Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ponder the Problems with Providence

Sabio recently posted "Everything Happens for a Reason" where he explores the idea of Providence that was brought on by a Drew Brees interview. This subject has been near and dear to my heart for awhile now, but really came to the front during CPE. I posted a little bit on Free Will in April 2009 and later that spring with my Existential Crisis and again that fall with the post "There's no Such thing as Secular" but I never tackled the issue head on.. and I think it's time to do so.

Providence is defined as divine guidance or care: God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny. The word derives from the Latin noun providentia meaning "foresight, forethought" and is related to providere, "to provide for, take precautions for or against" something. Secularly used, it is the belief that there is a benevolent ordering principle governed the universe and human history and that nothing happens solely by chance or is merely haphazardly, but rather there is some guiding principle ordering things toward an end. 

If you listen closely enough, you'll hear all sorts of people make this claim, atheists included. For some like Richard Dawkins, the ordering principle is the biological process which ends in death and existence is largely accidental and while can be understood through the ordering principle, we are largely at the mercy of our genes and the entropic process and we all will live and die in a meaningless and godless life. For other atheists, the guiding principle is Math as math as upheld as the universal language of a passive yet ordered universe. we all have our rubrics to interpret this irrationally full existence with... some Christians have a "big daddy in the sky" rubric like Drew Brees.

The Pirate had a recent post (that he stole from Marcus Borg's book:The God We Never Knew) that described the problem with this view as opposed to a panenthestic approach. Yet this still doesn't deal with the problem of Providence. This notion taken optimistically can lead to the prosperity gospel or pessimistically of determinism or fatalism. One posits that all one has to do is believe and sometimes act a certain way and things come to you if you choose it while the other is marked by a passive sense of human resignation before the whimsy of uncontrollable fates. take your  pick really.

but is there a middle way? what does the bible say of God's providence? 

Starting off in Genesis, we are shown how God's providence starts in Creation, keeps through Abraham and Joseph, extends into the Exodus, is reinforced by the Dueteronomistic tradition (Josh through Judges), and then in statements like those in Proverbs 2. yet these aren't totally solid. God does not always provide.. well, at least provide what the people where hoping for. There's the multiple invasions by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans... there are the parts where God seemingly abandons God's people or behave punitively towards them (2 Sam 12:16-23, Job, Psalm 22:1,2 Luke 13:1-5, 2 Thess 1:9) and then there's the theological watershed of the Holocaust.

This problem has been around way before the Holocaust, way before modernism and the rather new debate as to where Evolution Leaves God and the problem is found within the Bible itself. Specifically the wisdom literature books such as Job and Ecclesiastes, both of which challenge the conventional understanding of God' unwavering providence. 

Job and Ecclesiastes both acknowledge the randomness of life's vicissitudes. They claim that there is no moral order of the universe, the wicked go unpunished and the good get trampled. The conclusion of both books is that we are not to assume anything personal about the providence of God according to one's life situation (Ecc 9:11-12). by personal we mean God caring about us personally, God rewarding and punishing us personally, God forgiving our sins personally, God hearing our prayers and responding personally. 

Then there's Jesus. Jesus claims that God is not only active in the world but more intimately personal than we have imagined!

  • God knows the number of hairs on our heads (Matt 10:29)
  • Not a bird falls from the sky outside of God's will (Matt 10:29)
  • A friend helps another friend and we have much more assurance that God will rise and help us (Luke 11:5)
  • A corrupt judge gives justice to a persistent widow, how much more assurance do we have that God will grant our petitions? (Luke 18:2)
  • Ask and it will be given, seek and we will find, knock and the door will be opened (Matt 7:7)
yet we also must acknowledge:
  • God may have numbered our hairs but God neither prevents them from falling out or turning grey.
  • Why is it God's will that a bird dies? I would have prefered "Knowledge" instead of will, what the heck does that mean?!
  • If God is inclined to rise when we need help, he do so many children go to bed hungry and die before morning?
  • How much time does it take for God to respond to our petitions?
  • If we ask, seek, and knock and don't like the results, or can't interpret God's answering, why doesn't God prevent us from getting disappointed in God and turning from faith and community? (just check out any one of the stories from the De-Cons for evidence.)
I've been reading a lot of Paul Tillich lately. In his sermon "The Meaning of Providence" Tillich states what providence is not. Providence is not a vague promise that everything will turn out for the best (it didn't for Jesus, Peter, or Paul). Providence is not being hopeful in every situation as some situations are hopeless. Providence is not the anticipation of happiness and goodness will come to humanity. Tillich concludes that all things work together for good, for the ULTIMATE good, the eternal love and the kingdom of God. Tillich states that the one constant in the world is suffering and that Faith is an active defiance of this. Through trusting that everything will turn out well, that God is in control despite the fact that we may meet an awful death is what counts. the obedience to a God we cannot understand nor even count on personally is the key.

