If one is convinced, as I am, that life on earth evolved according to mechanisms posited by the scientific consensus and also that the spontaneous order of the market is the best way of organising economic affairs currently available to us, what implications might there be for our understanding of the idea of “providence”, of God’s ongoing sovereign guidance of the world? How indeed are these ideas compatible with a traditional Christian doctrine of creation?
These, of course, are not new questions nor do I imagine that I will have anything very original to say about them but they are preoccupying me at present and I feel the need to write about them to put my thoughts in order.
1) I am convinced that part of the answer lies in the positing of two quite distinct temporal orders. God’s time is different from our time, although the two cannot be thought of as completely unconnected. For us time is bounded and uni-directional. For each of us individually, for our societies, our species, our planet, and even our universe, time has a beginning and it will have an end and we move through it from one to the other. God’s time cannot have that same character. If we accept the idea of God as creator then God must exist outside this flow of time as its ground and origin. (However hard this may be to conceive.)
2) Within historical time there appears to be a good deal of scope for human action to make a difference. We see cases where it is hard not to conclude that it would have been possible for decisions to be made that would have led to outcomes other than those that actually came to pass. Our sense of moral responsibility could not survive another conclusion and is central to (most) Christian teaching and accords with the sense of most other people. It is impossible for us to accept the idea that all our actions are determined by a sovereign God who decides who we will be and what we will do.
3) On the other hand on the grand historical scale it is hard to conclude that most processes and large scale developments do not come about through the conscious will of any or all of those who take part in them. We feel powerless to reshape our world and explain history using categories and structures at a level well above that of the single decision maker. The current disaffection from politics and distrust of politicians expresses this feeling of powerlessness. History seems impersonal, a “second nature” with its own laws.
4) This sense of the social sphere as subject to objective laws is reinforced by our experience of markets. Here agents exchange good abstracting to various degrees from their identities and using a universal means of exchange (money) that means that their interaction can in principle be narrowed down to the single event of purchase and sale. From the total mass of these exchanges a complex structure of economic life can be organised without the need of a central directing agency. It is impossible for anyone to know everything that is going on, as the difficulties of econometrics testifies. There is no one in charge, at the largest scale.
5) Some seek to reinstate providence at this level using some version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. God is to be found in the, to us, anonymous order to be found at the higher levels of abstraction and organisation. The flow of goods and services in the total economy or the progress of history as viewed from the point where it can be observed in retrospect. I find this unsatisfactory because these processes and systems are so clearly not perfect, not just, not peaceful, not in short Godlike. Were God already fully in charge surely the present could not look as it does?
6) The most promising line of thought for me is to suggest that this is the reason the idea of resurrection is so indispensable. God’s action in and on the world is not yet completed. God’s promise is that at the end of our time, which is already present in God’s time, all will be (is) well. It is only at the end, at the resurrection, that these two times will coincide but because both are present to God the promise is a sure one, rather than a conditional one. All is well because all will be well.
7) This leaves open the relationship between our responsibility and God’s action in the present. God is able to promise reliably because God is already at the end of time as well as in the present. Our hope depends on God’s act of promise, based on God’s linking of the time of the promise and the time of its fulfillment. Our hope does not depend on our belief either that we are or should be able to impose our will on historical development nor on our belief that we can observe things getting better in a progressive way. Our hope depends only on our trust in God’s promise.
8) In this sense belief in providence is not a conviction that God will act in the present to protect or to care for us, although we can have such a hope. It is rather analogous to the implicit promise in children’s films that there will be a happy ending, that the characters we care about most will be all right in the end. We encourage our children to endure the upset of their identification with characters who are suffering or in danger because “it will be all right in the end”. Perhaps trust in providence is rather like that.