Notebook 1: God’s Will & Interpreting History


(As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.)

As an addition to this essay, here are more instances from history where, to our peril, various contemporary events were interpreted as obvious manifestations of divine action.

While the superficial justification for anti-Semitism has always been a variation on, “[Because] Jews suffered proved that Jews deserved to suffer,”[1] this is also generally true for everyone at some time or another: it is always assumed there is an obvious, divinely sanctioned correspondence between our religious or political or civic affiliations, and the fates of those religions and nations, even though there rarely is. Even worse, throwing such explanations on the sufferings of others allows us to ignore that suffering entirely, or even grin in assuming that it is deserved.

The refrain is this: there is simply no reliable or coherent way to ever interpret material or political events of any kind, and of anyone, as the result of divine pleasure or displeasure. And so there is no basis for judging people of other political or religious persuasions when things go good or ill for them, or for us. Each of the following quotations suggests the folly, and attendant human suffering (whether of death or simply mental anguish) of assuming otherwise.


To start, here is one writer’s summary of the career of Hattusili III, ruler of the Hittites of Anatolia (modern Turkey) from c. 1267-1237 BCE:

A military leader can readily find justifications for taking the field against a foreign enemy. But how can he justify taking up arms against his own people? It Hattusili’s case by representing the conflict he had initiated as a legal contest between two adversaries. The usurper [Hattusili] claimed divine endorsement for his coup. It was the gods who gave judgment on the rightness of his cause…. The gods, like the judge in a court of law, will assess the validity of the opposing claim, and give judgment, in the form of military victory, to whichever party is in sight. “Let us go in judgment before the Storm God My Lord and Shaushka of Samuha My Lady,” says Hattusili. “If you prevail in the trial, they will raise you; but if I prevail in the trial they will raise me.” So too Hattusili’s grandfather King Mursili II had declared to the Arzawan king Uhhaziti, who had defied Murili’s demand for the return of his prisoners: “Come then! We shall join battle. Let the Storm God My Lord judge our dispute!” So too Henry V sought to justify with Charles VI, king of France. Such has been the specious justification for many a “holy war”.[2]

So much in history are just other “holy wars”; so much in history are just other powerful men seeking to justify their position. In ancient India, and other Hindu or Buddhist countries, it was believed that, “Birth as a king signaled a great accumulation of merit in past lives.”[3] A few hundred years later, the early church historian Eusebius declared that the emperor Constantine was “our divinely favored emperor… [who had received] as it were a transcript of the divine sovereignty … [to direct,] in imitation of God himself, the administration of the world’s affairs”;[4] the death a few decades later of the emperor Jovian, after only eight months on the throne, was seen “as a clear sign that his rule had not been divinely sanctioned.”[5]

Meanwhile, in ancient Israel:

The writers of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, of the historical books from Joshua through Kings, and of the prophetic literature, agreed that when Israel does God’s will they enjoy times of peace, security, and prosperity, and that when they do not they are punished at the hands of mighty kingdoms, who are themselves raised up as instruments of God’s wrath.[6]

[In the Old Testament], disease in general, was believed to be divine retribution for sin.[7]

Here, Spartans on military campaign in 390 BC interpret an earthquake:

[As] the after-dinner libations were being made, the god shook the earth. All the Spartans, beginning with those in the royal tent, sang the paean for Poseidon, while the other soldiers thought that they should leave, because Agis himself once led an expedition away from Elis when there was an earthquake. But Agesipolis said that if the earthquake had happened when he was about to invade, he would have thought that it was preventing him, but since it happened when he had already invaded, he took it as encouragement. So in the morning he sacrificed to Poseidon, and led on far into the country.[8]

According to Greek writers [when the Celts attempted to attack Delphi in 279 BCE] divine intervention in the form of unseasonable snow storms and rock falls saved Delphi from attack.[9]

Writing on the Mystery Religions of ancient Greece and Rome, one writer remarks:

The favor of Isis and her companion gods pertains to other spheres of life as well, including wealth and money making. “Even the acquisition of wealth is given by Sarapis,” Aelius Aristides proclaims, and votive inscriptions address Sarapis as the “savior who gives riches,” Soter Ploutodotes. He may even be given credit for a tax reduction.[10]

Far from sounding merely ancient and superstitious, it instead reminds me of a Christian who once told me that Jesus had helped pay her phone bill and that, for those in debt, praying to Jesus was just as important as saving money.

