I have never been convinced that simple luck or chance is all there is to how the chapters of life shape and reshape us. And I have seen way too much of the real world to believe for a minute that everything that happens is simply a result of the choices we make. Neither the concept of dumb luck nor the fiction that we are masters of our own destinies adequately explains how I have experienced life so far. Things happen that are unanticipated and yet feel purposeful. It feels like there should be a bigger picture in which this all makes sense, though I am seldom as clear as I would like to be on just what that picture is.
Our church ancestors called this big picture for which I yearn “providence.” They would say that what I seek is the plan God has for my life. The Protestant Reformer John Calvin, for instance, described the order and purpose that we sense in the events around us as “the secret stirring of God’s hand” (Calvin, Institutes, p. 210). Calvin believed nothing happens without God making it happen, from the grand processes of the natural world to the unfolding of human events to the particular experiences in our individual lives. God, Calvin exclaimed, is “the ruler and governor of all things, who in accordance with his wisdom has from the farthest limit of eternity decreed what he was going to do.” God makes everything happen, and nothing happens outside of God’s wonderful intentions. “Not only heaven and earth and the inanimate creatures, but also the plans and intentions of [human beings], are so governed by this providence that they are borne by it straight to their appointed end” (Calvin, Institutes, p. 207).
When Calvin talks about providence in his writings, he depicts God (more or less) as an actor, making eternal decisions about your life and mine and the events of the world. Once upon a time, I found it helpful to conceive of God as Calvin does, as the grand cosmic actor and agent who sits somewhere beyond the created universe, dictating in specific detail the minutiae of human history and my life. These days, though, Calvin’s picture of God is a little too anthropomorphic for me. It relies too heavily on imagining God’s providence in basically the same terms as human beings’ willfulness—or, shall we say, the way men stereotypically will things: commanding this, that, and the other thing be done, progressing to “their appointed end” by the power of divine decree. That picture of God as a divine lever-puller raises as many questions as it answers, so it does less for me than it once did (certainly less than it did for Calvin, who was responding to the anxieties of his own time and place). Yet this Christian idea of providence—that God is the source of all that is and happens, the One who grants order and meaning to all that is and all that happens—remains attractive to me. It captures a sense of a bigger picture of meaning in which I might make sense of my life, beyond the surprises of luck or the arrogant presumptions of allegedly autonomous choices.
I think theology is more properly understood as poetry than proposition, by which I mean that its function is not to define God but to capture the ineffable experience of God in human words. Good theology does not dissolve into hard categories of true and false. Instead, theology provides evocative language to describe the experience of both the profoundly divine and the mundanely human in life. Theology offers imagistic language for the experiences that resist being captured in empirical assessment, experiences of Something More than material reality. Theology names and honors the mystery in life without reducing it; it deepens our spiritual experiences without necessarily explaining them.
The classic Christian language of providence serves that poetic function for me. To talk of providence does not scientifically explain how the pieces of my life come together, but it does invite me to imagine coherent meaning behind those experiences. To talk of providence lyrically reassures me that as I am shaped and reshaped by the circumstances, relationships, and events in which I find myself, God is present in all of that activity and invested in the impact those experiences have on the person I am becoming. Providence assures me there is more meaning in this world than the sum total of my choices or the accidents (good and bad) that befall me. That meaning resides in “the secret stirrings of God’s hand.” When we think of providence poetically rather than propositionally, it allows us to put to rest that age-old chicken-and-egg question: How can God control everything and there still be human freedom? As a mathematical formula, true human freedom and absolute divine sovereignty seem to be irresolvable. As poetic imagination, however, providence allows us to see human wills and natural occurrences and the accidents of circumstance as the media through which God communicates investment and meaning in our lives.
Praise for American Liturgy
“Rather than simply dismissing or embracing the church’s complicated relationship with American high holy days, Davis thoughtfully holds these observances up to the light. He encourages us to see what their many facets reveal about God, the world in which we live, and us. As one who preaches most Sundays, I appreciate his invitation to join in this rich conversation that engages Scripture, tradition, and culture with joy, wisdom, and a bit of holy playfulness.”
—Ellen Crawford True, Pastor and Head of Staff, Christ Presbyterian Church, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania
“Church calendars are always imposed upon by secular holidays and civic remembrances. Davis’s engaging text provides wisdom on how to navigate this temporal dynamic—not through best practices and tricks of the trade, but through a series of personal essays that blend theology and storytelling, prophetic wisdom and whimsical insights, scriptural truth amid life’s conundrums. To walk through a year accompanied by Davis is truly a joy and privilege.”
—Randall Bush, Senior Pastor, East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
About the Author
James Calvin Davis teaches ethics and Christian Studies at Middlebury College (VT). An expert on the role of religion in American democratic life—past and present—Davis writes widely about the ways Christianity has contributed (positively and negatively) to American debates over economic equality, human rights, health care, education, justified violence, and religious freedom. In his writing, lecturing, and teaching, he insists that historical and theological perspectives offer needed wisdom for healthier public discourse in the US today. A graduate of the University of Virginia, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and a life-long Steelers fan, Davis lives in rural Vermont with his wife, Elizabeth, and their two sons and two dogs.