God’s meticulous providence and the prevention of evil
Does the doctrine of providence lead to quietism in the face of evil? By quietism I mean a state of inaction in the world, particularly in the face of moral evil, due to a belief in God’s providential governance of all affairs (not to be confused with 17th century French Quietism).
The threat of quietism is captured in the story when eigthteenth century Englishman William Carey announced to his fellow Calvinist Baptists his intention to go to India as a missionary and one replied: “Mr. Carey, sit down! When God wants to convert the heathen, he will do so without consulting either you or me!”
That Baptist’s reasoning is disturbing enough for the mission-minded Christian. Even more disturbing is the fact that it could be readily generalized:
“Mr. Wilberforce, sit down! When God wants to free the slaves, he will do so without consulting either you or me.”
“Ms. Agnes, sit down! When God wants to bind the wounds of the Dalits, he will do so without consulting either you or me.”
“Mr. Osteen, sit down! When God wants to entertain the affluent, suburban residents of Dallas-Fort Worth with warmed-over self-help positive thinking seminars every Sunday morning, he will do so without either consulting you or me.”
Needless to say, if a particular theology provides fertile soil for quietism then we should be concerned about that theology. And that is precisely what William claims regarding the theology of meticulous providence. Here are his comments in response to my article “Why God shouldn’t be blessed for the carnage in Colorado“:
if I had a time machine that could travel back two weeks in time and give me the opportunity to stop James Homes [sic] from murdering all those people, would you, given your doctrine of meticulous providence, say that I should not do such a thing since some greater good is in fact going to come from it? This last point gets at something that has bothered me about theodicy for years now, namely, that it takes away the moral revulsion that we feel in the face of such evil, and effectively removes the spirit of protest and revolt in the face of such. In other words, not only should one praise God for his action in allowing such evil, but if there really is a greater good that is being brought about, then one shouldn’t really feel sad or angry or disgusted about things like the shooting in Aurora, or the Holocaust, etc.
You might call this the “Karma Objection to Meticulous Providence” (KOMP) because it charges that meticulous providence essentially leads to the same kind of inaction that is traditionally characteristic of Karma theodicies (according to which every misfortune a person experiences is perfect recompense for evils committed in the previous life).
So should we be worried by KOMP?
No. The belief that God exercises meticulous control over all events such that he has a justifying reason for allowing the evil events that occur is not a reason to be inactive when evil occurs.
Reason 1: Commanded to do Good. We begin with the commands of scripture and the natural law to do good and observe the Golden Rule. The law written on the heart and supplemented by scriptural revelation ground our intuitive sense that we are to defend the weak, protect the widow, help the poor, and stop evil whenever we can reasonably do so. This command, this obligation, trumps any perceived dilemma with meticulous providence.
Okay, but does this mean we have a conflict between the command to do good and the doctrine of meticulous providence? Not at all. Consider:
Reason 2: Preventing an evil makes it a Counterfactual Evil. Let’s say that you see a man attempt to abduct a child and you act on the natural law to prevent this man from carrying through his heinous intentions. Could you perversely worry that you had prevented an evil that would have produced a greater good? That would make no sense, because the claim of meticulous providence is that God allows the actual evils that occur because he has some greater reason for doing so. But when this abduction is prevented from occurring it is not an actual evil but a counterfactual evil. And we’re not concerned about those.
This means that whenever you act to prevent evil — or to stop an evil in progress — precisely to the degree that you are successful is the degree that the evil prevented is simply not of consideration as an actual evil which God will use for a greater good. And this means that you have a command without qualification to prevent any and all evils you can possibly prevent, knowing that in the cases where you and all other people of good will fail, God will still draw a greater good out of the evil committed.
And now for one final point…
Reason 3: Greater goods from greater goods. The quietist dilemma is rooted in the assumption that by preventing an evil you thereby prevent a greater good from occurring. But this assumes that the good which would result from preventing the evil would not be even greater than that which would ultimately result from allowing the evil to occur. Needless to say, this is a completely indefensible assumption. It may be that every time you act God in fact produces still greater goods than would occur in the counterfactual situation of the evil occurring. We can put it like this:
Counterfactual situation: evil x occurs and greater good follows
Actual situation: evil x is prevented and even greater good follows than would have resulted from evil x
Conclusion: Ultimately the entire dilemma William presents is based on the assumption that somehow acting to prevent evil might frustrate God’s meticulous providence in some way. But this is erroneous since any event that occurs is by definition fully in accord with God’s providence, and that includes not only evils but also the tireless fight for good manifested in the labors of folk like William Wilberforce, Mother Teresa, and hopefully you and me.
Que sera, sera
What God says will be, will be
But we must stop evil you see,
Que sera, sera!