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)


Albert C. Knudson – American theologian

The school of “Boston Personalism” which flourished in the first half of the twentieth century deserves a higher public awareness – their relative obscurity is significant for my thesis that Christianity’s best modern minds have been undeservedly “submerged” by historical forces which favored less worthy ideas.

Gary Dorrien (Union Theol. Sem.) brings this sunken strand of personalist theology and philosophy closer to the surface in Vol. 3 of his history of liberal theology.

The most coherent school of American liberal theology took its inspiration from the personalistic idealism of a single thinker. Borden Parker Bowne [1847-1910]. (Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Vol. 3, Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, p. 286)

Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873-1953) earned his Ph.D. under B.P. Bowne in 1900 and eventually became dean of the Boston University School of Theology and the premier theologian of the Boston Personalists.

Knudson was the product of Midwest Methodist piety and a graduate school conversion… Though he came late to his theological calling [note: he began his career teaching Old and New Testament criticism], it was Knudson especially who made Bowne-style personalism a significant theological school   (Dorrien, p. 286)

And, in honor of Father’s Day:

His father Asle was a distinguished and impeccably orthodox Methodist pastor… Knudson later recalled that the sanctificationist Wesleyan piety of his parents was “all very simple, but it was intensely real and vivid.” It remained vitally real to him long after he discarded much of his father’s theology. “I was allowed to go my own way, and no regret was expressed at my later departure from some of the tenets of the traditional evangelicalism in which I had been brought up. Whatever may have been my father’s feelings about the matter, he had an instinctive reverence for the honest convictions of others and was quite willing that I should work out my own intellectual salvation.” (Ibid, 286-7)

Knudson’s parents were immigrants from Norway and “their home life and Asle Knudson’s preaching emphasized the centrality of spiritual experience.“ (p. 286)

A second important theological and practical influence in Boston personalistic theology came from Methodist bishop Francis J. McConnell, also with a Ph.D. under Bowne.

The philosopher of the school was Edgar Sheffield Brightman, a late student of Bowne’s and a professor of philosophy at Boston U.

The rise of personalism at Boston ought to have been an inspiration for a generation of liberals, whose optimism was badly stunned by the intransigence of the corporate barons and the horrors of WWI.

“Boston Personalism” acquired school status in the very years that liberal self-confidence began to erode.” (p. 286)

American theology has always been limited by its division between competing sects. I think the Methodist antecedents of the Boston school probably created a certain indifference on the part of non-Methodist religious thinkers. Many Methodists themselves disliked the Boston school’s more liberal approach to theology and scripture.

I think a perverse sectarianism infects much of American religious thought even today.  Each denomination has always had its own seminaries and its own journals – filled with opinionated criticism of new developments in their own and in all other denominations.  Although each sect had in every generation at least one thinker of unusual caliber, there were no ‘schools’ formed beyond the pale of a given denomination. I think the lack of community among different types of religious genius in this country has thwarted progressive Christianity.  Not until the rise of non-sectarian universities in the late 19th century did the American mind finally bear the fruit of its diverse genius – unfortunately by that time the advances were chiefly limited to non-religious concerns.

Personal knowledge and the worldview of Personalism

Michael Polanyi was an internationally regarded Professor of Physical Chemistry at Manchester University when he was selected to deliver the 1951-52 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen.

I start by rejecting the ideal of scientific detachment. In the exact sciences this false ideal is perhaps harmless, for it is in fact disregarded there by scientists. But we shall see that it exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology and sociology, and falsifies our whole outlook far beyond the domain of science. – published as Personal Knowledge, U. Chicago, 1957, vii

The Manchester academic Senate and Council judged the invitation and resulting lectures important enough to allow Dr. Polanyi to exchange his Chair of Physical Chemistry for a Professorial appointment without lecturing duties; an arrangement lasting 9 years, which enabled him to both prepare the lectures and write the ensuing book

“The personal participation of the knower in all acts of understanding does not make our understanding subjective. Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such knowing is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality; a contact that is defined as the condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications. It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the personal and the objective as Personal Knowledge.”

I’ve owned Polanyi’s books for years, and read a good deal of his writing years ago. I was glad to get back to it this week after a fresh jolt of inspiration from the blog of Swedish philosopher Jan Olof Bengtsson, who has been posting his notes on American philosopher and Personalist Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910) – material not included in Bengtsson’s 2006 book, The Worldview of Personalism: origins and early development.

