Let me start with saying that I am immensely grateful to the contributors to this Book Symposium for the time they have devoted to reading my book Disability, Providence, and Ethics: Bridging Gaps, Transforming Lives and for the comments they made. My own inclination of how to respond brought back a remark I once heard from Keith Ward. There are two kinds of writers in theology and philosophy, Ward said. The ones who write the same book again every odd number of years, the others who publish a new book saying that this time they have got it right. I definitely do not belong to the first kind. The comments received from my interlocutors made me rethink what I have been saying, so that hopefully my rejoinder will—at least in some points—be closer to the mark.
Baylor University Press, 2014
At the same time, however, any theologian writing a treatise on providence who has no questions left may for that reason not be a very reliable guide. An almost universal experience among Christians is that the notion of divine providence is hardly reconcilable with the experience of wholeness. Looking at the responses to Disability, Providence, and Ethics I ask myself again whether I am one such theologian. In the face of the reality of people’s suffering I do seem to have an awful lot to say about the subject of divine providence, even though in actual practice silence is often the more reasonable—let alone pastoral—stance. That is what impressed me most about Job’s friends in the opening scene of their dispute. They come to sit down and mourn with their friend, and are silent for a week.
I think this sentiment governs my rejoinder to Kirsty Birkett’s thoughtful response to my book. The points she raises about some of the more robust claims I have made, give me pause to think again. Is it really so evident that traditional accounts of providence are unhelpful, as I seem to say?As we learn from the story of Job, silence is an important part of a practice of mourning that recognizes the suffering person. But silence only takes you so far. And is Calvin so easily pushed aside, as I also seem to think? Taking these two questions as my point of departure will enable me to say most of what I would like to say to Kirsty’s comments.
She rightly sensed that my critique of evading the ‘why?’ question is an important motive for writing this book. People with disabilities and their families are frequently told—or they tell themselves—not to focus on their loss and to go on with their lives. Their experience of grief is real, however. That is why I set out to present what I think the Christian tradition has to offer when it comes to reflect on suffering and grief. So I myself see this book as a tribute to the richness of what there is to be found in this tradition as a source (leaving aside the manifold ways in which it presents itself). This is notwithstanding my earlier comment on silence. As we learn from the story of Job, silence is an important part of a practice of mourning that recognizes the suffering person. But silence only takes you so far. At some point, one needs to speak, and some of the things one can say are more adequate than others.
Seeing the Christian tradition as a rich source for theological and pastoral reflection, then, I am a bit dissatisfied with having left the impression that we can disregard at least the Reformed tradition as it originates in the thought of John Calvin. Not being a Calvin scholar myself, I recall the joy in reading his account of providence in The Institutes—particularly his last edition, when at the end of all his scholarship he tells his readers, almost in despair, not to really understand what he nonetheless believes he needs to say. In these moments, Calvin reads very much as a pastoral theologian, and I found his wisdom in recognizing the limits of theological reflection quite comforting. What Christians (or at least Reformed Christians) seek is knowledge, to be sure, but—as Calvin insists—when it comes to divine providenceIn the face of suffering, the very meaning of God’s loving kindness often becomes incomprehensible, mysterious. this can only be ‘knowledge of the heart.’ So unless there is a deeply felt reverence for a loving God, an account of divine providence is most likely to go wrong. ‘Wrong’ not only in the sense of pretending a final explanation, but also in the sense of failing to acknowledge mystery. In the face of suffering, the very meaning of God’s loving kindness often becomes incomprehensible, mysterious.
As indicated, Calvin would be the first to insist on divine incomprehensibility with regard to providence, which makes it all the more curious that he found himself entangled in the logic of primary and secondary causation. It was his attempt to comprehend what he essentially saw as a mystery, a mystery moreover only a reverend and God-loving heart would accept. In the pages dealing with the question of causation Calvin loses his pastoral perspective, and argues that in view of the reality of suffering and sin there is no way to evade the conclusion that God’s will is the primary cause of all things, including all human actions. “He is the doer.”
