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Providence And Improvidence

( Originally Published 1912 )



The foolish man built his house upon the sand; and the rain descended and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house; and it fell; and great was the fall of it.—Jesus.

All readers of philosophy are familiar with the long debate between Fate and Freedom. It is as old as the history of human thought. Appearing under many different names and forms, it has invaded every department of life. In nature it is called law and chance. In philosophy it is known as necessity and liberty. In theology it appears as Divine Sovereignty and human choice. The earliest religious books of India show each of the contestants struggling for the mastery. The Greek tragedies revolve around the point at which personality battles with destiny. In Christian church history the same debate produced the two parties known as Arminian and Calvinist. In our day the pendulum swings back and forth between personality and circumstance or genius and opportunity.

With this contest in active operation, there has always been great difficulty in determining the amount of human responsibility present in human action. If man is bound by an eternal decree, if he is the slave of fate, if he is walled around by immoveable circumstances, no responsibility can be attached to his deeds. He deserves no praise for his good, no blame for his evil actions. On the other hand, if some degree of freedom belongs to him, if he can even partially annul the decree of destiny, if circumstances are plastic and susceptible of even the slightest modification, then he cannot escape responsibility. Such terms as "ought" and "ought not," stand, not only for something very real, but something very important.

As in almost every discussion, so here, it is probable that the practical and, hence, valuable truth lies somewhere between the two extreme claims. What man is and does,—his character and his performance—are the resultant of two factors. They are fate and will; or law and personality. He is in part creature, in part creator of circumstances. He is more like a ship on the ocean than a train on its iron track. The ship must keep on the water, but the sea is very broad and allows a great expanse of liberty. Leaving New York, by a slight shifting of the helm, a ship can be made to touch at any point of the European shore.

It is not so with a train of cars. It cannot select its destination. The iron track determines that for it in advance.

In the parable read at the beginning of this sketch there may be found, in outline, the part played by the unalterable laws of nature and that played by the human will. Nature has decreed that a house, to be secure, must have a solid foundation. If he wishes, man has liberty to transgress that law. Nature does not object to his building a house on the sand. But, if he does thus build, he must take the consequences of his own acts. Nature will not suspend any of her laws to relieve him from the results of his own foolishness. One of her unchanging laws is that under certain conditions wind will blow, rain will fall, floods will rise. Knowing this arrangement, the man, whose house, built on the sand, is swept away, cannot blame nature. He can only blame himself for the calamity. Sometimes the blame is wrongly placed. That which is frequently called a mysterious providence, on the part of God, is only the result of a very plain improvidence on the part of man.

Man, the race, and man the individual, encounters much opposition. There are many enemies that hinder his success and his happiness. He seems to be the victim of many misfortunes. His cherished plans frequently fail and fall in ruins. He has planted, and not gathered; builded, and not enjoyed; aspired, but been mired to earth. Whence comes this failure ? Who is his enemy? Is it the world without ? Is it sent by nature? Is there some spirit of evil, lurking in the powerful or gentle elemental forces, that delights in thwarting all man's plans nullifying his efforts, and turning his dearest wishes into bitter disappointments ?

It has always been one of the favorite excuses to place the cause of failure or of misfortune upon some external foe. In some of its details, the Eden story set the pattern that has been faithfully copied ever since. Adam blamed Eve for his sin; Eve blamed the serpent; and the serpent, having been created by God, might with equal justice have laid the blame of the whole unfortunate transaction upon Him. Early Christianity assumed that Satan was responsible for all the ruin that had come to earth. When Milton wrote Paradise Lost, that philosophy was in full force. In more recent literature, it reached its highest expression in Faust.

