If I said that someone survived a car crash with barely a scratch, but three others in the car were killed outright; many (most?) people, religious or not, would likely observe, "stuff happens for a reason!" Behind that observation is the popular religious belief that God controls the universe, and there is a divine reason behind things that happen to us. But if I were to ask, was there some reason for a bird dropping poop on my forehead rather than my shoulder this morning, many would think my question silly. Nevertheless, a serious issue lies behind both situations: Is anyone or anything completely in control of the universe?
One answer is that God micromanages the universe. If so, then all things do happen for a reason. A micromanaging God would scarcely leave anything to chance! This line of reasoning, however, leads inevitably to the conclusion that even bad things are due to God's deliberate management. By popular definition, however, God, can do no wrong; therefore everything apparently bad must really be good—and that includes even the bird poop on my forehead. A micromanaging God might have had good reason for the bird poop—for under the theory of divine micromanagement, God makes everything happen for a reason.
Perhaps God only casually manages the universe, however, and is not responsible for everything that happens. Under casual management some things are divinely manipulated but other things are just allowed to happen, as they will. Under this theory the universe has been set up to work in a well regulated way, and God only intrudes now and then for whatever reason strikes the divine fancy. For the most part, things do seem to work fairly well in our world. The world turns with general regularity—and only the occasional glitch. This theory, however, raises the question: how can we ever really be sure what is deliberately caused by God, what is part of the regular pulse of the universe, and what is a glitch in the system? The bird poop is well accommodated by this explanation, however. It is just one of those billions of little things that never registered on the divine radar scope, or simply are part of the regular pulse of the universe where many things happen for no particular reason—like a leaf falling off a tree, or bird droppings. I happened to look up this morning at the precise moment the bird pooped. Such occurrences are part of the regular design of things: leaves fall off trees, and birds poop all over the place. But under this theory one can never be sure of what God does or does not do.
It is also possible that God has chosen to be an observer of events in a universe designed to run itself, more or less—or worse, God has gone missing. "How could that be possible? God created the world, so why abandon it?" Good question! But since we cannot even prove that God exists, how could we possibly know whether God is missing? A missing God, however, does make a sort of perverted sense out of our human situation, and could account for natural disasters and unconscionable human suffering—in short, for whatever reason no one is minding the store! Bird poop on the forehead would make excellent sense in a world like this, however; a God absent for the big things could scarcely be expected to show up for the little things.
Perhaps we have simply misunderstood God's character. If God were a bit devious, it might explain the general regularity of the universe and its benefits when things work without the glitches, and also accommodate the glitches, such as natural disasters, the tragedies of disease, and fatal "accidents." In short, God may be prone to be a bit "impish," so to speak. Certain passages in the Bible seem to support such a theory—at least the early Israelites and Christians must have thought so by some of the ways they portrayed God. The book of Job is a case directly on point. Bird poop on the forehead is precisely the kind of thing one might expect from a mischievous God.
Of course, it is always possible there never was a God. The only difference between this possibility and the last is that human tragedy and natural disaster could not be caused by a nonexistent God, but must be the result of randomness in a universe that never had a manager of any sort. We could be alone in a sort of well-regulated universe—except for the occasional glitch. Such a situation accommodates regularity, natural disasters, and bird poop on the forehead.
These five possibilities for explaining bird poop and divine management of the universe boil down to this: should one choose to believe in an uptight micromanager, a lax casual manager, a God gone missing, a mischievous manager, or in no God at all? One could choose to ignore human experience (what is found in the Bible), and fashion a God of one's own choosing. I suspect that is what most of us do—as did the writers of the Bible!
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*C. W. Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest. American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 13-15 (slightly revised).