The word “providence” is often thrown around as synonymous with “fate.” Indeed, even among certain Christian groups, “providence” is really just another form of determinism, with a God whose characteristic sovereignty fuses nature and will and eliminates personhood, thus resulting in a god who is not God; or, rather, Fate theomorphized. But the biblical, and classical Christian, understanding of Providence is altogether different. Providence is a reflection of the tri-Personal God, the energetic outworking of who God is, and that quality of his nature in which we participate by his love for us. Take, for example, what St. John Damascene has to say about Providence:
Providence, then, is the care that God takes over existing things. And again: Providence is the will of God through which all existing things receive their fitting issue. But if Providence is God’s will, according to true reasoning all things that come into being through Providence must necessarily be both most fair and most excellent, and such that they cannot be surpassed. . . . God therefore is both Creator and Provider, and His creative and preserving and providing power is simply His good-will. . . .
That He provides and that He provides excellently, one can most readily perceive thus. God alone is good and wise by nature. Since then He is good, He provides: for he who does not provide is not good. For even men and creatures without reason provide for their own offspring according to their nature, and he who does not provides is blamed. Again, since He is wise, He takes the best care over what exists.
When, therefore, we give heed to these things we ought to be filled with wonder at all the workds of Providence, and praise them all . . . .
In this brief excerpt from the Saint, we see glimpses of the love and care which animates and interpenetrates this quality of Providence God expresses toward and for us.
But scholastic accounts of such a doctrine, even Orthodox scholastic accounts, do not quite capture the depth, breadth and richness of God’s Providence quite like viewing it at work in the particular. And, to my, mind, there is no better view to be had, especially in this Dormition Fast, than in the Annunciation of Gabriel, as recounted in Luke 1.26-38, to the Most Blessed Virgin.
I would like to reflect, however superficially, and however informally (in all senses of that word) on some specific impressions which I take away from this encounter. And I would especially like to contrast what I take to be a Christian understanding of Providence with the pagan notion of Fate, whether it is Fate in the fully pagan sense, or Fate masquerading under Christian terminology.
“Rejoice, highly favored one . . . blessed are you among women!” and “Do not be afraid, Mary . . .”
Fate is implacable; Providence is joyous. Fate is a force. There is no reasoning with it. There is no persuading it. It is impervious to human intercession. It will not be dissuaded from its efficient force in the accomplishment of its teleological goal. It will not be moved. And such an implacability, since it is fundamentally unreasonable, cannot but bring hopelessness, darkness and despair to the minds and hearts of its adherents.
Providence, at its core, however, is joyous. As St. John writes above, it is the arrangement of goods for God’s beloved creatures in ways most excellent and beautiful, in the ancient philosophical compound word: it is beautifully good. Such goodness is hopeful and light and joyous. The first word to the Theotokos is khaire: a greeting whose etymological core is one of joy.
“. . . the Lord is with you . . . .”
Fate is immutable; Providence is relational. Fate will not change. Whether under its pagan notions or under pseudo-Christian terms, Fate is perfect in all its aspects and to admit of change is to admit of imperfection. Therefore, both Fate’s end and its means are determined, and there is no change in its cosmic ordering.
But Providence, since it is the tri-Personal God’s care of God’s creation, is relational. Or, if one limits the activity of relating to the personal, then, insofar as God’s Providence is directed to his human creatures, it is relational. God’s Providence, since it is interpenetrated with his infinite knowledge and wisdom, can, if one may say it this way, calculate most finely all that which is necessary to the accomplishment of his will, while maintaining the integrity of all the goods he has created, including the good of human free will. And being the Creator of infinite goods, and having fashioned the human heart toward the natural desire of such goods, he has an infinite array of possibilities for the provision of his human creatures, without harming or infringing on the good of free will which he has implanted in the human heart.
But this is not something about which we need have anxiety–and not simply because the past is fixed. Rather, we can simply acknowledge in wonder all the vast creativity and ingenuity and scope within which God may accomplish his Providence, both for the singlular Hebrew maiden with which he has to do, and to all of mankind through that one person.
