Monday, October 10, 2011

Juxtaposition: Herman Bavinck on God's fatherly providence and Thomas Hardy's blighted star

The lives of Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) intersected the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Both men were affected in different ways by the upheavals in thought and life that characterised that turbulent period in world history. As their respective portraits show, the Dutch Reformed theologian and the English novelist and poet shared a common a penchant for extravagant facial hair. But Bavinck and Hardy had very different outlooks upon life. In this post I want to try and bring Hardy's bleak determinism into dialogue with Bavinck's account of the fatherly providence of God. 

Reading Bavinck on providence in Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation (Baker Academic, 2006) put me in mind of Thomas Hardy. The theologian makes a pointed distinction between fate and God's providential rule of the universe. In her excellent biography, Thomas Hardy: Time-Torn Man (Penguin, 2007), Claire Tomlain devotes a chapter to Hardy's fatalistic outlook as it found expression in his novels. The chapter is entitled The Blighted Star, after Tess' complaint in Tess of the D'Urbevilles that this planet is a "blighted star" due to the frustrations and hardships of life. 

As a young man Thomas Hardy came under the influence of Henry Moule, the evangelical vicar of Fordington. When revival broke out under Moule's ministry in 1855, Hardy seems to have been affected. While training as an architect he began to study the New Testament in the original Greek and was a regular church goer. But this early piety was not to last. By 1866 he no longer accepted many of the key teachings of the Church. Reading the liberal theology of Essays and Reviews and the writings of the agnostic Thomas Huxley helped to unsettle his beliefs. On attempting to make a living as a writer, he became acquainted with Leslie Stephen and his atheistic fellow-travellers. 

Tomlain cites the perceptive comment of Irving Howe on the impact that his loss of faith had on Hardy's outlook, 
Because Hardy remained enough of a Christian to believe that purpose courses through the universe but not enough of a Christian to believe that purpose is benevolent or the attribute of a particular Being, he had to make his plots convey the oppressiveness of fatality without positing an agency determining the course of fate... The result was that he often seems to be coercing his plots...and sometimes...he seems to be potting against his own characters. 
This can be seen, for example in The Mayor of Casterbridge, where the impersonal forces of fate seem to conspire to bring down Michael Henchard. The erstwhile mayor dies a lonely and hopeless death. He gives up on life because of the odds fixed against him by 'that ingenious machinery contrived by the gods for reducing human possibilities of happiness to a minimum.' The final words of the novel, found on the lips of Henchard's supposed daughter, Elizabeth-Jane are devoid of hope as she reflects that, 'happiness is the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.' On reviewing Jude the Obscure, one of Hardy's most bitterly anti-Christian novels, Edmund Gosse wondered, 'What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?'

Mention of Providence brings me to Herman Bavinck's treatment of the doctrine in Reformed Dogmatics. His single chapter consideration of the subject comprises the fourth and final part of RD Vol. 2, appropriately entitled God's Fatherly Care. The theologian begins by marshalling a vast array of biblical materials. He concludes that providence is God's kingly work of upholding and governing the world that he has made in accordance with his eternal plan and purpose. "His absolute power and perfect love, accordingly, are the true object of faith in providence reflected in Holy Scripture." (p. 593). Bavinck distinguishes the divine foreordination of all things from fate. Pantheism, which fails to differentiate between the transcendent Creator and the creation, inevitably collapses into fatalism,
On its premise there is no existence other than the existence of nature; no higher power than that which operates in the world in accordance with ironclad law; no other and better life than that for which the materials are present in this visible creation. For a time people may flatter themselves with the idealistic hope that the world will perfect itself by an imminent series of developments, but soon this optimism turns into pessimism, this idealism into materialism. (p. 599).
As Howe pointed out, Hardy's fatalism was a twisted and ruined vestige of his earlier Christian belief in divine providence. He felt that life must have a purpose, even if that purpose is a pantheistic impersonal force that is out to get us. But as Bavinck makes clear, citing Augustine, God's providential ordering of the world is not "a blind coercive power, outside of and in opposition to our will, for 'the fact is that our choices fall within the order of the causes, which is known for certain to God and is contained in his foreknowledge.'" (p. 600). Christian theology recognises a concurrence between the providence of God and the free actions of his human creatures. "Neither are the secondary causes merely instruments, organs, inanimate automata, but they are genuine causes with a nature, vitality, spontaneity, manner of working,  and law of their own." (p. 614). We are not, like Hardy's characters, the unwilling victims of a malign deterministic force. We are the free subjects of God's providential rule. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states,
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (III:I) 
'New Atheist' Richard Dawkins goes further than Hardy, with the latter's belief that 'purpose courses through the universe'. Consistent with his unbelief, Dawkins denies that there can be any purpose in life. Without God there can be none. 
Such a universe would be neither good or bad in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precicely the properties that we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, but blind, pitiless indifference." Daily Telegraph, 10 May 1995. 
The biblical teaching on providence set out so helpfully by Bavinck preserves us from the hopeless pessimism of unbelief. "In all circumstances of life, it gives us good confidence in our faithful God and Father that he will provide whatever we need for body and soul and that he will turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in this sad world, since he is able to do this as almighty God and desires to do this as a faithful Father." (p. 619). 

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