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?
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)