Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/15/2011

The Providence of Spirituality or the Spirituality of Providence? (or neither?)

(Now for something completely different: two pet peeves in one.) 

The Providential Jean Calvin

The Providential Jean Calvin

In Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2, Shakespeare gives Hamlet these words, discussing with Laertes the upcoming denouement of the family drama and his probable death: 

Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

“Providence in the fall of a sparrow” is an almost direct (almost direct) quotation from the King James Version of Matthew 10:29: 

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. 

In her surprising article, “Sermons in the Sky,” a study of UFO sightings in 16th-century England, Alexandra Walsham writes, 

After all, it was axiomatic that “not so much as one Sparrow falleth to the ground, without God’s providence (1). 

One of the few things I’d like to accomplish (but have neither time nor ability left) is to study how we use language to convince ourselves ideas we want to believe in are true. I know, Derrida and Lacan and Lyotard and Chomsky and Vitanza have done that. What’s left for me to do, I, who have neither the discipline nor the brainpower to understand most of what those guys have written. 

On November 29, 2009 I wrote, 

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) (2).

The word “providence” appears once in the King James Version of the Bible. It’s in Acts 24:2 where the Jewish orator Tertullus thanks the Roman Governor Felix for his “providence” toward Jerusalem as he accuses St. Paul of treason. The only “providence” in the Bible is that of a cruel and much despised Roman governor.

 I wrote recently also about the use of the word “spirituality” in our culture. I quoted U.G. Krishnamurti’s assertion that “all holy systems for obtaining enlightenment are bunk” (3).

 If, in a few years, “Having recognized that I am in the end game and having tied up what loose ends I can” (4), I had convinced everyone I know to stop using the words “providence” and “spirituality,” I would have great satisfaction.

 “Spirituality” is easy to dispose of. It’s meaningless. Look at that posting of mine from ten days ago. The first (at least that I can find) attempt to define what therapists mean when they use the word posits thirteen (thirteen!) different definitions of the word. Come on. We can’t, if we want to be precise in our language, use a word with thirteen different meanings! That doesn’t even take into consideration the sloppy use by some programs for changing one’s behavior when they say they are “spiritual in nature.” What on earth does that mean?

 Let’s stop using “spiritual” altogether. I’m going to begin using “reality-seeking” or “hungry” or, best of all, “living sacrifice”—which, as far as I can tell is as close to the Christian meaning as one can get:

 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship ( Romans 12:1).

 I like the sound of that: “I’m not a religious person; I’m a living-sacrifice person.” Sacrifice to what? Well, that’s the beauty of it. You can choose whatever it is you want to be a sacrifice to. Most Americans, of course, have already chosen—we sacrifice ourselves to the system of capitalism designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

The Catholic Prince James

The Catholic Prince James

 “Providence” is not so easy to figure out. I’m writing this because once again on Sunday I heard a preacher use “providence” in a Christian worship service as if it has some agreed-upon meaning that we all know and accept. I’ve come to the point that every time I hear the word—especially in some “living-sacrifice” context—I feel I’ve been left out of the secret handshake society.

I have read your Manuscript with some Attention. By the Arguments it contains against the Doctrine of a particular Providence. . .  you strike at the Foundation of all Religion: For without the Belief of a Providence that takes Cognizance of, guards and guides and may favour particular Persons, there is no Motive to Worship a Deity, to fear its Displeasure, or to pray for its Protection (5).

Benjamin Franklin’s understanding of “Providence” is exactly that of all good Protestant (Puritan) Englishmen of the17th and 18th centuries, that is,Providence . . . takes Cognizance of, guards and guides and may favour particular Persons.” Those particular persons are exclusively those who reject—even make war against—anyone who does not accept the view of the world promulgated by the Protestant forces in the English religious struggles that began with Henry VII and continued with Jean Calvin, who first used Providence to describe Protestants’ relationship with God, and continued through the Glorious Revolution.

That is, “Providence” was, at the outset of its general use, a political term, to wit, as I have pointed out before, the use of the term in the Declaration of Independence,

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.

There’s quite a lot of “reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” going around these days, and most of the public versions of it are political in the tradition of the Puritans.

I believe in divine providence. I believe this is a reason [the date for the “Restoring Honor” rally with Sarah Palin was chosen], because whites don’t own the Founding Fathers (6).

Divine Providence “guards and guides and may favour particular Persons” (Franklin), in this case Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

Modern Providence

Modern Providence

Of economic theory and the social sciences I know almost nothing. From some college course I don’t remember I have known of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism although I know virtually nothing about it. In an article about a newly discovered 18th-century diary they claim is evidence for Weber’s Protestant/Capitalist theories, Margaret Jacob and Matthew Kadane say the diarist Protestant Joseph Ryder’s

. . . watchfulness came less from his predestinarianism. . . than from his providentialism. The weather, news from abroad or from his neighborhood, military victories, the defeat of the Jacobites [the supporters of the deposed Roman Catholic Stuart kings] , his and others’ changing material fortunes—all were signs that for Ryder signified God’s approving, or disapproving, providential hand in human affairs (7).

From Jean Calvin to Shakespeare to Joseph Ryder to Benjamin Franklin to the Declaration of Independence to Glenn Beck to a Lutheran pastor in Dallas. Providential politics has served living-sacrifice folks well (8).
(1) Walsham, Alexandra. “Sermons in the Sky.” History Today 51.4 (2001): 56.
(2) Knight, Harold. “Divine Providence, Power Politics, or a Seizure.” Sumnonrabidus’s  Blog. 11/19/2009. Web. 14 Feb. 2011.
(3) See my blog of February 4, 2011.
(4) Hardwig, John. “Going to Meet Death: The Art of Dying in the Early Part of the Twenty-First Century,” Hastings Center Report 39. 4 (2009): 37-45.  
(5) Franklin, Benjamin. “Reasons Against Satirizing Religion.” Letter to unknown recipient, December 13, 1757. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. 2006-2008. Web. 14 Feb. 2011.
(6) Brown, DeNeen.  “Glenn Beck’s plans for rally on a hallowed date and spot spurs countermarches.” Washington Post. August 17, 2010. Web. 14 Feb. 2011.
(7) Jacob, Margaret C., and Matthew Kadane. “Missing, Now Found in the Eighteenth Century: Weber’s Protestant Capitalist.” American Historical Review 108.1 (2003): 20-49.
(8) The most important study of the history of “providence” is: Walsham, Alexandra. Providence in Early Modern England. London: Oxford University Press, 1999.


  1. […] she watches me”). Whenever anyone starts talking about God’s “Providence,” I cringe. I’ve written about it before, but here’s the short version: during the English Civil War, the Calvinists (read British version […]


  2. […] I have written before that my research led me to the fascinating possibility that the inclusion of “Divine Providence” in the Declaration was as much a political statement as a religious one—perhaps even more so. I had never given the phrase a second thought—we all know what it means. Even non-Christians can understand that no-brainer. […]



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