Providence: What’s Happening to the Future in America?

Providence: What’s Happening to the Future in America?

Why Providence?  Why bother to explore and get clear about this particular stately, old-fashioned idea?  Admittedly, I’m going on a hunch in this whole exploration.   My hunch is that people, including me, have doubts about the course of that history is taking.  Western society is skeptical about the world’s security and destiny.   That doubt casts a pall over life.

Creeping Unease About the Future

Two thousand, seventeen is a tough year to live in.  It is as if “All the Good Times are Past and Gone.”  The weather appears to be getting relentlessly hotter each year.  Traditional jobs are  less and less available and the sense of purpose that people get through work is harder and harder to come by.  The opioid epidemic appears to me to hold a deep despair at its heart.   There’s a growing political outlook in much of Europe and the United States that is deeply skeptical about the future.  Someone has observed that the phenomena of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns—both outside the political mainstream—represent a widespread desire to, speaking figuratively, burn down Washington.  Behind the White nationalist movement is despair for where history seems headed and a retreat into ethnic tribal heritage.  Perhaps most importantly, about a quarter of Americans are willing to say that they don’t wish to be affiliated with any religious tradition.  We’re living in the midst of a creeping despair about where our lives are headed.

What Does Faith Teach About the Nature and Destiny of the World?

I need to freshen my acquaintance with what faith has to say about where the world is going.  In many of the episodes of Jesus’ life, he insists that the world is much friendlier and much less tragic than people assume.  I want to know more about that world.  Hence providence.   But what is providence?

Providence, a word often capitalized, is one of those grand old religious terms that is almost a proxy for God’s activity.  If you use a concordance to look up all the instances of the word in the Bible, you’ll find that it appears once in the King James Bible—Acts 24.2.   When the update of the King James Bible came, the RSV, the word providence was dropped and replaced by foresight.  It’s pretty safe to say that Providence isn’t a biblical word.  It falls into that category of concepts that are important to us, or our forebears, but that don’t have a clear presence in the Bible.  One should be suspicious of any discussion of the “biblical” meaning of providence.  What happens with such exercises is that authors and teachers bring, consciously or unconsciously, their own definition of providence and selectively comb the scriptures for instances that reinforce what they already think.

It’s also difficult to get clear on what we think, or what I think providence means.  The word is like a cloud.  The edges are vague.  You know when you’re in the cloud.  But it is difficult to say conclusively when you’re entering or exiting.  Pretty much at the center of the cloud that is providence is the idea of God’s intervention in the events of the world.  Most people use the word to refer to God’s management of events.  I like the idea of God creating with what he has created.  Predestination lies at the edge of the providence cloud.  Predestination has to do with God’s determined plan for an individual.  Theologian Karl Barth has it that predestination is logically prior to providence.  God’s plan for persons predates God’s creation, and therefore, management of the world.

I read the almost book-length article on providence in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Most of the article deals with the Problem of Evil.   There’s much else in addition to evil in that article.  What I take from that encyclopedia article is that providence is that activity of God, that in some way overcomes evil or pain in the world, either by warding it off before it happens or by transforming it once it happens.  The Wikipedia article on Divine Providence is a survey of how various Christian traditions have seen God’s preserving and guidance of the world.

We Should Start by Getting Clear on How We Think about Providence

I think that the best way to begin learning about a complex concept like providence is to start with how we use the word in our own thinking and conversation.  Often when events, especially ones that are fraught with hazards, turn out surprisingly well, I think in retrospect that God has in control all along.  Providence needn’t entail a lurid miracle, like the dividing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14).  God seems to exercise his providence by inserting little miracles, coincidences or fortuitous happenings that prevent the expected hazards from defeating some process.  Christians see the preservation of the biblical record through the centuries as providential.  Having a reliable text of the Bible is a miracle that other ancient writings don’t enjoy.

There is a mysterious quality about God’s providence, at least in my use of the concept.  Providence points to God’s agency that has a history-changing impact without the benefit of violent suspension of natural law.  It is almost as if God works on a molecular level to make the smallest of changes which have grand results.  People tell stories of, let’s say, being dislocated and having to move their residence.  But—as is often part of such stories—upon arriving in the new place, the displaced person finds a job and house waiting for him which didn’t require the usual inconvenience, expense, and wait.    People will feel gratitude to God that what began as a difficult turn of events turns out to be much more favorable than expected.  Implicit in this idea of providence is a mysterious but powerful operation of God’s intervention in the natural order to turn events in a beneficial direction.

Prayer Has a Role

Prayer has a role in influencing God and God’s exercise of providence.  Usually when we reach the end of our ability to control events, we pray that God will somehow change what is looking inevitable and disastrous.  A common expression is that “God makes a way when there is no way.”

People who don’t pray or don’t see a god involved in the minutiae of daily life certainly also have experiences where events turn out unusually well.  They will use terms as fortuitous, lucky, or unexpected to describe what has happened.   For believers, the thought that there is a mind and compassion behind events lends a certain enchantment to life’s events.  Life isn’t governed by grim inevitability or statistical probability.  Sometimes events, by some glorious mystery originating outside the sphere earthly life, bear a lightness of goodness, truth, or beauty that is unexplainable and only attributable to God.

Somewhere I’ve heard that theology divides neatly into the two categories of creation and redemption.  Given what I’ve said, I’d place providence in the category of creation.  Providence bears a resemblance to the creativity of God.  Providence is a kind of ongoing creativity.  Redemption, especially in evangelical thinking, is God’s rescue of people from sin and death through correct application of the benefits of Jesus’ death.   I realize that this is simplistic.   I’m guessing that–for many of us–the two tracks run independently of one another.

What I’ve written so far are main ideas, which I’ve collected about God’s providence over the years.   Writing these down provides something clear to compare with biblical texts.  My concept of providence will become deeper if I will compare it with stories and teachings from the Bible that appear to be about God’s management of events.

More to Come

I’d like to do just this in coming posts.  What indeed does the Bible have to teach us about providence and how might this cast a light on what for many of us is a murky future.

What I think I’m saying in this post is that if we could understand how God manages and sustains the world, we’d put ourselves in a position to navigate in the world more hopefully and effectively–which would be refreshing in this stressful time.

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