i wonder if Jesus would agree with Tillich on Good Friday?

this leads me to believe what i thought before hand... that my thoughts, the various testimonies like Drew Brees and other believers and former believers, that even the testimony of scripture are not harmonious and even contradictory. all i have is a belief. all i have is how i interpret the world.

and isn't that what we all have? interpretations of our subjective experience? in this instance, i don't believe that we have any measurable way or objective data to find an answer to this question. for some to believe that things work out for the good, or at the very least that submission to the will of God (as found in Islam, Judaism and Christianity) or even just to the "natural way of things" (like Taoism or Buddhism) result in an interpretive framework for our experiences. this can lead to some questionable notions like spiritual elitism, spiritual warfare against other believers and nonbelievers, and an institutionalization more caught up in temporal power than spiritual insights. Sabio is right in his questioning of the results of this style of thinking (see his first chart in his post).

yet, i have witnessed the power of this time and time again in the ER and in the families of dying patients. the hope that this life isn't it.. that we shall meet again and be returned to the Spirit from which all things come. so once again, i am caught! I am living within the tension of a caring God who has brought me thus far yet doesn't  protect me from bad things happening. Maybe the problem lies not within the idea of providence but within my own interpretive framework. Death isn't the enemy but the natural conclusion to life. it sucks when it is cut short, but we must face our own mortality. 

not being afraid to die, isn't that a person we would want to keep alive? Someone who strives for justice in the face of oppression, unafraid of the consequences. Someone willing to question the conventional wisdom despite the consequences of their thoughts... people like Sabio and Ian who are atheists in a culture of theists. people like CoffeePastor and RJ and Jason and John who are various shades of Theists who seek and probe and challenge. people like Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and my more conservative brethren who risk stating that we aren't in control of our lives, that a bigger force is operating and left in human hands, we'd just screw it up. 

Yet i find myself having little patience with those who think they already have the answer and are at the extreme ends of this scale. Pat Robertson who can say God is punishing poor people from his rich mansion and TV studio. People like Richard Dawkins on the other side saying that believers are stupid, self-deluded  people. they can't enter the conversation because they can't see the limits of their own interpretive frameworks. both are assured of their correctness and will damn anyone who disagrees.

that isn't grace. that isn't loving thy neighbor. 

i know i stand leaning toward providence yet recognizing that God is God and I am not... thank God for that! if i had my druthers, Green Bay and Cleveland would win every Super Bowl, we'd have avatars telling us what to do like in Battlestar Galactica (where everything did work out for the better) and the world would be so simple it'd be boring. i much prefer this ambiguous life filled with such wonderful people... and even the not so wonderful. they help me learn what not to do.

Why do I side with providence? Because it is part of my life, i've experienced it and feel that there is no way i could have gotten to where i'm at today without some higher power guiding me through, putting people into my life, and speaking to me in a "Still Small Voice." this voice doesn't say i'm great, in fact, it often says "serve." or something else that i don't want to do. could be my super-ego talking, could be something else. maybe another way to look at it is that we hold onto our past and when similar situations arise we are able to draw from the past experience and make it work out better "this time around." it's all about how you picture time, some picture it linear, for me it's more of a spiral... things cycle in and out... all of this has happened before and will happen again. my job is to pay attention in the present moment and not have historical amnesia. look for the connections. could be called Providence, could be called being a student of history... either way works in my mind (because i'm simple and tend to combine things that maybe shouldn't be ;-))

okay.. ramble over... thanks for reading if you got this far.


Al said...

I think there are many things that we could call 'good', or 'God's will' that are dependent on the obedience of us humans. The upkeep of the planet, taking care of our brother, being part of the body of Christ--all require us to do the right thing.

Many times we are blessed by the goodness of other people, and many times we are able to be a blessing to others--either of which can in effect be taken as the providence of God since it is at his written or internal encouragement that we do these things. At the same time, if we (or others) don't follow that direction, that providence doesn't occur.

