A Meditation for the New Year: Melancholy and Hope

For an aging boomer like myself, the years now come around far too swiftly. We are on the cusp of the year of our Lord 2023. If you were born, as I was, sometime before the midpoint of the previous century, 2023 seems hardly imaginable. And worse, as the years go by, they seem increasingly perilous. In the year to come will we continue apace to unravel not only the fabric of our nation but of nature itself? Will this next year be one more step toward the end of history? Not the end of history in the discredited Francis Fukuyama sense in his The End of History and the Last Man, where he claimed that we had reached some kind of plateau for human cultural development, but in the literal sense that there will be no one left to record it.

And where in all this is God? Like many of you, I’ve long loved “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” but as I sing it now, I wonder whether the second verse remains true:

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,

sun, moon, and stars in their courses above

join with all nature in manifold witness

to thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

The seasons seem lately to have lost their rhythm. Summer extends long into fall, and spring comes too early. The rains no longer follow the old patterns, and storms seem intent on destroying us. All this seems “manifold witness” not so much to God’s faithfulness as to human profligacy.

We have long said on occasions like this that it will all be okay because God is in charge. We have counted on God’s provision—God’s providence. Those of us who are of a Reformed bent still recite the 27th question and answer of the 16th century Heidelberg Catechism: “What do you understand by the providence of God?” To the question, the catechism responds:

[Providence is] the almighty and ever present power of God

by which God upholds, as with his hand,

heaven and earth and all creatures,

and so rules them that leaf and blade,

rain and drought, fruitful and lean years,

food and drink, health and sickness,

prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact,

come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.

The next article (Q&A 28) applies this theme, asking, “How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us?” The catechism answers:

We can be patient when things go against us,

thankful when things go well

and for the future we can have

good confidence in our faithful God and Father

that nothing in creation will separate us from his love.

For all creatures are so completely in God’s hand

that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.

The theme of God’s providential care goes deep in the Reformed tradition. What the catechism says in these articles echoes not only the teaching of John Calvin but his language.  Calvin concludes the first book of the Institutes of the Christian Religion with three long chapters on providence. For Calvin, providence is intensely personal—God’s fatherly hand. He resists at every turn separating God from the governance of the universe. He wants God to be involved at every step, dispensing grace here and judgment there, taking care of someone here and overlooking someone there. God is always involved.

Thus, in Calvin’s thought about providence, God is busy. The late Charles Trinkhaus, a scholar of the European Renaissance, says that Calvin’s view of God “corresponds to the energetic man of affairs of the new economic and political order” (“Renaissance Problems in Calvin’s Theology,” Studies in the Renaissance, Vol. 1 (1954), 68). This idea seems to be for Calvin a supreme comfort. God is in charge; I need not be.

These ideas about God’s management of the universe have made their way into the popular piety of our time. If you hang around with Christians, especially those of an evangelical bent, as I often do, you will hear much talk about God’s care for us. When someone is up against a tough situation, you are sure to hear that “God already has this figured out.” Or, in the current theospeak: “God’s got this.” Someone else will chime in with “God has a plan for your life.” Or, they will say that “God will show up in the end.”

In my capacity as interim in congregations searching for a new pastor, I have often heard tell that God has already picked out the new pastor for the congregation. I can never quite figure out what this means. Does it mean that the job of the search committee is to guess what God has already determined? Do these congregations actually need a search committee, if God has already done all the work? Can you guess wrong? And then what happens?

The problem—a problem already in Calvin—is that these views of providence fail to account for human initiative. Calvin works his way up to this problem a couple of times in the chapters on providence in the Institutes, but he never resolves the issues. He wants, as do I and, probably, as do you, both God’s fatherly hand, his intensely personal idea of providence, and human agency. He comes close in passages like this one: “However all things may be ordained by God’s plan, according to a sure dispensation, for us they are fortuitous” (Institutes I,xvi, 9). In other words, even though we believe that God controls our every step, we need to act as if it were not true. We need to take care of business.