“. . . you have found favor with God.”
Fate is impersonal; Providence is personal. Fate is a cosmic force. It is an energy which in its motion draws all after it. If it is just, it is a cosmic justice which calculates finely and without regard to context and weakness.
Providence, on the other hand, since it is a manifestation of the tri-Personal God, is personal. Now, since we are following the order of the canonical text, we come to this personal aspect of Providence after we have highlighted the relational. We are not following the logical but the textual progression. But note the personal here: Mary, a particular Hebrew virgin, has found favor, a personal energetic disposition, with God, the Trinity of Persons.
“You will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his name Jesus.”
Fate is indifferent; Providence is full of love. If Fate is the cosmic force which draws all after it, it does so without any of the personal qualities of care and concern, or the personal virtues of generosity and magnanimity. Fate does not, if one may anthropomorphize it, care whom it tramples, whom it crushes under its movement on its way to its end. It does not respond, because response is personal, to the cries and prayers of humans, and is quite literally unmoved by pity.
Providence, on the other hand, precisely because it is personal, is full of love. There are no greater, and only a few as great, expressions of human love, it seems to me, than that of mother and child. Witness the tender love of a mother nursing her child. And the God of love, condescended to be loved by one of his creatures, such that, as the God-man, he nestled at the breast of this most blessed of all women. This is love, and this is the Providence by which God provides for our own care and healing.
“How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
Fate is nonsensically tautological; Providence is mysterious All that we know of Fate, whether of the pagan or pseudo-Christian variety, is defintional; rather like a bachelor being an unmarried male, it simply circles back on itself, providing us no purchase by which to understand it. Fate is fate, and there is nothing one needs to know or do.
Providence, on the other hand, is knowable in one sense, while being ultimately unknowable in another sense. We may say things about Providence, based on our experience of this divine energy, that are true–such as Providence is full of love, Providence is personal–and by which wisdom we may orient our choices and actions and draw more close to this God of Providence. But like all things divine, the deeper we look, the less we know. Rather like Lewis’ “further up and further in” if Providence were like a house, it would be bigger on the inside than on the outside. But it is a fruitful mystery however quickly it eludes our graps, for it is God’s relation with us, our participation in him by grace. This transfigures us, body and soul, heart and mind. By such transfiguration we gain more understanding of God and his Providence, but it is like trying to fill an oil drum with the ocean a spoonful at a time.
“Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”
Fate is inexorable; Providence is synergistic. Because Fate is perfect, it cannot but achieve its end. And so it moves inexorably to that end, without change, without dimunition, without deviation. Relentlessly it pursues and achieves its goal. All that resist that change are ground to bits under its crushing motion.
Providence, because it is personal, because it is relational, because it is full of love, is necessarily synergistic. We cannot know, in any sense of the word, what other means by which God could have accomplished our salvation. But we can know the means by which he did: the entry into the womb, and the placing himself under the care, of Mary. His will was intertwined with that of the Virgin.
In a recent podcast, in a series of podcasts on the Theotokos, which the hosts of Our Life in Christ are producing, there was put forth the speculative thought: what if Mary had not given her assent? The hosts rightly, I think, immediately framed such speculation with a dismissal since it was clearly speculative. Could there have been any other Hebrew virgin who met the details of the prophecies whom God might have otherwise called? But isn’t this asking the question the other way around? After all, weren’t the prophecies the result of God’s foreknowledge? And yet . . . well, this is what speculation does. Simply put, we just do not know, and this is not something into which we can, let alone are we permitted, to look.
But what we can say is that, in this incredible mystery of the interweaving of free wills, God somehow, beyond all our ability to know and to understand, maintains the integrity of the persons of his creatures, without diminishing himself as tri-personal in anyway, and in that interpenetrating of personal energies, brings forth good for the person and for all humankind. In all ways, when we cooperate with his will, it is infinitely and completely good–for us as singular persons, and for all whom we love, and for all mankind.
This is Providence, that divine energy of our God, by which he sustains us and all the world, even while sleeping the sleep of an infant in the arms of his Mother.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us. Lord have mercy.