B. P. Bowne is another old interest of mine, and I own old used copies of nearly all of his books. Thanks to Jan Olof, I am currently re-reading Personalism (1908), containing the substance of the 1907 Harris Lectures at Northwestern University, Chicago.

From Bowne’s 1908 preface: “The aim of these lectures is to show that critical reflection brings us back again to the personal metaphysics which Comte rejected. We agree with him that abstract and impersonal metaphysics is a mirage of formal ideas, and even largely of words which begin, continue, and end in abstraction and confusion. … Causal explanation must always be in terms of personality, or it must vanish altogether.”

It was Bowne’s contention that the only formal setting of experience able to give a concrete knowledge of causation (after Hume’s destructive analysis) is derived from our personal experience as agents of stasis and change. Thus all knowledge of effects requires the primacy of what I would call the Form of the Personal.

Back to Polanyi: “Into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and this coefficient is no mere imperfection but a vital component of his knowledge. And around this central fact I have tried to construct a system of correlative beliefs which I can sincerely hold, and to which I can see no acceptable alternatives.”

I think these two personalists would characterize today’s materialist schools in psychology and the humanities as monuments to intellectual cowardice; a surrender of moral insight and creative power to the human need for authority conceived as objective and detached – but not at all proper to the advance of knowledge in those particular fields.

Bowne: “Some harmless-looking doctrine is put forth in epistemology, and soon there is an agnostic chill in the air that is fatal to the highest spiritual faiths of the soul.”

Polanyi: “Personal Knowledge is an intellectual commitment, and as such inherently hazardous. Only affirmations that could be false can be said to convey objective knowledge of this kind.”

The Kantian philosophy as handmaid of religion and science

In my recent criticism of John Milbank’s frequent dissing of Immanuel Kant I forgot to say that I am completely sympathetic with the professor’s desire to embarrass the sloppy metaphysics of atheism.  I applaud Milbank’s aim to discomfit our current secular dogmatists who presume the model of ‘science’ is on the side of their own uncritical metaphysical materialisms.

But again, Kant has already shown – over 200 years ago – that the authority of the scientific method doesn’t carry over to the solution of the ‘hard problems’ of metaphysics.  True, the critical philosophy rejects apodictic certainty in theology’s intellectual determinations of its object .  But it also demolished the scientific basis of all claims that theology has no meaningful object.

I’m guessing Prof. Milbank has rejected Kant’s help against scientific materialism because he desires to do metaphysics himself in the grand style of Aquinas, which he knows is also disallowed by Kant.

But a part of Kant’s great service to philosophy makes it also a service to truth in science and religion – he never made the mistake of equating the method of philosophy with the method of science.  His ‘charter of autonomy’ for philosophy gave it independence from both science and religion, and this dual independence actually suits the role of ancilla (handmaiden) required by any theology worthy of a living faith – and by any science worthy of its name and methodology.

The impression I got from reading Milbank last year is that his criticism of Kant cites the Religion book much more than the Critiques.  This I think is the source of his negativity – and I will say I have never been satisfied with the grasp of religion shown by Kant in Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason (although I saw more than I had seen before in a recent reading of that book, remarked last month).

I don’t blame Milbank for seeing Kant’s specifically religious writing as too much akin to the old failed Natural Theology.  But Kant’s criticism of religion’s clerical and popular superstitions and fanaticisms is more cogent and cleansing than any that can be raised by the atheist.

I think a philosophy inspired by the three Critiques can certainly offer an ancillary role in the exploration of the relations of the object of faith to the real world – particularly its moral relations.  But again the one condition – perhaps hardest for Milbank to accept – is that the theologian who makes Kant his handmaiden must give up the attempt to construct a final metaphysics.

Theology and Philosophy – Milbank or Kant?

I hope that friends of the next theology will join me in welcoming the recent remark by John Milbank, in his 2011 Stanton Lectures, that the truer legacy of Thomas Aquinas is better sought “in the current of German Dominican mysticism and its Renaissance heirs” than in the soi-disant “Thomists” of a later day.

However, I cannot square this much-needed tip of the hat in the direction of religious experience with prof. Milbank’s later dismissal of Kant and the post-critical philosophy in the same lecture.  I’m wondering if he has any idea – since he doesn’t mention their names – that a very interesting turn to the subject characterized the work of some post-critical theologians – for example in the very adequate theologies of experience offered by Friedrich Schleiermacher and urged by Soren Kierkegaard.

