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Purpose and Providence, by Vernon White

14 September 2018

John Saxbee reads a theological and literary study of providence

NOW Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, Vernon White here revisits a topic he first explored in his 1985 book The Fall of a Sparrow (Paternoster Press).

Belief in God’s providence has been pretty well taken for granted by Christianity since its earliest days, with a consequential sense of purpose in the stream of events and experiences defining human existence.

The idea of God’s instrumentality in these events is central to scripture, and it has been a staple of Christian theology ever since. It has come under pressure as the Enlightenment, and the age of science, prompted new interpretations of time and history, together with challenges to notions of transcendence, which led to the so-called disenchantment of Western civilisation and culture.

Yet belief in purpose and providence persists, notwithstanding serious challenges to its philosophical provenance and coherence.

In this disarmingly accessible and wonderfully well-written study, White offers what he describes as “a collage of possibilities by which providence is sustained” without laying claim to a systematic survey of the doctrine, or a definitive account of its meaning.

After some overall mapping of the territory traversed by Western thought in relation to concepts such as meaning and purpose, he changes tack with an intriguing excursion into literary treatments of the subject, and focuses particularly on Thomas Hardy and Julian Barnes.

Returning to more explicitly theological territory, he tracks evolving doctrines of divine will and sovereignty. He discerns “a continuing thread of belief that God is universally and effectively active in providence, creating meaning in particular events as well as in overall outcomes”.

In recent times, “scientific causality, historicism, the reality of evil and postmodern scepticism about metanarrative” have all put pressure on belief in providence. In the works of, inter alia, Karl Barth and Hans Frei, however, we discern new interpretative models to counter such challenges.

The notion of figural relationships between events features prominently, i.e. the possibility of seeing “a patterned family resemblance between events, even though there is little or no visible causal relationship between them”. The Christ event is pivotal to a providential interpretation of events, not least because of its inbuilt ambivalences, combined with its understanding of radical transcendence.

Finally, White tests such approaches by examining their credibility in practice — prayer, politics, social action. It is not a matter of linear progress (a distinctively modern preoccupation), but it is about affirming ultimate purpose “confident that God is involved in our history, even when events turn against us”.

Those seeking clearly defined accounts of God’s providential activity, or predictions, will be disappointed. The tension between human freedom, existential contingency, and divine sovereignty cannot deliver such certainty — nor a definitive theodicy.

But, for White, to be able to affirm the possibility of providential meaning and purpose is enough for his purposes. Probability, let alone certainty, may have to wait.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

Purpose and Providence: Taking soundings in Western thought, literature and theology
Vernon White
Bloomsbury T & T Clark £28.99
Church Times Bookshop £26.10

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