That still leaves the whole area of the supernatural or miraculous--things totally out of our hands. Some people solve that by saying none of those kind of things happen, period. But many people have examples of some outside intervention in their life. I don't know why or how sometimes a prayer is answered the way we want, other times it isn't. Not sure if I'm supposed to have the system figured out. I guess it would be handy to know all the rules, but that hasn't happened yet. And I don't expect it to.

So, sorry Luke. At best I'll ponder this along with you.

Anglican Gurl said...

All of this may be over my head but I know it was helpful knowing that my mom was going to a better place when she died of stomach cancer. It helped her knowing she had a purpose and that was to show how to stay strong in the faith and be an example to others in the face of adversity. I do not believe God gave her the cancer for this purpose but He did give her the strength to deal with it and she submitted herself to Him and was a great example to us all. She ministered to the medical team that was taking care of her. She helped our church get to a new place. For me, it has to be providence but I know that it is we who define and interpret it. God sets it, we respond to Him.

Sabio Lantz said...

I have a few cautions but perhaps you agree with them. I can't tell by your essay. You have a way of writing that seems to want to make everyone happy.

(1) You must differentiate (a) and (b):
(a) "ordering principle" (for certainly, a mechanism is an ordering principle. Natural selection is an ordering principle even though it is unintelligent and without direction.)
(b) "a guiding principle ordering things toward an end"

Please note that (a) does not equal (b). Your essay set up equivocation of these terms, I believe.

(2) You ask "What does the Bible say ..... [of God's providence]"?
But Luke, first, you have to tell us how you judge "What the Bible says" about anything. You have made clear you don't take it literally and that it can have human error. So, do I really have to care what it says? Can't I weigh it first against experience and reason? Then if those have nothing to say whatsoever, maybe I can decide how to weight the opinion of the multiple writers and editors of the Bible. You agree, I think that the bible is not composed of one theology. It has multitudes of conflicting theologies -- thus why the surprise with Job and Ecclesiastes.

(3) The OT, in particular is simple: Bad things happen to Israel because she is Bad, Good things happen to Israel when she is good. All this is written after the fact and used as a literary tool by her authors to say (a) let's keep our identity and (b) Please be good. How hard is that? Just because the Bible says it, don't mean it is true -- I know you agree. Genesis is a fable, the exodus is a myth and much more.

(4) Tillich may believe that in the long, long, long, long run everything will balance out for the best of all possible worlds. Tillich is wrong. Ooooops, that is opinionated, isn't it.

to be cont.

Sabio Lantz said...

(5) So, let me get this straight. You were touched by people in the ER believing that they will meet again. So? Just because you were touched, don't mean it is true. You would probably be touched by your daughter hoping to see Santa Clause flying his sleigh with reindeer (as would I). You are a guy who is easily touched. But we are discussing actual truth here, not metaphoric truth. Or maybe we aren't. Maybe you are hopping between those two truths and thus the essay does not appear coherent to me. Though it may be confessionaly convincing to others.

(6) How does Joel Osteen "RISK" anything by stating we aren't in control of our lives? He is getting rich and deceiving people with his prosperity gospel. He is spreading ignorance and naivety and robbing people while selling that garbage. Aren't you going out of your way a little too much to want to let everything be cool? Hell, you even pat Sabio on the back sometimes. What are you thinking?

I agree, if Dawkins says people are just outright stupid, it has gone too far. Criticizing and idea is different from criticizing a person.

In the end, I don't know what your essay says. You say you side with Providence -- meaning you think a god controls things for the better. OK, we differ in opinion. But I insist that you have no evidence. Nor do you have anyway to get evidence. But I get pure hope. But I think it is important to understand that you have no evidence. I believe that love is valuable and worth holding as a life standard. I have no evidence and am willing to admit it. Are you too, concerning Providence. I imagine you are, but just want to check in.

You feel, without providence, you could not have gotten where you are today. That is a common illusion. So what about all the miserable people, could they say, "Gee, I could not have been as miserable as I have been without an intervening god." Do you really want to stick with that subjective logic and ignore so much more of the obvious? For it is only the fortunate that can make your claim and use your logic.

Spiral time for miserable people is no cure either. It sounds cool but it doesn't solve anything.

Sorry, long reply. Just opinion, of course. I get how thinking all things work for the better -- as I put in my "pro and con" table. But I still disagree with the proposition though I understand its function.

Luke said...

"You have a way of writing that seems to want to make everyone happy."

just exploring the options found within my tradition and holding them in tension.. just like the Bible, not one theology emerges from it but a variety of options. Just like Erasmus has total free-will, Zwingli a little more destinity, Luther almost total destiny, and Calvin is not only total destiny, but it's double destiny! Check out Episode Two of Reformation the Sitcom for a brief overview.