Here are Christian and Jewish reactions to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, in 70 CE:

To first- and second-century Christians, the destruction of the Temple by the Romans was “proof” that God had sided with them against “the Jews,” and Christians promptly appropriated the savage Roman war crime for their own theological purposes.[11]

As was the case in the era leading up to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, most Jews apparently had thought that the Temple was impregnable. They saw it as a sign of God’s presence and accessibility among them and could not believe that the sanctuary might at any time fall and be taken from them…. [When the Second Temple was destroyed, there was] an inability to accept the inevitable traditional explanation for all such suffering—that it was due to the transgressions of the people.[12]

And here is Augustine’s interpretation as to why, after the Temple’s destruction and Christianity’s spread, the Jewish diaspora spread all over the known world. His viewpoint—that the suffering and difficulty which attended Jewish life was a living reflection of what happens to those who reject Christ—was upheld until very recently, and is as good an example as any of our ability to attribute the suffering of others to some divine plan, and in so doing ignore that suffering altogether:

[The Jews] were dispersed all over the world—for indeed there is no part of the earth where they are not to be found—and thus by evidence of their own Scriptures they bear witness for us that we have not fabricated the prophecies about Christ. […] About them this prediction was made: “Even if the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is only a remnant that will be saved” (Isaiah 10:20). But the rest of them were blinded; and of them it was predicted: “Let their own table prove a snare in their presence, and a retribution and a stumbling block. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they may not see. Bend down their backs always” (Psalm 69:22). It follows that when Jews do not believe in our Scriptures, their own Scriptures are fulfilled in them, while they read them with blind eyes…. As for us, we find those prophecies sufficient which are produced from the books of our opponents; for we recognize that it is in order to give this testimony, which, in spite of themselves, they supply for our benefit by their possession and preservation of those books, that they themselves are dispersed among all nations, in whatever direction the Christian Church spreads.

      In fact, there is a prophecy given before the event on this very point in the book of Psalms, which they also read. It comes in this passage, “As for my God, his mercy will go before me; my God has shown me this in the case of my enemies. Do not slay them, lest at some time they forget your Law,” without adding, “Scatter them.” For if they lived with that testimony of the Scriptures only in their own land, and not everywhere, the obvious result would be that the Church, which is everywhere, would not have them available among all the nations as witnesses to the prophecies which were given beforehand concerning Christ.[13]

What can it mean, to usurp another people’s holy book, use it against them, proclaim that they don’t even know what it really says anyway, and then say that the only reason these people are still around is to serve as an example of what is clearly error and willful ignorance?

And here are passages on Christianity’s appearance in, and its adoption by, the Roman Empire. Here, the timeline of Jesus’s life on earth is equated with that of Emperor Augustus; and the size of the Roman Empire (no matter the suffering of those subdued by the Romans) is seen as merely a missionary tactic put in place by God, since by the time Christianity appeared, a uniform and single empire was now available for the easy spread of the new faith:

Bishop Millitus of Sardis, addressing an Apologia to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius about the year 170, could claim that the Christian faith was “a blessing of auspicious omen to your empire” because “having sprung up among the nations under your rule during the great reign of your ancestor Augustus [who ruled from 27 BCE to 14 CE]… from that time the power of the Romans has grown in greatness and splendor”. The next move was to suggest that the Roman empire was in some sense itself related to God’s scheme for the world. The first who dared to think such a thought was the great Alexandrian scholar Origen. In his work Contra Celsum, composed between 230 and 240 to refute the attacks on Christianity by the pagan philosopher Celsus, Origen had occasion to comment upon the following words of Psalm 62:7: “In his [the just king’s] day righteousness shall flourish, prosperity abound until the moon is no more.” Origen observed that “God was preparing the nations for His teaching, that they might be under one Roman emperor, so that the unfriendly attitude of the nations to one another caused by the existence of a large number of kingdoms, might not make it more difficult for Jesus’ apostles to do what He commanded them when He said, ‘Go and teach all nations’…’ Augustus therefore, who first “reduced to uniformity the many kingdoms on earth so that he had a single empire”, could be presented as the instrument of God’s providence.[14]

And yet, Rome had already believed just about the same thing already, except these beliefs were attached to their own gods. When Christianity became the state religion, the names were merely swapped out, while the interpretation of events remained the same:

