Man's Freedom/God's Providence: The Origins of the Historical Consciousness

“But that was it—you never could think what things would be like if they weren’t just what and where they were. You never knew what was coming, either; and yet when it came, it seemed as if nothing else ever could have come. That was queer—you could do anything you liked until you’d done it, but when you had done it then you knew, of course, that you must always have had to.”

—John Galsworthy

The idea of freedom is peculiar to the West. Moreover, for the Western imagination this idea is nothing short of the underpinning for the historical consciousness. In fact, the consciousness of Man being his own history is one of the most striking characteristics of the Western world. It allows the self to turn back upon itself and judge itself ethically. This is possible because that same self conceives of itself as created in God’s own image and therefore essentially free, for this is a God that is free and creates freely. I dare say that there lies the theological genius of the West.

Several years ago in the mid-eighties, I taught Ethics and Comparative Religions in a private Episcopal School (St. Andrew’s of Boca Raton, Florida). At one point I ran into a theological controversy with the school’s chaplain who taught biology. The controversy centered on the issue of God’s freedom and whether or not God had to create the universe as we know it. He had delivered in chapel a wonderfully poetic narration of the creation event as described in Genesis. I praised the narration but took issue with one of its statements: “Then God felt lonely, so he created Man.” It seemed to me that such a statement invalidated the whole Judeo-Christian theological understanding of God and his creation. For if God needed to create out of loneliness, then He is determined and not free. And if God is not free, then his creatures cannot possibly be free either.

This is the dilemma that used to preoccupy Albert Einstein which led him to the famous statement: God does not play dice with the universe. Even God cannot declare that 2+2 is 3. But on the other hand without freedom, love, the greatest of Christian virtues, is also moot. It is the intertwining of love and freedom that makes for the grandeur of Dante’s Commedia; without them Western civilization cannot possibly be understood.

Despite the Inquisition, the Crusades, the scandal of the Papal schisms and the corruption of the clergy, Christian theology has always understood in principle (by which principle it also condemns itself when it fall short) that genuine love always desires the increase rather than the diminishing or the control of others’ freedom. On the other hand, as Dostoyevsky has shown in his novels, without the freedom to hate and to refuse love, one cannot possibly love either God or one’s neighbor. It is in that freedom that lies the human drama of Dante’s Inferno, rather than an alleged sado-masochistic medieval propensity for asceticism, pain and misery, as the Enlightenment philosophers misguidedly surmised. Ultimately the chaplain and I concluded that a better description of what might have been going on prior to creation might be that God, far from being lonely, was already in good company in communion with his Son. Michelangelo depicts this on the wall of the Sistine chapel with a Christ that looks like a Greek Apollo. That Christ scandalized many pious Christians but obviously He is not merely the historical Jesus of Palestine born or incarnated as a human being at a particular place, at a particular time, from a particular people. It was the overflowing of this reciprocal love between Father and Son (the Spirit) that prompts God to freely create the cosmos in order to freely share this love as Aquinas intimates in the Summa. In fact, the human community of which the primordial prototype is the family is conceivable only because there is already a transcendent paradigm of community, what Christian theology calls the Trinity. Therefore the goodness and abundance of life derive ultimately from love, and God in his act of creation far from being determined, remains utterly free and transcendent.

The roots of this powerful Western idea go deeper than Christianity itself. They are found in Jewish theology of which Christian theology is an offshoot. The Jews, without philosophically articulating a theoretical understanding of the philosophy of history (we need to wait for Vico for that for that understanding), were the first people to fully grasp the importance of freedom for the whole created order and its development through time and space. We now take it for granted, but this idea of a free God who freely creates creatures who in turn freely determine their destiny, is a truly revolutionary idea. It presents us with a God who is radically different from all the other capricious anthropomorphic gods of Western or Oriental religions up to then. It is that idea that makes room for another revolutionary idea, that Man is his own history.

