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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What more can the theologian say to the secular materialist?

I found not one but two good theologically-minded writers last week, who are I think taking theology’s case against materialist ideology to the next level.  By that I do not mean to call the approach wholly new or to forget those who, in the spirit of Plato, Berkeley, and Kant, have contributed at a level quite above the hubris we often find today on both sides of the online discussion between religion and science.

In my last post I mentioned the interesting views of essence and existence recently published by Jason Michael McCann over at homophilosophicusThe second writer, Matthew David Segall is the mind and soul behind Footnotes to Plato, a blog which includes an interesting use of video, and has been running at least a couple years.  When I encountered Segall he was offering a defense of the essential ontological status of human consciousness against the usual bad philosophy utilized by today’s materialist neuro-metaphysicians when imagining themselves heirs to all the authority of science.  Matthew writes:

In the end, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its own methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I think it is obviously very good for the physical sciences that the scientist, qua scientist, be a strict materialist.  It is good even that any truth-seeker, qua scientist, be a strict materialist.  But no truth seeker – not even the scientist 24/7 –  has some kind of professional duty to be a strict materialist in all of their approaches to all of reality.

I keep looking for help in the so-called theological ‘dialogue’ with materialism because materialism is an ideology which today appears to inform the thinking of most of the brilliant minds in our culture.  Not many of them appear to understand truth as an objective extending outside the grasp of their ideology, but I think they would be superbly furnished for truth-seeking of a higher kind if only they could be disabused of this fatal misunderstanding.  I see great things coming for our society if our scientific-minded persons could only be persuaded of the folly of applying materialistic theories and methods wholesale to psychology, abiogenesis, philosophy, and theology.

The inadequacy of the materialist’s concept of existence

I found a theologically-minded blogger this week who is concerned with the state of the religious dialogue with materialism, and sees no harm in ending the logjam by making what at first seems to be a drastic concession.

The strategy may be seen in a nutshell in this definition of existence, which concedes to the materialist the point that – in strictly materialist terms – God does not exist, meanwhile returning to theologians the task of elaborating the meaningful essence of a being more fully worthy of living faith – the spiritual God-who-is.

God does not exist. This statement is both philosophically and theologically valid. Existence is that which we are aware of through our senses, and which continues to exist independent of them. In philosophical categories one must be careful to distinguish between existence and essence; a common confusion. Materialism limits existence to matter, and therefore whatever lacks matter lacks also existence. Theology, in order to share a common language with modern materialism, must adopt these definitions. Thus a theology which accepts the reality of God must also affirm the reality that God is not subject to existence and therefore does not materially exist.

I  think I get it.  The materialist’s categories of existence by definition equate material substance with the essence of all evidential things.  Meaningful discussion cannot take place unless the theist can analyze and resolve this fallacy of the identity of material substance with essence.  Until then he has no valid grounds for engaging the materialist in an argument for the ‘existence’ of a God who is clearly non-evident and therefore non-existent under material categories of essence and existence.

So we are not talking about a trite ‘whatever’ and a polite end to head-butting.  Because the real argument with the materialist has not gone away but may now shift to the logical and moral necessity of his recognizing the possible being of non-evident non-existents – initially, the commonly held ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.  Not because these values are to be set up instead-of-God, but because their claim to acknowledgment as real rests on an understanding of essence which is not equated with physical substance alone.

The establishment of the possibility that real essence is not necessarily dependent upon material substance reopens the discussion on the transcendental level, where the accessibility of values such as truth, goodness, and beauty allow for consideration of concepts of a God who similarly cannot be equated, in essence, with the material substance of mere existence.

“Why I believe again”

Today I found a link to a New Statesman article from April 2009 which I had completely missed, by A.N. Wilson, Why I believe again.”   Thanks to Studium et Liturgica for the link, and apologies to any who feel it’s way old news, but please indulge me in some observations about Wilson’s rediscovery of faith after 20 years as a convinced atheist. 

First, I appreciate the way he notices the differences between his conversion from and his conversion back to Christianity.  His conversion to atheism, he admits, had been like a Damascus Road experience, and yet he notes in retrospect that just such a rush of sudden decision had been very unlike him:

“By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a “conversion experience”… Something was happening which was out of character – the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers.

“For months, I walked on air… For the first time in my 38 years I was at one with my own generation. I had become like one of the Billy Grahamites, only in reverse.  If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens, I did not have to feel out on a limb.”

Meanwhile, Wilson’s return to faith in God has been accompanied by just the kind of doubting and slow probing which make his reconversion, he thinks, all the more a genuine expression of his true ‘doubting Thomas’ nature – effecting a change which he feels is irreversible.

And isn’t it interesting that Wilson passed over the line into atheism just after publishing a biography of C.S. Lewis?  I love such counter-intuitive anecdotes (I sometimes find Lewis overbearing, even unbearable, but love him for the good I also find).

Wilson describes a public discussion of Lewis’s work in which he hauls the great apologist up for blame – but we get the usual litany of gripes after all:

“I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity made me a non-believer – not just in Lewis’s version of Christianity, but in Christianity itself. On that occasion, I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me – the sense of God’s presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world

And I loved this intimate scene with Hitchens from Wilson’s early atheist days:

Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. “So – absolutely no God?” “Nope,” I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. “No future life, nothing ‘out there’?” “No,” I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world.”

The whole article is worth a look.