Roman imperialism had claimed, since the time of Augustus, that the presiding divinities had destined Rome to conquer and civilize the world. The gods had supported the Empire in a mission to bring the whole of humankind to the best achievable state, and had intervened directly to choose and inspire Roman emperors. After Constantine’s public adoption of Christianity, the longstanding claims about the relation of the state to the deity were quickly, and surprisingly easily, reworked. The presiding divinity was recast as the Christian God … [and the] claim that the Empire was God’s vehicle, enacting His will in the world, changed little: only the nomenclature was different. Likewise, while emperors could no longer be deified, their divine status was retained in Christian-Roman propaganda’s portrayal of God as hand-picking individual emperors to rule with Him, and partly in His place, over the human sphere of His cosmos.[15]

Only a generation after Constantine’s death in 337, one of his successors was Julian the Apostate, called such for his rejection of Christianity and his desire for the empire’s return to paganism. One way in which he hoped to do this was, in 362, to

restore Jerusalem to the Jews and to rebuild the Temple and reinstitute its sacrificial worship. By doing so he intended to strengthen his ties with the Jews and disprove the Christian claim that they were living testimony [see above] to the folly of rejecting Jesus…. In 363 CE, when Julian attacked Persia, work on the Temple had already begun. Materials were being gathered, and the area was being prepared for building. Then a sudden fire swept though the area, injuring workmen, and the project was stopped. The Christians took this as a sign of divine intervention.…[16]

And here are the inevitable pagan and Christian responses to Rome being sacked in 410. The pagans were sure that it had been caused by Rome’s abandonment of its traditional Gods: “If Rome hasn’t been saved by its guardian deities, it’s because they are no longer there; for as long as they were present, they preserved the City.” If this was true, Augustine wondered, where had the Roman Gods been during a number of previous defeats?

Where were [the gods], when the consul Valerius was slain in defending the Capitol, which had been set on fire by exiles and slaves?… Where were they when Spurius Maelius, because he distributed free corn to the hungry people as the famine increased in severity, was accused of aiming at kingship and was slain?… Where were they when a fearful plague broke out?… Where were they when the Roman army had for ten years fought without success and without intermission at Veii?… Where were they when the Gauls captured Rome, sacked it, burned it, and filled it with bodies of the slain?”[17]

But did Augustine, bedridden and dying in August of 430, ask these same questions of his own faith, as his own city was sacked by Arian Christians? Indeed, such a list of military defeats could be compiled for every Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and other state. All such statements can be seen as “proof” by enemies that the defeated people do not worship the right God. Military success or failure has never been the result of anything a combination of human ingenuity and the vagaries of chance, and as the refrain goes: there is simply no reliable or coherent way to ever interpret material or political events of any kind, and of anyone, as the result of divine pleasure or displeasure.

But perhaps Augustine’s dying moments weren’t taken up with such concerns after all, since in the same work he came to see that the fate of the human city of Rome had nothing to do with the city of God. As one writer summed up Augustine’s thought:

The empire was not part of a divine providential scheme; not the vehicle for the furtherance of God’s purposes. Its emperor was not messianic, not quasi-divine; he no longer walked with God. Its institutions were ordinary institutions, human, fallible, random, limited and messy. Its history was not the unfolding of a plan for the harmonious ordering of the world under a God-directed emperor, but instead a squalid tale of lust for domination, of war and suffering, of oppression and corruption.[18]

If only the ups and downs of all human institutions, from military campaigns to the establishment of governments to the agricultural round, could be seen as completely bereft of divine assistance or denunciation, but as “fallible, random, limited and messy.” How much anguish could have been avoided, and how much humility and empathy could have rushed in to fill that void, had this been the case?

And yet, in England in 627, one nobleman explains to his king why he was willing to convert to Christianity: it was obvious on a material level that the gods he had been worshipping weren’t rewarding his piety:

None of your followers has devoted himself more earnestly than I have to the worship of our gods, but nevertheless there are many who receive greater benefits and greater honors from you than I do and are more successful in all their undertakings. If the gods had any power they would have helped me more readily, seeing that I have always served them with greater zeal.[19]

In response to Charlemagne’s victory over the pagan Avars in 796, the English scholar Alcuin could tell the Frankish king with certainty that, “It pleased Christ to subdue the Avars to His service by means of your campaigning scepters.”[20] And another Bishop was also certain that material prosperity equaled divine favor:

If the [pagan] gods are almighty and beneficent and just, they not only reward worshippers, but also punish those who scorn them. If they do both in the temporal world, why then do they spare the Christians who are turning almost the whole globe away from their worship and overthrowing their idols? And while they, that is, the Christians, possess fertile lands, and provinces fruitful in wine and oil and abounding in other riches, they have left to them, the pagans that is, with their gods, lands always frozen with cold, in which these, now driven from the whole globe, are falsely thought to reign. There must also often be brought before them the might of the Christian world, in comparison with those who still continue in the ancient faith are few.[21]

There are few passages more ridiculous than this, since people of all religions, ideologies, and countries have experienced material plenty and complete destitution, great feast and awful famine. Every pre-Christian empire of Europe and Asia also assumed “might was right,” and as is seen below, it was this attitude which allowed many British politicians to assume the Potato Famine was God’s will against the Irish.

