The Problem With Providence

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Over the last year I have received a lot of critical e-mails questioning my faith because I am not willing to assert that Donald Trump is God’s anointed servant to save America from the liberals (mostly Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama).

In the last couple months, I have also received e-mails from Christian anti-Trumpers who write to tell me that COVID-19 is God’s punishment on the United States for electing Donald Trump.

Even if you believe in the Christian doctrine of providence,  as I do, both of these positions are theologically problematic.

Does it make theological sense to invoke providence in political debates? Should we build our approach to politics and government on this doctrine? How do we reconcile providential claims–and the sense of certainty that comes with them–with St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13: 12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”  The Christian scriptures teach that God is the “blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords” who “lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” (1 Tim. 6:15-15). And let’s not forget Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,/ neither are your ways my ways,’ / declares the LORD.’ / ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, / so are my ways higher than your ways / and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

St. Augustine is helpful here. In book 20 of The City of God against the Pagans, he reminds us what Christians can and cannot know about God’s work in the world. History will end with the glorious triumph of the Son of God. But as we live with this hope, we must be cautious about trying to pinpoint the specific plan of God in history. We must avoid trying to interpret what is hidden from us or what is incomprehensible, because our understanding is so limited. As Augustine writes,

There are good men who suffer evils and evil men who enjoy good things, which seems unjust, and there are bad men who come to a bad end, and good men who arrive at a good one. Thus, the judgments of God are all the more inscrutable, and His ways past finding out. We do not know, therefore, by what judgment God causes or allows these things to pass.

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who had a strong view of God’s providential ordering of the world, warned us about trying to get too specific in explaining the ways in which God’s work manifests itself in the world. In his book, American Providence, the late theologian Stephen Webb notes, Barth went so far in “advising restraint, modesty, and caution in the use of this doctrine that he nearly undermines his own insistence on its importance.”

The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was also clear about what Christians can and cannot know about the will of God in human history. Luther always erred on the side  of mystery: God is transcendent and sovereign; humans are sinful and finite. During the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther was quite candid about the human quest to understand God’s purposes in the world. “That person, Luther wrote, “does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.”

When it comes to politics, Christians would do better to embrace an approach to citizenship with a sense of God’s transcendent mystery, a healthy dose of humility, and  a hope that one day soon, but not now, we will all understand the Almighty’s plans for the nations. We should again take comfort in the words of Augustine: “When we arrive at that judgment of God, the time of which in a special sense is called the Day of Judgment,…it will become apparent that God’s judgments are entirely just.” The will of God in matters such as these often remain a mystery. As theologian Charles Mathewes notes, “The lesson of providence is not that history can be finally solved, like a cryptogram but that it must be endured, inhabited as a mystery which we cannot fully understand from the inside, but which we cannot escape of our own powers.

I like to season any providential invocations with words like “perhaps” or “maybe” or “might.” Or as theologian N.T. Wright has argued, “When Christians try to read off what God is doing even in their own situations, such claims always have to carry the word perhaps about with them as a mark of humility and of the necessary reticence of faith. That doesn’t mean that such claims can’t be made, but that they need to be made with a “perhaps” which is always inviting God to come in and say, ‘Well, actually, no.'”

Randall Stephens Reviews Michael Medved’s New Book on America and Divine Providence

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Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know the name Randall Stephens for his historian’s baseball cards and Christian Right photo-shops of Library of America covers.  Check out the Randall Stephens Collection here.

Randall is also an excellent historian of American evangelicalism. Some of you may recall our interview with him in Episode 38 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  We talked about his book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Stephens currently teaches American and British Studies at the University of Oslo.

Over at The Washington Post, Stephens reviews God’s Hand on America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era, the latest book by conservative pundit, film critic, and radio host Michael Medved.  Here is a taste:

It’s one thing to appreciate how religion or ideas about providence inspired Americans in the 1860s or the 1890s. It’s quite something else to say that modern Americans should read the distant past as confirmation of the nation’s divine appointment. Medved wonders why Americans are not more thankful “for winning life’s lottery through your American birth or upbringing.” America being blessed by God, he writes, may defy “the ordinary odds but conforms to our lived experience.” That perspective, while full of hope and optimism, amounts to a selective reading of the past. It ignores a large swath of the U.S. population such as African Americans and Native Americans whose lived experience often has not felt like winning a lottery.

