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.
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.