In these days that method of accounting for evil is passing into decline. A more rational philosophy is gradually coming to take its place. It insists that many of the old excuses for sin and misfortune were foolish and that responsibility cannot be so easily shifted to other agencies. Satan is a figure of speech; an emblem of the foes that are not without, but with-in the soul. The Garden of Eden is in every heart. Mephistopheles was no objective creature, dressed in scarlet, and having control of the powers of earth and air and gaining possession of the soul of the young German scholar. Faust was his own Satan. In an-other Testament parable, a man, going through his wheatfield and finding tares growing, said: "Some enemy hath done this." But the story implies that there was lack of care on the part of the man himself. He and his servants were asleep when the damage was done. Knowing he had enemies; he should have been more watchful. Thus, in nearly all sin and calamity, a part of the blame must be laid on man himself. Who sowed tares in the heart of Benedict Arnold? Was it British gold and promise of preferment ? What prepared the soil to hasten their growth? Was it the delay of promotion or lack of recognition of his bravery and military merits on the part of Congress and his Commander in Chief ? Perhaps so. But, after all this is admitted, history places the blame where it rightly belongs:—upon himself. What made the moral house of Macbeth fall in ruins ? Was the tempest strong? Did the floods rise and surgi with great fury ? Doubtless. But the real reason for its downfall was that it was built on the sand. Who is the tempter that comes to men in places of trust and tells them that, by parting from honesty, they may become suddenly rich? The cashier of a bank gave as an excuse for his embezzlement that the bank directors had not done their duty. If they had watched the bank books more carefully he would not have become a criminal. For such a one there may be pity; but the pity cannot take away the blame. The honesty that depends upon the fact that it is well watched by others, that there is no opportunity for dishonesty, is not very strong. It is not founded upon a rock. When it falls it is foolish to blame the ruin upon Providence.

It was also an error of former generations to assume that as a foreign foe brought sin, so a foreign friend brings goodness to the world. As Satan was to be blamed for all vice, Christ was to be praised for all virtue. One branch of the church believed that the will, being absolutely powerless, man could not do anything to repair the damage done to his moral house. The ruin was complete. It also believed that he need not do anything, because the loss was made good by another. Satan had made it impossible for mari to live an actually righteous life by his own efforts; and Christ had made all such efforts unnecessary. Thus, at one stroke, he was freed from any responsibility for his sin and from any responsibility for his salvation. Both were products of a mysterious Divine Providence. The church is now abandoning both of these beliefs. It is permitting to pass into oblivion both the doctrine of imputed sinfulness and the doctrine of imputed righteousness. Responsible for his sin, man is also responsible for his salvation. He is free to build his moral house upon the sand; but, if he thus builds, he must take the consequences of his folly. He cannot attribute the results of his own carelessness to a mysterious dispensation of Providence.

We often hear laments that the progress of civilization is so slow. The blame for this cannot be put upon external nature. The world seems very kind and bountiful to man. It willingly lends all its forces for his use. For him winds blow and rivers roll. It gladly provides him food and raiment. What a world this is upon which we have found a home! A ball, thousands of miles in circumference, swinging in an ocean of air and light! It is so delicately poised that no rising or falling is perceptible, although it is constantly rising and falling. Dashing onward at the rate of thousands of miles an hour, yet it never loses its way and never comes in collision with another world. Once each twenty-four hours it turns every part of itself over to meet the sunbeams which, for millions of years, have been pouring down upon it. Its fields and hills are covered with trees and flowers and a carpet of grass, in summer, and, in winter, a great white robe is spread over it to keep it warm. It has great cups filled with water that cleanses the air, keeping it sweet and pure, and over which the myriad ships of commerce move to and fro on their ceaseless errands. Up from these mighty basins, along an invisible stairway builded of sunbeams, mists journey, in the upper air becoming massive clouds, drifting everywhere and returning to earth in gentle rains. Such use! Such beauty! There is more of each than mind can estimate or heart admire.

Thus when the question is asked: "What hinders man's advance ?" the answer must be: "Man, him-self. He is not just to the world. He does not live up to his opportunities. He neglects or defies nature's mandates, and then mistakes the results of his own wilfulness for the anger of God. He sows tares among his wheat and then complains of the harvest. He builds upon the sand, and then blames the flood when his house falls.