Medved’s style of popular conservative history is in large measure defined by what he leaves out. The shameful, racist, violent aspects of the American narrative are swept away or excused. He gives little attention to the treatment of Native Americans, the crucial role slavery played in the country’s development, wars of imperial expansion and colonial acquisition, and the horrors and follies of the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

In his celebration of the glories of the Transcontinental Railroad, Medved makes little or no room for discussion of the exploitation of workers, unfair and criminal business practices, the destruction of wildlife and natural habitats, or discrimination against Chinese immigrants. Those, too, are essential parts of the story. The racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned immigration of Chinese laborers, is not even mentioned. How should modern Americans read these episodes, which earlier Americans explained and justified in explicitly religious terms?

Read the entire review here.

Thoughts on Rick Perry’s Claim that Donald Trump is the “Chosen One”

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In 2006, while serving as governor of Texas, Rick Perry was asked whether non-Christians will spend eternity in hell. “I don’t know that there’s any human being that has the ability to interpret what God and his final decision-making is going to be,’ Perry said.  He added: “That’s what the faith says. I understand, and my caveat there is that an all-knowing God certainly transcends my personal ability to make the judgment black and white.”

I am not sure if Perry really believed this, or if it was just a fancy piece of political footwork to avoid making him look intolerant, but his answer revealed a certain degree of humility and an affirmation of the mystery of God.

Last month Perry did an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.  He told the story a Christian “prophet” who  prophesied in 2011 that Perry would one day be in the Oval Office with his grandson. Perry assumed that this meant he would be elected President of the United States.  “If you want to make God laugh,” Perry told CBN, “tell Him your plans.”  (Around the time of this interview Perry and his grandson got a picture taken with Trump in the oval office. This moment, Perry believed, was the real fulfillment of the prophecy).

Again, Perry’s answer reveals his belief that human beings do not know the will of God in every circumstance.  God’s plans are not our plans.

For a man who, at least in these two cases, appealed to the mystery of God and the inability of humans to understand His will, Perry seems pretty certain about God’s will when it comes to the presidency of Donald Trump.

Many of you by this point have seen Perry’s interview with Fox News in which he describes Donald Trump as “the chosen one” and rehashes what is now a common Christian Right talking point about how God uses flawed vessels to carry out His will.

Most Christians, to one degree or another, believe that God orders the world according to His purposes.  In the Fox interview Perry says that “God is very active in the details of the day to day lives of government.” I agree. But Perry seems to know exactly what God’s activity in government looks like.  Perry arrogantly believes that he knows why Donald Trump was elected.  In the interview he suggests that Trump was chosen by God to advance the Christian principles upon which the nation was founded and uphold the moral values that have defined the Christian Right for the past four decades. There are other evangelicals who have used the same belief to suggest that demonic forces are driving Trump’s political opponents.  (I am guessing that Perry believes this too).

For Christians who believe in divine providence, politics present a conundrum.  As believers, we want to know God’s will for our lives. We spend time in prayer and meditation trying to discern what He is calling us to do in the circumstances of our lives.

So if we try to discern providence in our spiritual lives, what is wrong with trying to do the same in the realm of politics?

Rick Perry and others who seem to think that Christians should rally around Donald Trump because he is “the chosen one” must be willing to reconcile their certainty about Trump with St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.”  Perry offers a simple and direct reading of providence in American life that assumes an understanding of the secret things of God, things that sinful men cannot fathom outside of the scriptures.  Appeals to providence in public life not only lead to bad politics in a pluralistic society, but they also represent bad theology.

St. Augustine is helpful here.  In Book 20 of The City of God Against the Pagans, he reminds us what Christians can and cannot know about God’s work in the world.  The Scriptures teach us that history will end with the glorious triumph of the Son of God.  Christians put their hope in Christ’s return.  But as we live with this hope, we must be cautious about trying to pinpoint the specific plan of God in history.  We must avoid trying to interpret what is hidden from us or what is incomprehensible because our understanding is so limited.  As Augustine writes:

There are good men who suffer evils and evil men who enjoy good things, which seems unjust, and there are bad men who come to a bad end, and good men who arrive at a good one.  Thus, the judgments of God are all the more inscrutable, and His ways past finding  out. We do not know, therefore, by what judgment God causes or allows these things to pass.

