New thoughts on providence in regard to evil events

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?

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)

It was while reading these lines with my own recent questions about divine providence in mind that I saw how a useful distinction might be drawn between provision for and provision against evil.

The concept of provision for evil strikes me as profoundly positive and theologically different from the common idea that God provides against calamity. In fact, theories of divine intervention which posit the availability of a supernatural power able to fend off specific material evils seem to reflect a view of deity so ancient as to be arguably of origin in the pagan superstitions of the various pre-Abrahamic religions.

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?

The idea that God provides for rather than against calamity suggests to me a divine intervention functioning not externally but at an existential level, as part of a deep inner experience of spiritual presence or ‘help.’ All that would be required is to posit its universal bestowal – at least a spirit aid that was there simply for the asking, and available strictly for the high 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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2 thoughts on “New thoughts on providence in regard to evil events

  1. Dear John,

    This topic is particularly near and dear to my heart. Apart from being drawn in by the poet, I was very curious to know what your developing thought on this is.
    I have been trying for some years to formulate a piece on this that I am happy with and I’ve found the hardest part to be incorporating God’s faithful transformation of every event. To sensitively yet fully portray this also requires some reclaiming of definitions which will hopefully bring more clarity/individuality to evil when seen in relation to suffering.
    Anyway, I’m looking forward to see your continuation of this.
    Wish I had a bit more time for blogging. Ah well. Thanks for stopping by my blog and letting me find you 🙂
    Kate

  2. Thanks for writing, Kate.

    I do think the key to theodicy is an explanation of how God’s presence with us at the bottom (i.e. the ground) of our being can make sense of the manner in which this same indwelling spirit can also be with us at the bottom of our personal histories (i.e. in suffering).

    I see this spirit of God ‘with us’ only in a background way, as a spark and not front and center (or it would overwhelm us). I have been lately thinking how like an innocent lamb it is – not at all powerful yet (therefore Isaiah can say it is afflicted with us). But I think with tools like responsible and self-forgetting prayer we give it the traction to aid us in ‘overcoming evil with good.’

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