A reader familiar with my thought stream in this blog knows how central is the concept of a “provident reality.” It also becomes obvious that I use this term in a way that’s not entirely consistent with its classical definition, where it referred to the way of god towards those who trust and believe in him (a masculine reference dominates the tradition). Over time, Providence (usually capitalized) came to be used as a substitute term for god’s benevolent provision, particularly as believers look to the future.
Rather than the notion of providence deriving from our experience of god, however, I have argued that our concept of god arises out of and reflects our (especially early) experiences of reality as provident or otherwise. As I use the term, a “provident reality” does not name a being who cares for us, but the extent in which the totality of existence supports life, community, and the evolution of consciousness. The fact that we are alive and conscious and creative and intentional means, in the very least, that our universe is all of these things – in us.
Despite all our abilities and the positive illusion of our individual autonomy, each of us is deeply dependent on the reality outside our ego for what we need. To live, to thrive, to flourish, to love, to construct meaning and awaken to our full human potential – we depend on reality to provide for us every step of the way. We need air, water, and food; we need shelter, intimacy, and connection; we need language, tools, and the skills to use them; we need guidance, exemplars, and forgiveness when we fall short.
All of us were born into some kind of family system – even if our arrival is what made it a family. We began as helpless dependents, equipped by biology only to breathe on our own, and really not much else. We needed to be fed and cleaned and cuddled and carried. Without a provident higher (taller) power to care for us, we would certainly not have survived. The relationship with our higher power(s) was formed most significantly around those needs of greatest urgency concerning our physical security and the material resources our body required. For reasons I’ll make clear shortly, I will name this providence of the first order.
Depending on how provident the higher powers were with respect to our first-order needs, a corresponding impression of reality was encoded into our nervous system. If the supply was sufficient and the care was adequate, our brain was allowed to settle into a coherent state of focused alertness and relaxed calm. The compatibility between our dependent condition and a reality that provided for our needs promoted the formation of what Erik Erikson called “basic trust” and what the religions name “faith” – faith in the provident nature of reality.
Erikson also observed plenty of cases where individuals demonstrated a compromised ability to trust reality and simply relax into being. Their deep and chronic dis-ease registered an early life where a first-order providence was lacking or perhaps inconsistent. From a neuroscientific perspective we might today diagnose their brainstates as incoherent – confused, irritable, and/or depressed. In religion, such individuals typically express a desperate demand on god’s vigilance and granting of prayers. They also tend to orient themselves to external authorities for the security and resources they require, even into adulthood.
If too much of our energy and attention gets wrapped into first-order concerns, we might never experience or benefit from providence of the second order, referring to social encouragement and creative opportunities in life. Where physical security and material resources are scarce and unreliable, it is common for family systems to fall hostage to a ravaging spiral of anxiety, resentment, and despair over matters of basic survival. Second-order providence sounds like a luxury when one’s daily existence is in question.
This is why nearly every ethical revolutionary in history has made the abolition of poverty central to their vision of a New World. Whatever its contributing factors, the fact that abject poverty destroys the human spirit and erodes the foundation of any society is beyond doubt. As these messiahs, mahatmas, prophets and reformers have insisted, our resolve as a community to provide security and resources to our weakest and most vulnerable members is ultimately what will bring salvation to the world.
When that first-order providence is in place, the social encouragement and creative opportunity that I’m calling second-order providence can work its magic. A human being not only struggles to survive, but every individual embodies the evolving spirit of our species – what the philosopher Aristotle called an “entelechy,” an inner aim, or what I also like to call our evolutionary ideal. As Abraham Maslow pointed out, when our basic needs are adequately met, the farther reaches of our human nature can be actualized.
My definition of second-order providence should make it clear that our higher nature depends for its actualization on the benevolent social support of a community. Social encouragement conveys our commitment to the individual’s emerging creative authority, and our bond of service continues in making opportunities available for the individual to learn, grow, and develop to his or her full potential. Obviously this providential responsibility begins in the family, as parental taller (higher) powers not only put food on the table but also nurture the soul-seeds in their children.
Family is the first theistic system. The dynamic relationship between providers and dependents – so critical, as I have argued, to the healthy emergence of self-responsible creative adults – ultimately plays itself out on the larger stage of culture. Deities are our “fathers” and “mothers” and we are their “children,” which makes the fellowship of believers a sibling circle of “brothers” and “sisters.” (Universalists like Jesus have used this theistic metaphor to make the point that all of us, believers and nonbelievers, friends and enemies alike, are members of one family and deserve each other’s deepest respect. But look where that got him.)All of this is to say that the inner aim (entelechy) of theism is the full actualization of human beings and the flourishing of a fully inclusive community. An impossible ideal, you say. And I would agree – as long as we stay on this side of god, where the concerns of first-order providence preoccupy our consciousness. On this side, there will never be enough and all we can do is await our deliverance to a better place later on.
On the other side of god, in the spirit of post-theism, we discover that it’s been in us all along to become compassionate caretakers and visionary creators of the New World. To fulfill what our god could only command.