Purpose and Providence

Taking Soundings in Western Thought, Literature, and Theology

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Vernon White
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , October
     2015.
     184 pages.
     $112.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567663429.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Does God have a purpose for my life, a purpose for the world? In Christian faith communities, this must be one of the most fundamental questions a believer considers in even a rudimentary examination of her life of faith. And yet, in a serious study of the philosophy, theology, or history of thought undergirding the Christian religion, this is likely to be one of the first questions dismissed as naïve or facile; untenable in light of the social and scientific developments of modernity and postmodernity, and thus unworthy of serious intellectual consideration. Although Vernon White does not frame the issue in quite this way, the discrepancy between how this question operates for a lived life of faith and a robust scholarly inquiry seems to motivate White’s most recent consideration of Christian providence.

White defines providence largely in terms of the purpose evident in events of life, the insight that “we are not just creating this purpose ourselves but finding it” (1). White’s ultimate argument is that “there are still ways of conceiving divine purpose causality, both within and beyond the temporal order” (139) despite the apparent “disappearance” of providence from Western thought. White’s first chapters chart a course showing how traditional notions of divine purpose have been challenged by “increasing secularism, pluralism, and scepticism about the possibilities of any sort of belief in objective meaning” (11). White is a clear and capable guide through this wide swath of intellectual history. Despite this alacrity, a level of familiarity with the basic claims and assumptions of modern and postmodern thought (such as the modern turn to history and the postmodern destabilization of both objective meaning and the individual self) is assumed and necessary for readers to completely follow all the nuances of White’s argument.

Despite increasing disenchantment, White claims that “[t]he instinct for historical development and teleology persists, even when its metaphysical or empirical props seem to have been removed and compromised” (19). White offers three loci of support for this claim: intellectual history (particularly the works of Charles Taylor and Genevieve Lloyd); literature (particularly the works of Thomas Hardy and Julian Barnes); and Christian theology (tracing a trajectory from Justin Martyr and Augustine, through Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, up to Karl Barth and Hans Frei).

Ultimately, White sees providence as “a bridge between the particular and universal.” He identifies Christ, uniquely, as the one who functions as the keystone holding this bridge together (98). Supported particularly by his readings of Barth and Frei, White argues that “the pivot and pattern” of providence itself “is the Christ event of cross and resurrection” (7). The narrative of the Christ event is where universality and particularity come together: “christocentricity affirms the meaning of all particulars” of individual narratives “yet the meaning it secures for them is also, through the cosmic Christ, a relation to history as a whole” (98). In other words, White sees semiology, or sign-making, as the answer to our contemporary problems and ambivalences with causality (110). It is possible to identify divine meaning in relation to specific events, whether in individual lives or in a larger moment within history, when such events “are brought into figural relation to that central Christ-shaped narrative of redemption” (119). Eventually, White re-frames providence as purpose without progress, the ability to follow a figural pattern and find christological meaning in particulars even when such meaning might not be apparent in “the big story” (158-159).

Throughout his text, White repeatedly acknowledges that his choice of sources is far from comprehensive. He limits his analysis to select texts from the Western canon, demonstrating a (recognized) reliance on white, European, and (mostly) male voices from intellectual history, literature, and theology. While establishing such research limits is understandable, and even necessary, this reviewer wonders whether White missed an opportunity by not considering Christian theology of a more diverse texture. Particularly with regard to liberation theologies, there seem to be ample opportunities to make fruitful connections between the concrete, empirical particulars of history and claims about God’s purposeful presence to individuals or communities working for justice and freedom. Since this is not work White chooses to take up himself (at least in this text), future scholars will find ample resources for connecting White’s christologically-identified providence with historical and narrative claims made by liberation theologians such as James Cone or Delores Williams.

Aside from these constructive possibilities, students and scholars of Christianity will find in White’s text a clear, compelling, and supported argument for a re-vivified, re-imagined notion of providence for our current intellectual moment. White’s book is unlikely to resonate with audiences unfamiliar with or uninterested in either systematic theology or a basic philosophy of religion as described in recent decades. Yet for those with the pertinent background and interest, White makes a compelling case for the relevance of providence for Christian theology and praxis, showing that it is still possible to be “confident that God is involved in our history, even when events turn against us” (161).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Karthryn Reinhard is Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Theology at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vernon White is Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, UK, and a Visiting Professor in Theology at King's College London, UK. Prior to his appointment at Westminster Abbey he was Principal of STETs (Southern Theological Education and Training Scheme).

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