Calvin in passages like this and others is working his way towards a distinctly modern epistemology: what we know is relative to our location in life. What looks like determinism from the divine point of view looks like free will from a human point of view. This is not only true for theology. Science must come to something of the same conclusion. Looked at from below, how the human brain works is entirely a matter of chemical and electrical connections. Looked at from above, how we decide to do one thing rather than another is a choice we make. Even though in some forms of brain science, researchers have suggested that the mind is nothing but fancy wiring, we know this not to be true. We do decide.

Calvin never quite got to a view of providence that allows both for God’s fatherly hand and for human choice. But we need not remain where Calvin had to stop. We honor Calvin and those who followed Calvin, including the Heidelberg Catechism, better by continuing down the road on which he was traveling than by stopping where he stopped. The problem with a certain kind of confessionalism—one much in evidence lately in the denomination of which I am a part—is that it fixes the point beyond which we cannot go. But perhaps that is not what confessionalism should mean. Perhaps confessionalism means that we keep on going to see where the road leads. And as we take the next steps down the road from where the confession leaves off, our insights build on those of the confession—in this case, on the catechism—so that we can see a bit more, and seeing a bit more, we can see what the confession saw in a new way.

One way to see providence more clearly might be the way found in David Kelsey’s massive study, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (2 vols, Westminster John Knox, 2009). In the pages I have in mind (Vol. 1, 236-41), he focuses on the book of Proverbs. The proverbs in the biblical book—those short epigrammatical sayings—are sandwiched between a rather lengthy introduction (chapters 1-9) and a short but memorable conclusion, the poem for “The Woman of Noble Character” in 31:10-31.

Kelsey notes that the proverbs themselves seem, in part, to be derived from Egyptian sources. The Egyptians believed in ma’at—the idea of a creation order. The wise person learns to conform to this cosmic creation order. This idea should be familiar to people in Reformed circles. In trying to resolve contemporary issues—say, same sex marriage—the church has often seized on the idea of an order of creation. This in fancier language is the “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” argument. The argument claims that God created us in a defined way, and we are required by this fact to conform ourselves to this created reality. But, Kelsey observes, this is the Egyptian idea of ma’at, not the view of wisdom presented in the book of Proverbs.

Proverbs complicates the idea of wisdom by introducing the figure of Woman Wisdom in the introduction to the book (chapters 1-9) and the echoes of Woman Wisdom in the poem on “The Woman of Noble Character” with which the book ends. Wisdom—Woman Wisdom—was present at the beginning, when creation was formed. But Wisdom is never identified with creation. The crucial passage in Proverbs 8 goes like this:

I [wisdom] was formed long ages ago,

at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,

when there were no springs overflowing with water;

before the mountains were settled in place,

before the hills, I was given birth,

before he made the world or its fields

or any of the dust of the earth.

I was there when he set the heavens in place,

when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,

when he established the clouds above

and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,

when he gave the sea its boundary

so the waters would not overstep his command,

and when he marked out the foundations of the earth

Then I was constantly at his side.

I was filled with delight day after day,

rejoicing always in his presence,

rejoicing in his whole world

and delighting in mankind. (8:22-31, NIV)

This passage does not say that Wisdom created the world. Clearly, in this passage, it’s God (Yhwh) who fashions the universe. Wisdom responds to the evolving creation, responds with delight and praise. What wisdom orders is a response to creation—a creative response. This response is both to that which has been created—the physical order of the universe—and to the one who creates it—to God. To both gift and giver. And this response is itself creative.

As Kelsey notes, Proverbs grounds wisdom in these two relationships: to the concrete what-is in the world, rather like Egyptian ma’at, and to God, with the relationship to God being first, “The worship [fear] of Yhwh is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10).

This is still wisdom, not providence, but it points a way toward a healthier idea of providence, and it rescues Calvin’s emphasis on God’s fatherly hand. In any concrete event, God gives of God’s own self in two ways. God gifts us with what we need to exist—with earth, above all, our “island home”—and at the same time with God’s own self. God’s self is not confined to the push at the beginning of creation but God’s creative interaction at every moment. God enters in, as it were, not only, as we have so recently celebrated, in Bethlehem in the Christ child, but into the universe. As I mentioned in a previous post, drawing on a recent essay by Marilynne Robinson, the quantum concept of entanglement provides an interesting metaphor for how God is involved in the universe but separate from it. God presents us the heavens and the earth as gifts in every day and at every moment. And along with these, God presents God’s own self.

