Posted by: Harold Knight | 05/18/2011

Nook, iPhone, Providence, and Salvation

Thank God for my Nook!

What an odd thing for someone to say who doesn’t believe in God anymore and is completely baffled by technology.

It is very difficult to explain this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it. The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and the world of thought. He [the experiencer] looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single, significant whole. —Albert Einstein

I can’t tell you where in Einstein’s mountain of writings and quotations this comes from. It’s in a journal article (1) that I’m not likely to quote—not quote for several reasons. Picky: the journal doesn’t have citation material in the article, so I had to look it up twice because I forgot to copy it when I found it in a database search. Even more picky: I can’t find out where Dr. McIlhenny earned his degree. The real (most picky?) reason: he teaches at a very young college in Southern California named Providence Christian College. That it is a young college (founded 2003) is not a problem. That it’s Christian is not a problem. It’s the name “Providence” that’s the problem.

Any institution named “Providence” is, whether or not it knows or acknowledges the fact, a priori a political institution.

Years ago, when I was more confused than I am now, I lived in Ontario, CA. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I got my deep-seated psychological disorders straightened (no pun intended) out. I was in therapy with a psychiatrist who asked me to give his wife organ lessons (let’s not even think about boundaries). They were members of a Dutch Reformed Church (being very Dutch), and soon I was giving piano lessons to the children of other members of their church, for which I had to drive down to Chino where the Dutch folk had their huge and very prosperous dairy farms.  I learned quite a lot about these Dutch Reformed folk, and I thought they were pretty nice people in spite of their very conservative and “straight-laced” religion.

Back to “Providence”—except it’s really not back to Providence. These folk—as well as most Christians I know—believe(d) in Providence, the care of God for those who love her (you know, “Her eye is on the sparrow, and I know 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 of Dutch Reformed—they all followed Jean Calvin) believed so thoroughly that God was on their side that they used the word “Providence” to describe the way She was going to protect them and help them win. That’s where the concept came from.

Alexandra Walsham has written a great deal about the topic (2). Her most thorough study is her book Providence in Early Modern England (3). She’s a professor at Cambridge University.

BACK to thanking God for my NOOK. There is no Nook download of Walsham’s book, and the original hard cover edition costs over $200 (being a work the publishers expected only university libraries to want). There’s a paperback edition (not readily available) that costs around $40. Now that I have a Nook, I don’t pay $40 for any book.

I not only don’t understand anything technological, I am wary of it. Just when you think some technology is going to help you, it doesn’t work. I bought an iPhone yesterday. It’s supposed to solve all of my problems of keeping in touch with all of my friends and entertaining myself 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 believe.

What I really think (in case you wanted to know) is that technology is the religion of the 21st century. I’m sure that’s not a new idea, but I have finally converted.

He [the experiencer] looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single, significant whole (remember, that’s Einstein speaking).

Why else would anyone have an APP on her iPhone that plays games with someone a thousand miles away she’s never met in person? Why else does one have an APP on her iPhone that pops up a map of anywhere in the world she might want to go? My iPhone comes with APPs for the weather, games, messages, the aforementioned maps, stocks, email, and Youtube (another electronic entity designed to make the entire world accessible), iTunes, the APP store to buy more APPS, and others I have no idea what they mean. Even APPS to organize one’s life.

Everyone with an iPhone “wants to experience the universe as a single, significant whole.”

And control it, too, I suspect.

I read lots of stuff that simply puzzles me. And the more I search for what it is that my friends and family who finally convinced me to buy an iPhone “experience. . . as a single significant whole,” the stranger the stuff I read becomes.

What did their senses tell them? First, that their faith was not a case of private or collective hallucination or delusion. They were not following myths or magical events in which the senses are tricked and deceived, but that the Saviour, being God made flesh, himself had that sort of objectivity which our senses convey to us, and the absence of which—”cleverly devised myths”—the senses are also able to detect. We are tricked and puzzled by the cleverness of a magician for some time, but not for all the time (4).

This is a description (I think) of what happened to the early Christians at Pentecost. (I say, “I think,” because I read the article some time ago and copied this passage thinking I might use it sometime.) Our “faith [is] not a case of private or collective hallucination or delusion.” No, the iPhone “has that sort of objectivity which our senses convey to us.” Our senses are captivated by all of this electronic stuff.

My Nook is my own private world of my senses. Dr. McIlhenny lives and works in his world of Providence. And so do I. Everything here is born of, made possible by, technology. As Einstein says, It is very difficult to explain this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it.” I have now converted to the religion of the 21st century. My control of the world has expanded from my Nook to my iPhone.
_________________
(1) McIlhenny, Ryan. “God Is in Your Head”: Neurotheology and Religious Belief.” American Theological Inquiry 3.2 (2010): 29-44.
(2) Walsham, Alexandra. “Sermons in the Sky.” History Today 51.4 (2001): 56.
(3) Walsham, Alexandra. Providence in Early Modern England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
(4) Helm, Paul. “Senses, Intellect and Spirit.” American Theological Inquiry 3.2 (2010): 5-7.

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Responses

  1. University of California, Irvine. You’d find it with a bit of research. Providence (the doctrine, not the college) is deep and mysterious, but in no way suggests that those who believe in it forces the hand of God–i.e., belief in Providence doesn’t mean that Christians are by default in the right.

    The name of the college is distinct from the doctrine.

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    • If you are looking for authentic Christian theological concepts, you have to give up the Calvinist doctrine of “providence” and look instead for the doctrine of the “presence” of God in creation. Read the theological writings (or the novels, fantasies, poetry–any of his work) of George MacDonald for a clear understanding of the difference between the two. Why use a concept that was invented as a way to proclaim political will to describe a spiritual reality?

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  2. You’re assuming that providence contradicts God’s presence in creation. No need to appeal to MacDonald, which I have read; instead, reflect on the necessary relationship between transcendance and immanence and the ongoing presence of God in the continual action of creation through providence.

    I’m not even sure what your final question means. Regardless, tell me why I need to give up a Calvinist doctrine of providence?

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  3. My final question means exactly what it says. The concept of Providence was invented by Jean Calvin, a lawyer, to prove (as if in a court of law) that God loved him and would save his arrogant soul for eternity because he was “elected” (another legal term). Now whether or not you, an apparent adherent to Calvin’s legalistic argument, are “elected” is a matter for Calvin, not God, to decide if you read his 200 volumes of legalese. In your statement, why not simply say “the ongoing presence of God in the continual action of creation” and leave off Calvin’s politics? It would not change the meaning of your statement. Which George MacDonald have you read?

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  4. […] Bible is peppered with passages from which are extrapolated the belief that God will protect the fomenters of revolution and provide the proper person to run for President. But, even knowing those interesting historical […]

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