The title of this blog could refer to a number of things I’ve discussed here over the years. It could mean the fact that science is entirely a human activity, which could be summarised as asking the near-infinite realm of nature particular questions of human interest, to which it will return equally particular and incomplete answers. Or it could refer to the mysterious effects of mind on quantum events. But in fact in this post it’s about something else: providence.
A reader pointed me to an article by my compatriot Denis Alexander, in which Alexander tries to show that “special providence” is a redundant category, since it is (he argues) really the same thing as “miracle,” on a smaller scale. That is, it refers to special acts of grace from God towards human beings in the way of answered prayers, and so on.
He goes on to assert that, since this is the case, we should look neither for miracle nor special providence in the world of nature, which is not subject to the kind of gracious care offered to humans by God. Does anyone spot the glaring problem here?
It’s not just that it’s presumptuous to suggest that God does not act in the way he calls “miraculous” in the care of the beasts or plants or even planets. The Scriptural witness is, after all, that he acts providentially and individually in the case of every sparrow falling to the ground, and more widely in his provision of prey for the young lions, eagles, giving and taking life etc, notably in Psalm 104, but also in a variety of other scattered texts. I’m tempted to echo the habitual challenge of a preacher I knew: “Who told you that God only acts providentially towards humans?”
No, the real problem is quite simply that, for all the theoretical methodology of science in removing the influence of people from natural cause and effect, the fact is that the world is full of people interacting with the whole realm of nature in order even to exist. If there are 7.6 billion people towards whom God currently exhibits special providence – “miracle” if we insist on Denis Alexander’s unnuanced categories against two millennia of theological reflection – then there are 7.6 billion niches within nature where that providence is “interfering” with nature’s supposed efforts to get on with its business uninterrupted.
Let me exemplify this with the gratifying response of local people to my recent privately-published book on the fire that took out our old chapel a decade ago. As I interviewed the many people affected by it, what came across most strongly were the multiple experiences of special providence that my interviewees reported both in relation to their own lives, and to the circumstances of the fire and its aftermath. Readers have been greatly affected by this.
The church member who found himself as Project Manager, and so was deeply involved at every stage, was nevertheless amazed when he read the book to find just how God had been “working behind his back” in the lives of and experiences of others, and so indirectly affecting his own experience. That’s quite apart from his own sense of God’s provision.
I was accosted in church just this Sunday by a fringe-attender who had read the book and was deeply moved by just how much God had dealt with each individual member, as well as the bigger picture of buildings and circumstances. It’s got him, I think, looking out for the evidences of God’s love in his own life.
Preparing the book, I heard how even the fire chief who attended the incident considered that the heavy snow, which began to fall soon after the flames took hold, had prevented what might have been a major local disaster, quenching the firebrands that might otherwise have set light to the many quaint thatched cottages in the village neighbourhood.
The fire itself, ridding the fellowship of an antiquated money-pit of a building that it had found no way of working round, proved an immense benefit both to us and our community. Paradoxially the snow that saved the rest of the village also assured the destruction of the chapel by delaying the fire team’s arrival.
And so on. Most of these providences were only “encouraging” or “faith building” because they had all the appearance of actual circumstances being under God’s control. That is, God was influencing the things in the natural world in which every one of those those circumstances arose.
Now, a major incident like a fire, and especially a book of Christian recollections about a fire, concentrates the mind on providences, though I have to say that the experience has now led us consciously to set aside time in services for the sharing of individuals’ experience of God’s care week by week. But whether people appreciate “special providence,” or ungratefully assume it is “coincidence,” the very principle that Denis Alexander rightly sets out about God’s abundant love and care for people shows that such providence is, actually, ubiquitous. And in that case it necessarily affects vast swathes of nature, wherever people or their interests are involved.
If God ever affects the weather providentially, for example, then the whole atmosphere gets in on the act. If someone is supernaturally healed, it is actual natural bacteria or cancer cells that lose their livelihood. If George Müller providentially finds a coin to feed his orphans in the street, then somebody else providentially got an actual hole in their physical pocket.
It shouldn’t really be controversial that the world cannot, in reality, be compartmentalised into “human” and “natural,” and Scripture gives no indication that God makes such a distinction. It may occasionally be useful, as I have done in the past in combating “free process creation” ideas, to insist on a distinction such as that between humans who have actual free will, and irrational nature, which does not.
But that does not apply here: one can no more sideline human affairs from nature than you can ignore the welfare of the people living in a national park. After all, God created mankind to rule and tend that natural creation from within, according to Genesis 1. In other words, it doesn’t seem possible to find any real places on earth where nature doesn’t involve humans.
The exception, I suppose, would be where scientists have designed carefully controlled experiments specifically to exclude human (and therefore, in Denis Alexander’s scheme, divine) influence. The problem with that is that since the entire experimental setupof such a system is human, it’s the very worst example you could devise.
Thomas Aquinas argued rigorously for the universality of divine providence throughout creation. I think he made a better case than Denis Alexander in this instance.