The village atheist usually challenges believers in Providence to answer a couple of devastating questions. One of them is: "Well, if two opposing armies pray to the same God, how can Providence be faithful to both if it answers one, but not the other?"
It was to such a village atheist that Abraham Lincoln directed his famous lines in his Second Inaugural, in which he conceded, "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.; and each invokes his aid against the other." Lincoln then went on to provide the profound traditional reply: "The prayers of both could not be answered; the prayers of neither have been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes." And then, to show the ageless continuity of orthodoxy he added: "shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?"
Despite this ageless and living tradition, it seems that Kirkus Reviews is now hiring village atheists to review books. One of them, at least, has just reviewed (January 6) the book on George Washington, Washington's God, that my daughter Jana and I turned in about two months ago to the distinguished imprint of Perseus and Basic Books. This anonymous villager writes, in a parenthesis, that the authors do not "much ponder the issue of why God neglected to answer the prayers of the Redcoats, many of whom were also Anglican." We laughed on reading that, in wonderment.
For there are two odd things about this old chestnut appearing just here. The NovaksJana and Iactually did ponder exactly this point, and also two or three others, as a longish excerpt from our book will demonstrate in a moment. Secondly, this small point seems to be the only factual error in the book the author claims to discover. He then says he finds our book "tendentious." But, since he offers not a shred of evidence to that effect, his description appears more to apply to his review than to our cautious and modest study.
We do not, for instance, claim that Washington "loves" Jesus, as the villager openly supposes, probably in jest. Rather, we argue that, on balance, if you count up the evidence pro and con, Washington should probably be counted a Christian; indeed, a practicing Anglican. Still, this evidence is only probable, because Washington rarely said that he was a Christian, or confirmed it in writing that still survives (his wife Martha destroyed nearly all his personal letters to her).
By contrast, the evidence, public and private, that Washington was not a Deist is overwhelming. The names he used for God certainly do sound Deist, but the verbs he used for the actions he prays God to perform are unmistakably Jewish and Christian; in a word, biblical.
But to get back to the accusation that we did not "much ponder" traditional atheist objections to the idea of Providence, objections Washington could scarcely have avoided in forming his own views about Providence, here are just a page or two of what we actually wrote. In fairness to the reviewer, who may have read an early version of the galleys (ignoring the publisher's caution), we did revise galleys fairly heavily before they went to final proofs. Here, in any case, is a sample passage from our investigation:
Adult life taught Washington, however, that there are other lessons to be learned about Providence, even based upon this firm foundation. The progress of a Christian through life is a long and often painful struggle. Many are the hours in which God gives no comfort, and during which it seems as if there is no God at all. Some of the doubts Washington had to face were such as these: If God is truly present to all things, and truly sovereign, what happens when armies on both sides of a war pray to him? Did not the British during the War of Independence also trust Providence? [Emphasis added]
Besides, if God is present in all things, and sovereign over all things, then how was Washington to behave when his plans went awry, his dreams seemed to lie in a pile of rubble, and difficulty seemed piled upon difficulty? Had Providence deserted him? Sometimes, it seemed as if there was no way to tell that Providence actually was active in his life. If whatever happens is providential, by definition, that seems meaningless.
On the first of these points, Washington held firm to the belief that one of the reasons that God had created the world is to make free creatures capable of recognizing him, thanking him, and entering into conversation with him. He believed that God could not help being on the side of liberty, and that liberty was the American cause, a just cause, a right cause. Washington did not believe that history always comes out right, but he did believe that the Americans at least had a chance, and that they must seize it or forever be blamed for having missed it. He was willing to hazard his life for that belief.
On the second point, he understood the need for constancy. One cannot act merely the fair-weather friend, trusting in Providence when things go sunnily, despairing when the skies fill up with ominous clouds. The duty of a valiant woman, a courageous man, is to hold firm. That is the soldier's professional virtue. If there is a Providence, Providence is "firm," come sun, come storm. So ought a commander of men to stand.
But there were also other lessons to learn. First, God does not act like a puppeteer, moving human beings about like so many rag dolls. God acts through human beings. He needs them to act freely too, through their will, courage, and perseverance, standing firm during the most awful trials. When he gave thanks to Providence, Washington nearly always gave thanks to those who stuck firmly with their duties and carried out the necessary actions. Without their collaboration, he understood, Providence cannot succeed.
Secondly, Providence does not mean that God often, or even ordinarily, puts his fingers directly into history, interrupting or changing normal human laws. Washington did not sit around waiting for miraculous events, but neither was he surprised when, working through purely natural causes, but exactly at the right time, the Disposer of all events arranged an improbable but quite natural series of events that favored the American cause, as in the fog that descended to cover his retreat from Long Island, and the capture of the ship of munitions near Boston just as things looked exceedingly grim. Washington did not often allude directly to "miraculous" events as signs of providential action, but rather to improbably "concatenations" of causes that seemed, disproportionately, to favor the success of liberty.
Third, Washington learned that Providence does not mean that everything works for the best, always issuing in happy endings. He did speak of Providence as a "good Providence," and "benevolent," and of "the Smiles of Heaven." But his favorite description of Providence, appearing much more frequently than any other, is "inscrutable." Our ways are not God's ways. Providence seems frequently in the business of humbling us through defeat, calamity, ruin. It was often difficult for Washington to see how such disasters worked to the nation's ultimate benefit, and in such cases both philosophy and faith taught him that the right way is to submit his wisdom to that of the Almighty. And to trust. As Comber seemed to suggest in his commentary on the Book of Common Prayer, in the end prayer is essentially a "yes" to the will of God. A "'Tis well.'" And "amen."
A paragraph from a talk of mine in Lucca, Italy, last fall, on the action of the Holy Spirit in the United States during the last few generations:
As a Catholic, I would like to pay special tribute to great Protestant leaders of our Awakening such as Chuck Colson and Billy Graham (with his son Franklin Graham) and many others, and to Jewish spiritual leadership from rabbis and lay persons. But I am especially cognizant of the lonely lay leaders of the Right-to-Life movement, back in the early and difficult days of the 1970s, when the Catholic bishops had not yet rallied fully to their supportespecially the brave women such as Ellen McCormack (courageous Democratic candidate for President in 1976) and Phyllis Schlafly and hundreds of others. These valiant women led the way in the greatest moral movement of our age, comparable in its international scope and in its reasoned argumentation, to the great Anti-Slavery movement of the preceding century.
Earlier paragraphs spoke of the flirtation with relativism, "nihilism with a happy face," moral silliness and cultural decline in our country, but also of the gathering Fourth Great Awakening. More can be found in the entire text at www.michaelnovak.net.
(Click here to email the author about this item. Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair at the American Enterprise Institute and is a member of the FIRST THINGS Editorial Board.)
In addition to which:
"The Miracle of Evolution" is Stephen Barr's evaluation of why Intelligent Design proponents got so much right--and so much wrong. Also in the February issue is Richard John Neuhaus on gays and the priesthood, Avery Cardinal Dulles on Pope Benedict's critical evaluation of Vatican II, David Klinghoffer on the self-defeating nature of a Jewish war on the "religious right," and much more. To subscribe to FIRST THINGS, click here.