One wonders, indeed, what that Bishop would have made of Christian might and right when, in that same eighth century, the Vikings began to raid and rob monasteries, and murder Christian monks. Perhaps it would sound something like this:

The Vikings’ victims had little difficulty explaining the raids: they were God’s punishment on a sinful people. Archbishop Wulfstan of York expressed this view eloquently in his Sermon of the Wolf to the English, written after Svien Forkbeard’s victory over the English in 1014: “Things have not gone well now for a long time or abroad, but there has been devastation and persecution in every district again and again, and the English have been for a long time now completely defeated and too greatly disheartened through God’s anger; and the pirates so strong with God’s consent that often in battle one puts to flight ten, and sometimes less, sometimes more, all because of our sins … what else is there in all these events except God’s anger clear and visible over his people?”[22]

What else indeed, but the vagaries of history, vagaries which require of us not a confident and certain assertion that the Vikings were raised up as instruments of God’s wrath on the sinful Christians, but rather a sense of humility in truly dealing with such violence that, here or elsewhere, is always falling on someone. Another response was this:

When Alcuin wrote of the attack, “it was not believed that such a voyage was possible,” he was not expressing surprise at some hitherto unsuspected seafaring ability on the part of the Vikings—he was well aware of contacts between Northumbria and Scandinavia—but shocked that God and the saints had not intervened to prevent it happening. If somewhere as holy as Lindisfarne was not safe, nowhere was.[23]

And indeed, nowhere is safe, not because we aren’t pious enough, but because the world we live in, and our God, does not operate the way we are sometimes told: the world, and our God, do not see tyrants on the march and immediately swallow them up, or strike them with thunderbolts. It takes human beings to respond to injustice, and sometimes that response fails for a very long time.

Meanwhile, for more than a hundred years, Islam had been going about its astonishing spread out of Saudi Arabia and into Africa and the Middle East. For Muslims, such military victories were proof of their religion, and remain so: as a scholar of the period says, “overcoming all resistance in Arabia must have been interpreted by many contemporaries as a sign that God was, indeed, on their side—which may have made some people more willing to accept their rule”[24]; and as a modern commentator on the Quran puts it, “The divine disposition of events in the coming of Islam and its promulgation by the Holy Prophet are themselves evidence of the truth of Islam and its all-reaching character.”[25]

In the same way, Christians today, in their attempt to “prove” the resurrection of Jesus historically, point to the rapid spread of Christianity. Why else would the new religion have spread so quickly, and so widely? There is no end to this.

The Byzantine problem of Iconoclasm is also worth mentioning. Spanning most of the eighth and ninth centuries, and like the Protestant Reformation which swept Europe eight hundred years later, religious trends against the use of divine images and statues were held, withheld, reinstated, and squashed again. Different rulers, advisors, churchmen and bishops supported different sides, and so not only were these officials defeated and butchered or just disfigured, but the Christian believers on the ground were made to suffer over such squabbles. Only a sampling of the use of the Iconoclastic controversy’s role in interpreting events can be given here:       

[In the summer of 726] the submerged volcano just west of Thera, which had been intermittently active since 718, erupted violently. For days the crater spewed smoke, ash, and chunks of lava over the Aegean and as far as the coasts of Macedonia and Anatolia. Many Byzantines must have seen or heard of the effects of the eruption. Most probably believed that it was an unmistakable sign of divine anger, and it persuaded the emperor [Leo III] to heed the arguments that God disapproved of icons.[26]

[In 727, Arab raiders were about to besiege Nicaea,] when one of the officers of the Opsician count Artavasdus dramatically smashed an icon of the Virgin. The Arabs withdrew. Declaring that the destruction of the icon had saved Nicaea, the emperor sharpened his criticism of iconophiles [those in favor of images]…[27]

…in the fall of 740, a devastating earthquake, which iconophiles naturally attributed to God’s anger with Iconoclasm, struck Constantinople and parts of Thrace and Bithynia.[28]