Of course there are calamities which, at intervals, come to the different parts of earth, whose causes lie outside of any human agency. For their coming , therefore, man is in no way to blame. But these are not many. Volcanoes and earthquakes, drought and flood may, in a few hours, work great destruction and undo the toil of years. But they do not occur very often. Herculaneum and Pompeii, Lisbon and Caraccas, Java and Martinique were overwhelmed by sudden calamity. But centuries lie between these catastrophes. Man was not to blame for them. But there is hardly a century of history in which humanity has not brought upon itself some misfortune worse than that wrought by the forces of nature. The destruction of Jerusalem and the famine and pestilence attending it, in the year 70 of our era, were not caused by an earth-quake. They were caused by an army. It was not a hurricane that destroyed the Parthenon. It was gun-powder. It was not a volcano that overwhelmed Rome. It was the tribes from the North; and, by their vices, the Romans themselves prepared the way for their own downfall. It was not a tidal wave that leveled Thebes with the ground. It was a Greek army. It was not a rigorous climate that arrested the growth of Germany for a century. It was the Thirty Years war. It was not a mountain made by nature, but a dam, made by man, that gave way when the floods poured upon Johnstown. The sea was not to blame for sweeping over the sandy island upon which Galveston was built. The fault all lay in man for building a city where the waves could overwhelm it. It was not a miraculous fire from heaven, that God had sent in wrath, which in those few awful moments swept through the Iroquois theatre. It was common fire, as harmless and innocent, in itself, as that which gently burns on the hearth-stone. It was human in-competence and carelessness that turned it into a destroying flame.

While it is, perhaps, not possible for man to banish all calamity from earth, it is evident that a great part of it might be warded from our planet. More knowledge of nature's laws, and a stricter regard and obedience for those already known, would greatly lessen earth's miseries. It would not keep death permanently away, but it would keep it from coming so soon and in such awful forms. It would do much to prevent those calamities in which hundreds of old and young are suddenly hurled to death. It is true that all the members of a family must leave earthly life; but, in the course of nature, these departures lie far apart. Upon each grave some grass and flowers have time to grow before another is made by its side. Nature would have taken sixty or seventy years in alluring away from earth those six hundred men and women and children whom human carelessness cruelly hurried away in a moment. Many of the children would have reached adult life. Some would have lived to old age. Each' maiden would have worn a bridal wreath; and, in its many forms, happiness would have settled on many a heart for many years to come. Thus, by human improvidence, the divine Providence is made to seem unkind.

The word "Providence" is composed of two terms which mean "fore-seeing." When man acts with wisdom he acts with foresight. When he plans a rail-way train that is to run fifty miles an hour and weighs hundreds of tons, the wisdom which builds the train must build the road-bed and all the bridges and be careful of all grades and curves. When all the estimates are thus made and the work is completed without slighting the least detail, the traveler can journey in safety for thousands of miles. By studying and adopting for his guidance the laws of nature. the human is equal to the divine providence. The traveler is carried forward in peace, because he is encompassed and carried forward by the laws of God. But to reach this result no liberty can be taken with these laws. There must be no slighting of the radius of a single curve in the road; there must be no rail of poor steel; no loose spikes; no imperfect wheel in the whole train; no mistaking orders or false time keeping by the conductors and engineers; no error in telegraphing; no extinguished light; no misplaced switch; no dull or care-less or reckless heart along the whole line. It is not God's anger but man's carelessness that causes railway accidents. Of that charge at Balaklava the poet says, "Some one had blundered." As a result, only a few of the six hundred troopers returned from the Valley of Death. Over nearly all of our calamities the same thing might be said: "Some one has blundered." In its power to produce misery, a blunder often surpasses a crime.

