AMAN CAME to see me because he was convinced that he was being harassed by government officials and feared for his life. He admitted that his claim might seem implausible and that I might even think him paranoid, but he poured out his story anyway. He had been an investigative reporter and was tracing the embezzlement of government funds close to the inner circles of power when he was fired without explanation. Former associates refused to talk with him. He began to see the same people hanging around the street near his apartment. His roommate began to act very strangely.
I listened carefully and assured him that, although I could not validate his claims, I did not dismiss them either. I did ask him to consider, however, that each of the occurrences he recounted could have an alternative explanation. Perhaps he was fired for other reasons. Perhaps the people hanging around his apartment building live in the area. Perhaps his roommate was acting strangely because he is a strange person.
I referred the man to a psychotherapist. As he stood up to go he said, "I might see the therapist. But just remember: Even if you are paranoid, that doesn't mean that they aren't after you!"
It has occurred to me that although I was very skeptical about this man's interpretations, those of us who claim to see God at work in the world and in our lives are not all that different from him. When we attribute events to the actions of God, we claim belief in a kind of beneficent conspiracy theory, with God as the chief conspirator. At times we see events as random and attribute them to coincidence. At other times, however, we affirm the active presence of a God who is always meddling in human affairs. Then we claim that the notion of coincidence is highly overrated.
But even when we cite evidence to support our claims of divine intervention, we must also grant that there could be alternative explanations. Perhaps the disease is in remission for reasons that have have nothing to do with the prayers that have been offered, even though the physicians call the remission "mysterious." Perhaps it is just good fortune that the car didn't come barreling through the red light a second earlier. Perhaps we should thank our lucky stars that our enemies did not prevail. After all, if we do not affirm the role of chance, how are we to explain why countless people die of horrible diseases despite abundant prayers, why thousands are killed in auto accidents and why enemies often prevail? If belief in providence is a kind of conspiracy theory, there are times when it is not difficult to find holes in it.
The Book of Esther recounts a series of astonishing events during the Jews' captivity in Persia. …