Leo V [reigned 813-820] clearly felt, along with many in the army, that the military disasters of the past quarter century were God’s punishment of the empire for idolatry after the abandonment of Iconoclasm.[29]

[The Emperor] Theophilus had a church council reaffirm Leo’s iconoclast synod of 815, then ordered imprisonment for all who refused communion with iconoclasts and expropriation for all who harbored such recalcitrants. He jailed many of the surviving iconophiles leaders, had a few beaten to death, and drove others into hiding. The persecution was in effect by the summer of 833, when Ma’mun arrived in Cappadocia to prosecute his war to the end. The end came a month later, when the caliph suddenly died and his successor al-Mu’tasim ordered the base at Tyana destroyed and the Arab army withdrawn. Theophilus apparently took this as a divine reward: as soon as he had begun to persecute iconophiles, God had struck his enemy dead and ended the invasion. The emperor became surer than ever that Iconoclasm was God’s will and insured temporal success.[30]

In the middle of all of this, far to the east, the Indian Buddhist scholar Santaraksita arrived in Tibet to teach Buddhism and to

preside over the building of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet…. Unfortunately, when Santaraksita arrived in Tibet, a number of natural disasters were interpreted by the [native] priests as signs of displeasure from local demonic forces. Santaraksita was forced to leave Tibet.[31]

In the eleventh century, various calamities in Japan were interpreted in ways which sound quite familiar to other doomsdayers from all times and places:

It [was] held that the genuine teaching lasted for a period of a thousand years after the death of the Buddha, followed by another thousand years in which Buddhism won only external adherence, leading to the final stage when there no longer was any practice or attainment. In once count, this last stage of mappō was believed to commence in the year 1055. The fact that the late Heian society was plagued by earthquakes, famines, and warfare between powerful groups seemed to be in keeping with the doctrine.[32]

In the thirteenth century, again with the country in turmoil, the Japanese Buddhist monk Nichiren appeared. From Buddhism’s acceptance into the country, “it had been accepted as a political tool as well as a means to individual salvation […] Several of the sutras, including the Lotus Sutra, were known as ‘nation-protecting sutras’ (chingo kokka kyō).”[33] It is in this climate that Nichiren, a fundamentalist if there ever was one,

began to preach that the Tendai sect represented true Buddhism and that, during the age of mappō, the Lotus [Sutra] alone could offer salvation. He announced that the reason the imperial family had been forced to suffer political and military humiliation was the fact that Japan failed to pay homage to the Lotus and had allowed heretical teachings to dominate the land, causing the protector gods to abandon it. This was a message Nichiren was to transmit the rest of his life.[34]

[Nichiren attacked the] Amidists, and added the Zen and Ritsu practices to his list of heresies that were causes of the disaster Japan faced. [Quoting Nichiren:] “As the sutra explains: ‘Again and again he will be cast out and many times censured, and by that his grave sins will be erased and he will achieve buddhahood.’ Therefore, I must suffer. It is through my punishment by the government that my faith on the Lotus Sutra is revealed. When the moon disappears, we know it will fill again; when the tides wane, there is no doubt they will wax. Just so do I know that if I am persecuted, I have virtue.”[35]

Like the medieval Bishop quoted above, who associated plentiful crops and worldly success with God’s favor, it is just as easy to see divine approval in the opposite. These two views are not contradictory, since they arise from the identical impulse of upholding the truth of one’s views no matter what, and no series of events can ever suggest otherwise. Nichiren went on to sound even more like the kind of cliché prophet we in the West have come to expect, and

began to see the Mongols as instruments of the Buddha, “messengers of the heaven [who] will punish those people who are the enemies of those who live the Lotus.”[36]

And here is the story of a Korean Buddhist monarch of the eleventh century, besieged by enemies:

King Hyŏnjong (r. 1009-1031), who was compelled to flee from the capital of Kaesŏng, vowed that if the invading army were repulsed, he would have the entire Buddhist canon carved on woodblocks. Ten days later, it is said, the Khitan forces voluntarily withdrew. In fulfillment of his vow, Hyŏnjong initiated this massive project, which culminated some forty years later in the publication of the first Koryŏ edition of the canon. Thus it was the canon’s presumed talismanic value in warding off external threats to the nation that gave the impetus to its compilation.[37]

But only a little more than a century later, after more defeats:

…Thoroughly humiliated, and determined never to let their homeland be desolated again, the Koreans decided once more to compile a Tripitaka. Yi Kyu-bo (1168-1241), noted statesmen and supporter of Buddhism, offered an invocation during a ceremony commencing the second project, in which he indicated that the canon was to serve as a focus of national protection, empowered through faith with the ability to ward off future invaders.[38]