Wisdom is the creative response to these gifts of God. Wisdom is both beyond us—see the poem in Proverbs 8—and within us—see the poem with which the book ends. In this way, God preserves both the integrity of creation and our own integrity and dignity. The universe is a kind of conversation, an engagement, which includes God, the creation itself, wisdom, and us. Thought of as a conversation, God’s care for us is interactive. It allows for the freedom of God and for our own freedom.

Which brings me back to where I began: with the way we have lately been unraveling the systems of the earth so that the seasons no longer follow on each other and so that we, looking into this next year and the years to follow, are forced to consider whether life on earth as we know it will long continue. This is not to say that God does not care or that God is not still involved in creation. It is to say that the conversation has turned melancholy. The earth seems to mourn, Wisdom grieves, and the Creator suffers along with the creation, while we go on, all but oblivious to what we are throwing away.

In this new year, let’s pledge never to say, “God’s got this,” as if we had no obligation to wisdom or to what God has given us or to God. As if we were not part of the conversation. Let’s pledge never to fall into those lazy ways of thinking that lead us to shirk our responsibility as the human race and put the responsibility on God to rescue us from ourselves. And let us begin this new year with praise and celebration for all the gifts of heaven, entering the grand conversation with God and creation with new joy and peace.


4 responses to “A Meditation for the New Year: Melancholy and Hope”

  1. Thank you, Clay. You always ask important questions that relate to our modern experience. Calvin’s determinism did not keep Calvinists from frenetic activity. Perhaps to confirm their election. The Calvinism I inherited was anything but quiet repose. In my home, Abraham Kuyper was next only to Jesus.
    CS Lewis observes that asking how much do we and how much does God contribute to salvation is akin to asking which blade of a scissor is more important. As I reflect on my 80 years, increasingly I think life is more gift than achievement. My efforts were no more than good works God had already prepared for me to do. My whole life I prayed in the morning, “Give us this day our daily bread”, went to work and in the evening thanked God for his provisions, without a hint of contradiction. Certainly not on an emotional level. It is only when human behavior is deconstructed for logical analysis that implausibility surfaces.
    The gospel teaches both grace and human responsibility. Earlier in my life the parable of the talents meant much. I determined to not bury my talent. Now, the parable of the workers in the vineyard speaks more to me. In the end it is all grace, but grace does not nullify works. It is the balance that matters. Someone tells me Berkouwer is very strong on the correlation of God’s and human action. Humans work, but it is God in them who also works. Our contribution is a gift from God.

    I am not suggesting that your position is different, I am merely relating how I experience it. You hint at going beyond Calvin and that I don’t see. You write: “Calvin never quite got to a view of providence that allows both for God’s fatherly hand and for human choice.” If so, why are Calvinists so active? When you give an example it seems a description of quiet pietists, not Kuyperian Calvinists. Or, is that strain extinct?

    The problem with the HSR, as I see it, is not grounding human behavior in the creation order, but the failure to recognize that all social structures, including marriage, have a form and a norm. The HSR idolizes a particular form, failing to allow the possibility that same-sex relationships might, under certain circumstances, answer the norm for marriage.

    Thank you!

    • Thank you, Nick. I do think that Calvin’s chapters on providence are a bit of a mess. As I see it, Calvin’s theological instincts were better in this case than his analysis. We shouldn’t be surprised that people who believe a deterministic view of providence or, for that matter, of election pay little attention to those beliefs in how they live. What those doctrines do in Calvinist theology is that they give people–us–a certain freedom of action. As you note, we are free to act without worrying about our failures. God’s success does not depend our success. That’s what people heard in Calvin, and that’s what led to the Calvinist penchant for full engagement with life. I think that in this way Calvin set a good direction, even if he never really worked out how to give a coherent account of his position. Does that make sense? Clay

      • Thank you, Clay,

        Who of us can give a coherent account of God’s self revelation? If we could there would be no need for faith. We would simply know it all. Paul promises that we will, but not here and now. Please keep sharing your musings and struggles. May God bless you and all of us through you.

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