In view of these remarks on my reading of Calvin, I must offer a rejoinder to Birkett’s observation that I don’t make much of the doctrine of the fall. That is true, but I don’t see that as an omission. She claims that this doctrine provides us with “an explanation for suffering, but it is at a corporate not individual level. The individual who suffers is no more guilty than any other, but is born into a frustrated world in which these things can happen to anyone.” I don’t see how this ‘explanation’ is helpful for an account of divine providence, particularly not from a Calvinist perspective. First, the question of providence does not arise on a corporate level, but springs from a personal experience. The ‘why?’ question is properly understood as meaning ‘why did this happen to me?’ To respond that the entire world is subject to suffering is less than adequate, even when true. Second, reading Calvin it is very hard to escape the conclusion that somehow the individual is targeted by God’s wilful decree because ultimately, in his view, God needs no excuses for whatever he decides. He is the doer.
At the end of her response, Kirsty recognizes the relevant difference between the two perspectives when she mentions Amy Julia Becker’s book. Reflecting on the birth of children with Down syndrome in the abstract, Becker tells us, she saw such an event as part of what happens in a fallen world. But her perspective dramatically changed when her daughter Penny was born with DS. Birkett comments: “it is so much harder when it is personal. That is why lament is so important. We are emotional beings, not just theological intellects. But the theology has to frame the emotion, otherwise we will just get it wrong.” I take this comment to indicate why I think Calvin should have limited himself to not knowing what to say in view of a person’s suffering other than that a loving God will not abandon that person, and will make his love be felt again. Theology is a second-order discourse. It has to frame the emotion, not override it. That is why I attempted to read the doctrine of providence from the perspective of the Holy Spirit sent by God the Father as the Paraclete.
The one question that frequently comes up regarding the account of providence proposed in Disability, Providence, and Ethics concerns the absence of a positive understanding of divine causality. The same question is addressed in various ways in the contributions to this symposium, but most poignantly in Ben Mitchell’s. Here is his summary of what he regards as its main claim: “Providence,” in Reinders’s view, “is not about God’s being causally in control of the universe . . . Instead it is about his Trinitarian presence to sustain the promise that he will not abandon his creation” (p. 28). To which he then adds the question why providence cannot be both. Or, rather, in his view, it has to be both.While there is much in these comments that gives me pause to think—and think hard—I must confess that in the end I cannot agree. Referring to Psalm 23 Mitchell insists on the certainty of knowing that behind the adversity that may befall us in our lives is God’s goodness and mercy. “The adversity must have a purpose—even if hidden from my view—if it is to be endured with hopefulness.”
While there is much in these comments that gives me pause to think—and think hard—I must confess that in the end I cannot agree. The argument against my attempt seems to be this. God must cause the events generating human suffering otherwise no one can be sure that in the end all will be well. Therefore, we need to know that “The loving sovereign God is superintending his creation and his creatures.” The instrumental reasoning here—suffering must have a purpose, otherwise that suffering is meaningless, and there is no ground for hope—fails to recognize the true Glory of God who is love. Plane crashes are not caused by love, but by human errors, or nature’s brute force, or by a mixture of both. The same is true for every other calamity. Adversity does not need a purpose to find hope, because the hope is found in the discovery that love has not disappeared from our lives. When people are devastated and see their lives falling apart, the future is dark and the hope of redemption is further away than ever before. This is ‘the gap’ that needs to be bridged, and while in the middle of it, the presence of love is hidden from their eyes. Not because it is not there, but because their hearts and minds are too clouded to see. Divine presence will make itself known again when the Spirit opens their eyes. I believe that redemption through a love that transforms is the ground for hope. I also believe that Calvin was very right in insisting that it is ‘knowledge of the heart’ that enables the faithful to discern the truth that God is love.
These remarks also suggest why I am not convinced by Mitchell’s account of Christian hope. The certainty of knowing that God is behind it all is not the ground of our hope. Rather, the connection works the other way around. Jesus’ faith that love will overcome all evil and the suffering it causes is the ground—hypostasis it says in Hebrews 11—of our hope, and by the working of the Spirit it is that same faith that opens our eyes to see.