The experience of Christianity and Judaism in Spain comes next:

[King] Ferdinand’s capture of Seville [in 1248]—preceded by victories at Cordoba in 1236 and Valencia in 1238—would be hailed throughout the Christian world as a divine triumph, to be eclipsed only by the conquest of Granada more than two centuries later.[39]

And in response to the mass of violence against the Jews of Spain by Christians in the late 1300s; and also to the nearly hundred thousand Jews who converted to escape death; and to the eventual discrimination and suspicion piled upon these new converts (known as conversos); one Jewish eyewitness, Solomon Alami, fell back on the old interpretation:

“If we ask ourselves why all this happened to us, then we have to accept the truth: we ourselves are at fault…. We and our iniquities caused this evil to happen. Our sages were jealous of each other and disrespectful… there was much quarrelling among the wise men…. The next in line of decadence were the leaders of the communities and those favored and trusted by the kings. Their riches and their high position made them forsake humility…. Everyone chased after coveted positions; envy estranged a man from his fellow and they didn’t mind denouncing one another before the Court….”[40]

And a hundred years later, in 1492, when Spain’s Jews were simply expelled, the old interpretation lived again, too: it was the fault of the Jews, and never merely the cruelty and maliciousness of those who ruled them:

[The Jews’] experience of exile demanded an explanation and interpretation. Why had such tragedy and sorrow afflicted the Jews yet again? Some rabbinical scholars later regarded the events of 1492 as a just punishment for the sins of the conversos; they had forsaken God’s law, and their brethren were made to suffer for their actions.[41]

A good many of the exiled Jews found refuge in the Christian Netherlands. In the 1800s, explaining his country’s continuing decent treatment of Jews, the Dutch ambassador to France expressed “the ‘classic’ Calvinist viewpoint of the day”:

Since God could have destroyed the Jews, and did not, this was an indication that He wished these people tolerated on earth, since they had to be somewhere, it could not be godless to permit them to live in Amsterdam.[42]

This is one of the few times in which the perception of “God’s will” prompts one to act better, rather than worse, towards others. Still, it is a shame that the decent treatment of Jews relied upon a theological interpretation rather than a natural inclination.

A few anecdotes from English history in the sixteenth and seventeenth century is worth giving here:

The Catholic Queen Mary (reigned 1553-1558), daughter of the Protestant Henry VIII, believed her ascension to the throne a clear sign of God’s will, but the Protestant Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) believed the same when she took the throne. [43] Both spent a good deal of time executing either Protestants or Catholics: during the reign of Mary, forty days of indulgence from Purgatory was granted to those who brought wood to the fires that burned her enemies, and when she remained without an heir she was certain that her barrenness was punishment from God for not doing away with enough of the heretics in the country, and so she ordered more executions.[44]

This while Elizabeth also had her share of Catholics burned, strangled, and disemboweled, and took various successes as proof of the correctness of her actions—indeed, her long reign must have been of obvious significance. When the Armada of Catholic Spain failed in its attack on Britain in 1588, for once the Catholic and Protestant monarch were in agreement that what had occurred was “God’s will”; meanwhile, Pope Sixtus V, who had subsidized the Armada, claimed after the event to have known the outcome the entire time.[45] Elizabeth, only doing what her rivals would have done had they been victorious, took the Armada’s failure as a sign of the error of the Catholic faith, and as permission to continue her reprisals against those who refused to flee or convert.[46]

The return of the plague to London in 1665, and the Great Fire that destroyed much of the city in 1666, were both interpreted by the popular press, pamphleteers, and preachers as “what we highly deserved for our prodigious and abominable lives,”[47] and that “it hath pleased God to suffer this City to be visited with the Plague,”[48] this while King Charles II was certain of his countrymen’s “manifold iniquities.”[49] This while others in the royal court believed the fire to be divine vengeance for the execution, in 1649, of the king’s father, Charles I.[50]

Meanwhile, Catholics claimed the plague was God’s punishment for London’s acceptance of Protestantism, and it was also claimed that the Great Fire, also an instrument of God’s wrath, refused to destroy Catholic churches, “but at the sight of a Catholic Temple, the fire acknowledged itself to be conquered…”[51]

The amount of human suffering brought about by such competing certainties should be obvious by now. And it has not stopped:

