About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Narrative and Providence

If the doctrine of providence is to have any meaningful content rooted in a tradition of faith to promote active Christian discipleship, then its placement within the scriptural narrative is not only desirable, but necessary. Scott Bader-Saye’s chapter on narrative and providence in Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007) is thought-provoking for those trying to take seriously the biblical accounts of divine action even as they seek to discern God’s presence in their own lives.

Bader-Saye believes it crucial to identify how our own stories connect with the biblical story. Narration is more important than explanation, he argues, and purpose more so than causality. Thus providence is a way of narrating our lives through the lens of God’s wider purpose. This means that a trust in God’s providence is effectively a trust in the coherence of all things, that God is writing a story in which the meaning of our lives is secured as God promises that the story God writes will be properly concluded. On this account, even though the darker elements of life – sin, evil, suffering, and so on – threaten to make a nonsense of what God writes, it is important not to attempt an explanation of their existence, but rather to interpret the place of these things in the overall story.

Indeed, the need to interpret rather than explain appears to be one of Bader-Saye’s core convictions. Instead of trying to explain how God is present, Bader-Saye encourages us to learn to recognise patterns of God’s activity in the world. In doing so, we learn to read our stories in the light of Scripture’s stories. Scripture becomes the lens through which we interpret actions and events in the world, especially those that directly impact our own lives.

While I agree with Bader-Saye’s general stance, I do have two concerns. First is the possibility that all things, and perhaps especially human lives, are merely cogs in some grand narrative (to mix metaphors). Our lives make sense in God’s wider story. However, surely this is not too distant from explaining our part in God’s story, from suggesting that God’s story is, in fact, no more than God’s plan. This leads to my second reservation, that Bader-Saye’s suggestion that all things one day will be properly concluded strikes me that evil, sin and suffering must not only be interpreted in the light of God’s story, but must also be recognised to have their proper place in God’s story, with the implication that the ongoing presence of these rogue elements will be justified.

Perhaps it is the analogy of God as a writer or even a storyteller that bothers me. I just don’t see how this particular analogy can avoid some form of determinism, for even if, as Colin Gunton has observed (The Christian Faith, p. 64), a skilled playwright allows characters to self-develop according to the internal logic and structure of the play, the fact is that the playwright still has ‘control’ of all the characters, even the villains of the piece. This analogy of God as a writer is different from speaking of the scriptural narrative, which is a way of framing world events in terms of the vision of a particular – and diverse – faith community.

That said, in my view, the scriptural narrative must have priority over the more philosophical considerations that the doctrine of providence tends to invite – or at least, the scriptural narrative (not individual proof-texts) must be the framework within which the doctrine is discussed. And this approach does mean that God’s presence is something to be discerned, not something to be demonstrated or proved. Consequently, it also makes sense to interpret events in our lives in terms of similar scriptural accounts. But these are things, I suggest, that are best done in full consciousness that Christians stand within a tradition of faith mediated via particular ecclesial traditions that are, for all their particularity, affected by factors such as culture, nationality and race. Thus I am satisfied that there is much of worth in Bader-Saye’s proposals, although I suspect that they will have most impact if we accept that they do not entail answers but instead require our growth in wisdom and maturity as part of the Christian Church.

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