The Third Peacock and Providence

This post is the second part of a series looking at The Third Peacock. If you have not already read it, I recommend starting with part 1.

The next step in the exploration of theodicy takes us to the concept of Providence. Millard Erickson (in Christian Theology) defines that as follows:

While creation is God’s originating work with respect to the universe, providence is his continuing relationship to it. By providence we mean the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation he has brought into being, and guides it to his intended purposes for it.

Most readers, if not all, could accept this definition. Capon does.

[This] takes us back to the act of creation and to ask the question of the precise relationship between God the Creator and all the comings and goings of the universe itself. It has already been said that God is not simply the initiator or beginning cause of creation; he is the present, intimate and immediate cause of the being of everything that is.

Where things start to get interesting is trying to understand how God preserves and guides creation. This involves complex and differing ideas about sovereignty, decrees, freedom and foreknowledge. Capon does not dive into the theological deep-end regarding these various topics but does raise an important question.

You have God holding everything in being right now. You also have the assorted creatures he holds in being eating banana splits, making love, rabbits or plankton, as the case may be, and generally doing what they please and/or can get away with. What is the connection between the act of God which makes them be and their own acts as individual beings?

His answer rejects any view of sovereignty that suggests God ordains everything, instead he asserts that there is no connection between the act of God making and sustaining creation and the resulting actions of the beings that He has made.

 For all practical purposes here … there is no connection. Unless you are an Occasionalist, that is, a fellow who thinks that God is the only actor in the universe and that the whole history of the world is just a puppet show put on by him

He goes on the describe God’s approach to governing the universe as hands off.

The usual religious view is that God has his finger in every pie, and, as the infinite meddler, never lets anything act for itself. People bolster such ideas by an appeal to Scripture … That won’t do, however. All I want to insist on here is that most of the time he doesn’t meddle; that his ordinary policy is: Hands off.

Image: The Watchmen by Alan Moore

Capon’s “hands off” view of God’s providence isn’t as Deist as it sounds. God isn’t like the apathetic Dr. Manhattan in Alan Moore’s Watchmen sitting on Mars. Capon rejects any view that suggests that God got the ball rolling and then sits back passively to see what happens. As noted, that is a view even more detestable to the author than divine determinism.

Capon instead describes providence with the following analogy:

God’s relationship to the world … deserves an analogy that is— well, more intimate. What he does to the world, he does subtly; his effect on creation is like what a stunning woman does to a man.

In the ordinary sense of the word, she doesn’t “do” anything. She needs neither hooks nor ropes nor bumps nor grinds to draw him to her. He doesn’t cry out to her, “Don’t just stand there, do something.” It is her simple standing there that does him in for good. She doesn’t touch his freedom, she doesn’t muck about with the constitution of his being by installing some trick nisus that makes Harry love Martha. (Sex, of course, is a nisus; but I’m talking about romance, not sex. If you can’t see the difference, you are on the wrong analogical bus.) All she has to do is be— and Harry’s clock is wound.

The Providence of God involves more “wooing” and charm then “dragging” when it comes to drawing people. Capon stresses that this understanding sees God as more personal and less mechanical.

[Understanding providence as the universe responding to the captivating presence of God] saved the freedom of creatures because it allowed us to see God, not as doing something— not as meddling, pushing and shoving— but as being someone fetching. It gave us, not a divine watchmaker, but a divine lover. 

The next question Capon considers is how does a relatively hands off God work out a plan in which “he has actually promised to make a good show of creation.”

Capon suggests that the ultimate personal, rather than mechanical, solution to a universe that is not safe by design, in which the Creator delights in what He has made, cherishes freedom and draws the world to Himself though attraction is the Incarnation.

Part 3: The Third Peacock and the Incarnation

The Third Peacock was first published in 1971 and can be difficult to track down. It is available at the Internet Archive and can be read for free (link).

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3 thoughts on “The Third Peacock and Providence

  1. I have wondered myself about the idea of God creating through an evolutionary process as a way of expressing his own creative freedom at the cost of natural evil. However in a way, evolution doesn’t necessarily cater for freedom in all aspects though, as a Lion isn’t going to eat greens any time soon, but perhaps evolution places the lest amount of restriction on creation possible for life to exist? Thus while the Lion isn’t free in terms of what it eats, a lion’s ‘limited culinary palate’ is the lest restrictive necessity to maintain a balance within the biological ecosystem? Of course Capon asks is this freedom worth it? I guess it is, after all you don’t see wild boars wanting to suicidally drown themselves because life is terrible and the thought of coming face to face with a Lion makes it even worse.

    I just wish Capon would have taken a bit more of a serious approach to his book as it feels like he treated it a bit too light heartedly for perhaps an unbelieving inquirer to take seriously? It is a serious problem (the problem of natural evil) that I feel demands a more serious answer and I think what he’s hinting at has some definite merit to it, if it were to be approached in a more rigorous manner. But perhaps there will be some other author willing to take that up as a project sometime in the not too distant future?

    • Welcome to DHDS

      Regarding your comment that “evolution doesn’t necessarily cater for freedom in all aspects though, as a Lion isn’t going to eat greens any time soon” is true. Capon does acknowledge that and does give an illustration of it in the book. Basically all of creation has freedom but the freedom that an entity has varies based on what it is.

      Not sure if that was clear in the posts so wanted to give you some aspect of how Capon saw it.

      Here he describes a pebble on the beach. He rejects that the “hand of God” reached down and insured it was right in that spot. Rather the various freedoms all worked that it ended up in the spot that it is in.

      The pebble, in short, lies where it does freely. Not, of course, in the sense that it has a mind and will and chooses as man chooses; but in the sense that it got there because of the random rattling about of assorted objects with various degrees of freedom. The waves are free to be waves, to be wet and to push. The pebbles are free to sink and to collide and to break. The dog is free to scratch fleas and chase birds. This whole mixed consort then comes together and makes whatever kind of dance it can manage. God may be the cause of its being, but he is, for the most part, only the spectator of its actions. He confers upon it the several styles of its freedom; it is creation itself, however, that struts its own stuff.

      Regarding the comment about the suicidal boar and the worth of freedom. Capon basically says that creation, with all the “badness” it contains, testifies that God cherishes freedom more than a “safe universe”. Capon sees half of creation as being on the bottom of the food chain and things are not so great for them, thus the risk doesn’t seem worth it.

      There is, of course, no question but that bunny rabbits are lovely. But to allow one’s theology of creation to rest content with paeans to all that is cuddly and warm is to ignore precisely half of creation. The rabbit is indeed good, and, in his own mute way, he aggressively affirms his own goodness. The coyote is good too. But when the coyote, in the process of affirming his own goodness, contemplates the delectability of the rabbit, it turns out to be a little hard on the rabbit. … You may philosophize your way into thinking that goodness is worth the risk; but in a world where half of creation is always on the rack, the only thing you can feel is that no risk could ever be worth this badness.

      I would not suggest the Third Peacock be given to an unbeliever struggling with the problem of evil. I would suggest the two works I mentioned in the series (Plantinga and Lewis) would be better. This book is more geared to challenging the Christian who may have assumed the problem of evil was “easy” to solve or that has ignored the implications of determinism in regards to the origins of evil. It also gives voice to the reality that not all prayers for help are answered in such a way that the problem is fixed.

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