This is not to deny that both the ancient Greeks and Romans contributed advanced ideas regarding intellectual and political freedom. However, their kind of freedom was grounded in political and social institutions rather than in the self. Rome, after a while, is not only an idea but a goddess through which the Romans, not unlike modern technocratic society, narcissistically and idolatrously worship their own achievements. On the other hand, the consciousness of freedom residing in a self related to its Creator is a uniquely Jewish phenomenon which enters the Western world via Christianity and eventually becomes the fountainhead of man’s historical consciousness.

The reader may be wondering, what exactly is the definition of historical consciousness? Were I to condense the various definitions given by cultural anthropologists I would hazard this one: an attitude that holds that history is a paradigm, a myth, if you will, of perceiving and ordering Man’s reality. Now, this concise definition assumes a faith in the presence of meaningful purpose and order in a universe ever reaching for a greater realization of meaning. We shall see later on that without some rock bottom beliefs neither historical consciousness nor science is possible.

The inner dynamic for this historical consciousness can be located in the biblical covenant between man and God, of which the most significant event is the giving and receiving of a promise with an ongoing and ever renewed expectation of its fulfillment. In other words, this relationship between Man and God is based on a promise and a trust in its fulfillment. This constituting of certain persons (e.g., the prophets), certain places (e.g., Jerusalem), and certain times (e.g., the Exodus event) as of eternal significance, intimately involves God in the historical process. It is intriguing that the very connotation for the word truth in Hebrew is “trust in the future,” practically a definition for faith itself.

We are back to the conundrum of God’s providence and man’s freedom. We may well ask ourselves: if Man, created in the image of God, is free and responsible for his own history, how can he possibly remain such if God, at critical junctures, intervenes in human history? Are not man’s freedom and God’s providence mutually exclusive? We shall later on in this series of columns analyze in depth how this seeming paradox functions in Vico’s concept of providence. Here we are mainly interested in exploring how it functions in biblical thought which, as we have alluded to, is at the root of Western’s Man’s historical consciousness.

In his book Chance and Providence: God’s action in World Governed by Scientific Law (S. Scribner, N.Y., 1958), William G. Pollard suggests that the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers is exemplary of how God is involved in the historical process and how Man retains ultimate responsibility for that process. Pollard rightly points out that perhaps only a story or a myth is capable of fully integrating the two realities of Man’s freedom and God’s providence. This story begins with a deliberate evil deed committed by Joseph’s brothers: the selling of their brother Joseph into slavery. Joseph’s subsequent rebuke, “you meant evil against me,” is meant to suggest that they are utterly responsible for their foul action. Their guilt on the other hand is revealed in this statement by the brothers themselves: “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for the evil we did to him.” Joseph however reassures them thus: “Fear not, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Pollard points out that this is the Judeo-Christian concept of destiny. Destiny is whatever is willed by God. God’s will is creation’s destiny. Or as C.S. Lewis renders it in Preface to Paradise Lost, “Those who will not be God’s sons become his tools.” And in fact, the moral lesson that Pollard wants us to derive this biblical story is that through fortuitous chances and accidents working through Joseph’s life-history, God’s providence emerges. The brothers meant evil, the outcome is good. Joseph’s words are instructive here: “Am I in the place of God?” Which is to say that, in the light of the happy outcome of the story, Joseph far from seeking revenge can only be grateful for God’s providence at work in human events and turning to good what Man meant for evil.

From this simple but powerful story we gather that the biblical view of chance and accident is that they are integral part of the fabric of providence which operates in what Martin Buber has described as the world of I-Thou; a world where we find notions such as freedom, grace, destiny, judgment, redemption, repentance, forgiveness. Those notions are alien, even repugnant, to the world of I-it, the rationalistic Cartesian world of observable objects and events with which modern science is mainly concerned.

The problem arises when the scientific mind-set attempts to reduce even history to the unfolding of deterministic impersonal laws within nature. This became inevitable once the Cartesian paradigm was in place in the seventeenth century. Within that paradigm nature itself is placed under the firm control of man’s rationality thus ending up with naturalism or economic and social determinism.

