Providence, Causality and a Silver Chair
The idea of providence has always been difficult for me. When I was younger in the faith, I spent hours upon hours trying to get my head around the idea of God working out his plans through human history, on both macro- and micro-scales. That shouldn’t have surprised me: As a teenager, I had memorized the entirety of The Matrix, but the first line I remembered was the Oracle telling Neo, “What’s really going to bake your noodle later is, would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?” And even when I was a child, I came back again and again to Jill and Eustace and Puddleglum’s confounding relationship with Aslan’s signs in The Silver Chair.
At the start of the book, Aslan commissions Jill Pole with a task that she and Eustace Scrubb must accomplish: Find the lost prince of Narnia. He also entrusts her to remember four signs, by which they will accomplish their task: When Eustace gets to Narnia, he must immediately greet an old friend; they must go north to a ruined city; they must obey the writing they find carved into a stone there; and finally the lost prince will be the first person to ask them to do something in Aslan’s name.
They get things wrong right from the start, failing to recognize Eustace’s old friend King Caspian because of his advanced age. They go north, but not to the ruined city. Their journey is hard and they are so preoccupied with hoping to not find the writing, which would give them an excuse to abandon their quest and retreat to comfort, that they overlook the writing on the stone entirely, only seeing it later.
And so, when they end up face-to-face with a raving madman who implores them in Aslan’s name to free him from his bonds, they aren’t exactly sure what to do. They wonder if the fourth sign could still be trusted after they had played so fast and loose with the first three. They wonder if the sign could have been replicated by someone attempting to throw them off the trail. And in the end they decide that the sign must be trusted and release the ranting prisoner.
The prisoner is, of course, Prince Rilian, the missing son of Eustace’s old friend.
Whether it’s in the first two Terminator movies or some of the best episodes of Doctor Who, I tend to obsess over the mechanics of stories like this: Would the war against the machines ever have happened if a Terminator had never been sent back in time in the first place? When the Doctor goes back in time to remind someone to bring something with them when they meet him in the present, does the item just suddenly appear in their jacket pocket? If not, why did he have to go back in time to tell them to bring it with them in the first place?
Somehow, though, this children’s book adds a major complication to these adult- and whole-family-oriented stories: Agency. The Silver Chair doesn’t just challenge us with the idea of causality, but with the idea of providence—causality complicated by intent or teleology. Aslan gave the children four signs, fully intending for our protagonists to follow all four of them. However, they were only in a position to obey the later signs because they had failed to obey the earlier ones.
I couldn’t get my head around this until I became a Christian and had to start coming to terms with the idea that an omniscient God is at work in my life. No sin I’ve committed since coming to faith is a surprise to him—he knew my sin better than I did before he called me to himself, and he showed me grace knowing full well that I’d often be unworthy of it. What’s more, scripture tells us that an omnipotent God is at work in the world, working all things for the good of those who love him.
*All* things? Really?
It’s hard enough for me to accept that all things will end up working for the good of those who love God when a car splashes mud on my suit just before I’m supposed to speak somewhere. How shocking and difficult must that statement have been to its original recipients, who variously suffered much worse for the sake of their faith?
Of course, this tension is woven into the very fabric of the cross—and resolved there, as well. The cross was the ultimate evil: Small, sinful, broken people looked at the very image of the living, perfect God and then they sneered and mocked and sentenced him to death. Jesus’ disciples and friends and followers despaired in the very moment of God’s victory.
This pattern continues throughout church history: Persecution and revival seem to go hand-in-hand. Plagues lead to God’s people demonstrating his sacrificial love and mercy to their dying and contagious neighbors. Cities with large Christian populations getting sacked lead to God’s people scattering across the globe and bringing the gospel with them. By God’s providence, his people end up in places where they can be a comfort amidst turmoil, a balm to weary souls.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve watched with despair as the American electoral process has been thrown off-kilter. Elected representatives are panicking. Political professionals and governmental staffers are holding their breath. And private citizens are mostly either disgusted or despairing. It’s understandably hard to see how any good can come from it, and it very well might not be our place to know. But it is our place to prayerfully obey, to demonstrate a calm and joyful trust in God’s promises, especially in the middle of such a historically abnormal season as this. And even if, like the kids in The Silver Chair, we’ve missed opportunities to demonstrate trust in that providence before.
Rick Barry is Executive Director of the Center for Christian Civics. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network in Washington, DC.
"One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I shouldn't think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."
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