During the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, the British administrator for famine relief, Charles Edward Trevelyan, was sure that the famine was God’s punishment upon the Irish; as such, his own abilities to help the starving was limited. He wrote in an 1847 letter:

We deeply sympathize with you and other officers, who daily have to witness scenes of heart-rending misery without being able to give effectual relief but, as justly observed by you, we must do all we can and leave the rest to God…. It is a hard upon the poor people that they should be deprived of knowing that they are suffering from an affliction of God’s providence.[52]

And this door swings both ways: if you believe a cataclysmic event like a famine is an act of God, so that there is a limit to what human institutions to can do in response, I have heard religious people wonder the opposite, and say things like, “I don’t understand why God won’t do something about abortion, how many abortions does he need to see?” In both instances, human actions are rendered basically useless.

And, during the American Civil War, one finds a Methodist minister who detected, in Abraham Lincoln’s successful reelection in 1864, the “voice of God”;[53] this while a Charleston minister asked, after the siege of Fort Sumter which started the war, “Has not God, by this one token, sufficiently declared his will?”[54] A New York Baptist association said that

The uprising of twenty million people against the rebellion “emanate[s] from the mind of God.”[55]

While a Presbyterian theology professor was sure that

The hand of God is to me so conspicuous in this struggle, that I should almost as soon expect the Almighty to turn slaveholder, as to see this war end without the extinction of its guilty cause.[56]

In the Civil War there were also various views as to God’s opinion of the Union. First, that of Southern General Stonewall Jackson:

Why should Christians be at all disturbed about the dissolution of the Union? It can only come by God’s permission, and will only be permitted, if for his people’s good, for does he not say that all things shall work together for good to them that love God?”[57]

And a Pittsburgh Presbyterian: “God can do without this Republic!”[58] And a Methodist Bishop: “God cannot afford to do without America.”[59] And the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon B. Chase: “It is my fixed faith that God does not mean that this American republic shall perish.”[60]

All of these remarks assume that the mixture of apparently random events, coupled with those (such as slavery) which are entirely the fault of human beings, can be stopped by forces other than that randomness, or by the effort of human beings. As the compiler of this history of religion in the Civil War put it:

The relentless, often careless application of biblical typologies to national problems, the ransacking of scripture for parallels between ancient and modern events produced a nationalistic theology at once bizarre, inspiring, and dangerous. Favorite scripture passages offered meaning and hope to a people in the darkest hours and, at the same time, justified remorseless bloodshed…[61]

            Faith in one’s cause became a circular argument for God’s favor…[62]

            [T]heologically questionable and logically slipshod interpretations of the war produced dogmatic assertions of providential intent. In doing so, the chief defenders of such a position, Union or Confederate, ironically left the door open for other, and, to their minds, less congenial understandings of divine purpose…[63]

            Such confidence in the workings of providence greatly simplified the understanding of everything from bloody battles to individual deaths. It offered comfort and reassurance but also laid the groundwork for disappointment, disillusionment, and even the loss of faith.[64]

In our own time, such views continue to abound. In 2007,[65] the Reverend Graham Down, Bishop of Carlisle in England, said the recent storms and flooding in Britain were clearly retribution on God’s part, particularly over Britain’s acceptance of homosexuals:

This is a strong and definite judgment because the world has been arrogant in going its own way. We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused…. We are in serious moral trouble because every type of lifestyle is now regarded as legitimate…. In the Bible, institutional power is referred to as ‘the beast’, which sets itself up to control people and their morals. Our government has been playing the role of God in saying that people are free to act as they want…. We are in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance.

Down also said the adverse weather was also a punishment for how Western countries have treated poorer nations:

It has set up dominant economic structures that are built on greed and that keep other nations in a situation of dependence. The principle of God’s judgment on nations that have exploited other nations is all there in the Bible.     

Explaining why storms did not hit London, where those economic structures originate—and probably where a larger proportion of homosexuals are—Down could only say that the problem with “environmental judgment” on God’s part “is that it is indiscriminate”—that is, unjust, or a “mystery.” How natural disasters before a tolerance for homosexuality are to be explained, or how we can differentiate a natural disaster that is a punishment for human sin, and a natural disaster that is just the randomness of weather, is probably also a mystery.

And what would the world be like if we didn’t seek some answer to that mystery, but rather helped those affected by natural disaster, or helped the poor? What would it mean to remove the middle-man that always gets in the way the world’s many unfortunate events, what would it mean if we stopped pretending (no matter how comforting it is) to have deduced a comprehensible reason as to why there is so much suffering in the world, why there are fluctuations between plenty and famine, war and peace, affluence and poverty, success and failure?

