What’s the Word?

                                                       What’s the Word?

                                                           by Al Murdach

                                                                      No. 4

     This is the fourth of a monthly series exploring today’s meaning and significance of some important religious words from the Christian tradition.  Today’s word is:


     This word was especially troublesome to our religious forebears because it carries connotations about God’s “Divine Plan”, God’s “foreknowledge”, “predestination”, and our “eternal destiny”.  To William Ellery Channing, a founder of Unitarian Universalism, the doctrine of providence represented one of the “thorny points” of Calvinism that he wished to overthrow. 

     Today, however, few people seem to be concerned about the doctrine, let alone think about overthrowing it.  The idea that God has somehow planned everything that will ever happen, knows what’s going to happen, and has control over what will happen and will reward or punish us according to how we fulfill his plan—all this now seems largely beside the point.  As moderns, we tend to assume that it isn’t God who’s in charge, it’s us, or it’s fate, the stars, accident, nature, love, “life”, the “force”, or some other personal or impersonal process.  But definitely not God!

     Still, it appears the old religious debates on this subject have not died but just assumed new forms.  For instance, today conservatives (and some liberals) place a lot of value on “personal responsibility”.  This is an echo of old religious debates in which people like Channing urged the view that individuals have the capacity to choose, plan, and thus take responsibility for their actions, and are not simply robots mindlessly responding to some god’s plans and control.  Also today, liberals (and some conservatives) express the view that, not the individual, but society should be held responsible for individual decisions and actions.  After all, they urge, it is society that has conditioned individuals to respond in certain ways, ways that may often be violent and unjust, but ways to which the individual sees no alternative because of their upbringing or lack of opportunities. This reflects the older view that it is an outside power, such as God, an international conspiracy, racism, greed, evil, the devil, etc. that is really in charge and conditions everything that we do.

     So the old questions about providence still pose many dilemmas, even though we continue to deny the doctrine.  Are we in control or aren’t we?  Do we really have choices?  Is our destiny actually all worked out no matter what we do?  Channing, incidentally, never resolved the matter.  The best he could come up with was the idea that the doctrine of providence is offensive to the idea of a loving and just God, therefore it cannot be true.  But this requires that one believe in a loving and just God, which many moderns, given today’s random murders, killer hurricanes, tsunamis, wars, genocide, terrorism, and sudden or agonizing deaths by accident or physical illness, find difficult to stomach.  So we return once again to questions about providence, whether interpreted in secular or religious terms.  These questions don’t seem to go away, and none of them has yet been answered!

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