Monday, March 8, 2010

For Want of a Nail…

For a long time, my personal understanding of miracles and God’s role in the world was that God was a subtle manipulator of events, effecting small, unnoticeable changes that had big consequences. I’m a history buff, and I was often fascinated by how the smallest things could change the course of history. As the nursery rhyme goes, for want of a nail the kingdom was lost…

For example, it can be argued that the allies won WWII in part because a couple of Luftwaffe pilots got lost and bombed London. Early in the war, the Luftwaffe had been hitting RAF airfields and installations as part of the preparations for the invasion of Britain. The Germans knew they had to disable the Royal Air Force if the invasion was to succeed, and their plan was working. German bombers were destroying British airfields and planes faster than they could be repaired.

Then one fateful night, a pair of German pilots on a bombing raid got separated from their group and accidentally bombed London. The British retaliated by hitting Berlin. Hitler, who had promised that bombs would never fall on the German capital, was furious. He countermanded earlier orders that had prohibited the bombing of civilian targets and ordered the Luftwaffe to hit London and other British cities. London suffered the Blitz, but the change of targets took the pressure off the RAF and gave them time to build up their fighter bases. Without this needed reprieve, it is likely the Luftwaffe, not the RAF, would have won the Battle of Britain, and Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion of Britain, would have been carried out. At the time, the British were the only nation actively fighting the Nazis. Had Britain fallen, there is a good chance Germany would have consolidated its hold over Europe.

History changed because a tired young German driving a plane got lost over England. Who’s to say that God didn’t subtly manipulate events by making the pilot a little more tired than he might have otherwise been, or causing him to be distracted at the crucial moment when he got separated from the rest of his group?

This is hardly an isolated case. During WWI, a young corporal in the Bavarian army named Adolf Hitler often volunteered for the most dangerous missions. How might history have played out had he been standing just a bit to the left and had stopped a French bullet? Was it God who made sure that didn’t happen?

Had a German u-boat captain not mistaken the Lusitania for an auxiliary warship, the United States may not have entered WWI.

Had a Union scout not discovered a cigar box containing the order of battle for Confederate army, the US Civil War would have played out differently.

Had someone thought to load solid shot aboard the ironclad CSS Virginia the day she met the USS Monitor at Newport News, she would have punched holes through the Monitor and continued to devastate the Union’s fleet of wooden warships.

Had Captain Nolan gotten along with Lord Cardigan, the British Light Brigade wouldn’t have tried to charge the Russian guns.

And so on.

History hinges on the smallest things…

Such a conception of God bypasses the obvious fact that we don’t see nature-changing miracles, and meshes with the idea that Hashem works through nature. He gives a nudge here to a seemingly random event, a tweak there when no one is looking, and things work out as He planned. Easy enough for an omnipotent omniscient Being, right? Sometimes I would marvel at the awesomeness of a Being who could keep track of all these minute details and Who was able to so subtly yet magnificently effect the world.

Together with the evidence-for-God-ruining-free-will argument I discussed in the last post, the conception of God-as-manipulator explains both why we don’t see obvious evidence for God and how He is in control of the world despite the lack of obvious signs of His interference.

Unfortunately, as attractive an idea as it is, it relies on the a priori acceptance of God’s existence. It is also pure speculation. Even if we were sure God exists, there is no reason to say that God affects the world through subtle manipulation other than it being an attractive idea to someone trying to build a rationalist version of religion.