To some extent Nathan Barczi is troubled by the same aspect of my understanding of divine providence, which he locates in my rejection of the hiddenness of God’s will. His attention is drawn to my reading of the Book of Job, wherein he finds much to recommend, but in the end concludes that what can be gained from it is more than that God—in finally speaking to Job—reveals himself as Creator. His speech out of the whirlwind does not only insist on “the ontological gulf that exists between himself and his creatures” but at the same time confirms “the very hope that Job has been clinging to all along.” Barczi then continues to note that I take the discussion of providence in the same direction, namely in pointing to the promise that God will not forsake the work that his hand has begun. So, in view of this promise, in attempting to understand divine providence we might just ask what it means that God remains faithful to his creation. Barczi acknowledges the Christological focus of my account and affirms that “Christians understand providence as God’s purposes sovereignly working in Christ to fulfill his promises.” But this is where his appreciation ends, because “it does not erase the inscrutability of his ways; rather, it transforms the impact of that inscrutability for the believer.” I am not sure I understand this claim correctly, but there is one sense in which I entirely agree with it.There is hiddenness and absence of a loving God—otherwise we would not have the Book of Psalms, as I wrote. Looking at what people have to endure we are often left speechless. The closer the suffering is, the less we know what to say. For the unbeliever every calamity is one more reason to say ‘there is no God.’ For those believing that God works his purposes through Christ, the same calamity remains just as inscrutable, they too have no idea why evil things happen, but they know where to look for redemption. They will look for signs of the power of love, in which they will find the ground for their hope.
I entirely agree with Barczi when he contends that God’s thoughts and ways are far above our own, but that “in the cross, he has not left his character in doubt.” In less devotional and more theological language, this claim reflects the reason why I attempted—guided by Barthian thought—to rethink divine providence in Christological terms, and seek to distance an account of it from any nominalist reminiscences of the absolute power by which the deus absconditus rules the universe. Barczi notes my concern that maintaining the hiddenness of God’s will erases the difference between providence and fate, and asserts that “there is a difference, and the difference is God himself.” Two final remarks. First, my worry is not with ‘hiddenness’ or ‘inscrutability,’ but with the way in which Calvin defends these notions by enabling the view that in the case of the most cruel violence or whimsical disasters he still will maintain that God is the doer. Second, I recognize the possible influence here of Immanuel Kant’s claim to religion within the limits of reason. Implying that religious views to what God wills cannot exceed our moral consciousness too far, otherwise—Kant argued—we lose our ground for praising God. While his views are theologically contestable, Kant’s claim may be harder to resist from a psychological point of view. Surely Calvin would know what to say. The human spirit measuring up the righteousness of the divine will is the hallmark of human hubris and sinfulness.
To conclude, if Nathan Barczi is right in saying, as I think he is, that 1) the difference between divine justice and arbitrariness of fate is God himself, and 2) God will work his purposes through Christ, then I think Calvin’s consequentialism is theologically unwarranted. God in Christ revealed his true nature. Unbounded love does not cause misery. Nonetheless, when thrown off their feet by adversity, people may not find the signs of love and may despair of the strength to endure their misery. There is hiddenness and absence of a loving God—otherwise we would not have the Book of Psalms, as I wrote in Disability, Providence, and Ethics—but not because he is the doer. I know that my Redeemer lives.
Working through the comments of my esteemed colleagues sequentially means, of course, that I run the risk of running out of space towards the end. This implies that I need to limit myself in responding to the last two commentators. In a sense that’s unfortunate regarding the comments of Michael Beates, as he is so clearly appreciative of my work, for which I am very grateful.Being guided by the life of their daughter, he confesses to have learned more about God than academic theology ever could have taught him. I take that to confirm my characterization of theology as a second-order discourse. Being guided by the life of their daughter, he confesses to have learned more about God than academic theology ever could have taught him. I take that to confirm my characterization of theology as a second-order discourse, which means that theologians should learn to listen first, and listen carefully before they speak. If I sense the intention behind his comments correctly, I think he is not so much appreciative of what I say as he is about how I have tried to say it. But he voices a few concerns that I would like to address.
Beates found his own experience reflected in my claim that theology needs “to clean up its own mess,” which I take to be clearly a first-order response. While it was a blunt way of phrasing what I took my task to be, it is not by accident that a father of a young woman with a developmental disability recognizes their experience in it. Too often theology has taken—and still takes—itself to be the first-order discourse of religious life, without noticing the mess it leaves behind in the hearts and minds of people going through hard and difficult times. Working for thirty years in the field of intellectual and developmental disability has taught me that much.
