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Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

01/03/2011 Comments (12)

A reader writes:

I have a quick question, and I apologize if it’s awfully trite, but I haven’t been able to find a satisfactory answer after (admittedly,
not-so-exhaustive) searching.  Here it is:

From the standpoint of the Catholic Church: does everything happen for a reason?

If it does, it smacks a bit of predestination; if it doesn’t, does that mean that God is out of control or doesn’t care? Say a flower grows on a mountaintop and it dies, and no human ever saw a trace of it or knew it existed; how much of that is an effect of an ecosystem going through its natural cycles, and how much is God putting a flower on a mountaintop?

Again, sorry if this is simplistic.  And if you’ve answered this before or have a good link to an authoritative stance on the question, I’d be happy to receive that rather than a reply on the blog :)

St. Thomas answers the claim that God does not govern all things this way:

On the contrary, Augustine says (De Civ. Dei v, 11): “Not only heaven and earth, not only man and angel, even the bowels of the lowest animal, even the wing of the bird, the flower of the plant, the leaf of the tree, hath God endowed with every fitting detail of their nature.” Therefore all things are subject to His government.

I answer that, For the same reason is God the ruler of things as He is their cause, because the same gives existence as gives perfection; and this belongs to government. Now God is the cause not indeed only of some particular kind of being, but of the whole universal being, as proved above (44, 1,2). Wherefore, as there can be nothing which is not created by God, so there can be nothing which is not subject to His government. This can also be proved from the nature of the end of government. For a man’s government extends over all those things which come under the end of his government. Now the end of the Divine government is the Divine goodness; as we have shown (2). Wherefore, as there can be nothing that is not ordered to the Divine goodness as its end, as is clear from what we have said above (44, 4; 65, 2), so it is impossible for anything to escape from the Divine government.

Foolish therefore was the opinion of those who said that the corruptible lower world, or individual things, or that even human affairs, were not subject to the Divine government. These are represented as saying, “God hath abandoned the earth” (Ezekiel 9:9).

However, I’m not really sure that my reader is asking the question that St. Thomas is answering. I suppose part of my unsureness depends on what my reader means by “for a reason”.  If he means, “Does everything that happens occur because God permits it and incorporates it into his ongoing act of creation and redemption?” then yes: everything happens for a reason.  God is not surprised by events as though he is not omniscient.  Nor is God at a loss at what to do about a created order that got away from his control when he was distracted.  The created order has never gotten away from God’s governance and he has always been in control.

At the same time, however, God has always allowed a certain sort of autonomy to his creatures (and not merely creatures with free will).  Critters do what they were created to do by God, but they do it in a way that is proper to their nature.  Moreover, Creation is not a one-off event that happened with the Big Bang and then was left to bounce around like billiard balls ever since.  God is the very present author of Creation right here and now.  If God wanted to get rid of Creation he would not have to do anything: he would have to stop doing something.  Indeed, even what we call “chance” is something which falls within God’s governance that leaves room for the freedom of his creatures.  So, for instance, a prophet speaking under inspiration tells Ahab that if he goes into battle, he is going to die—and the prophecy is fulfilled by an archer who draws his bow and fires “at random”, killing Ahab as prophesied (1 Kings 22:34).

This has big implications for things like the tussle between creationists and materialists who both imagine the evolution somehow disproves that God could be behind the creation of various species.  Similarly, it impinges on Einstein’s old discomfort with ideas like quantum indeterminacy and his famous remark that “God does not play dice.”  It would appear that, given the biblical data, what we call “chance” (which is a word for what we, not God, are unsure about) is one of the tools God uses in the unfolding drama of Creation and Redemption. 

However, if my reader is asking “Does God positively will sin and evil and make people damn themselves so that some larger purpose of His can be accomplished then the answer is no.  God does not will sin—ever, though he permits it and turns it to our good (if we let Him) and His glory.  When we sin we truly do something nonsensical and without reason.  We assert our nothingness and push ourselves away from God who is the Logos who holds all things in being and in good order.  Sin is the attempt to act without reason (though, to be sure, we always provide ourselves with excuses that appear reasonable).  If God the Logos did not incorporate our nonsensical acts into His creative and redemptive plan, they would spin out of control and carry us into nothingness.  But, thanks be to God, he is Lord of all and nothing escapes his Providence, so even our unreasoning acts of sin are turned by Him to the glory of His Name (though, if we remain impenitent, it will do us no good and we could send ourselves to Hell thereby).

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.