Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wyrd And Providence

I am reconsidering an idea I rejected 30 years ago.

A young friend (33 - I now call that young) has submitted his PhD thesis topic in History at Notre Dame The Book of Nature in New England, 1630-1763. To touch on some of his main themes, the Puritans not only read intensely from the scriptures (and the Geneva Bible, not that suspicious KJV, thank you very much), but also from the signs around them, which they called reading in The Book of Nature. This emphasis has been downplayed in studying them. Reading letters, diaries, almanacks, and sermons we see this dual emphasis more clearly.* The Puritans were in fact obsessed with interpreting the events around them to understand God's judgements and messages. Hurricanes, good crop years, signs in the sky - all of these were believed to tell humankind something of God's intents and opinions.

This study of the Book of Nature by colonial New Englanders included both the special signs of God, and learning the natural order of things.

The thesis traces how this reliance on the Book of Nature, though general among them from the start, became more important than the Book of Scripture in some groups, leading eventually to Unitarianism, scientism, transcendentalism, and environmentalism. The usual tracing of Puritan thought is from Calvinism to Arminianism to Arianism to rationalism to modernism, or more dualisticly, from magical to mechanical universe; moral to market economy; providentialism to deism. All this true, so far as it goes, but it ignores a continuity of two centuries. Which is where Josh and his thesis come in.

All that by way of introduction. Those who know me will see how this would set off cascades of ideas, many of which I excitedly wrote to my friend. I'll try and stay focused on the main point here.

Thirty years ago, I somewhere ran across the idea that the Calvinist idea of predestination was just a dressed-up form of Norse fatalism. The thought annoyed me, and taken as a categorical statement like that, it still does. It reminded me rather of the young man who assured me that the Chronicles of Narnia were all based on tarot cards. Need I mention that the lad was very much into tarot cards and the occult in general? When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Wiccans and fundamentalists both declared numerous European practices to be pagan and occult. It is an ironic similarity between those groups that the merest nonchristian tainting makes something entirely pagan. Which, as everything is tainted in this fallen world, and all believers live in a physical environment in an historical context, would make everything pagan.

But I hung with fundamentalists a lot in those days and was myself looking for only the purest expressions of Christianity, so I was not disposed to cede any territory claimed by my Christian brothers and sisters back to pagan interpretations. It seemed a point of honor. Since that time, either my character or my theology has changed to see that no human expression is God's expression unadulterated. There are not even individuals or movements that are 99% or even 90% Christian. The flaws go deep in all human behavior. If there is paganism in Christmas trees, there is idolatry in shining a spotlight on an open Bible in a Baptist sanctuary as well. There is no getting away from it, no matter where we go. There are only choices.

Many of you will sense the broad outlines of where I am going from here. Yet there are some odd twists still, and I want to make sure the general idea gets in before I go into more lengthy discussion: New England was a peculiarly fertile ground for a peculiar and intense version of Calvinism.

Fun preparatory reference: Wonder Working Providence of Sions Saviour, By Captain Edward Johnson.

*Previously, viewing history through the prism of government, settlement, battles, and economy, the schoolbook history we grew up with, we focused on the Great Men and their doings. Social and cultural history, dealing more with everyday men and women, the less-prosperous, and the technology of home and hearth, is a more recent and quite valuable way of understanding a people and time. Studying the outcasts, the exceptions, and the marginalized, which is the extreme of this school, also has its value, though that prism has its limitations as well.


Retriever said...

I would love to read that thesis! And a thought provoking post, AVI. Thank you.

It also occurs to me yet another irony of modern life: the people I know who know nature best, are all politically conservative, stingy Yankees,and devout believers, many of them hunters, by contrast with posturing limousine liberal greenies who are often urban and whose "environmentalism" consists in throwing out old stuff to buy new PC stuff. The Prius is the prime example of this (I nearly got one when gas prices were so high, because it would have had a two year payback period, then saved me money). But, looked at from the footprint issue, (and the pollution caused by the battery ingredients) etc., it may hurt the environment more than my turbodiesel VW which gets over 40 mpg. My NH relatives all have the cheapest hybrids because of their mileage and them being cheaper for them, so I have nothing against any particular car. But the green consumers around me do everything for style.

Nature is a great teacher. The blackflies and horseflies and mosquitoes up north remind me daily that Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards. Make me thankful for the shelter of a screen porch!! Even as the view of the mountains reminds me of the enormity and beauty of GOd.

I walk almost the same route thru a park around the water here, daily, and it is different every day: the light, the tide, the wildlife, the flora, even the obnoxiousness or absence or other hikers. Like prayer: repeated, and never the same. One goes over the same ground, but is never quite the same person, seeing and hearing and smelling and sensing different things each time.

It was 10 degrees with a fierce wind off the water this morning and my fingers were soon numb as I tried to take pictures. Talk about being reminded of one's relative importance in God's scheme of things....One starts remembering those passages in the Bible about animals have their nests but not Jesus or His disciples...

karrde said...

AVI: spam cleanup on comment 1.

Anyway, I am intrigued by the comparison of Calvinism and the fatalistic teachings of the old Norse. (How do the old Saxons play into this, or the old Huns, would it change things any?)

Whether or not there is any cultural trend traceable from that old teaching to modern Calvinism, they do have a remarkably similar shape. Both put most of the credit or blame for human actions onto the Outside Force known as Fate/Wyrd/Predestination.

I'm going to have to think more about the connection between the most virulent form of Puritanism and the Unitarians, and modern East-Coast Liberals. It's intriguing.