Agence France-Presse yesterday published a lovely photograph of lightning’s striking the cupola of Saint Peter’s Basilica hours after Pope Benedict XVI announced his forthcoming retirement: “Coup de tonnerre sur le Vatican.”
Several media outlets have covered it in tandem with their own papal retirement stories. As usual, I read the articles’ comments for the occasional amusing or insightful note. “Nick” commented on the Skye (AOL Weather) post:
It’s no coincidence that lightning struck the cross on top of the Vatican the day the pope announces his resignation. But people do not want to believe in a higher power so will do anything to write it off as coincidence. Even if God came down and sat on the roof they would say he was a cloud or something.
I smiled at the last line; it is true. Nick’s comment reminds me of “How the Dwarfs Refused to be Taken In” from The Last Battle. And the parable of the rich man and Lazarus makes the point more bluntly. My friend Andrew often refers to this vivid depiction of spiritual blindness by Lewis, and I think of it whenever I deal with skeptics. How many times have we heard atheists ridicule God as a groundless, superfluous fantasy? They are tragically like Lewis’ dwarfs (dwarves!) who cannot see the abundance of evidence all around them.
Concerning the lightning bolt at the Vatican yesterday, Humean skepticism has a point. Lightning happens, and men appear to impose interpretations on this rather regular occurrence when it is in their minds to do so. In other words, we only see meaning when we are looking for it. However, that does not rule out inherent meaning. If the world is intelligible, then I do not find it absurd that seemingly “independent” phenomena would intersect in ways that we recognize as “signs.” Coincidence? Well, coincidence is a way of describing events that appear unrelated to us, though no events are truly unrelated. It is just that our human perspectives are quite limited. I deal with a similar idea in “Meyer’s Intelligent Design,” and I elaborate further in “Is God an Accident?”:
I marvel at how clever creatures can draw explanatory principles from the empty well of chance. Chance does not explain; chance merely signifies the complicated levels on which intentional agents experience reality. With apologies to Aristotle, allow me to talk about my fictional pals, Bob and Matt. Bob the bartender owes Matt the Maytag repairman money that he intends to pay him when he sees him again. One day, Bob goes to Best Buy to buy his belle, Betty Sue, a microwave oven. Matt happens to be at Best Buy trying to catch up on the latest developments in the laundry machine trade. Bob sees Matt and pays him. We can say that Bob’s paying Matt when he did was the result of chance. There was agency by both men, but the result of their intended ends was not intended by either one of them. Chance explains an element in the story.
Yet, note that chance only indicates how the intended actions of two agents interelated in a wider theater than their own perspectives. When we consider a theater as wide as reality, what role does chance play? Is it not simply what we might call the order of being’s manifesting itself in motion? When people speak of chance, they often mean random and unpredictable. Yet, we observe everywhere the tendencies of nature and the probability of phenomena that betray an order. The universe has a structure that is intelligible. It has patterns that human reason perceives and understands. When we attribute causality to chance, we simply admit that we remain ignorant of the whole as was Bob of all the facts. Yet, Bob and Matt both acted as agents with will and ends, and they acted so in an orderly universe.
Coincidence, as a species of chance, is how we in our ignorance perceive simultaneous events when their relationship is not obvious. However, if the ideas interrelate as the eternal intelligible structure of reality, in the mind of God, then the manifestations of those ideas in time and place—in becoming—would expectably interrelate on the “horizontal” level, as well. Moreover, everything that happens in time has a causal relationship with everything else on the timeline; everything is part of that river. I suspect that pagan divinization and astrology originate in recognizing this aspect of the world. It is a metaphysically respectable point that has been besmirched by soothsayers’ capitalizing on ignorant man’s desires and fears.