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You never know when you might run across some pretty solid theology. Take, for instance, the other day: I was privileged to have lunch with the distinguished historian and presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. She had just delivered an amazingly sharp lecture as part of Calvin College’s January Series in which she detailed some of the political realities that led to a President Trump even as she highlighted seven or so key presidential characteristics needed for success in the White House. She stayed very measured and non-partisan throughout and actually, on one level, projected a wee bit more optimism for a Trump presidency than some might think is warranted. But as Kearns Goodwin herself noted, we won’t know until we do.
At the lunch following a couple dozen of us had the chance to interact with her and hear more of her many wonderful anecdotes from a lifetime studying presidents and even having worked closely with one such president (Lyndon Johnson). At one point one of my fellow lunch attenders asked a question. He wondered what Kearns Goodwin thought of the notion some have been promulgating that it was divine intervention that got Trump elected. What did she think about the idea that this was all God’s will? Kearns Goodwin seemed flummoxed by the question and asked for clarification. Well, this person said, it seemed really unlikely Trump would win, all the polls had him losing, and yet he won and probably it was divine providence that explained it as God, in borderline miraculous fashion, got Trump into the White House after all.
I suspect that Ms. Kearns Goodwin is not an overly religious person. She surely does not much traffic in matters of deep theology or biblical interpretation. But she thought for a moment and then said–I am not quoting her directly but this is the upshot–that she doesn’t know much about such matters. However, as a student of history the question reminded her of Abraham Lincoln and his agonizing struggles and questions related to God’s providence and God’s will during the Civil War. Lincoln did think long and hard and devoutly about such matters but finally concluded that we just cannot be sure of how and where God’s hand is working. Maybe it was God’s will that the Civil War go on and on as punishment for America’s sin of slavery. Maybe God required a fallen soldier for each lash inflicted on the backs of the Negro slaves. Or maybe not. Lincoln concluded you just cannot know but have to do the best you can to move forward and believe God works through you somehow when you do the right thing. “So I think maybe we just cannot know about such things” Kearns Goodwin concluded.
Without knowing it, this guest on the Calvin campus had just delivered a pretty straight-up Reformed answer to the question! We may believe that God is ultimately in charge of all things and that God is able to work through a variety of (often surprising) people and events. But to too quickly conclude we know the providence of God and the whys and wherefores of things is foolish. Jesus himself said as much when asked about why a tower fell on some people, why a man had been born blind.
It reminds me of a story Richard Mouw has told. Years ago after the devastating San Francisco earthquake, Mouw was invited by a California church to preach for them and to tell them what God’s message was in the earthquake. Mouw suspected they wanted to hear that it was divine retribution for all the gay people living in San Francisco or some such thing. To avoid stepping into those biblical-theological traps, Mouw chose as his text a snippet of 1 Kings 19 and the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb: “God was not in the earthquake.”
These necessary cautions when it comes to presuming on the providence of God are perennially necessary reminders for all of us. This is especially true in that we tend to invoke God’s will when it is most convenient for us to do so in order to prop up our own view of things. These are matters that call of humility. We are comforted to know God is in charge and does surprising things through surprising people. How that all works out is hard to see except perhaps in long-term retrospect. Meanwhile, we live by faith and by hope and for now, that’s enough.