Perhaps Ambrose Bierce best described Perry’s brand of providential politics when, in his Devil ‘s Dictionary, he defined providence as an idea that is “unexpectedly and consciously beneficial to the person so describing it.”  Indeed, I didn’t hear many on the Christian Right talking about how Barack Obama or Bill Clinton were God’s “chosen ones.”

Maybe God has put Donald Trump in his position of power.  My weak-kneed Calvinism leads me to at least entertain such an idea.  But I also reject Christian’s ill-conceived propensity for trying to discern with certainty the purposes of a sovereign God and then use such conclusions to serve political or cultural ends.  I am reminded of the words of Valparaiso University moral philosopher Gilbert Meilaender in his book The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life:

What God is accomplishing in that period stretching from the time of Christ to the final judgment is largely hidden from us.  Our task ,then, is less to look for signs of the times than to be patient, to wait for God–and, along the way, to carry out our duties faithfully.

What does it mean to “carry out our duties faithfully” in the age of Trump? Part of our responsibilities as Christians is to live and speak prophetically.  For believers, God’s will has been revealed to us through the scriptures.  The Bible has much to say about the poor, the refugee, the widows, and how we must treat those who do not share our race or ethnicity.  When our leaders blatantly lie to us, we must stand firm on the side of truth.  We are called to defend life and the dignity of human beings.  We must speak out against those things that harm the witness of the Gospel in the world.

Perry and the rest of the Trump evangelicals would do better to approach their understanding of politics with a sense of God’s transcendent mystery, a healthy dose of humility, and a hope that one day soon, but not now, we will all understand why Donald Trump was President of the United States.  We should again take comfort in the words of Augustine: “When we arrive at that judgment of God, the time of which in a special sense is called the Day of Judgment…it will become apparent that God’s judgments are entirely just.”

Two final thoughts on Perry’s statement:

1. Perry says he gave Trump a one-page sheet describing three Old Testament kings who God used despite their flaws:  Saul, David, and Solomon.  Indeed, God did use these flawed men to serve His purposes in the ancient world.  But if you are going to play the “God uses sinful men” card, then you also need to tell the entire story.

For example, when God’s decided to give the Israelites a king in the person of Saul, he was making a compromise with His people by offering a solution to their problems.  It was an imperfect solution. There was a price to pay for such a compromise, as God warned that there will be a day when “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam. 8:18).  The Israelites believed Saul would be more effective than God (or his prophet Samuel) in protecting them from their enemies.  Saul sought political power over the will of God. Consider 1 Samuel 13, the passage in which Saul does not wait for the priest Samuel to arrive at his camp at Gilgal to make a sacrifice and instead makes the sacrifice himself.  In a fascinating study of the Book of Samuel, legal scholars Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes offer an insightful take on this important scene in the book.  According to these authors, the scene teaches us what happens when religion mixes with power: “What the author of Samuel conveys by this striking episode is how religion, even when sincerely believed, can be instrumentalized in power struggles and how political rivals can shed moral qualms about treating the sacred as just another weapon to be opportunistically deployed in a competitive struggle for prestige and power.” Sometimes it is better to obey than to sacrifice.

Or consider King David’s sin with Bathsheba.  Evangelicals like to stress how David repented of his sins in Psalm 51 (something Trump said he does not do), but it also worth remembering that David’s failure had serious consequences for his family and the nation of Israel.  Remember what the prophet Nathan said to David after he confronted the King about his affair with Bathsheba and ordered the death of Bathsheba’s husband: “Now, therefore, the sword will never depart your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own. ‘This is what the LORD says: “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you.””  (2 Samuel 12:10-14).  Read 2 Samuel 17-24 to see what happened.

And then there was David’s son Solomon.  He was a man of great wisdom, but his “heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel.” 1 Kings 11 says that Solomon “loved many foreign women.” Despite the Lord’s specific admonition forbidding Solomon to enter “into marriage with them,” Solomon did it anyway.  “There the Lord said to Solomon, ‘since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statues that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant.'”  Following the reign of Solomon, Israel would be divided into two kingdoms and begin a downward slide toward Assyrian and Babylonian captivity.

