“Providence” is from a word that means “to foresee,” conveying the notion that God directs the cosmos and human affairs with wise benevolence. In a providential cosmos or life, time is not simply a succession of moments, like the ticking of a clock, but takes on an organic direction, as if marking progress or growth towards some fruitful goal.
But is the cosmos providential? The cosmos displays extraordinary precision and beauty in certain ways, and living things, at least, aim to perfect themselves in ways that encourage a providential perspective. On the other hand, the rise of mechanistic science has encouraged a view of the cosmos as lifeless stuff in random motion, directed ultimately to dissipation into emptiness. Although the pendulum now seems to be shifting back to an appreciation of many kinds of spontaneous organisation in nature, the cosmos wears an ambiguous face.
This situation is transformed by divine revelation. As St Paul tells us, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I do not think that there is anyone who lives the Christian life who is not aware of providential action, even if such action only becomes visible as we look back on our lives. This divine guidance is directed constantly to maximise the fruitfulness of our lives of grace, just as a plant constantly grows towards the sun.
We give this providential action a special name: predestination. This predestination is maximally liberating. We can contribute to writing the title page of our eternity; or we can reject God, like a plant that is cut off before bearing fruit. As long as we are capable of accepting grace, however, life is like playing chess with someone who wants us to win.
Fr Andrew Pinsent works in the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford