Contemporary Classical Composer

Providence

Reflections on Civil War Letters

Bob Blaisdell, ed. Civil War Letters: From Home, Camp & Battlefield  (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2012).

This collection of Civil War letters—written by small and great, northerners and southerners—offers a direct glance into the minds, hearts, and experiences of those involved in this fascinating and tragic moment of our nation’s history. The racial tensions of the present day in the US recall to me the time when blood was spilled, copiously, over political disagreements ultimately resulting from racial injustice. While the war was set in motion due to slavery, the subject apparently took a back seat in the minds of those in uniform. There is evident racism in the letters of some of the Confederates—such as J. Traviso Scott, who looked down upon negroes, and hated with the utmost seething hatred the band of Yankees that “invaded” the land of his countrymen. Other Southerners took to arms simply because their fatherland demanded their service. Some Northerners cite the cause of the Union, but seldom is slavery ever mentioned. Interestingly, Northern soldiers were generally apathetic about their service compared to Southerners, who were fueled by a sense of strong indignation. Perhaps this is because, indeed, the North was invading—fighting for a cause that did not directly affect their own freedom, although their efforts ultimately loosened the chains of the southern slaves. It is baffling to reflect that this bloody reckoning took place on American soil.

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Stonewall Jackson is a fascinating character. He is the kind of man that Christian churches the nation over would welcome into their fellowships with open arms: committed to scripture, God, country, and family; and yet he was ruthless in his defense of Virginia against “Northern aggression.” Most intriguing of all to me was General Lee, who was firmly convinced in the rectitude of the Confederacy’s intentions—self-defense against distant military power—and yet acknowledged slavery as a “moral and political evil,” and exhibited the character of a deeply loyal, humble, reflective, and spiritual human being. I am reminded that, under the right conditions, political disagreements could mean military enmity with quality people. Some might seem just fine with such a state of affairs; but how many indeed wouldn’t be pained to know that some of their family and friends were on the other side? Perhaps we should take this to heart before railing against the political tribes we hate.

Finally, what struck me was that at this time in history everyone believed in Providence (even the foul-mouthed soldiers that cursed him). All events were interpreted through the lens of God’s direct involvement. One Union Lieutenant, Richard C. Derby, nearly drowned in a river, but was cast ashore in time, the only one of his comrades that survived. He believed it was Providence that spared him, but went on to give his life less than a year later at Antietam. Did Providence indeed spare him only to lead him to death on another field? Or was his escape from death a matter of chance, which he interpreted as Providence because he was the only one who happened to survive? Perhaps it is impossible to tell with certainty. The naturalist would assert chance; the theist may defend Providential action. But then what about Stonewall Jackson’s thankfulness to God for sending favorable weather, for working all things together for his good on the battlefield? Was God doing this and at the same time working on behalf of the Union Captains who believed the same thing when they won the day? It would seem not. In any case, these are the case studies on divine providence. One can learn as much and maybe more about the subject here than consulting thick theological tomes. These letters also confirm the need for a more refined belief in Providence among those committed to the good fight of faith today.

Two Books on Science and Religion

Here are two reviews on books that address how God interacts with creation given the discoveries of modern science:

John C. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction With the World [1989] (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005).

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I picked up this book in search of perspectives on how God acts in the world. The picture painted by science seems to minimize the need to invoke supernatural causation, and yet as Christians we hold a biblical tradition of Providence, and interpret our daily lives through the lens of God’s intimate concern, involvement, and interaction in our lives and indeed all of creation. Polkinghorne suggests that God operates from behind the veils of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. Sub-atomic physics is viewed (though not by all!) as indeterminate; larger “chaotic” systems such as the weather are also indeterminate; as a result, there is an “openness” to the unfolding process of creation. No one can say with 100% certainty what is going to happen. God can therefore cause whatever he wants whenever he wants by, without violating the laws of conservation, nudging tiny elements here or there within these realms, desiring the chain of events that follows. To me, this view is interesting but ultimately speculative. Worse, Polkinghorne’s argument is maimed by his unwillingness to give up philosophical realism: for him, matter and the laws that govern it are absolute, and God must work around them. There are better perspectives available. What’s important, though, is that Polkinghorne recognizes the problem of divine action and doesn’t offer trite answers for it.

I found Polkinghorne’s writing style often taxing–he cites many bland theological quotations while forbearing to state his own views, and cloaks his prose in the tediously refined style of the academy. Yet there is some silver in his treatise: he exposes what he calls a “facile” and “glib” view of Providence, such that the believer interprets every life event from open parking spaces to rheumatism as direct from the hand of God, sent either as grace or punishment; but on the other hand he defends faith in Providence: “I do not think one can deny that there are remarkable threads of coincidence to be found in human life which it is proper for those who experience them to interpret as the personal God calling them by name.” In the end he endorses a balanced view that justifies thankfulness and prayer–what is at stake–while avoiding the simplistic view of Providence.

Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

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After Polkinghorne, I was curious to see whether a better perspective on the problem of divine action in the world had been articulated. Plantinga devotes attention to this issue in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, which evaluates real and alleged conflicts between religion and science. In it, he argues that there is no real conflict between theistic religion and science, but that the real conflict is between naturalism and science. Naturalism, the idea that there is no such thing as anything supernatural, is a metaphysical interpretation of or “add-on” to scientific theories like biological evolution. Plantinga takes up the foil against the belligerent atheists, Richard Dakwins and Daniel Dennet, and duels with skillful vigor and a flare of play. A lover of science, Plantinga embraces evolution, and turns it against the naturalist/atheist by arguing in the end that if Mind is the product of unguided natural selection, then our mental faculties are not reliable guides in our search for truth. This undercuts any dogma preached by the naturalist, such as the assertion that “the evidence of evolution reveals a world without design.” As for divine action, Plantinga echoes the notion that there is plenty of room for God to work from behind the shroud of quantum physics–whether to cause genetic mutations, guide evolution, or do the miracles recorded in scripture or prayed for in the present day. Unlike Polkinhorn, Plantinga is not struggling to avoid checkmate, but makes his moves confidently, showing that atheists and evolutionary psychologists have not gained their point against theistic religion in the name of science. I see the book as a whole as a serious challenge to and even firm chokehold on dogmatic naturalism.

Review: Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man

Second in my list of books from last year is:

Jane Goodall, In The Shadow of Man [1971] (Boston: Mariner Books, 2010).

I started reading this book on a plane to New York on April 3rd—and then discovered that the date marked Jane Goodall’s birthday. The introduction tells of the book’s wide influence since its first publication in 1971, including the anecdote of a traveler who took this volume along with the Bible as the two books she consulted in times of perplexity and discouragement. Indeed, the story of Goodall’s work as a young naturalist and primatologist seems to be sanctioned by Providence. She had a lifelong desire and passion to observe animals, and through various conflicts and obstacles was able to begin work watching chimpanzees in their natural habitat in the Gombe forest of Kenya. The work was extremely taxing and difficult, and fruitless for over a year; but through perseverance and refusal to despair, she was able to go on to observe the apes in closer detail than ever before. Her work proved seminal in the field of primatology, and transformed our perception of apes and of ourselves in relation to them. There is such depth of meaning in this story that for someone who believes in such a thing as Providence, it may be difficult not to see the hand of God in it.

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Goodall is not only a revered primatologist, but an excellent writer. Her story reads almost like a memoir, artfully crafted and richly descriptive, but at the same time full of technical observations on chimpanzee behavior. Since reading this book, and having contemplated the great apes, I view human beings differently. I see human virtue, selfishness, sexuality, love, social hierarchies, bipedality, and nakedness all in the context of how they are similar to or different from apes. When I visit the Phoenix Zoo, I look long and intently on the orangutans, so strikingly similar to us as are the chimpanzees. The creatures Goodall describes are fascinating and magnificent. Her account of them is not without tragedy, but her story awakens us to greater concern for them and indeed the entire natural order. Although a keen and tireless observer with deep love and respect for the chimpanzees, her interaction with the apes was of necessity limited. And yet through it all, she writes, “We began, though indeed ‘through a glass darkly,’ to understand what a chimpanzee really is.”