The Oscars, Lincoln, coincidences — and God

CHRIS IN MASSACHUSETTS ASKS:

Christians and non-Christians alike announce that “there are no such things as coincidences” (so that e.g. getting a good parking space) is an act of direct divine intervention…. Are all of these coincidences “little miracles” that God hands out to virtually everyone?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Good theme for the days between Lincoln’s Birthday and the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony where the movie “Lincoln” is up for 12 Oscars. Why? Historian Allen Guelzo’s magnificent biography “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President” concentrates on the president’s philosophy, not just political but moral and religious. Guelzo says Lincoln’s worldview, shaped by a hard-shell Baptist upbringing and other unknown factors, included fatalistic belief in some inexorable power — for him, probably not the conventional God — that totally controls events the human will is helpless to alter. Presumably that would include the coincidence, defined by Harvard University mathematicians Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller as “a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection.”

Take these Lincoln coincidences:  The only one of the president’s four sons to reach adulthood, Robert, nearly died as well in a Jersey City train platform mishap. He was rescued by celebrated actor Edwin Booth, yes the brother of actor John Wilkes Booth who later assassinated Robert’s father. On the fateful night of that shooting Robert skipped an invitation to join his father at Ford’s Theater, perhaps saving his life a second time, and was at the bedside as his father was dying. In 1881, Robert was at the Washington train station with President Garfield when he was shot. And in 1901 he was in Buffalo en route to meet President McKinley when he was shot. That’s three of history’s four assassinations of U.S. presidents!

And speaking of presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who worked together on the Declaration of Independence, famously died on the same day, July 4,  1826, precisely the 50th anniversary of the original Independence Day. What are the odds? Such strange occurrences earned gazillions for Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” media empire.

But do they stem from God? Seems to The Guy that when such tiny events are beneficial (e.g. a parking space) it’s quite harmless, and quite natural, for religious believers to attribute them to God’s aid. But there’s no particular reason to assume that’s the case, and believers’ actual prayer requests usually focus on more important matters — or ought to.

Chris’s full posting noted that statistics hobbyists Diaconis and Mosteller spent a decade collecting and analyzing thousands of reported coincidences. They concluded that some are explained by hidden causes or skewed perceptions, but most often they’re matters of sheer chance, easily explained by “the law of very large numbers,” namely: “With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is apt to happen.”

Back to Lincoln. What really matters in life is not everyday trivialities but how God’s providence relates to major life events and world-historical changes. Theologians have long pondered this cosmic question and as a mere newsman The Guy has nothing to add. Lincoln addressed this in his Second Inaugural Address, which seemed to affirm belief in God after a lifetime of skepticism and spiritual struggle. The president sought to comprehend the unbearable injustices of centuries of human slavery and the unimaginable slaughter of the Civil War. Rather like the biblical Book of Job, he provided no snap answer but concluded that “the Almighty has His own purposes” and “it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”

Sometime this week, read Lincoln’s brief and remarkable meditation at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln2.asp

 

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • Elizabeth

    As an urban evangelical, I’m all in favor of parking space prayers! As C.S. Lewis so memorably wrote in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, “I fancy we may sometimes be deterred from small prayers by a sense of our own dignity rather than God’s.”

    Or, as Corrie ten Boom wrote, “One day when I had a bad cold in the concentration camp, Betsie, my sister, prayed for a handkerchief for me. We laughed at the silliness of that prayer, but only a few minutes later a woman came by with a handkerchief for me! We do not know what God considers important. We do know that He answers prayers – even tiny ones.”

  • http://none Jack Blue

    Actually, the Goddess of Parking Places is quite nice as long as *you* are respectful and polite. Her name is Mother Shirley Kramer and she rarely fails one when a parking place is *really* needed.
    She has helped me out many and many a time.

  • helen

    Since I’m a Lutheran and don’t know Mother Kramer, I have to bother God.
    If (occasionally) I don’t find a convenient space, (e.g., Superbowl Sunday!) I conclude that the store is too busy for me to be wandering around in it, and postpone my visit. (I have heard objections to this kind of “trivial” prayer, but if He keeps track of my diminishing hairs, it can’t be too small a thing, can it?)

  • rumitoid

    There is also the fabled Law of Attraction. Back in ’91, I was reading a book on Hinduism during my graveyard shift where a guru I can’t remember said (as to all the desires and greater of our heart), “It’s laying on the ground.” I got off at seven and went to play a round of golf. There were only two balls in my bag and I decided not to buy more as an incentive to greater concentration. There were no other golfers waiting so I played by myself. Halfway up and in the middle of the first fairway there were three golf balls close together in the grass. This repeated four times and the last time, at the fourteenth, there were seven. All the time I kept looking for other players ahead of me, coming up the nearby fairway. Of the four I met, none had lost any balls. Seventeen balls in all. This would be noticeable. Hard to explain. I left word but no one ever asked about it.


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