Wednesday, 9 January 2019

David Fergusson on Evil and Aesthetic Analogies for God’s Providence

I’m not the biggest fan of non-biblical analogies for providence and/or divine action, so this quotation from David Fergusson’s recent book on providence cheered me no end:

Theologians have sometimes reached too swiftly for aesthetic analogies which suggest that everything in creation contributes to an overall harmony. The danger here is of transposing moral and religious objections to suffering into artistic descriptions of the shadow in the painting or the discordant note in the music which comprise a richer and more poignant performance. The problem of evil resists such categorisation, for much the same reason as we hold that the end cannot always justify the means. Although an account of the rich tapestry of creation might accommodate a modicum of pain and discomfort to facilitate the emergence of greater goods, such considerations can cope neither with the intensity of some forms of suffering nor with the depravity of some of our actions. The distribution and depth of innocent suffering prevent the easy deployment of a theodicy oriented towards an aesthetic resolution.

David Fergusson, The Providence of God: A Polyphonic Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 315

The fact is that too many theologies of providence fail to take seriously what Fergusson refers to as ‘dysteleological suffering and failure’ (p. 314). There are some things that just cannot be explained or accounted for by an all-encompassing analogy.

The dysteleological suspension of the musical

That said, Fergusson goes on to say that ‘the musical analogy of a cantus firmus might serve a theology of providence’, insofar as this is ‘a steady and underlying melody to which the other contrapuntal tunes relate’ (p. 315). I can appreciate this in and of itself; but given Fergusson then goes on to connect this cantus firmus to ‘the story of Jesus’ (p. 315), I fail to see why he needs then to explicate this latter in terms of the former. Or perhaps I’m being too biblicist here!


  1. I agree that there is no all-encompassing analogy for providence, but there is no all-encompassing analogy for anything. Analogies - including the parables of Jesus and the analogies of, for example, the beginning of the gospel of John - are used as a way to explain a part of a whole. We can never understand the whole, in this life, but they are helpful. Any analogy that insists that it *is* all-encompassing risks being more in alignment with Buddhist or Taoist teachings than with the Unknowing (faith?) that is part of the walk of the Christian, in my humble and uneducated opinion. No offence intended to Buddhists or Taoists, whom I am sure hold their beliefs and philosophies in all sincerity, as we do, and about which I am probably extremely ignorant. Still, it strikes me that providence wouldn't sit well within a Buddhist worldview, I don't think.

  2. Having said all that, something that has been hugely beneficial to me (as someone in recovery from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a little mantra from psychologist Kristin Neff's book 'Self-Compassion: Step by Step':
    'This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion that I need.' When I say this, I pray it, too, and feel glad to know that God is right there with me in all the mess and distress - and that it's ok to not be ok. I can take each step one at a time, knowing that God is in charge of it all.

    1. P.S. Sorry to have gone off on a tangent...

    2. Oh, tangents are fine, Sandy. Better those than no comments at all! ;)

      Fergusson's aim, I think, is any doctrine of providence that seems to suggest that evil is in some way necessary to complement what is good, or those doctrines that appear to 'explain' why God allows evil. So almost every doctrine of providence out there!