- Ask Dr. Cobb
- Creative Transformation
Ask Dr. Cobb - Main Page
Each month Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr. answers questions regarding process thought and faith.
To see Dr. Cobb's answers to previous questions, browse the archive...
Does the idea of divine providence make sense?
From the perspective of modernity, of course, this idea makes no sense. It presupposes thinking of God as an agent in a realistic sense that is quite impossible if one has fully adopted the modern worldview. Further, the idea has been spoiled by its association with divine omnipotence. If God is the cause of everything, the specialness, suggested by “providence,” disappears. Cancer is just as providential as a remarkable healing.
Whitehead’s understanding of God and the world makes the idea of providence once again worthy of discussion, and he explicitly opens the door to this. We could say that, for him, God is active providentially in every event, and that, in some, we discern “a particular providence for particular occasions.” In technical Whiteheadian terminology this is to say that God’s Primordial Nature provides every occasion with an initial aim, and that in some occasions the prehension of the Consequent Nature of God plays a role. This corresponds in traditional terms to “general providence” and “special providence.”
First, I speak of “general providence.” Contemporary cosmology gives a strong basis for this traditional doctrine. It recognizes that the universe, in a way it cannot explain, is “fine-tuned” to make life possible. For a theist this is readily explicable. In Whiteheadian terms, God’s primordial decision ordered the eternal objects in just that way required to generate the greatest possible value in the world. That, of course, requires the development of life and of highly complex organisms. That is just what the scientific evidence shows to be the case.
In Whitehead’s view the fine-tuning works by so ordering the eternal objects that from that order each derives an aim to achieve what value is possible for itself and its relevant future. That there is in living things an aim to live and to achieve what can be achieved seems empirically to be the case. The modernist effort to eliminate anything like aim or purpose or goal from nature does not comfortably fit the obvious facts. Since there is no sharp line between living occasions and those we consider inanimate, a Whiteheadian will assume that some sort of aim to be what can be occurs at the quantum level as well. To suppose that reality as a whole and in its details is providentially ordered and to be grateful to God for this general providence seem eminently appropriate.
Among living things the providential order includes vast amounts of competition as well cooperation. Obviously the predator/prey relationship plays a central role. Suffering is part of the providential order. Speaking of “justice” is meaningless. Where human beings are not involved, overall and in general, all of this violence and absence of justice contributes to the growing value of the whole. It seems clear that God aims at the increase of value, not at equality among all things.
This does not mean that everything happens exactly as God wills. The achievement of value depends on the efforts, even the decisions, of the entities involved. The providential order leads to a certain amount of chaos. Necessity, chance, and decision all play a role in what happens. We can distinguish God’s causal role from others. In an immediate and direct sense it is usually very minor. A great deal can be explained, as modern science shows, by efficient physical causes. By knowing these, much about the future can be accurately predicted. With respect to all this, God appears only in the role of general providence, the ground of the laws that allow the prediction, most clearly of the constants.
The real success of physics has been in dealing with inanimate objects composed of numerous molecules. Here predictions based entirely on their pure physical feelings of antecedents turn out to be so nearly exact that any limitation can be ignored. The science of mechanics, so well developed in the early days of modernity, was so successful that it created the norm for all science and the basis of a new worldview.
However, this worldview has never done well when applied to strictly individual events. For example, a photonic occasion cannot be explained by its pure physical feeling of its predecessor. Light is a vibratory phenomenon. Light “waves” require the intervention of novelty in every event, since successive events revert to the form of the antecedent of the antecedent one. Because they do so with such regularity, physicists can ignore this qualification and proceed with their predictions.
Quanta, however, are forcing acceptance of what the modern worldview worked so hard to exclude. Whitehead offers the category of “hybrid physical feelings,” which are physical feelings of the conceptual feelings of antecedent occasions. Whereas simple physical feelings, which alone are considered in normative science, require contiguity, hybrid physical feelings do not. Most of the large scale phenomena of the multi-molecular world can be accurately predicted without introducing hybrid feelings, but quantum events cannot. They are affected by remote entities in truly astounding ways.
Whitehead also believes that every individual occasion makes its own decision. In the macro-world of the inanimate, science can safely ignore this. And even in the vibratory world, “decision” seems wholly predictable. But this is not the case in the quantum world.
Even before the discovery of the quantum world, the limits of modern science were becoming clear in the treatment of living things. Actually, scientists could never predict the exact behavior of any living thing. Decision plays a role. And in many cases hybrid feelings also do. There is extensive evidence that human experiences, like quanta, are affected by remote events, and this certainly applies to other animals as well. It seems to apply to living cells as well.
Thus providence, as God’s influence on how any occasion is actualized is limited not only by necessity, that is pure physical feelings, but also by hybrid feelings and decisions On the other hand, the aim derived from the Primordial Nature of God may influence the role of hybrid feelings and the final decision in ways it cannot influence pure physical feelings. In short the transcendence of the physical determinism, so emphasized by science, is made possible by God’s general providence, and occasions may be influenced beyond that by God’s special providence.
My guess is that special providence plays little role apart from human beings. In the pre-human world God’s general providence produced a situation in which life emerged and advanced in complexity so that richer and richer experience was actualized. Almost every event could be explained by (1) the primordial ordering of possibility that makes the whole process possible and actualizes the possibility anew in each moment, (2) the necessary aspects of physical existence, and (3) the decisions of individual creatures. In a very broad sense we can read the purposes of God’s providence off of the course of nonhuman events, even if not every individual event exactly embodies that purpose.