Nonetheless, Michael Beates also has his questions, reciting Cowper’s hymn, like Mitchell did. I will pick up his comment on the absence of eschatology in my reflections, and how he would have liked to hear more. Point well taken, so let me make a start. I will take two lines from the poem by Corrie ten Boom in Beates’s comments to voice my attempt:
Not ’til the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas and reveal the reason why.
What troubles me here is the fact that the difference between living in this world and the promise of the world to come is pictured in black and white. Not before the end of times will God reveal the final picture. While Christians have always maintained that the eschaton transcends human imagination, it is also true that they have always praised God for the signs of his presence. Without the recognition of these signs they would have belied Christ’s promise that the Spirit would be with them, and comfort them, wouldn’t they? This is confirmed by Paul’s word to the Corinthians that they now see through a glass darkly. In complete darkness there is no seeing, which is why Paul continues to assert “I now know in part.” I take Michael Beates’s affirmation that he also has witnessed how persons with disability can provide “a profound and unavoidable presence in our midst” as just another sign that the foolishness of God’s ways in this world by far exceeds the ordinary wisdom it clings to. There is a tertium quid, to quote Beates again, which is not to respond to unbelievers’ atheism by saying that they will know otherwise on the day of their final reckoning. Rather, we should recognize and celebrate the light of his presence as a reason to repent of the lack of faith that our own clinging to ordinary wisdom betrays.
The adequate response to Chris Ralston would be a very short “Amen,” but that would fail to do justice to his insightful comments, particularly those drawn from Vanhoozer’s work. What I am about to say here is not intended as a correction of Ralston’s argument, then, because everything I will say he has said too. It is intended only as an emphasis on an aspect that readers may overlook, or pay insufficient attention to. The key point is that ‘knowing’ how to incorporate the experience of, or with, disability in one’s story is best expressed in terms of a discovery. What humans do is ‘find’ meaning; they do not ‘make’ it. The point here is to criticize a tendency particularly present in European Christianity to align their religion with Sinngebung (the German term, reflecting the Dutch equivalent of Zingeving), in English sometimes referred to a ‘sense-making.’ I am opposing a kind of metaphysical constructivism here, according to which humans engage the world as if knowing it were subject to their own ordering activity. Against this voluntarist worldview, I am arguing for a kind of theological realism, here as elsewhere,And so, in the end, I find myself facing the inscrutability of God’s mysterious ways again, as there are no obvious reasons why the chosen are chosen. a realism that says—in the present connection—that the transformation is a discovery. It enables us to see light where our hearts and minds are overwhelmed by darkness, and this is God’s doing through the work of the Holy Spirit. In his comments, Ralston never overlooks this, but his phrasing of enabling the experience of, or with, disability to become part of one’s story by ‘blocking’ or ‘accepting’ might lead his readers to miss the importance of this emphasis.
What I experienced truly as a discovery in writing Disability, Providence, and Ethics was to see how God changes people’s history, as is clearly seen in the stories told by Martha Beck and Amy Julia Becker. As there is no history that is not told by somebody, God changes our history in showing us how things in our past may look different and thus acquire different meanings in the present. It takes new eyes to perceive the changes. But getting new eyes, becoming a new self, is not a project. Transformation is not a human act. The same is true of conversion, as Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. And Ralston is right, it is not a joy, but an imposition. There is not a single prophet in the Scriptures who rejoiced at discovering he was a chosen one.
But if all of this is true, the conclusion can only be that God elects some of His creatures for the gift of discernment but not others, given that transformation is no universal experience. And so, in the end, I find myself facing the inscrutability of God’s mysterious ways again, as there are no obvious reasons why the chosen are chosen. I am happy to follow Ralston’s notion of the experience of, or with, disability as a ‘calling,’ but not without seeing that the questions that led me to oppose divine causality will once again return.
Let me finish by returning to Keith Ward’s joke. I would have to be a very different author to be able to rewrite the same book again and again. So I have delivered this rejoinder hoping it will at least on some points be closer to the mark, but not without recognizing that there are questions left unanswered. As there always will be.