“One cannot give thought to the Church’s confession of faith in Providence without very soon being impressed by the distance between this confession and modern thought.” With these words, the theologian G. C. Berkouwer opened his classic work, Studies in Dogmatics: The Providence of God. He went on to note how modern scientific and philosophical thought—as well as that of the ordinary person—is engrossed in the question of the meaning of the world and its history and the purpose of human life. A series of revolutionary, catastrophic events have led many moderns to ask: Can life still be said to make sense or be meaningful? “This is now a pre-eminently existential question whose persistence we cannot avoid.”
One of the most eloquent expressions of human insignificance was expressed by the astronomer Carl Sagan in his book, A Pale Blue Dot. At Sagan’s suggestion to NASA, Voyager 1— at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from earth—turned and took one last photographic look at earth before it continued on its journey out of the solar system. Reflecting on the resulting photo, he said:
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
You can watch and listen to a YouTube video with a section from the audio book containing the quote above from A Pale Blue Dot here.
Berkouwer said that when God’s hand presses hard upon life, the question becomes: WHY? Where is God? That question underlies everything happening in our time. It reverberates through the estrangement of humanity from the rest of creation; through our secularization and alienation from God. “God is estranged from man; and man becomes a stranger in His world.” He said the following three motifs play an important role in modern secularization.
The first is the influence of modern science on faith in God. When nature is repeatedly explained through natural causes, the premise of God’s preservation and rule is set aside. For the scientifically-minded person, the doctrine of Providence was “convenient for pre-scientific naivete.” But it is rendered irrelevant by the insights of the scientific method. The reality of God is a relic of the pre-scientific age.
Though many are beginning to talk again about the limitations of the scientific method and though one hears occasional murmurs against its imperialism, the inevitable conclusion of modern science is that it has no room left for God.
The second motif is seeing religion as nothing more than a projection or reflection of human thought. It appears in the writings of several influential thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and others. Religion is an opiate of the people (Marx); man’s god is man (Feuerbach); religion as a “universal obsessional neurosis” (Freud); Christianity is “Platonism for the people” (Nietzsche). When religion is a projection or reflection of human thought, it becomes expendable. Here, belief in Providence is dangerous, as it is only “a lust for safety and protection against the threats to our existence.”
The third motif is refuting God’s Providence through catastrophe: “How could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow …” The meaninglessness of a crisis seems to cut off any perspective that reveals purpose. “The Providence doctrine fails to give an explanation of the gruesome reality that holds life in its grip.” Faith affirms meaning and purpose in life. “But where can one point to purpose or reality in the radically ungarnished life of our times?”
Does not honesty tell us to limit ourselves realistically to what lies before our eyes, and without illusions face the order of the day? How can we overcome the catastrophic by a return to a confidence in the meaning of life, when the possibility of meaning itself is in question? Realism and a facing of facts have come to fetter the human heart. The beautiful story of Providence and the Hand of God, it is said, is a religious fancy, and belief in it an illusionary escape from reality.
There is a fundamental flaw embedded in each of these motifs, namely that understanding the world around us—including the meaning of our lives within it—must have a human starting point. This seems to be what Berkouwer meant by secularization; what we see is what we get. Science explains, or will explain, what was previously unexplainable. As the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace said when Napoleon asked him where God fit into his mathematical work, “Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.” Belief in God then becomes a projection of human thought. Christian faith is mistakenly interpreted as a Christian version of fate or determinism.
When this happens, it means that an abstract concept of sovereignty has replaced the God of revelation. God is construed as a “super power,” a potentia absoluta, which is another God than He of Scripture. Sovereignty “in itself” is a compassionateless concept quite as inspiring of dread as is blind fate. Biblical thinking is always directed to the sovereignty of God, that is, to the real, the true, and living God, the God of revelation.
Berkouwer encouraged his readers to turn to the Scriptures to overcome the modern crisis with the doctrine of Providence. He said as the Scriptures rule our thinking and speaking, as they fill the preaching of the Church, “so the Word of God will speak to the distressed and disordered life of our times.”
J. I. Packer said in the New Bible Dictionary that providence is normally seen in Christian theology as the unceasing activity of the Creator God. In Scripture, it is presented as a function of the sovereignty of God. “God is king over all, doing just what he wills (Psalms 103:19; 135:6; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11).” Packer said this conviction is throughout the Bible and must be distinguished from the following: pantheism, deism, dualism, indeterminism, determinism, chance, and fate.
Pantheism absorbs the world into God, while deism cuts creation off from him. Dualism divides control of creation between God and another power, where indeterminism denies there is any control at all. On the other hand, determinism imagines a control that obliterates human moral responsibility. Chance denies that the controlling power is rational, while fate denies that it is benevolent. Whenever these views creep into our understanding of God and his interaction with creation, they dilute a biblical sense of God’s providence. Packer said by God’s providence:
He upholds his creatures in ordered existence (Acts 17:28; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3), guides and governs all events, circumstances and free acts of angels and men (cf. Psalm 107; Job 1:12; 2:6; Genesis 45:5–8), and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory (cf. Ephesians 1:9–12).
When humans deny the continued work of God in his creation through secular views of science and philosophy, they are trying to erase what God has written across creation with indelible ink. As the apostle Paul said in Acts 17: 28: “In him we live and move and haves our being.” What can be known about God is plainly revealed in the creation. Since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived in the things that were made. “So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:19-21).