Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/19/2009

Divine Providence, Power Politics, or a Seizure?

A student, with all of the hubris a Freshman can muster, assaulted me with Thomas Jefferson’s words, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” ( Declaration of Independence ). The student was “proving” to me, a liberal, and no-doubt communist academic, that the Declaration of Independence is—therefore, American society is—Christian. I had said the words related to “God” in the Declaration have meanings specific to the remnants of Enlightenment thought in Jefferson’s writing and have nothing to do with “religion.”

There’s one small problem with calling on Divine Providence to prove that this is a “christian” nation. “Divine Providence” is an invention of the Puritans and has a very short history of relationship with human beings, at least as recounted in the scriptures of Christianity. She is not in the Bible (OK, eight times in the Revised Standard Version of the Apocryphal books).

If you’re one of those people who believes Biblical inerrancy (or even one of those people for whom Bible-based belief is important, inerrant or not) you need to get over your dependence on Divine Providence.

There. Sorry. That’s more hostile than I ever mean to sound.  I have my reasons.

When I was a kid, our family made pilgrimages to Kansas City to visit relatives. One of my uncles had (has) a partner who earned his graduate degree in painting at the art school of the Nelson Art Gallery. We’d trek over to the museum for cultural education. On one of those visits—which I loved—I found Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy.” It was there on loan, I think (how could I remember that?). I had reasons to be attracted to the painting—a cute boy about my age, a blue suit to die for, and a vague sense that being painted by a famous artist would somehow insure immortality (I knew the painting came from the time of the American Declaration of Independence). My memory may be inaccurate. I may have stood in front of some other large portrait and somehow confused it with a later knowledge of the Gainsborough. I don’t know for sure, but a few years later I found out the painting was in Huntington Museum, and I went there specifically to see the boy in blue that had haunted some tiny part of my mind and memory since childhood.

A mystery happened to me as I stared at that painting (or whatever painting it was) as a child. My mind and body moved apart from each other, as they first had in Mrs. Hall’s second-grade class—which may have been about the same time. But this time the feeling was not only OK, but I relished it, and a strange feeling of peace pervaded both my mind and my body, a feeling that I have had many times since, always unexpected, not always—but often—at the time of a seizure. It was like hearing Blanche Thebom. It was like the first time I heard a symphony play Beethoven. I had a fleeting moment of the peace two days ago when I attended the Latin American Music festival at TCU and heard a performance of “Festival” by the young Peruvian composer Jimmy López (and met him). I may have to drag myself back to Ft. Worth Saturday evening to hear Miguel Harth-Bedoya  (also from Peru) conduct Jimmy Lopez’ new work Lago de Lágrimas (“Lake of Tears”).

But I digress (I usually delete hypergraphic digressions if I want to make any sense at all). The mystery of “Blue Boy.” Somehow I have hunted, waited expectantly, despaired of, hoped for that mystery every day of my life since. Often, the mystery and my epileptic mind seem somehow connected. But not always. Remember the Oregon Coast.  My religious experience(s).

Don’t, please don’t think about the often-described and “scientifically” studied connection between epilepsy (particularly the temporal lobe   variety) and “religious experience.” What I’m thinking about is “Providence.” What I’m thinking about is that Providence has had nothing to do with my wandering into mystery. God did not send my family to the Nelson Art Gallery. God did not put Blanche Thebom in the way of my consciousness. My friend Janet, who has written about Miguel Harth-Bedoya and knows him, dragged me to Ft. Worth Tuesday evening, not the Holy Spirit—and certainly not “Divine Providence.”

That is, without doubt, some kind of heresy to Christians, at least Evanglicals and Fundamentalists. The idea “Divine Providence” is an extra-Biblical idea born of the need to justify the English Reformation. And the Reformation, according to a growing number of scholars, invented “religion.” So the English Reformation is responsible for the idea “Divine Providence.” I have searched the Bible. It’s not there.  You may say a great many happenings in the Bible are providential,” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary of 1897, for example, lists dozens of them—all of which I looked up after my student’s attack—but they are interpolations of the idea of “Providence” onto passages that mean something else).

“Divine Providence” is, as far as I can see, one of those made-up-out-of-whole-cloth ideas designed to differentiate between “us” and “them.” Belief in God’s protection for us necessarily means that God is not protecting them. And in order to know who the them is that God is not protecting, we have to get our theology very, very, very clear. And if you happen not to give your assent to even one small part of what we believe, not only will Divine Providence not protect you, but you are no longer a part of our “religion.”

In early modern religious controversy… attention … focused upon those external, objective aspects of the lives of the faithful as it became an urgent matter to identify those crucial differences upon which eternal salvation was thought to depend. . . . specific creeds and ritual practices became the essence of the newly ideated “religion.” True religion now had less to do with sincerity of commitment than with whether or not the propositions to which one gave intellectual assent were true.***

How is this rambling connected? America is not a “Christian” nation because the colonists did not share the propositions of “religion.” All forms of Christianity are not alike (see the Glorious Revolution in England or the Culture Wars in the United States). Christianity is an “us” and “them” religion. And even if America is a “Christian” nation, I am growing increasingly weary of “religion.” Just as Divine Providence is a made-up (mostly political) idea, so is religion. I’m growing ever more bold in talking and writing about my “spiritual experience” (epileptic or not). True religion for me has to do with the sense of the numinous—the Blue Boy, Blanche Thebom, and the music of Jimmy Lopez. I’m tired of “religion” that  “…focuse[s] upon those external, objective aspects of the lives of the faithful…” ignoring the Blue Boy and Blanche Thebom, and Jimmy Lopez. Reality.

The Composer

More about that soon. But for now, I want only to ask who outside religion has a job for an old organist/pianist who needs not to retire until he can get full Social Security benefits.

…[trial and temptation] 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. ****  

*** Harrison, Peter.  “‘Science’ and ‘Religion’: Constructing the Boundaries.” Journal of Religion 86.1 (Jan2006): 91-92.
**** Gregersen, Niels Henrik. “Trial and temptation: An essay in the multiple logics of faith.” Theology Today, October 2000.

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  1. […] to death and keeping up with my commitments. I don’t think so. I think it’s pretty much like Providence. It’s a great idea for the believers, but pretty much a mystery for those who don’t […]

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