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.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

“The most dependable thing about God is his undependability.”

Earlier this year, I posted a review of Haydn J. McLean’s essay ‘Thinking Out Loud: Pondering the Providence of God’. I’m now in touch with Haydn, and he has kindly agreed to write a blog post outlining how his thoughts on providence have developed since writing the article. I hope you’ll agree that his reflection makes for stimulating and challenging reading.

In the Rearview Mirror

I expect my uneasiness over the issue of providence commenced in 1976 during the terminal illness of my father (pancreatic cancer) and his death one week before Christmas, which concluded an otherwise idyllic youth and joyful college graduation. Through those tormenting months, the lack of God’s intervention in my father’s medical situation and the apparent lack of divine compassion resulted in an paroxysm upon his death, when I stepped into the frigid night and became belligerent with God, silently shouting, “If you think you’re going to break me, I’ll show you!” I expect this episode consolidated my relationship to God, which has tormented me since.

I detected evidence of an inadequate relationship with God not long before I had written my first article, ‘Thinking Out Loud: Pondering the Providence of God.’ Seated at a table with several CPE (clinical pastoral education) students at Lancaster General Hospital (Lancaster, Pa., USA), we were discussing God’s providence in the world. In the midst of the conversation I blurted out, “The most dependable thing about God is his undependability.” The conversation came to an abrupt pause, while I sat in silence wondering, “Where did that come from?” I had revealed an inner perception I had not intended to share, not even with myself. I had likely revealed the undercurrent in my ministry through my years of parish service: more akin to the wrestling of Jacob (Genesis 32:22-32) or the theological quarrels of Job (Job 40) than reflective of the compassionate, nurturing depiction of God as revealed by Jesus (Luke 15:11-32; Matthew 7:11). While colleagues readily spoke of the immanence, care, and compassion of God, I was more inclined to acknowledge the complex and self-contradictory nature of God, as well as his transcendence. If nothing else, it made for perceptive thinking and discerning Sunday messages, although I surely disappointed parishioners seeking a pastoral representation of a providential God.

I came closer to enlightenment when I was sent a newly published volume for a book review, although, serendipitously, it was sent to me by accident. It was the best accident I had all year. Psychiatrist James Griffith (George Washington Medical Center, Washington, DC) penned Religion That Heals, Religion That Harms (New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2010) as a means to assist practitioners in sorting through the dynamics among religion, spirituality, sociobiological religion, and emotional illness. Griffith’s incisive chapter entitled ‘Seeking a Parent in God’ addresses attachment relationships with God and how our attachments to our parents shape our attachment to God. Griffith’s chapter became the equivalent to Nathan’s mirror that he held up to reveal David to himself (2 Samuel 12:1-7a). Griffith acknowledges, ‘Seeking and maintaining contact with another trustworthy and comforting person is perhaps the most profound force through human life.’ When our attachments to God do not produce a secure relationship of comfort, compassion and hope, then unhelpful attachments are created: ‘Attachment styles carry over from human beings to divine beings.’ ‘… a secure attachment style can mean that a person is able to sustain felt assurance that God is present and responsive when needed.’ (p. 104). Also, ‘Anxious attachments fill life with insecurity and dread. Avoidant attachments produce isolation and loneliness. Either can happen in relationship with one’s God as well as in human relationships.’ (p. 99). I recognized myself in Griffith’s mirror when he revealed that my decades-long angst regarding God’s providence was the result of my insecure attachment with God: ‘With a dismissive-avoidant style, the person feels God to be emotionally distant, either disinterested or unable to assist in times of need. Such a person expects little from God and relies only upon oneself. People with attachment problems fare no better with God than with any other relationship.’ (p. 104) Griffith identified my enigma: it was not the existence of God, but the relevance of God! Identifying the problem brought me half way home: ‘A God attachment has more the ambivalence character of the relationship with one’s parents, vital in importance yet often feared or resented as well as loved. Attachment to God often churns anguish and darkness, not just sweetness and light.’ (p. 140). Necessarily, Griffith does not suggest the most theologically appropriate attachment style, but he does recognize the most spiritually and emotionally healthy attachment.

Griffith brought the matter of God’s providence full circle when I realized that my discomfort with God’s seemingly inadequate providence revealed less about God than it revealed about me. If God’s providence was lacking when it was most needed but absent (Psalm 22:1; Mark 15:34), then who am I to expect more or to be exempted from the worst?

This conclusion does not resolve my questions related to God’s providence, but it takes me as far as I am able to go for now. I acknowledge that I may be hindering my attachment to God by holding to my expectations, the absence of which gives evidence to the inactivity, limitations, malevolence, or apathy of God. Perhaps God did not come up short, but my expectations may have. This may be an erroneous conclusion, but what other evidence have I to go on?

Perhaps there is one more option I have yet to absorb, as rendered in Charles Gerkin’s Crisis Experience in Modern Life (Nashville, TN: Parthenon Press, 1979), in which he proposes that a mature faith is one that is not dependent upon an outcome (2 Samuel 12: 14-31). Gerkin proposes that God has set a boundary between the finite and the infinite and cares for us within our finite human vulnerability. I cannot yet determine if this is a providence I can assimilate, or a providence that does not really exist.

Haydn McLean, MDiv
New Holland, Lancaster County, Pa., USA

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