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Archive for the ‘providence’ Category

I was helped recently by some lines from American poet Walt Whitman while contemplating problems of prayer and providence which I addressed in two posts earlier this year.

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)

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With help from Kierkegaard I advanced some ideas last month about prayer to an unchanging God, and here I want to start some related thoughts about God’s providence.  A theology with no theory of prayer is a study without a method.  All real theologies describe and account for the function and object of prayer, and this always relates back to their theories of divine providence.

First principles should be simple and biblical, and I think a good theory of material providence can be founded on a saying of Jesus about the manner of God’s care for the birds.

“…look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mt 6:26).

Most importantly for any good principle of providence, this one does not rule out hard work.  Because anyone who follows the advice of Jesus and actually takes a ‘look at the birds’ will see that they work their little tails off all day long seeking and finding all their free provisions.

An abundance of seeds and water, of insects and other prey are available to the birds by their habitual conformity to material laws as they find them.  This kind of material providence doesn’t feature a ‘system’ designed by the birds nor a being who is propitiated by the birds.  It is instead a system which supports the very possibility of material good.  In my view, God’s perfect material providence works for us in the same way (I’ll get to the spiritual later, and the problem of evil).

Why does Jesus give no place in his material providence to purposeful (anxious) work such as sowing, reaping, and storage?  Doesn’t God help those who help themselves?  But sowing and reaping are not despised – Jesus built plenty of teaching material around the whole subject of agriculture.  And yet no farmer brings in a good crop if his acts are not in conformity to the same unchanging laws as God has laid out for his feeding of the birds.

In the same verse Jesus asks, “Are you not of more value than they?”

Divine material providence (like competition between species) is one of those delicate situations calling for this kind of rhetorical question which invites us to join the teacher’s thought on the next level (i.e. we don’t take these words as justifying any dissing of the avian races 🙂 ).

For Jesus I think ‘the next level’ is the level of our material anxiety, especially our vain hopes and false fears for tomorrow.  But he’s not giving in to these.

1.  He doesn’t suggest that we have in fact a claim on God’s love to bind him to special provisions of material needs.

2.  He’s not suggesting that any laws are subject to change to suit these needs.

3.  And in no way is he suggesting that special consideration is due to any farmer as reward for ‘good behavior’ that is not related simply to good farming.

This providence gives no place to ancient pagan beliefs – that a farmer or his priest may request dispensations of rain, or sunshine, good germination, absence of pests, tall corn, efficient harvest, and a fine excess.  This providence suggests only gracious prayers of thanksgiving for God’s loving foundation of unchanging material and spiritual laws.

(to be continued)

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