Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Trusting to Goodness Will Always Outwit You

Charles M. Schultz, in one of his inimitable cartoons many years ago (I don’t recall if it was a “Peanuts” strip or one of his other creations), gave one of his characters the line, “Trusting to goodness isn’t theologically sound.” I have always thought that was great spiritual as well as practical advice.

In the last sentence of the Declaration of Independence, the signers, “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” pledged each to each other their lives and their Sacred Honour. As Charles M. Schultz understood, that was not a theologically sound move. At least it was not one rooted in Biblical terminology.

Just as the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God can be found nowhere in the Bible, so the idea of Divine Providence is missing from the King James Version. The word Providence occurs once in the KJV, in Acts 24.2:

“And when he was called forth, Tertullus began to accuse him [PAUL], saying, ‘Seeing that by thee we enjoy great quietness, and that very worthy deeds are done unto this nation by thy providence…’”

The “worthy deeds” are those of Felix, the Roman Governor of Judea, not the deeds of Divine Providence. One might well ask, if Divine Providence is not spoken of in the KJV, where Jefferson and company got the idea—and why Americans today assume it is a “Christian” concept.

An etymological description of the word:

1382, "foresight, prudent anticipation,"
from O.Fr. providence (12c.),
from L. providentia "foresight, precaution,"
from providentem (nom. providens), prp. of providere.
Providence (usually capitalized) "God as beneficient caretaker," first recorded 1602.

That the word is first used to mean an attribute of God in written English only as early as 1602 should be an indication that any theological use is probably not Biblically based. Not being a Greek or Hebrew scholar, I can’t say, of course, if other words in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures could be translated as Providence. I can only say that, according to the Bible Jefferson and company knew, Divine Providence is, in Shultz’s words, “not theologically sound.”

The idea of Providentialism is one of the hallmarks of Puritan thought. It is predicated on a belief in predestination. As Jefferson Decker succinctly puts it, “At its heart is the Calvinist idea of Providence—the notion that God gives order and direction to our lives, and that the cosmos ultimately makes sense.” [Jefferson Decker. Book Review of Something for Nothing: Luck in America, by Jackson Lears. Boston Review, Summer 2003.] A great deal of heavy-duty scholarship is available on the topic. Two books are much-discussed in the literature.

In its marketing of a book (2000) by Alexandra Walsham, Oxford University Press of London says,

Providence in Early Modern England is the most extensive study to date of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century belief that God actively intervened in human affairs to punish, reward, warn, try, and chastise. Providentialism has often been seen as a distinctive hallmark of puritan piety. However, Dr Walsham argues that it was a cluster of assumptions which penetrated every sector of English society, cutting across the boundaries created by status and creed, education and wealth…. She shows how providence helped forge a powerful myth of Protestant nationhood and a lively sense of confessional identity…”

Note: The other important book on the subject is Michael Winship’s Seers of God: Puritan Providentialism in the Restoration and Early Enlightenment (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

So Providentialism is a “cluster of assumptions which penetrated every sector” of the society the Puritans brought with them to New England. Somehow this non-Biblical idea (I suppose that’s a bit strong—simply because the word doesn’t appear, one cannot assume that something like the concept can’t be constructed Biblically) had taken on the force of New Testament theology in Puritan New England. All one has to remember is that Roger Williams named his new city in Rhode Island Providence, and the extent of the concept's currency is obvious(whether or not it was Providential of God to allow the King to be beheaded and Cromwell to rule in England for a period of years depends on which side one was on in the British Civil War, which delayed the actual granting of Williams' charter to establish his colony).

Somehow (and I have no authority as a historian to say how) this Puritan doctrine took hold in the minds of Enlightenment thinkers such as Jefferson who had little truck with other Puritan ideas. It is a concept that, as a physicist friend of mine used to say, is an “interesting theorem- needs proof.” It is not, I think, a self-obvious idea. As Martin Copenhaver writes,

But even when we cite evidence to support our claims of divine intervention, we must also grant that there could be alternative explanations. Perhaps the disease is in remission for reasons that have nothing to do with the prayers that have been offered…. Perhaps we should thank our lucky stars that our enemies did not prevail. After all, if we do not affirm the role of chance, how are we to explain why countless people die of horrible diseases despite abundant prayers, why thousands are killed in auto accidents and why enemies often prevail? If belief in providence is a kind of conspiracy theory, there are times when it is not difficult to find holes in it.

[Martin B. Copenhaver. “A Conspiracy of Deliverance.” Christian Century 111.25, 9/7/94.]

Anyone who expects her Christianity to reflect Biblical tradition needs, I think, to be careful not to mix up popular ideas from the American “civil religion” with ideas found in the scriptures.

Jesus said,

"Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they…. And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these…. Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?”

However, he was not saying that all of our life (especially our life together as Americans) is unfolding through a Divine Plan that will preserve us no matter what. There may well be a Divine Plan, but it has a couple billion other folks to take care of, too.

Obviously, one of the impediments to Divine Providence is our own inability to be faithful to it through trials and temptations. Writing about the role of trial and temptation in our common experience, Neils Gregersen says,

…they may disturb our preconceptions about what a ‘real’ life should be, if it is to display a 'divine design,' as it was called in the Enlightenment era (and today primarily appealed to by neo-evangelicals)… the issue begins to shatter the modem religion of success and general progressivism, the remains of a Puritan providentialism.

[Niels Henrik Gregersen. “Trial and temptation: An essay in the multiple logics of faith.” Theology Today, October 2000.]

What Jesus did not say was that Divine Providence would take charge of the world in such a way that either those who fomented revolution in the British Colonies—or their descendents—would always and forever be favored over all other peoples. Trusting to that sort of goodness “is not theologically sound.” Jefferson may have believed it, but anyone basing her beliefs on the New Testament should be a bit skeptical.


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At 7:57 AM, Anonymous beth ellen said...

I am wondering whether or not Jefferson, Williams, et al understood that this concept was NOT biblical. If so, it would be difficult to argue that these men envisioned a government based on biblical principles.
I do believe that God is involved in my life in a personal way, even though there are a few billion others on the planet, so that one line did cause me some discomfort. However, I have never believed that He cares for me MORE than the several billion other non-believers, or that He loves this country more than others.
Many of our conservative, evangelical friends would be very surprised to learn that so much of this theology, including the currently popular interpretation of Revelation, is only a few hundred years old. I hope to learn more about this.


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