Here I only wonder out loud about why it seems so important for Milbank to corral and brand Kant as of the herd of Duns Scotus, alleging that “an entire double current of both possibilism and transcendentalism flows from Scotus through Suarez through Wolff to Kant himself.”

Kantian Possibilism?  I have seen this argument in the secondary literature of the Analytical school, but I think they and Prof. Milbank will both miss the key to understanding Kant’s service to theology if they emphasize a single phrase like “Condition of possibility” with a view toward selling this as the sine qua non of a Kantian metaphysics that is all downstream from Scotus.

This gets complicated.  But for the blog, I’m only going to begin the argument with a statement of what I think the definition of philosophy must be if we are going to come to a satisfactory idea of its true relation to theology.

Philosophy’s task is to provide the intellectual methodology by which a person can be capable of simultaneously possessing both a genuine knowledge and a genuine faith.

By this I mean to cover a situation in which (a) the religious method of faith (whatever that turns out to be) cannot rule out-of-hand against the objective data of relations in and with the finite world and (b) the scientific method cannot rule out-of-hand against the subjective data of relationship with God.  As my definition implies, I’m actually talking about one and the same philosophical person using a pure philosophy to negotiate these two sides of the coin of real experience.

A careful reader should see Kant’s name written all over this definition of mine.  But metaphysics?  Not so much that can ‘go forward as science,’ as Kant would say.  Negatives aside, I think the positives in the Kantian program should be seen as good for theology.

I find one other Kantian sympathizer has blogged her misgivings of the lecture’s approach to the Critical Philosophy – Crystal also includes a clip of a Kant lecture by Keith Ward.

HT to Lee for the link to Crystal

And to Marc Cortez for the link to Milbank’s lecture.

Schleiermacher – To religion’s cultured despisers (1799)

“Your very contempt for the poverty-stricken and powerless venerators of religion, in whom, from lack of nourishment, religion ever dies before it comes to birth, convinces me that you have a talent for religion…

Become conscious, then, of the call of your deepest nature and follow it…  banish the false shame of a century, which should not determine you.  …Return to what lies so near to you, the violent separation from which cannot fail to destroy the most beautiful part of your nature.”

On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, F.D.E. Schleiermacher, 3d German ed. 1831, ET John Oman, 1893, Harper 1958, p.91, 92).

I continue my historical retrospect of what I would call ‘constructive orthodoxy’ with excerpts from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s literary debut, in which the thirty-year-old theologian calls out the Age of Enlightenment for the folly of its indifference and atheism.  The alienation of ‘the modern’ from God was viewed by Schleiermacher as a tragic divorcement of self-consciousness from its right relation to the ground and truth of being.  But I cannot miss the fact that he assigns a central role in this modern tragedy to the eighteenth century church itself.

People think they know Schleiermacher, but it requires more than a simple refunding of our own ideas of religious feeling, absolute dependence, and God-consciousness, to really know him.  Rightly apprehended, his work still represents, I think, the classic historical model for religions of experience, for constructive ‘methods’ of religious living.

“The religious man must, at least, be conscious of his feelings as the immediate product of a universal reality; for less would mean nothing.  He must recognize something individual in them, something that cannot be imitated, something that guarantees the purity of their origin from his own heart.  To be assured of this possession is the true belief.  To the contrary, belief usually so called – which is to accept what another has said or done, or to wish to think and feel as another has thought and felt – is a hard and base service… To wish to have and hold a faith that is an echo, proves that a man is incapable of religion; to demand it of others, shows that there is no understanding of religion” (pp.90-91).

Like him, I would try to make the higher truths of religious living accessible to some of the great minds of our day.  It is the task of the next theology to elaborate a spirit of faith and worship capable of operating in freedom from the burden of humanity’s many unrevealed, anthropological religious forms (including those which weigh heavily upon Judaism and Christianity).

“Hereafter shall each man see with his own eyes and shall produce some contribution to the treasures of religion.  Every sacred writing is in itself a speaking monument from the heroic time of religion, but, through servile reverence, it would become merely a monument that a great spirit once was there, but is now no more… You are right in despising the wretched echoes who derive their religion entirely from another, or depend on a dead writing, swearing by it and proving out of it (p.91).”