Of course the United States of America is not Old Testament Israel and it is almost always a bad idea to apply Old Testament passages to contemporary American politics. But even if we accept for the moment Perry’s practice of using the stories of Old Testament kings to prop-up Donald Trump, it is clear that the analogy he makes between our current president and these kings does not go far enough.  If we carry Perry’s analogy to its logical conclusion we must say that the sins of leaders have consequences for the future of the national communities in which they lead. In other words, the United States is in big trouble.

2.  As I told The Washington Post today, there are many members of the clergy who claim that Donald Trump is anointed by God to restore America to its Christian roots. But Perry is a member of the president’s cabinet.  The belief that Donald Trump is carrying out God’s will like an Old Testament king has now made its way into the rhetoric of those who hold power in this country.  If what he said in the Fox interview is true, Perry is preaching this message to the president himself.  I imagine that these themes are discussed regularly in the Wednesday morning cabinet Bible study attended by Perry, Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Sonny Perdue,  Alex Acosta, and others.

Court Evangelical Franklin Graham: Trump’s Affair With Stormy Daniels is “Nobody’s Business”

Here Franklin Graham talking to the Associated Press:

Two quick thoughts:

1. Franklin Graham has made a lot of things his “business” over the years–homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, immigration, Muslims, etc….  But when it comes to Trump he has suddenly become a libertarian.

2. Franklin Graham believes that God put Donald Trump in the Oval Office for a reason and we should thus support him.   OK, let’s say that God did put Trump in the White House as part of His divine plan.  I am sure there are many readers of this blog who believe this at some level.  The court evangelicals believe Trump is in office to defend religious liberty and the free market, end gay marriage and abortion, and restore America to its so-called “Christian roots.”  But what if God put Trump in office to reveal the hypocrisy of American Christians, to call people back to true biblical faith, or to bring an end to a sinful United States of America?  This is the problem with trying to discern God’s providence.  As Ambrose Bierce put it, providence is an idea that is “unexpectedly and consciously beneficial to the person so describing it.”

Did Lincoln’s Reliance on “Providence” Make Him an Incompetent President?

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This semester my Civil War class is reading Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer PresidentIt is, without peer, the best book on Lincoln’s intellectual and religious life.  Others seem to agree.  In 2000, Guelzo’s biography received the prestigious Lincoln Prize for the best film or book about the Civil War era.  Last night we discussed chapter 8: “Voice Out of the Whirlwind.”

Guelzo argues that Abraham Lincoln, at least in his adult life, was never a Christian, but he did spend a lot of time reflecting on big questions about free will and determinism and their relationship to a force or supreme being that governed the world.  Lincoln, in his pre-presidential years, believed in what he called the “Doctrine of Necessity.”  He wrote: “I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity”–that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control…”  Guelzo compares Lincoln’s view here to the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s “philosophical necessity,” a believe “that human beings possess neither free will nor the moral responsibility for the right or wrong actions that is supposed to follow the exercise of free choices.” (p.117).

During his presidency, Lincoln’s “Doctrine of Necessity” took on a more religious flavor.  He began to use the word “providence” to describe this “power, over which the mind has not control.”  He came to embrace a “divine personality” that intervened in human affairs. (p.328).

Guelzo argues, and quite convincingly I might add, that the Civil War led Lincoln to apply his view of “providence” to the political decisions he made as POTUS.  This was particularly the case in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Proclamation was issued days after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam.  In a cabinet meeting following the battle, Lincoln uttered what Guelzo calls “the most astounding remarks any of [the members of his cabinet] had ever heard him make.”  Lincoln told the cabinet that he had become convinced that if the Union won at Antietam he would consider it an indication of the “divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” (p.341).  He added, “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”  Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation changed the course of the war.  The Proclamation made it a war that was less about preserving the Union and more about freeing the slaves.  It could be argued that it was the turning point of the Civil War.  And Lincoln made his decision by somehow interpreting (with much certainty) the providence of God.

After class, a student asked me if I thought a United States President could get away with this kind of presidential leadership today.  What if George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump made a republic-altering decision and said that it was based upon his reading of God’s providence? (Bush came close on numerous occasions).  There would be many evangelicals who might love such a claim.  But most Americans, including many evangelicals who believe in the providence of God but do believe we can know God’s will in every matter on this side of eternity, would think that such a decision-making process might be the height of presidential incompetence.