One of the temperamental advantages to be gained from a belief in divine providence is serenity in the face of history’s ambiguities. This may be one of the more subdued and unheroic expressions of faith, but for Christians trying to make moral sense of the story of Christendom”from its once quite unpredictable rise to its now quite indubitable collapse”it is an absolutely indispensable one. For, if indeed God became incarnate within history in order to reconcile time to eternity, then it only stands to reason that the event of Christ should be one that never ceases to unfold in time, with discernible consequences and in substantial forms. And yet the actual historical record of Christian society hardly encourages confidence: marvelous cultural and ethical achievements, of course, but almost all of them inseparably associated with innumerable institutional betrayals of the Gospel.

Hence the need for a generously indeterminate trust in the mysterious workings of God’s will sub contrario . Otherwise the believer is apt to become trapped at one pole in a tedious dialectic of indignant rejection and credulous celebration, indulging either in sanctimonious denunciations of ­“Constantinianism” or in triumphalist apostrophes to the spiritual greatness of “Christian” culture, in either case reducing the very concept of grace to an empty cipher. A little prudent providentialism, however, relieves one of the anxious urge to pronounce some absolute verdict on Christian history as a whole, or to pretend to understand how the Holy Spirit might or might not reweave the tangles of human sin into unexpected occasions of charity or truth. It allows one simply to accept the inscrutable complexities of a world that, if it has been redeemed, nevertheless still groans in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, and so of a world in which all good is inextricably bound up with moral failure.

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