The Doctrine of Providence during Coronatide
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
After the nineteenth psalm opens by praising the way that the cosmos is redolent of divine design, the psalmist goes on to praise the perfection of the Lord’s Law — precepts, ordinances, decrees, commandments — according to which the Lord has ordered the house of Israel and even directed the psalmist’s own life for the psalmist’s good. That human beings can discern God’s ordering in creation is a theme the apostle Paul takes up as well to set the initial bait-and-switch of judgment and culpability in the first few chapters of Romans: “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made. So they [that is, the Gentiles, the ones to whom God did not reveal the divine name at Sinai, the ones who are not the chosen, covenanted people, the ones whose flesh God did not take as God’s own, the ones, Paul believes, who know about God primarily by inference from creation] are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
Yet are they? Discerning to what degree Gentiles are truly culpable under natural law — figuring out whether we can infer enough of God’s intentions for us by interpreting our empirical observations with our natural capacity for moral judgment, enough to merit damnation — would require of me far more reading in the natural law tradition than I have the interest to sustain. However, I can at least say that this was a truth in which Paul was sufficiently confident to wager the rhetorical efficacy of the first thrust of his letter to the Romans upon it.
Though this theological move has at least some relation to the various ways in which the doctrine of creation might be formulated, as a doctrine of Providence it has two main parts: one ontological, the other epistemological. The ontological claim is that the cosmos has been and is ordered by God for God’s purposes; the epistemological claim is that this divine ordering is perspicuous, that by beholding the cosmos God’s creatures must conclude that God has ordered it to be this way (and not another).
Some form of the doctrine of Providence has been a persistent feature of most theologies, from the formal productions of the great systematicians to the espoused statements which proceed from operant popular religiosity. No less a theologue than Aubrey Drake Graham won a Best Rap Song Grammy for his contention on the billion-and-a-half times streamed hit “God’s Plan” that the bad things his enemies were wishing upon him had no power to thwart the outworking of God’s plan for @champagnepapi’s life (specifically, making beaucoup bucks off of uninspired music and then giving some of them away during the filming of the music video of the aforementioned single), and since Drake is a Jew we must assume that by God he intends to refer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Similarly, for both the famous and the unknown, to slide the hashtag #blessed (that ecstatically ambiguous participle) at the end of a social media post is to imply that divine favor is somehow exactly as implicated in your conspicuously curated couture as your #hustle is, a habit of thought Americans inherited from the Puritan pilgrims-cum-colonists whose work-ethic theology Max Weber identified as midwifing the capitalist ethos into being.
When things take a turn for the worse whether for ourselves or for others, we still tend to see agency behind tragedy regardless of what that says about the agent in question. If those pesky and hard-working Calvinists (upon whom Weber blamed capitalism) were willing to name God even as the one who elects from eternity to condemn most of God’s human creatures to everlasting, conscious torment, how much more were they willing to describe God’s sovereign and inscrutable Providence as the efficient cause of everything else!
But to claim “God is in control” is to risk getting caught up in a never-ending sequence of What-abouts: what about my relative’s cancer, was God in control of that? What about the billion folks who live in desperate poverty, is God in control of their lives too? What about the sacred black flesh so quickly and thoughtlessly violated by a system designed to protect whiteness, is God in control of that? In our morally disordered cosmos, the strong form of the doctrine of providence — that God has caused what is the case to be so and that this is something anyone could infer — seems more like the province of blasphemers than the faithful.
Though something like this doctrine of providence is very common in the tradition, it is by no means the only voice. In the theological masterpieces like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (the latter of which was a deep influence on the former) it is not the good God — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — who pulls the Fates’ strings but capricious Fortuna upon whose wheel we are spun, giving us good and bad luck in cycles which defy prediction. Boethius was well qualified to recognize the caprice in Fortuna’s spins: a patrician courtier in late-antique, Ostrogothic Rome, he went from being a senator, consul, and magister officiorum (the head of the government) to rapidly falling from power to being imprisoned and tortured unto death. Though Boethius defends a notion of divine simplicity which includes omnipotence among the divine perfections in Consolation (which he wrote in prison), it is not God but Fortuna he sees as responsible for his loss of position. (A fortiori, it was more likely a blind spin of the Wheel of Fortune — or perhaps a spiteful flick of the Upshot’s prediction needle — that landed a narcissistic reality show host in the Oval Office than a good God’s will to bring forth a “King Cyrus” for God’s own ends.) The Boethian protagonist of Confederacy, Ignatius J. Reilly, repeatedly refers to Fortuna as the “bitch-goddess,” “blind and heedless,” “depraved, degenerate, and drunken,” as likely to crush us beneath her wheel’s spokes as to raise us on high to good fortune, leaving Ignatius with no choice other than to go to the movies, regardless which way the wheel spins.