"Please note that (a) does not equal (b). Your essay set up equivocation of these terms, I believe."

yikes! that is what i was trying to avoid. no equivocation meant!

"The OT, in particular is simple: "

not really. that'd be the Dueteronomistic Historian which runs largely from Duet through Joshua and Judges. The prophets pick up on them.. well some do. Parts of Isaiah and Jeremiah leave ya hanging and Jonah (my fave) is totally against 'em.

"Tillich is wrong."

oh, you have some foreknowledge or insight to our destinies? ;-)

"But I insist that you have no evidence. Nor do you have anyway to get evidence. But I get pure hope. "

aah.. there's the hammer drop. that's the whole point of the argument, neither side, free will or destined, has any evidence to back anything up. what i see is a debate on a clever turn of phrase where some believe 'everything happens for a reason' while other state "everything that happens can be reasoned.' big difference! and my answer is "yes!" both!

now this may seem like a cop-out. but i state that our scriptures have both (for those who take them as authoritative) our traditions have it (whether theological or scientific and some state it better than others (osteen and dawkins are embarrassing to many people and heroes to others) and even our experience isn't clear on it.

like Soren K stated "The problem with life is that we have to live it forward but we can only understand it backward." there are times where i stand and say "wow! this happened because x,y,z" and other times where i state "there's gotta be a reason for this happening.. maybe it's x,y,z...?"

i have no evidence... no one does. i have a rubric, it's "come what may, love anyway." when something hits me as "true" (metaphoric or empirically so) i embrace it. whether it be from Sabio and his heathen brethren (;-)) or from my conservative brothers and sisters in my own tradition, or those like Yael who are super-smart people in their own traditions which are much different from mine.

so if this essay sounded confused... GOOD! i am! and you are! and so is Al! and so is Anglican Gurl! holy hell, who's gonna help us?! ;-)

peace man.. thanks for the comments hope that clarifies, please point out the contradictory parts in the argument... cause one thing i do love about the scriptures is that in them it says "as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." good ol' proverbs! keep at it man, i love it! helps clarify my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Mark 10:43.

That be summing it up for me, even me parrot concurs! Serve those who you encounter. That be the trick with faith, you be thinking you are doing the favor but the favor is being done to you! Trust in the circumstances you find yourself in: ye have a particular skill set and interpretive frames to help in a unique way any place you find yourself in.

I be liking this metaphor from Albert Schweitzer: "He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, but the lakeside, he came to those who knew him not... and those who obey him, whether they be simple or wise, he will reveal himself in the tasks, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship and as in an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is."

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Luke:

That was a fun reply, thanx.
So, as is often useful, let's look at our agreement points:

(a) We all hold multiple contradictory beliefs in our minds and jump between them, often unbeknownst to ourselves.

(b) we are all confused.

(c) metaphorical models can help our lives whether they are actually true or not. [Luke likes to call this "metaphorical truth".]

(d) everything is colored by subjectivity, emotions, investments and cognitive illusions and limitations -- everything !

But there is a theme which I think is important to clarify. (Please be patient -- this is the first time trying to verbalize this and I am at work in pure medical analytic mode not my usual morning-bright-creative-mind. smile)

Approximating the Actual World

As I have written before, Tibetan monks, when doing classical philosophical debates as part of their monastic training, have a rule that the "level of truth" of a discourse must be declared to avoid confusion during a debate.

I think that is often one of our difficulties.

I see two potential confusing realms under discussion:

(1) Actual Reality (AR) -- or you come up with a term.

(2) Subjective Reality (SR) -- the models in individual heads

OK, so even on my posts I jump between discussing AR and SR -- but I try to keep them distinct while showing their connections. I often talk about differentiating between a belief's functional value and its propositional value.

Science (not only the hard sciences like physics but the soft-sciences like anthropology) assumes that AR can be approximated in useful ways. Good science realizes the limitations and is excited about having its theories overthrown and seeks contradictory data. But Good Science (note, I totally get the "scientism" issue) is like a finger pointing toward AR -- sure, it does not hold AR but it points and tests results and improves approximations and thus we have put humans in space and are very close to dispelling all sorts of silly prejudices against homosexuals.

It is in the spirit that I try and approach claims on your blog -- I am approaching their AR side.

So, now, let me give some examples.

(to be cont.)

Sabio Lantz said...

cont ...

Before proceeding, I must say that I am very glad that we both share a love of science and understanding of some of its methods. That is what makes this conversation possible and easy.