The study of one war, one atrocity, gives a lie to a comprehensible reason to just about anything, where perpetrators are free to commit brutality upon millions, and where the difference between life or death among the victims amounts to the most infuriatingly senseless banality, depending hardly at all upon personal virtue or depravity. That human beings have developed these elaborately simplistic ways of making sense of such situations is completely understandable, and heartbreaking to behold. But even worse is how such interpretations make the initial misfortune even worse.

The refrain, as always, is this: there is simply no reliable or coherent way to ever interpret material or political events of any kind, and of anyone, as the result of divine pleasure or displeasure. And so there is no basis for judging people of other political or religious persuasions when things go good or ill for them, or for us. Understanding that we are all in this same predicament, standing baffled before the face of incoherent violence and its attendant suffering, why can we not fill this interpretive vacuum with more humility, more empathy?

[1] James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, 233.

[2] Trevor Bryce, Life and Society in the Hittite World, 108-9.

[3] Winston L. King, “Theravāda in Southeast Asia,” from Takeuchi Yoshino ed., Buddhist Spirituality 1: Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, 83.

[4] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 22-3.

[5] Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, 71.

[6] Jacob Neusner, “Varieties of Judaism in the Formative Age,” in Arthur Green ed., Jewish Spirituality 1: From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, 179.

[7] Nili S. Fox’s commentary on Numbers 12:10, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[8] Xenophon, Hellenica 4.7.4-5; quoted in Emily Kearns, Ancient Greek Religion: A Sourcebook, 189-90.

[9] John Haywood, The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World, 38.

[10] Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Religions, 16.

[11] James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, 108.

[12] Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 162.

[13] Augustine, City of God 18.46.827-28; quoted in James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, 216-7.

[14] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 23-4.

[15] Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, 123.

[16] Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 209-210.

[17] Augustine, City of God, 3.17; quoted in Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, 231.

[18] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 30.

[19] Quoting Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, 2:13; Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 518-19.

[20] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 221.

[21] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 242-3.

[22] Quoted in John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, 9.

[23] John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, 49-50.

[24] Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, 101.

[25] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, commenting on Q 28:28 in The Meaning of the Holy Quran.

[26] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 352.

[27] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 353.

[28] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 356.

[29] Timothy Gregory, A History of Byzantium, 224.

[30] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 439.

[31] Donald W. Mitchell, Introducing the Buddhist Experience, Second Edition, 161.

[32] Tamaru Noriyoshi, “Pure Land,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 203.

[33] Laurel Rasplica Rodd, “The Spirituality of Nichiren,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 246.

[34] Laurel Rasplica Rodd, “The Spirituality of Nichiren,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 247.

[35] Laurel Rasplica Rodd, “The Spirituality of Nichiren,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 250.

[36] Laurel Rasplica Rodd, “The Spirituality of Nichiren,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 252.

[37] Robert E. Buswell, Jr., “The Koryŏ Period,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 103.

[38] Robert E. Buswell, Jr., “The Koryŏ Period,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 105.

[39] Allan Levine, Scattered Among the Peoples: The Jewish Diaspora in Twelve Portraits, 17.

[40] Allan Levine, Scattered Among the Peoples: The Jewish Diaspora in Twelve Portraits, 28-9.

[41] Allan Levine, Scattered Among the Peoples: The Jewish Diaspora in Twelve Portraits, 49.

[42] Quoted in Allan Levine, Scattered Among the Peoples: The Jewish Diaspora in Twelve Portraits, 123.

[43] Peter Ackroyd, A History of England, Volume 2: Tudors, 245, 285.

[44] Peter Ackroyd, A History of England, Volume 2: Tudors, 273.

[45] Peter Ackroyd, A History of England, Volume 2: Tudors,434, 469.

[46] Peter Ackroyd, A History of England, Volume 2: Tudors,428-435.

[47] James Leasor, The Plague and the Fire, 258.

[48] James Leasor, The Plague and the Fire, 106.

[49] James Leasor, The Plague and the Fire, 258.

[50] Neil Hanson, The Dreadful Judgment: The True Story of the Great Fire of London, 139.

[51] Neil Hanson, The Dreadful Judgment: The True Story of the Great Fire of London, 254-5.

[52] Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger, 177

[53] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 270

[54] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 51

[55] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 67

[56] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 353.

[57] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 38

[58] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 200

[59] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 356

[60] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 237

[61] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 4.

[62] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 68.

[63] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 224.

[64] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 264.