Warning: Whitman is famous for his optimism (and often criticized for it), but I like to reserve judgment on the ‘optimism’ of great poets, because they sometimes enjoy the prospect of horizons that lie beyond our own poor curve of earth. The theological critic especially should check for signs of the optimism of the Gospel – the metaphysical ground of all really good news.
It was in the poem “Assurances” that I found this:
I do not doubt that the passionately-wept deaths of young men
are provided for,
and that the deaths of young women and the deaths of little children are provided for,
(Did you think Life was so well provided for, and Death, the
purport of all Life, is not well provided for?)
I do not doubt that wrecks at sea, no matter what the horrors of them,
no matter whose wife, child, husband, father, lover, has gone down, are provided for, to the minutest points …
Leaves of Grass, Book XXX)
At first glance these lines sound like the standard theological justification for evil – that God trumps present evil by blessings (or woes) in an afterlife. But reading with my own questions about providence in mind, I saw a useful distinction between provision for and provision against evil which takes the problem to the next level.
The concept of divine intervention which looks for an external power to fend off specific material evils is such a very old idea that we may call it not just ancient but even pagan or superstitious - this is the idea that God provides against calamity.
What if a system of divine providence could be conceived in which a billion individual contingencies may be fully provided for without having to apologize for the fact that they are not specifically provided against in their minutest points? Whitman’s concern is with the extreme case of innocent death – but taking the set of all possible evil events in a life, how would the distinction work?
What’s different about the idea that God provides for calamity is that it suggests to me a divine intervention functioning on the level of an inner spiritual presence or ‘help’ that is universal and personal and constantly available for the task of overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21).
If God has bestowed a spirit of presence to be with us in all our afflictions, even as he is afflicted with us (Isa 63:9), there is no need of vain doctrines about protective shields intervening between ourselves and all possible evil contingencies.
This is not a providence that is passively hoped for in advance of the evil. But neither is it hoped for after the evil, as compensation. It is instead available in the very moment in which we are literally swamped by the evil – after we have done every material and moral thing we possibly can to avoid it. Such provision for evil brings a consolation that is hidden not beforehand or afterward but in the very moment of calamity. This is a providence of the present moment – where we find God truly meeting and providing for every time-space contingency in the only truly Godly way – with Himself, in his Son, and by his Spirit.
Surviving victims of catastrophe and terrible loss will I think vouch for this inner truth whenever they have been able to see the evil of the moment overcome by good.
(to be continued)