(1) Free Will
I think one confusion is that we are not distinguishing between the following:

(a) Mechanistic Determinism (MD)
(b) Spirit-controlled Determinism (ScD)

Agree, MD is still debated in philosophical circles and even physiologically. Interesting area but I am not up on the data, nor am I smart enough to really get it. But some folks hold that we have no free-will and that it is an illusion. They claim that each action is totally determined by previous states.

But this is MD -- no spirits in this story.

And people keep positing experiments to further explore MD and we are entering new realms with the advance of computers, for example.

Point: there are ways to slowly approach the AR side of MD with studies and tests. We are far off, but we agree on the issues.

BUT, for ScD, there is absolutely no way to test it and no way to approach it. But many religious folks claim ScD all the time -- albeit to varying degrees. But there is absolutely no way to begin to explore all these claims, as opposed to MD.

BTW I already watch the video months ago -- it was cute.

So, quoting Soren K is talking about SR, and when you way "Wow", you are describing a SR about possible ScD. I get that SR and I use to buy into it. Now I disagree, but in both cases, I want to emphasize that there is not testing or comparing expected for that claim. Whereas for MD, we are building models and doing tests little by little -- for that is the nature of AR - we can aim for it. But the spiritual realms discuss leave themselves totally clear of such possibilities. IMHO.

Your "rubric" of "come what may, love anyway" is all fine and poetic but it does not address the ScD that I was discussing. I get your emotions, but they aren't useful in discussing AR. I value emotions, motivations and love and such (as you know) but when doing work on AR (ie, science) we try to control for these things and take us from SR to AR.

(2) Bible
You are right. The canonized texts have a huge amount of different stories. I just characterized one. Good catch, good correction.

I think your essay sounds confused because you jump between talking about SR and AR and you further cloud it up with your poetic confessional affirmations. I am not trying to engage, in this conversation, in encouraging an inner walk. I am trying to talk about the actual outer world.

Hope this was clarifying so that you can easily find what we share and what we don't share at this point.

Luke said...


what a mind you have! fantastic post. i used to think that there was a difference b/t AR and SR, but think of it this way: without observers can AR exist?

this is the ol' zen notion of "if a tree falls in the forest..." so the AR would state that yes, it made a sound, judging by the height, density, and weight of the tree, the sound would be this many db's. that's a great model and i'm happy we have that. but i'm not after that type of discussion. i am interested in why the tree fell and whether or not it had any impact on the wider world.

in the case of humans, i don't think we could ever break out of SR into pure AR. we will always have our rubrics despite our best efforts to remove them. so instead of trying to get around this as if it were a problem, why not go into it? i think science is getting it now. here's why the tree falling affects you: could be evidence of new tree-plague, evidence of global warming, new species of tree ants, etc etc. plus i'm also interested in "fields."

This is where our current AR and MD models fail. when two or more are gathered, SOMETHING is in there midsts. emotional fields are generated and affect the plain, SR bleeds and effects the AR. at least in my mind and in many quantum and psychological types. now i see how MD is helpful when people aren't around yet i believe our disagrement comes in whether you can apply the rubric to people. you really can't determine what people are going to do, too many variables at play.

i'm reading a book by Peter Stienke called Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times which talks about fields and such and how science is beginning to be able to measure them, even if they are in hindsight.

that's why i'm very interested in things like inspiration, zeitgeists, "movement of the Holy Spirit" and whatever other words and phrases that are out there to describe it. i try to keep one eye trained on the sciences and AR (as close as i can manage in a given situation) and yet have one eye gauging the immeasurables and the SR and possibly the ScD if i can discern it.. and CPE has shown me that i'm pretty good at figuring this out...

good rubric dude. that's my addition and view on it. i hope it made sense with as little emotionalism and as much good science as i can muster. i am trying to be responsible to my tradition and what science is figuring out. when science disagrees vehemetly against the tradition, i drop or change the tradition. like how i used to be a creationist (freshman in h.s. thanks to biology class.. great teacher! she inspired me to minor in it in college) or thought Jonah could have literally been shallowed by the whale/big fish (no fish or whale's throat was ever big enough that would have existed in Jonah's time plus Jonah would have died in the stomach fluid anyway... oh.. and that story begins with the hebrew equiv of ONCE UPON A TIME... but that's all moot ;-)). i'm still working on seeing if providence works or not.. it seems to work for me and helps me put things together. the irrational fullness of life has taught me never to discard anything. you never know when you're going to need it again.