In another theological masterpiece, called Qoheleth in Hebrew but which we call Ecclesiastes which is the Hellenization of the putative author’s Hebrew title which could be translated Teacher, Gatherer, or even Preacher, God and Fortuna are something more like the same character. To his credit, Qoheleth didn’t make the same mistake as the Calvinists in thinking that such a deity could also meaningfully be called good. The God of Ecclesiastes dispenses good and bad indiscriminately, giving wealth but not the ability to enjoy it (Eccl. 6:1–6), placing eternity in our hearts without a sense of the divine plan (3:11), making us for meaningless vanity and toil (1:2–3, 13–14) but also giving us the good gifts of food, drink, and companionship (2:24–26; 4:5, 7, 9–12) and all that with only the barest hint of divine interest in justice of any kind (3:17). Ecclesiastes 7:14 might be read as his programmatic statement: “In the day of prosperity be joyful; and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.”
These days, “Everything Happens for a Reason” theology doesn’t even seem to require belief in God; it has been easily reformatted to fit within the immanent frame of our secular age. Whether the malevolent forces supposed to be toying with the world are thought to be the shadowy network alleged by the Plandemic video to be doing harm through vaccines (perhaps affiliated with the Gates-Soros-New World Order plot to insert microchips into the sinuses of those being tested for COVID?) or are the scientists who either invented or accidentally spread COVID — depending on which theory you’re reading — the preference is for belief in a nearly omnipotent and certainly wicked agency being responsible for this mass tragedy rather than for acceptance that it is callously accidental, totally unnecessary, the brute consequence of many holding power at various levels of the governments of the United States and China being more interested in protecting themselves and their power than doing right by the people of the world, that it’s simply an unpleasant side effect we are forced to deal with alongside the “benefits” that neoliberal globalization claims it has ushered into the world.
Ironically, the conspiracy theorist’s imagination — powers and principalities ruling this world who are at best indifferent and at worst seeking to do harm — is a near facsimile of the early Christian Weltanschauung (worldview), as found for example in the New Testament: the God-Man has come to liberate the world from the powers of Sin and Death which hold it captive, and has assured his victory through cross and resurrection; all creation now awaits its eventual consummation with its Lover-Lord, but the subordinated powers rage in the meantime like petty and spiteful bureaucrats waiting to get fired.
Where good Christian theology differs from the secularized powers-and-principalities ideology of conspiracy theorists (who tend to be long overdue for a walk and some fresh air) and differs as well from the forms of Providence which seem to make evil part of the divine command economy is in how it is that we believe our Lord exercises his rule over the cosmos. He didn’t consider equality with God as something to be clung to or jealously guarded. His mother, first among Christians, had the opportunity to turn down her invitation to be the Theotokos, God’s Mother. He didn’t accept the reins to the shadowy network of kingdoms when Satan offered them to him, and he never forced anyone to be his follower. When Judas and the authorities came to take him away, he shut down Peter’s attempt at violent resistance and offered himself, making his own giving of himself for us more determinative of his passion than the authorities’ seizure of his flesh for their ends. At every step of the way, he wasn’t the one in control, wasn’t exercising power. The image of him which is most deeply imprinted into our minds is a helpless, defeated, and dying man nailed down, completely self-abandoned and humiliated.
Thus, to hold onto an idea of God as the agent of history tugging on the fates’ threads, as the one in control, as the Law-&-Order God, is to deny the divinity of the crucified Jesus, to deny that he is the revelation of who God is. However it is that God is letting the world know that it has been reconciled to Godself through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit in the church, however it is that God is making the world to resemble more closely the coming Kingdom, we can not faithfully and truthfully say it is because “God is in control.” What we must say instead is that the God revealed in Christ Jesus is our vulnerable lover who woos us back to himself without coercion, without violence, and without control.