The Tangled Web of the History of Daesh, and the Sovereignty of God

3 days after the Friday the 13th Paris Attacks and the commentaries keep rolling in.

If nothing else, they confirm Leo Tolstoy’s dismissal of the arrogance of historians and commentators who claim to have knowledge of the past and think they understand the causes of present day events.

“Both Tolstoy and Maistre think of what occurs as a thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected and divided by literally innumerable unidentifiable links – and gaps and sudden discontinuities too, visible and invisible. It is a view of reality which makes all clear logical and scientific constructions – the well-defined, symmetrical patterns of human reason – seem smooth, thin, empty, “abstract” and totally ineffective as means either of description or of analysis of anything that lives, or has ever lived.” (Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and The Fox)

Starbucks, Citylink Mall, Singapore

To expand on the list given earlier, these have been trotted out as the cause(s) of the rise of ISIS/ISIL/the Islamic State/Daesh and/or the resulting atrocities (though even that link shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion) – in no particular order:

crepe with whipped cream and fresh strawberriesThere is nothing like the inability to untangle the strands that led to any one event, the lack of knowledge and processing power to comprehend the nature and nurture that made one individual the way he/she is at this present moment, to understand that we are far from being in control of our world.

There are two possible responses to this helplessness: (1) existentialism and despair; or (2) contending with the God who controls all things.

The absolute sovereignty of the LORD
You can’t really be a god worth worshipping unless you are (i) really in control of every single thing that happens in the world; (ii) eternal so you can control even time. And this is what the LORD claims – he is in-charge of the sway of international affairs as he is of the rhythms of the day and the hirsuteness of an individual:

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven” (Daniel 4:34-35a)

the Most High rules the kingdom of men and give it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men (Daniel 4:17, 25c, 32b)

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1)

he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. (Matthew 10:29-30)

The LORD’s sovereignty over evil

And just so we can be sure no one made up this God, being sovereign also means he has control over evil; there isn’t even a hint of any duality of good and evil that would make him less than completely sovereign:

Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it? (Amos 3:6)

I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things (Isaiah 45:7)

But…the present evil…?

The more pressing question is: why the present good? Because evil is to be expected in a fallen world where men’s hearts are evil all the time.

But if God is in control, how can evil happen and he still be a good God?

An old question and one answered succinctly in the Book of Job:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

“Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty?
    He who argues with God, let him answer it.” (see Job 38-42!)

The Sovereign God is not obligated to explain his divine decisions to anyone. Job (and with him, all humankind) is put in his place. We have neither the ability nor the right to understand everything because we are not God. But what we do know from the Bible gives us sufficient cause to rely wholly on him as a good and trustworthy God.

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Rubbishy Reductionism; Sovereign’s Superiority; Tolstoy’s Tension

Having an hour or two between meetings today, I popped by the National Library to read Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and The Fox (amazon). The copy was well-kept and had once belonged to Lee Kuan Yew. I wondered, if he’d read it, and if he’d agreed with Berlin’s take on Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. After all, even while he lived, many sought his advice on replicating the (economic) success of Singapore in their own countries. But advice can only be properly given if the causes that effected such prosperity can be adequately identified (and, indeed, repeated to similar efficacy).

National Library of SingaporeAccording to Berlin, Tolstoy was uniquely tormented by ultimate problems – of good and evil, origin and purpose of the universe and its inhabitants, causes of all that happens: what is to be done? How should one live? Why are we here? What must we be and do?

The answers provided by the theologians and metaphysicans struck him as absurd, says Berlin.

History was only the sum of the concrete events in time and space – the sum of actual experience of actual men and women in their relation to one another and to an actual three-dimensional, empirically experienced, physical environment. This alone contained the truth.

Metaphysical philosophy and history:

  • pretends to be something it is not – a science capable of arriving at conclusions which are certain. As if it must be possible to discover and formulate a set of true laws of history which, in conjunction with data of empirical observation, would make prediction of the future (and “retrodiction” of the past) as feasible as it had become say, in geology or astronomy;
  • is arbitrarily selective in deciding which factors determine the life of mankind. These are various, but historians select from them only some single aspect;
  • represent only “political” public events, while the spiritual inner events are largely forgotten. Yet prima facie, they are most real, the most immediate experience of human beings.

First Thai, 23 Purvis Street, Bugis, SingaporeTherefore Tolstoy set himself to:

  • do what historians were failing to do – to describe the ultimate data of subjective experience – personal lives lived by men, the thoughts, knowledge, poetry, music, love, friendship, hates, passions of real life. For only the individual’s experience is genuine – of colours, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, rare flashes of insight, transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data that constitutes all there is to reality;
  • expose the great illusion that (great) individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events. This self-deception affects almost all mankind. Men are unable to bear the fact that their lives are no less than what natural law has determined. They seek to represent it as a succession of free choices, and seek to fix responsibility for what occurs upon persons endowed by them with heroic virtues or vices – the “great men”. But this is hollow, self-deluded, and fraudulent – an elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness;
  • reject the notion that any historical movement is directly connected to the “power” exercised by some men over others. Or that these events were under the dominant influence or “force” of great men or ideas. What occurs is the result of a thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected, and divided by literally innumerable unidentifiable links, and gaps, and sudden discontinuities, visible and invisible;
  • demonstrate that while man’s freedom is real and there is free will and responsibility and the real experience of a private life, we are all victims of inexorable historical determinism. Omniscience belongs only to God. Our historical reasoning is an effort to substitute our own arbitrary rules for divine wisdom.

In other words, not much different from what God had already caused Nebuchadnezzar to realise in Daniel 4.
pad thai, thai iced milk tea. First Thai, 23 Purvis Street, Bugis, Singapore*so it was with some bemusement that I spotted Project South East Asia‘s Thum Ping Tjin at the back of SG Magazine with some mention of his The History of Singapore podcast.

**of course, there was also time for a quick pad thai at First Thai (23 Purvis Street). Wok hei, infused fish sauce, a little on the sweet side.