I experienced a funny coincidence when looking to purchase a new mattress. I had done my homework, investigating different manufacturers online, looking at reviews and reading what the experts say. My wife and I comparison shopped several mattress stores and then went to the mall, where the best-known brand of air beds had a retail store.
Having done my homework, I thought an adjustable air bed might be the best buy for us, but after looking at dozens of mattresses, we were confused. The cost of the air beds was more than I wanted to pay, and yet several friends had been extremely satisfied with their purchase.
After talking to the salesperson and lying on several beds, we left the store to weigh the pros and cons. As we walked and talked, we wandered into a book store. While my wife was exploring, I went to the poetry section and picked up a new (at the time) book by Billy Collins and read the table of contents. The poem titled “Hell” caught my eye.
The title and first line read: “Hell. I have a feeling that it is much worse than shopping for a mattress at a mall…” I laughed at the coincidence and hurried off to show my wife.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a coincidence as: (1) “A remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection”; or (2) “The fact of corresponding in nature or in time of occurrence.” The former suggests the co-incidence of events is accidental – they are “without apparent causal connection.” The latter merely notes the correspondence, making no mention of its cause.
What is the person of faith to make of coincidences? Clearly he can affirm the second definition in the Oxford Dictionary, but can he accept the first? Are there such things as accidents?
This is really a question about the kind of world we live in. Is everything that happens brutally constrained by the laws of physics, operating both in the world around us and the world within us – in our bodies and brains? This view, known as materialistic naturalism, suggests that everything that happens around us and in us – even our thoughts and moods – are the result (and are only the result) of the interaction of the laws of nature on the matter of which we and our universe are composed. According to this view, nothing ever happens by accident.
Another view, which might be labeled general theological monergism (in contrast to special monergism, which confines itself to the spiritual regeneration of individuals), suggests that everything that ever happens in the universe, from the birth of a galaxy to the birth of a baby, happens because God chooses for it to happen. As in materialistic naturalism, this view holds that nothing ever happens by accident.
In both these views, an ultimate power (either God or the laws of physics) determines every single thing that happens. A third view loosens but does not remove the restraints of an ultimate power. It sees a complex interaction between matter and will and between God’s will and human will. This view holds that God created the cosmos with a degree of elasticity that allows for real choice, though it makes clear that the elastic will only stretch so far.
According to this view God retains control, both overall and in specific instances, though he allows his creatures to make decisions for themselves, even ones he would rather they not make. He provided room for the exercise of choice in the very act of creation, because he knew that people could never be fully human without it. Only thus could they be made in his image.
In this view God conducts the orchestra, but he does not play every instrument. He has given that honor to his creatures and won’t take it from them. So does that mean that accidents happen? It means that the results of choices (and the results of the results of the results of choices) will often be beyond any power but God’s to predict – or correct. If you want to call that an accident, feel free. I call it an extraordinary gift from a wise and loving Creator.
First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/21/2014