What these rational historical theories seem to lack is a theme in history. They abysmally fail to suggest to the reader a sense of the grandeur and drama of history; that is to say the vision of history as narrative and drama with a beginning, a middle and an end, open to new choices and directions, with a plot that while remaining hidden hints at a forward movement and a sense of direction. Indeed, the very first line of Genesis intimates to the perceptive reader that this definitely not a boring story. It is a story worthy of Michelangelo’s brush. God is both author and story teller as John intimates with his “In the beginning was the Word.” The universe is God’s poem. The name that the Judeo-Christian tradition gives to this drama is “providence.”

In as much as this drama remains open-ended, since chance and accident intermingle with the reliable and the predictable, it is different from science. Events and behavior cannot be controlled in history as in a laboratory. Oscar Handlin, for example, in his Chance and Destiny: Turning points in American History, draws attention to the fact that crucial military victories have been won or lost due to the sudden arrival of a storm. Something like that happened in the biblical Exodus event. This drama, unlike scientific experiments, is not repeatable except in Man’s imagination. Moreover, contrary to science, the human historical drama rests its confidence on the fact that not the most probable but the most improbable can be counted on happening.

Once caveat is in order. A false dichotomy between science and religion has been promoted by some who are religiously inclined. It consists in conceiving of God’s providence in an overspiritualistic or vitalistic mode, as a sort of deus ex machina, an added non-physical force within nature. When science cannot find this force, it proceeds to debunk the whole of man’s religious experience. This estrangement leaves both science and religion the poorer. But in reality the deus ex machina is not the biblical notion of providence. While not provable objectively, it is not an irrational, quasi magical extra-terrestrial force within nature. It is merely inaccessible to a detached, uninvolved, strictly objective Cartesian mode of apprehending reality. It simply does not rest on the same presuppositions underpinning scientific knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is discovered knowledge. The same Greek word for truth (aletheia) means to discover. On the other hand, the providential drama of history is apprehendable by an historical consciousness which to the Jews meant revealed knowledge. This kind of knowledge is accessible only through a relationship, namely that of the covenant with the living God. A covenant is much like a marriage, and in fact the concept of Christian marriage derives from it as Solomon’s Song of Songs or Paul’s metaphor of the Church as Christ’s bride would suggest). The knowledge that a husband and wife have of each other is inaccessible outside the covenant, the commitment if you will, of the marriage bond. A so called “live-in” with no commitment will yield a different, inferior kind of knowledge, that which accrues to a corporation’s contract wherein unmet expectations leave the partners free to abrogate the contract.

Within the covenant however, the Jews remain eternally the “chosen” people. This living God is like a jealous husband who cares for his creation by acting primarily in human history through the events and situations of his creation. This is an historical experience simply because an historical people, living in an historical place, at an historical juncture in time, entered into a covenant relationship with God. That experience yields real knowledge, albeit different from that obtained through science from observing and studying nature.

Later we shall explore at some depth the paradox of freedom and providence in Vico’s speculation on history. Here I simply wish to point out that providence as basis of historical consciousness cannot be grasped by the limited route of rational science. By its very nature science can deal only with what is apprehended in an objective mode by an observing, uninvolved subject. Chance has to be eliminated as much as possible to allow for the repetition of controlled experimental conditions. But even here there is a caveat. Modern quantum mechanics has strongly suggested to the modern Cartesian mind-set that perhaps the rationalistic object/subject dichotomy may prove a bit too simplistic for the apprehension of reality. That perhaps contrary to what Einstein presupposed God does play dice with the universe after all.

I suggest that what we should come away with from those musings on the biblical notion of providence is that the Jews gave us a preliminary revolutionary way of making sense of reality, a myth if you will, whose logos or meaning is this: Reality is historical and is based on the seeming paradox of God’s and Man’s freedom in a complementary relationship. It is only with Vico, however, that this Western historical consciousness becomes fully self-conscious and systematic as we shall see later on.

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