“On November 14, 1680, and again on December 24, a comet blazed a lonely, majestic trail across the European skies. From time immemorial, comets had been perceived as celestial signs …”. That’s from page 185 of Phillip Blom’s Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present (2019; see Amazon for the complicated publishing info, first published in German in 2017). The book has an entire sixty-page section on how the 17th century, the dawn of the age of science, grappled with the nature and significance of comets, in particular the remarkable Great Comet of 1680, which was visible during the day and, at night, covered half the sky. The image at the top of this post is a depiction of the comet seen over Rotterdam that year. Are comets God’s rather opaque way of telling humankind to repent? Or are they entirely natural phenomena, not any sort of message or sign?
Pierre Bayle was a leading voice in the natural phenomena camp. He wrote an entire book about it in 1683: Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet. However, the great majority of the masses and most leading churchmen at the time all regarded the Great Comet as a sign of divine displeasure. Bayle dismissed such views as simple superstition. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, comets, eclipses — we now regard these as just the natural workings of our planet and our solar system. Don’t we? I’m working up to a discussion of Divine Providence, the question of the degree of God’s intervention in the natural order of the Universe, and what the LDS view is on that point. Here’s how Bayle laid out the question in his comet book, in response to panicked inquiries about the events of 1680:
I found myself incessantly exposed to the questions of several curious, or alarmed, persons. Insofar as I could, I reassured those who were bothered by this supposed bad presage; yet I gained but little by philosophical reasonings. The response was always made to me that God shows forth these great phenomena in order to give sinners time to ward off, by their penitence, the evils that hang over their heads. I therefore believed it would be very pointless to reason further, unless I were to employ an argument making it manifest that the attributes of God do not permit him to intend comets to have such an effect.Nature’s Mutiny, p. 188, quoting Bayle, Various Thoughts (English trans., SUNY press, 2000), p. 13.
Bayle thinks the issue turns on the “attributes of God” or, in plainer terms, the question of whether God uses comets (or earthquakes or hurricanes or eclipses) to tell us to repent. The Bible comes down rather clearly on a strong version of Providence: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matt. 10:29-30). Then there are the wise men of Matthew 2 who followed the “star in the east,” which led them first to Herod in Judea, then to baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
So what’s your personal view of Providence? It’s not just about signs in the sky. If prayers move God to end a drought, that’s Providence. If God heals a sick child after a blessing, that’s Providence. And yes, if God helps you find your lost car keys, that’s Providence. To help you think this through, here is some helpful direction from Elder Oaks at a BYU devotional in 1995:
Some adversities are individual. Others are common to large numbers of our Heavenly Father’s children. During the last decade there have been many examples of large-scale adversities affecting tens or hundreds of thousands or millions. Only a few can be mentioned. In addition to wars in many nations, we have had earthquakes in Japan, California, China, Armenia, and Mexico; hurricanes or tornadoes in Florida and the central United States; volcanic eruptions in the Philippines; tidal waves in Nicaragua; forest fires in various western states; flooding in India and in the Mississippi valley; and famine and pestilence in Africa and elsewhere.
Okay, adversity. What’s God got to do with it? Elder Oaks continues:
These huge catastrophes are tragedies, but they may have another significance. The Lord uses adversities to send messages to his children. Isaiah prophesied that in the last days the Lord would visit all nations with great natural disasters (see Isaiah 29:6; 2 Nephi 27:1–2). In modern revelation, the Lord speaks of calling upon the nations of the earth by the mouth of his servants and also “by the voice of thunderings, and by the voice of lightnings, and by the voice of tempests, and by the voice of earthquakes, and great hailstorms, and by the voice of famines and pestilences of every kind” (D&C 43:25). … Surely these great adversities are not random or without some eternal purpose or effect. They can turn men’s hearts to God.
As I write this post, hurricane Dorian is pummeling the Bahamas. In just the last decade or two, we have seen hurricanes wreak havoc in modern cities like New Orleans and Houston. And if the Little Ice Age challenged Americans and Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries, think about the impact that global climate change is starting to have on the world and what it will be like for your grandchildren in the 22nd century. So this is not an academic or theoretical question.
Furthermore, I acknowledge that this is no casual or lighthearted inquiry. Those who have prayed in foxholes or hurricanes and been delivered have deep feelings about their experience. Those who have seen a child or loved one recover from severe illness or injury after a blessing likewise have deep feelings. Yet the theological issue remains. Is God in the whirlwind? Is God in the comet? Is God in the still small voice or that whisper of silence? Does God, after Creation, work entirely through natural law or laws of nature? Or does God not work at all in the natural world?