Perceiving the Working of God in History

In every moment in history, in everything that occurs, there is the hand of God.

Antonio de Brugada (1804-1863), “The Battle of Lepanto”
Antonio de Brugada (1804-1863), “The Battle of Lepanto” (photo: Public Domain)

In my last article for the Register, I wrote about the major difference between perception and seeing, using the example of the demons whom our Lord encountered in his life. We read of these encounter in Matthew 8:29, Mark 1:24, and Luke 4:34.

These foul creatures from hell were able to recognize exactly who Jesus is — the Son of God — while those whom he encountered daily, those who knew him growing up in Nazareth, are shocked by his words and actions and do not recognize him (Matthew 13:54-57, Mark 6:1-6, Luke 4:16-30, John 4:44.) They see him, but in their hardness of heart, they do not perceive who he really is.

Yes, there is a great difference between seeing and perceiving. This is especially true in our spiritual lives. How can we perceive the presence of God in our lives? How can we move from merely seeing to perceiving the actions of the All-Holy One in our lives? There are, of course, many ways, but I would like to propose that we might be able to do so in one specific manner: perceiving the Lord’s presence in Church history.

How can we perceive the Lord’s presence in history? I have to admit that my passion is Church history and the history of theology, much more so than theology itself. It took me a long time to realize that fact.

After I had finished my doctoral defense in theology, my director in his formal written comments to me said that in my dissertation, which focused on how to interpret one 20th-century U.S. Catholic theologian through the lens of two other theologians, I seemed to enjoy and to be more enthusiastic and adept in the explication of the background of the theologians, delving into their specific personal histories and the time period in which they lived, rather than their specific theology — and indeed he was correct.

I love background and backstory. Give me a story, especially one with a complex, interconnected history ala Marvel Comics or Tolkien, and I am happy. I love Church history, which has been described as “clerical gossip with footnotes!”

The older I get the more I love to learn not just about Church history, but history in general. I think that in order to understand history, one needs to grasp a Christian view of history.

To speak in broad terms, there are several views of history. The first view of history comes from a German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) who, in some ways, has become what Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth described as a “Protestant Aquinas.” To really simplify Hegel, it can be stated that he believed in a triadic dialectic: “thesis-antithesis-hypothesis.”

Without turning this into too complex an idea (and recognizing that Hegel’s thought is so much subtle than this), we can illustrate this concept in the following manner: “(1) a beginning proposition called a thesis, (2) a negation of that thesis called the antithesis, and (3) a synthesis whereby the two conflicting ideas are reconciled to form a new proposition.” (See Sarah A. Schnitker and Robert A. Emmons, “Hegel's Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Model,” in the Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions.)

The thing missing from all of this is that, somehow, the providential hand of God is guiding this throughout history!

Yes, the contrast to this view of history is to see the hand of God moving in all of this events of history. It requires us to view history as more than just chronos (sequential time), but to embrace it as kairos (an appointed time, God’s time!) — to see every single event, every single action, as part of God’s ineffable plan for our salvation. In every moment, in everything that occurs, there is the hand of God.

One of my favorite things to read and to ponder is “alternative history.” This does not mean “fake news!” What it is a “thought exercise” that makes one begin to imagine what would have happened in the world if one thing that occurred in history didn’t happen. This is the fodder for many a television show or novel, but it is, in my opinion, a fun way to actually learn about history and to consider that every moment matters. All that happens, the good and the not-so-good, the triumph and the tragedy, all of it matters — and all of it is part of God’s gracious providence.

With this in mind, I would like to take us through a few events in the history of the Church in which, if we view it through the eyes of faith, we can do more than just see the time progressing, but, in fact, perceive the mighty workings of God. I propose to do this over the course of a few articles. I do not claim that the incidents in Church history are the most important to ever occur in the history of the Church, but they are ones that I find particularly intriguing. All of these events in Church history require us to go beyond merely “seeing” what occurred, but actually perceiving in these events how God is present, despite the struggle, ultimately building up his Church.

What events in Church history do I propose to discuss?

First, the events of the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. If discussions there had gone a different way, Arianism would have dominated orthodox Christianity.

Second, I would like to discuss the evangelization of the Anglo-Saxon people called for by Pope St. Gregory the Great in A.D. 595. Had he not sent St. Augustine of Canterbury to England, you and I would most likely not be reading this article in English.

Third, we can perceive the workings of God in the life of St. Thomas Aquinas and the creation of scholastic theology. Had the young Thomas decided to remain as a Benedictine Oblate in Monte Cassino and not follow the radically new form of religious life set out by Saint Dominic, Catholic theology certainly would be much different.

Fourth, we can examine the life of John Carroll (1735-1815) and his foresight in the establishment of the Catholic Church in the United States. Had the Jesuits not been suppressed in this time period by Pope Clement XIV in 1773, we might have had a very different experience of the Church in America.

Fifth, we can look to the life of the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. What would have occurred if he had chosen to take the path of a university professor of philosophy rather than becoming one of the greatest evangelists of the 20th century?

God’s mighty providence was clearly moving in all these events in the history of the Church. We go beyond merely seeing, but actually perceiving the hand of the Lord in our lives and the life of the Church. I am excited to begin this series of articles!