Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Experiences and Psychology Behind My Academic Study of Providence

Warning: navel-gazing ahead!

Of all the theological topics that could possibly be studied, why have I chosen to focus on the doctrine of providence? Questions about divine predetermination and God’s providence have always interested me, at least since I came to faith in my early teens. And so I suppose it was only natural that I gravitated towards essay questions on election, determinism, and the like when I studied theology as a university undergraduate—and the advantage of studying at King’s College London under Colin Gunton et al. was that I was introduced to Karl Barth’s distinctive take on election almost immediately. But the wider question remains: Why have these sorts of questions always interested me? It’s a truism to say that no theology is developed within a vacuum; context is important and influential. And it’s difficult to analyse steps taken or attitudes that date back almost thirty years. But in my attempt here to do just this, I have detected a possible pattern that could explain why the doctrine of providence continues to intrigue me.

Fundamentally, providence is about God’s provision—and provision has been a big issue for me. While my tween- and teenage years weren’t especially harrowing, I did have a parent who often ignored the harsher realities of life. Our kitchen drawers were stuffed with unpaid bills; we prized fifty pence pieces for the electricity, gas, and even television metres; and we lived continuously with the threat of bailiffs, who occasionally came and removed things from our council house. And I very often missed school on Monday mornings because I had to wait for Mum to get her unemployment benefit so we could buy some breakfast. The usual weekly pattern was for Mum to use at least half her benefit to repay neighbours the money that we had borrowed from them the previous week—a cycle that lead us to borrow again from them later in the same week. By the time I reached eighteen and began to study my A Levels (I didn’t move straight from secondary school to further education), my circumstances had changed so I could make a point of providing for myself—though, regrettably, such self-provision occasionally included my manipulation of others to provide for me. These days, my state of affairs has vastly improved, and I am far from any situation that would render me or my family hungry, homeless, or impoverished. Given the economic climate, who knows what will happen in even a year or two? But for now, my life is far more comfortable than it was back in the eighties and nineties.

That said, I still fear situations where I detect a lack of provision for me. Well, ‘fear’ is probably too strong a word, but I am often apprehensive of social situations where I am not in control or a major contributor to what is expected to happen. So, for example, for typical church bring ’n’ share lunches, I tend to bring my own sandwiches because I can’t guarantee that the food on offer will be free from tomatoes (*shudder*) and/or mayonnaise (*double shudder*). And I feel the need to bring my own drinks because I drink neither tea nor coffee, and, as a diabetic, I shouldn’t drink fruit juice. Now all this might make me seem overly fussy or even precious, but a relatively high level of self-provision in these sorts of social situations is very important for me; in general, I don’t feel I can rely on other people to supply exactly what I believe I need; and, rightly or wrongly, I am connecting my present idiosyncrasies to my predominantly teenage experiences.

Now why am I indulging in such public self-absorption? Believe me, I haven’t listed as many details as I could—you should thank me for sparing you from these! But I can’t help but wonder if my interest in matters of predestination and providence are intertwined with my perceived need to provide for myself. If my behaviour has been and continues to be shaped by an assumption that I have to provide for myself because I can’t rely on anyone else, then the doctrine of providence, with its emphasis on God’s provision for humanity, is certainly going to be of interest. Does God provide everything? Does God provide some things but expect me to provide other things? Does God provide nothing other than, say, resources for me to provide for myself? These questions are not disconnected from my experience, it seems, and I think it’s telling that my research has attended more to God’s self-provision for the world in Jesus Christ than in God’s specific provision for individuals à la John Calvin. Moreover, there are matters addressed by the doctrine of providence that also resonate with my experiences and psychology. I struggle with a perception that if someone else is good at something, then I cannot be any good at that same thing—it’s a kind of zero-sum game. If someone publishes an essay on providence espousing a view I disagree with, then it is me who is obviously holding the wrong view and not the other person. And my published research on providence has often focussed on issues pertaining to the supposed zero-sum relation between God and creation, where God and creatures are seen in competition. Thus a link between my research interests, my experiences, and my psychology is highly probable—and I would go so far as to say that other scholars’ research interests are rooted far more in their experiences and psychologies than is commonly articulated.


  1. You care for the land and water it;
    You enrich it abundantly.
    The streams of God are filled with water
    to provide the people with corn,
    for so you have ordained it.
    You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
    you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
    You crown the year with your bounty,
    and your carts overflow with abundance.
    The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;
    the hills are clothed with gladness.
    The meadows are covered with flocks
    and the valleys are mantled with corn;
    they shout for joy and sing [Psalm 65:9-13].

    Read this today and thought of this post.

  2. Great post Terry, I take a philosophical approach. For example, assuming that God generated the Big Bang in no way necessitates that God can meticulously control the created universe. Then I consider what horrific evils God might have prevented if God can meticulously control the universe. My numbed mind doubts that God can meticulously control the universe. That said, I believe in divine intervention within nomological limits, especially in synergistic conjunction with created agents. Peace, Jim :-)

    1. I think I'm trying to probe a little deeper, Jim - or probe in a slightly different area or at a different angle. So, for example, why have you taken the approach you've taken? Why do you doubt God meticulously controls the universe?

  3. Great piece Terry - seems to me that most biblical/theological scholars (as well as those in other fields) could benefit from a similar degree of self-awareness (aka navel-gazing). I suspect most inevitably bring some degree of personal bias to their research and conclusions.

    Same applies to us less academically-rigorous mortals. The topics I'm preoccupied with on my blog, and the conclusions I tend to come to, are surely strongly influenced by my psychology and psychopathology. I'm only vaguely aware of a few of the ways in which I'm screwed up but most of them probably feed into my beliefs and theology in some way or other!

    1. (PS when I say 'personal bias', I do realise that what you're saying goes much deeper than that, sorry!)

    2. Oh, there's no need to apologise. Bias is bias!

      It's easy to suspect that some people are less self-aware than others; but on the other hand, perhaps some people are more screwed up than others, or are able to deal with their past more effectively (and less publicly) than others. I've often wondered how many theologians actually do sin because many of the blogs I read (and this is not to diss them) pronounce but seldom confess.