When your phone goes off in class, your biggest concern is usually the teacher’s reaction. But in that moment, I could not have cared less what my professor was thinking. For staring me in the face was the worst text I had ever received. One of my best friends from home had just gotten word from his oncologist that, less than a year after it had been defeated the first time, his leukemia was back with a vengeance.
After reading his message—“Here we go again…”—I immediately went into autopilot, barely noticing what I was doing as I rushed to buy the ticket and board the plane to Houston. It wasn’t until I entered the hospital room and finally laid eyes on him that I first stopped to think, and when I did, I came up blank. In that moment of hard hellos, it struck me that I had literally nothing to say to him.
It was then that I realized that most of the go-to one-liners we offer in such desperate situations, to fill the desolate silence and to comfort the afflicted, are at least theologically attenuated—if not borderline heretical. We tell the victims of hardship that God has done this to them for a reason, even if we don’t know what it is. We say that we’re sure he’ll heal them, despite medical statistics to the contrary. We encourage them that, hard as it may be to believe, this wouldn’t have happened unless the Lord wanted it to, and we all just have to trust God’s perfect plan and everything will work out in the best possible way.
Providence—“the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward [perfection]”— is very real, and Romans 8:28 ought to be our constant assurance in this often grotesquely fallen world:“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” But the above sayings of apparent comfort signify a misinterpretation of Saint Paul and a misunderstanding of God’s providential economy.
What those rattling off these empty words forget is the doctrine of divine transcendence. Collapsing God down into just another actor on the cosmic stage, they mistake God for a demigod. His power, they believe, is different from ours only in degree and not in kind; we operate on the same causal playing field as God. But when the Creator is made out to be simply the mightiest of creatures, something has gone rotten in the kingdom of theology.
Even though he is and forever will be the MVP, he remains merely the first amongst equals. We can call this manner of thinking “theistic personalism,” in the words of the theologian Brian Davies.
Contra this theistic personalism, the orthodox understanding of God involves a far more robust account of his Otherness. In the traditional telling, God is not the most powerful being in the cosmos; he is the very ground of being upon which the cosmos itself rests.
Saint Thomas Aquinas draws out this doctrine by elucidating the difference between the First Cause of all that is, and the second causes that this First Cause causes to be: his creation. For Thomas, God the Prima Causa is not a competing cause with his created colleagues, but is Cause in a fundamentally different sense. His causal power operates on a different level entirely, acting in part as the cause of our own causal efficacy.
In the Summa Contra Gentiles, we read, “The same effect is not attributed to a natural cause and to divine power in such a way that it is partly done by God, and partly by the natural agent; rather, it is wholly done by both, according to a different way, just as the same effect is wholly attributed to the instrument and also wholly to the principal agent.” Reminiscent (even if only very loosely so) of the hypostatic union of Christ, in virtue of which he is said to be fully God and fully man, so also without contradiction are the created acts of finite beings said to be both fully divine and fully natural in the arena of causality.
Because God and I are not competitive causes, but are causes of entirely different sorts and identified by this common designation of “cause” only analogously, it is unnecessary to suppose that God must retract his causal influence in order to make room for me to act. (In fact, were he to retract his causal influence, there would be no “me” here to act, for I would cease exist). It is similarly unnecessary to deny the true causal power of created things in order to affirm the omnipotence of God. This belief that humans and other creatures don’t truly cause anything—and only God does—is known as “occasionalism,” and mistaken thinkers like Al-Ghazali and Malebranche have held to it. Because God’s causal ways are not our causal ways, the two can exist harmoniously alongside one another.
The overlooking of this traditional doctrine of divine transcendence has led to a whole host of problems in contemporary Christian thought, from creation to ethics to vocation. The branch that concerns us here is theology of suffering.