With the emergence of human beings, the situation changes. We represent the consequences of the line of development providentially achieved. Our experiences have value exceeding what was previously possible. But this value is achieved at a cost to the process as a whole. In the very insightful chapter with which Genesis opens, we are told that God gave us dominion over the plants and animals. Of course, we cannot change the basic providential order, but we can distort and disrupt its functioning in many ways and what we make of the human world is very much our decision. God’s general providence makes all that freedom possible. It does not determine how it is used.
It is safe to say that as providence works for the sake of the increase of value in the world; so also we are called to use our power over others for the good of all. We may rightly teach that the power is not given us for the sake of exploitation. But there are no qualifications to the gift. We can even use our power suicidally, if we decide to do so. Accordingly, we cannot learn much about God’s purposes from studying human history.
Of course, the emergence of this kind of power out of the general natural condition was more gradual than this suggests. The power of hunting and gathering people over the other creatures and the land was less than that attained by the mastery of agriculture and irrigation systems and the large scale domestication of plants and animals. And, of course, those who made their living but farming and herding had much less control than what was achieved in the industrial revolution and the chemical revolution that followed. And, in turn, that control was much less than what was achieved when humans the atom. Further, even now, much of our behavior and activity is continuous with that of other animals. Nevertheless, the biblical insight is profound. We have taken over the management of earthly affairs.
What then about providence? Is God irrelevant to historical events? I don’t think so. I think God cares a great deal about the experiment with life, and especially with human life, on this remarkable planet. The basic lure of value does not end. And the attainment of value through cooperation in small tribal groups is continuous with that in other animals. But as human societies grew and changed, there arose the possibility, and indeed the urgency, of transcending tribalism. This was connected with the recognition that the one true God relates alike to all. The prophets of Israel felt themselves “called” by the one true God to proclaim this message.
How seriously or literally can we take this idea? I take it quite straightforwardly. In Whiteheadian terms it entails the involvement of the Consequent Nature in shaping the datum of the initial aim. Amos gives us the simplest account. “The Lord took me as I followed the flock and said to me: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” (7:14) Others recount visions. Paul lost his sight temporarily. There is great variety, but typically there is the abrupt discovery that one is to do something quite different from what has previously anticipated.
I am, I admit, reading my own experience into what others report. In my case, since high school I planned to go into government foreign service. So far as I was aware, that matter was settled, and I gave it no further thought. Then one Sunday, as I was walking to church, I stopped abruptly in my tracks. Suddenly I knew that my career would be in the church. I had no idea what my role would be, and I was not even particularly curious. But I had no doubt that my future would not be the one I had planned and announced. The matter was settled. I felt no compulsion; it was more like being informed than being asked. I did not hear words, but a clear meaning was communicated.
Whether Amos experience involved auditory elements I do not know. I do not exclude that possibility. The move from receiving a clear meaning to describing the experience as hearing a sentence is not a large one. But when he repeatedly introduces one of his detailed prophesies with “These are the words of the Lord,” I do not take it that that we should understand him to mean that he is repeating what was dictated to him.
How do I know that God acted in what I consider as “my call?” Of course, I do not “know.” Moderns can always come up with other accounts connecting such experience usually with a pathology of one sort or another. Perhaps. But treating my call as an instance of the particular providence for a particular occasion corresponds much better with the experience itself. Amos certainly felt that way about his experience.
Neither Amos nor I regard this providential act as sharply distinct from what is happening at other times. Amos repeatedly claims to be God’s spokesperson in his prophesies. I think he felt that it was his experience of God that cleared his eyes to see the crimes of the powerful of his day and freed him to say fearlessly what he saw. And I think he was right.
For myself, I would say that many ideas just “come to me.” I do not think them up. Of course, they are connected to what I have been thinking. But their arrival is a gift, not an achievement. Also, when I report that I have “decided” to do something, sometimes it is like the “decision” to serve the church. The decision does not come from reflection or from comparing one possibility with another. I just see that I should do something. My choice of Chicago as the place to study after I got out of the army was partly of that sort. A friend told me a little about that university, and I decided. It was emphatically the right choice, even though for reasons quite different from what I knew in advance.
Sometimes in retrospect I incline to view the decisions of others as providential. Not long after I finished at Chicago, I was teaching at a little junior college in Appalachia. The Divinity School had a tradition of hiring its own graduates, and the dean wanted me to return there as a member of the faculty. At the time nothing could have pleased me more. But the president of one of the schools making up the Federated Faculty blocked the appointment. If I had returned to Chicago I could have had a good career, but I believe that the course of events that actually followed has allowed me to make a far more potentially significant contribution than would have been possible at Chicago. If I fantasize, I could say the God had other plans for me, but knew that, given the choice of Young Harris junior college or the federated theological faculty of Chicago, whatever prompting I received from God, I would have chosen the latter. It was more promising to block the offer.
In this case, I admit that bringing providence into the picture is quite unnecessary to the explanation of what happened. Let me just say that I believe it was important for me to establish the Center for Process Studies and that Claremont was the right place for that to happen. As I trace the series of events that allowed that to occur, I marvel at how many of them were improbable. Of course, each one can be explained in terms of necessity, chance, and human choice. But I suspect the divine hand.
In short, I believe that God cares about a history that is largely determined by human decisions insensitive to the divine purposes. I believe that everywhere God lures in ways that, if followed, might lead the world in a better path. I do not believe God knows just what the future will be, but I am sure that God knows much more than any of us about the real options and possibilities. I believe that this knowledge affects the lures God offers to people in the world. My own experience encourages me to view my own life partly in terms of what I have experienced as my “calling.” Perhaps this is all pathological self-deception, but I am prepared to take that chance.