Why the secular notion of luck should not replace providence.
While conducting doctoral work at the University of St. Andrews, I was challenged to ponder the factors that influenced the church’s theological and institutional development within a secular history department. During that time, I observed that while the cause of historical events was primarily attributed to human action, the mysterious role of fortunate circumstances or “luck” also factored into historical explanations on occasion.
I first became aware of this rationale when grading a freshman history paper, which claimed that Cortez’s conquest of the Incas was successful due to luck. This explanation surprised me, particularly in a culture supposedly moving toward the disenchantment of the world, or Entzauberung, as scholars of secularism purport.
With new eyes, I began to see the offhand comments about luck in all manner of sources. It soon occurred to me that “luck” had become the “providence” of secular culture: that force beyond human comprehension, which could not be ignored, bringing about opportune circumstances for some and not for others at particular moments.
If Tertullian were alive today, he might ask, “What do Christians have to do with luck?” For a believer and an historian of the church and theology, luck is not the ultimate explanation.
I am reminded of a powerful scene in the 1982 movie Gandhi in which Gandhi and a clergyman were walking on the sidewalk together. According to the custom in India at the time, Gandhi was expected to walk in the street. Despite the presence of threatening men, he refused. When the confrontation did not lead to violence, the clergyman—clearly shaken—turned to Gandhi and exclaimed, “Well, that was lucky!” To that, Gandhi pointedly replied, “Ah, but I thought you were a man of God.”
At Wheaton College, we have the precious freedom to integrate faith and learning in the classroom. In my discipline, there are ways to do this responsibly. While we cannot determine God’s will with ease—particularly when considering issues of theodicy—we can be confident in God’s mysterious providence at work in our world and in the course of history without resorting to the secular rhetoric of “luck.”
Moreover, human history reveals many remarkable events from our past, but none can compare to the singular event of Christ’s incarnation in our world. Napoleon’s remarks on the unique power of Christ are worth reflecting upon:
“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and myself have founded great empires, but on what did those creations of our genius rest? Upon force . . . . But Jesus Christ by some mysterious influence, even through the lapse of 18 centuries, so draws the hearts of men towards him that thousands at a word would rush through fire and flood for him, not counting their lives dear to themselves.”
Understanding the ongoing “mysterious influence” of Christ in our world is not a search for luck, but for God’s hand in history.
Dr. Jennifer Powell McNutt, Assistant Professor of Theology and History of Christianity — Wheaton Magazine, Spring 2009