-pity. We can rail against a God who obviously doesn’t care about us. It’s a rotten world out there.
None of this will do the slightest bit of good. In fact, it will tend more and more to set us against all our circumstances, blinding us to any opportunities that may lie beneath the surface. What can and should happen is that we take stock of ourselves, that we look at our reactions. How much of our distress grows out of our sense of our own importance? What concerns for other people come spontaneously to mind? I recall vividly visiting a parishioner during my pastorate in Cambridge. She was a widow in her upper eighties at the time, living alone in a big Victorian house in Watertown, still with a working wood range in the kitchen. There had been a prolonged power outage in very cold weather the week before, and when I asked how she had weathered it, she said that the only really troublesome part had been worrying about all the elderly folk who lived alone.
This, I would suggest, is the kind of response the Lord’s providence has in mind. Under the impersonal facade of the blizzard is a passionate hope that it will move us to think about what really matters. The very first law of that providence, though, is that we act in freedom, according to reason. That is, our circumstances offer us choices. It is when we can’t have everything that the choices get hard. It is when we can’t have everything that we have a chance to change our priorities.
We are very close to the heart of our theology at this point. If there is one central doctrine of our church, it is surely the doctrine of the Lord’s Divine Human, the teaching that the infinite Divine was incarnate in the person of Jesus. In that individual, that is, we see the love and the wisdom that created the universe and that continue to do so. We see the “agenda” of creation. To put it most simply, if we want to know what the blizzard is trying to tell us, we should turn to the Gospels.
In the Gospels, we find the Lord offering parables and asking questions, challenging his disciples to think things through. We find him turning their attention to their treatment of each other, to their attitudes. We find the Golden Rule, the Two Great Commandments, the Beatitudes, the whole extraordinary Sermon on the Mount. That is what this universe is all about.
It is not an easy message to appreciate. Full force, it totally overloads our circuits. The early Christian church got so tied up in trying to philosophize it that it sometimes seems that they forgot what it was all for. The Athanasian Creed goes on at length about the Trinity and the incarnation, and only at the end mentions that ultimately those who have done good things will enter eternal life and those who have done evil things will enter eternal fire. It seems almost an afterthought, and there is no trace of a definition or de-scription of what these “good” or “evil” things might be.
Yet in fact we are working out our “theology,” our understanding of how the Divine relates to the Human, by the way we live, by how we as humans relate to the Divine. It is most clearly expressed in the first epistle of John: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God. For anyone who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” “Trials, misfortunes, and unhappiness” can lead to blessing. When we respond so that they do, there is only one further step—to acknowledge that this was the Lord’s intent all along.