Returning to the tragedy of cancer, we note that the doctrine of transcendence puts the divine economy of creation into focus, correcting the errors of the heterodox hospital mourners who try to comfort the dying with false platitudes about God’s will. The import of transcendence for providence is that it reveals God’s involvement with creation to be neither interference nor interruption. God does not step into the workings of the cosmos to affect this or that—except in miraculous instances, which are the extraordinary exception—but rather is the complete cause of all that is in the cosmos at every moment. Thus in one regard, creation is radically dependent, for it can have no being apart from his creative activity at all. But in another sense, creation is radically autonomous, for within the created realm finite beings are wholly complete and, collectively, causally sufficient unto themselves.
Our dual denial of divine personalism and of causal occasionalism makes possible the statement of Joseph to his brothers in Egypt: “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.” This son of Jacob is not claiming that God prevented his brothers’ evil actions from having effect and stepped in to do good instead, subverting nature and replacing it with grace. Rather, Joseph is simultaneously affirming both that their acts were wicked within the human arena and that they were blessed within the arena of providence. It is a verification rather than a denial of their past wickedness. Thus, within the merely natural realm, their selling him into slavery was just evil, period.
Though it may seem less than consoling, that is often the best we can say to those who suffer tragedy as well. No patronizing pseudo-Christian sugar-coating is appropriate, nor is it honest. The truth is that my friend’s leukemia is horrendous. It is evil that he has it, especially that he has it again, and there are no words because within the order of second causes, that’s the whole story. Our reaction to cancer, like our reaction to all natural tragedies, should be not rosy-eyed optimism but miserable mourning—though not despairing hopelessness, mind you—for nothing else squares with the dreadful reality of these situations. Dreadful things happen in this life. No, rightly seen this cancer is not secretly just God stepping in to make you a better person or to draw your family closer to one another or to bring about world peace—though hopefully the first couple of those at least can be achieved by his grace during this trying time. But, to riff on Freud, sometimes cancer is just cancer.
What then of providence? Is there no role for the will of God in the goings-on of creation? Of course there is, but not by way of an interference in or an undercutting of nature. Providence does not reveal present ills to be mere illusions, but rather affirms their wretchedness and offers hope despite them: hope that even the worst of things can be used for the good in an ultimate sense. Saint Paul tells us that, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” So also does God show his love for us in that while creation is yet fallen and often all sorts of devastating, still God works for the good of it.
It is for this reason that the author of Ecclesiastes identifies all things under the sun as vanitas vanitatum. For so they are. Dreadful things happen in this life, by the wicked wills of men and devils and by the pernicious effects of man’s will on the natural order that depends upon him for its harmonious operations. The good news of the Gospel is not that things really aren’t so bad: “Your cancer could be so much worse,” “Just you wait and see how good this ends up being for your loved ones,” “Think of the witness you’re giving to those who live in unreflective and unholy materialistic comfort,” and so on. No, the good news is that things are indeed bad—at times horrendous, even—but that God reigns regardless, and that we will one day reign under him if we love him in the midst of our present woes.
Beyond that, providence remains largely a mystery to us. It is not a direct insight into the divine purposes of particular occurrences, but is rather an invitation to trust when the world gives no reason to do so. Providence is, most importantly, a reminder that there is an end for us beyond the boundaries of this broken world. But when it comes to specifics, “Ours not to reason why; ours to hope whilst we cry,” if you will. Or as Pope Francis has put it in his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.” God’s providential care offers us the hope that somehow this is all for something, and that the perverse events of the present world are not an exhaustive expression of reality. Yet providence does this not by emptying the natural world of its meaning or messiness, but by somehow using even that for the achievement of the good.
To know reality as it is, we need to reawaken ourselves to the true Christian doctrine of divine transcendence, lest we start spouting more foolish and false nonsense about the natural goodness of cancer, or the deplorableness of the human will, or the impossibility of creation, or other such heretical garbage. Far better to rediscover the wisdom of the Psalmist than to follow the personalists to their next heterodox deduction: “For thou, O Lord, art most high over all the earth; thou art exalted far above all gods.”
Cancer sucks, but God is good. If in the end that is all we can say on the subject, still we do better standing dumb-struck than breathing falsehood.