In December of 1990, fog rolled into a stretch of I-75 between Knoxville and Chattanooga. Visibility quickly became a problem. The result was a fiery 99 car pile-up with 12 deaths and 42 injuries. Such tragedies are repeated from time-to-time across the country, with fog, rain, snow, and ice as the primary culprits. If you have ever been involved in such road conditions, then you probably remember something of the panic that accompanies it. It is not merely your own abilities that are challenged, but the frightful thoughts of 80,000-pound semi’s careening along behind you that drive the fear. Earlier this week, while driving a few errands, a sudden and unexpected squall of sleet blew into town (in April!). It lasted no longer than five minutes, but was so sudden and fierce that the roads became questionable. Life in the fast lane is dangerous.
My retirement life has brought a metaphor from driving experiences into sharp focus. It’s noting the difference between life viewed “in the windshield” versus life viewed “in the rear-view mirror.” The first rushes towards you as you speed ahead, giving but a short vision of what’s to come. The second recedes slowly into the distance, accompanied by the memory of the long road that has gone before. Life in the windshield is, to my mind, particularly an experience of youth. The world and the future hurry towards them and seem to be, by far, the most important part of the road. The rear-view mirror is the world of the aging. What I remember (as I near 70) is far more important than what is yet to come – there’s so much more of it. In that light, the doctrine of divine providence often seems more obvious to the elderly than it does to the young. We stand at different points of observation.
There is, though, the problem of the “fog.” When driving into a heavy fog, both what is ahead and what is behind are obscurred. We drive at something approaching a state of blindness. I think there are moments in history (as well as our personal lives), when the fog encloses us and both the providence of the past as well as the way forward are hidden. The last several years, with the pandemic, the disruption of the supply chain, our present inflation and climate of war, easily conspire to make even local things seem uncertain and fogged in. I do not write on ecclesiastic politics, nor on worldly politics (to a great extent). Nevertheless, I will confess to having a number of concerns in those areas and to be “fogged in” when I try to consider how they might unfold.
Those concerns reveal the “modernity” in my own heart. Our deep habits, nurtured in so many ways, tend towards management. We imagine ourselves to be in charge of history’s outcomes. As such, we nurture within ourselves a “market” for information. News of the world, of events, and trends seem (to us) to be required reading and listening. We even think to ourselves, “How will I know how to pray if I don’t know what is going on?” The corrollary to that thought is, “How will God know what is going on if I don’t tell Him?”
The image that I have invoked in this article, that of driving in a fog, is itself quite revealing. It describes our lives as though we were the ones doing the driving. It is here that providence in particular comes as a rebuke. How do we tell the story of history? The thing we call “history” is not a record of past events. It is a narrative, a story, that seeks to make sense of the events that have occurred. It is the “story” that we use to shape (and choose) the events we relate that is the thing called “history.” Properly speaking, Christians do not believe in “history.”
The Christian faith professes belief in “providence,” that is, that the events that unfold through time are guided by God Himself towards His desired end. If there is a “Christian history,” then it is the telling of events in terms of the story God is speaking. The Christian “story,” is utterly and completely one of divine providence. The Christian story is that the single point of history, indeed, the single point of all things, is found in the death and resurrection of Christ. The death and resurrection of Christ are to the eternal history of all things what the “big bang” is to the visible universe (and even more than that). And though the death and resurrection of Christ occurs at a measurable, definable, moment in history (roughly 33 A.D.), it is also correct to describe it as both the beginning and ending of history.
…All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Col. 1:16-17)
Christ is the beginning (“all things are for Him”). Christ is the purpose of all things (“in Him all things consist”). Christ is the end of things. Christ Himself is the providence of all creation. We confess that we live in His story.
Thus it is the case that providence is not so much in the rear-view mirror (as though everything were leading to me). Providence is the fact that Christ has made me His own and that I am myself part of the unfolding of His death and resurrection in the world. The fog of the present moment (and there’s a lot of fog!) is clarified and lifted in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ.
St. Paul (who occasionally lists the details of God’s providence in his life, cf. 2Cor. 11:23-33) offers this simple summary: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live.” Our lives are nothing less than the death and resurrection of Christ displayed in history in the myriad ways that are His Body.
In the fog of the world (which includes even those times when we imagine ourselves to be seeing clearly), to understand the hand of God is not to become an interpreter of events, much less a sage with great insight into the machinations of the powers that be. There is only the vision of Christ, who, when seen in midst of anything and everything, gives the one interpretation that is true.
…we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus… (Hebrews 2:8-9)