Imagine, for a second, that you were living around 1200 or so and you were going to hear mass in the city cathedral. You walk up to the massive front door. The panel above it (the tympanum) is decorated with an ornate scene of the Last Judgment, for to go into a cathedral was, metaphorically, to pass through that Judgment and enter the New Jerusalem represented by the cathedral itself.
As you look around, you know that every feature of the cathedral was designed with numbers and meanings. You are surrounded with things in twos (representing Christ’s two natures), and threes (representing the Trinity), and every other symbolic number.
Let’s take just one. Imagine you sit down, as we might today, and look at the four stained glass windows behind the altar.
To our modern minds, they are just four beautiful windows. But if you were a citizen of 1200, you would see them as far more. You would know why there were four windows. They represented the Four Gospels, along with the Four Evangelists who wrote them. They were also to remind us that God had created the Four Seasons, the Four Corners of the Earth, the Four Humors of the body (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) and the Four Elements (earth, air, fire, and water). In short, they symbolized all of the mystical ways God used the number four in His Creation.
The medieval cathedral was an elaborate map of God’s Creation, designed to mimic the New Jerusalem and to teach us how Nothing Happens By Accident.
Which is fine…if you happened to live in the Middle Ages. But among the many things I don’t understand in this world is people who pray to God…when they’ve lost their car keys. Apparently God’s knowing about the single sparrow that falls carries over to keys.
I don’t get it.
Insofar as I can tell, these folks live in a world ruled by that same old axiom: Nothing Happens By Accident. The good things that happen, the bad things that happen, are all the result of God’s direct action – somehow a part of His Plan. Hence God can intervene to help those sufficiently pious find their keys.
It is the same sort of thinking, I guess, that leads some other folks to believe that there are hidden codes in the Bible that foretell the future and reveal God’s Plan…to those who can figure it out (Nothing Happens By Accident). It also explains (?) those Kabbalistic folks who play numbers games with their names and other words in Hebrew to predict their own futures (Nothing Happens By Accident). On a less fanatical level we have the Gematria, used by some rabbis to teach moral lessons [‘The number of our God is 1. And what is the Holy Name (YHWH)? 10+5+6+5=26. Sum 2 and 6 and we have 8. Put it with the number of God and we get 18. And what is 18? It is “chai,” that is, Life. Only with the Divine One that is the Holy Name, can you have Life!’] Gematria is usually less nutty than the others, but it is still based on the Nothing Happens By Accident axiom.
Since nothing ever happens by accident, some of these folks see signs and symbols everywhere. Which should be quite harmless, but could also be the reverse. What happens if some abortion provider happens to have a name that magically totals “666?” Isn’t it a symbol that he is truly in league with the Evil One and must be destroyed? Seems to me that people who see signs and symbols in ordinary things are not really all that far from people who hear voices telling them what to do about it.
There is a new wave version of Nothing Happens By Accident that simply makes me crazy. It seems that, for some people, the events in your life must somehow be drawn to you (and perhaps by you). They occur because they have lessons to teach.
Imagine that you have just learned your mother has cancer. Now imagine some bubble-brain comes up to you and earnestly tells you that you have to ask yourself, “What am I supposed to learn from this?”
Oh, great! Now Mom has cancer just so I can learn some life lesson. I am the center of the universe and Mom is simply a teaching tool. [Were I one of those bubble-brains, I’d hate to have my last words be quizzing some victim, “What are you supposed to learn from this?” But I think that fatality is going to occur one of these days, if it hasn’t already. And if I’m on the jury, the verdict will be “justifiable homicide.”]
Setting aside the solipsism of this point of view, what I really detest about it is the sheer medievalism of the mind-set involved. The modern mind lives in a world not only of cause and result, but of chance.
If someone you care about gets cancer, it’s not directed at you. Nor is it necessarily directed at them. They may have bad heredity, have been exposed to something nasty, or simply been unlucky. The whole idea of the intentionality of the universe and its revolving around us poor mortals seems pretty silly to most of us. We may feel a bit naked, but we also feel enlightened.
To the medieval mind (ancient or modern) chance is something close to blasphemy. They know that the alternative to determinism is chaos.
And in all this chaos, how can I ever find my car keys?