The more man studies the methods of nature and takes them for his guidance, the less mysterious and the less trying to his faith the dispensations of Providence become, Many of the ills which once were endured are now cured. Famine and pestilence have lost much of their ancient terror. Many other forms of evil may be abated.

Every few years, for one or two summer days, hot winds blow over parts of Kansas and Nebraska, parching and destroying the corn and leaving famine in their train. Recently, it has been said that this evil, that seems to be purely natural, might be avoid-ed. Beneath those plains of sand are great subterranean rivers, formed by the melting snows of the Rocky mountains, which are making their way to the Mississippi and thence onward to the sea. Engineers say that artesian wells might be sunk to these rivers through which cold clear streams would rush, as, in the Bible story, fountains gushed from the rock when the old leader smote it with his staff. These crystal streams might be guided in canals over all the farms and no field or garden would remain unblessed by them. When the fire-breathing wind came from the South, the moisture rising from the irrigated fields would put out its flames and the corn and grass and flowers would laugh it to scorn. Ascending vapors would form cloud-curtains over the brazen sky, shutting out a part of its blinding glare. On many a summer day, gentle rains would fall; and the nights would bathe the earth in cool refreshing dews. The price of a few battle ships, whose only reason for existence is the destruction of property and life, would change the face of the country and make prosperity and happiness where now, at intervals, are adversity and misery.

It was said of him of Nazareth that the winds and waves obeyed his command. This may be taken as a suggestion of what power man has over nature when he is himself first obedient to the higher laws. In the right way he is invincible. Tides and Trade Winds help him onward. Climates may be modified. Pestilence may be stayed in its devastating march.

When the divine laws are enforced there are no incurable evils.

There are societies to prevent man from abusing animals. The functions of these societies ought to be extended so that they would prevent man from being so cruel to himself. We do not have to keep animals from visiting saloons. A horse never goes around with three or four companions until after mid-night and, when he leaves them, is not able to find his way home. Birds cannot make books and pictures. But, when the young birds leave the nest, the mother is not full of anxiety for fear a companion will call their attention to some indecent book or picture. Who made these books and pictures? It is very certain that earthquakes and tempests and volcanoes did not make them. For his moral ruin, man has only him-self to blame.

A gifted woman once wrote a humorous article entitled: "The Total Depravity of Inanimate Things." It was not intended to be taken seriously. There is no wickedness in inanimate objects. There is no malice in a collar button when it rolls to the most in-accessible place; or in furniture that always seems to be misplaced when one is passing through a dark room; or in a cinder that, with all the world in which to fall, finds a resting place in one's eye. Thus to blame inanimate things is to act like children. When a young man is seen staggering along the street, the sidewalk is not to blame. Left alone, opium will not ruin a life. It is its misuse that makes it an enemy. Earth grows corn and rye and hops and peaches and grapes, as an act of friendship to mankind. It is an instance of Divine Providence. When man makes poison of these fruits and then drinks it until he ruins his health and happiness and, brings misery to his family and shame to his friends, it is an instance of human improvidence. Total depravity is not in things; it is in man. A few years since the startling report was circulated that Manhattan Island was slowly settling and some time it, and its great city, would be swallowed up by the sea. The revelations of the last few years show that the city has been rapidly sinking, indeed, not into the salt waves of the Atlantic, but into a much more bit-ter Dead Sea of municipal corruption. The same is true of cities all over our land. Is there anything mysterious in this? It all seems to lie within the bounds of human comprehension. Shall it be assigned to the inscrutable plan of Providence? Let it rather be assigned to the very open and well-known plans of human wickedness. Can it be cured by more blind faith in the Divine Powers? A more effective cure would be a better detection and severer punishment of human rascals.

Each heart is encompassed by manifold opportunities. These opportunities are its divine providence. The full employment of them is human providence. When these unite, then comes command over nature; then mountains are tunneled, rivers bridged, oceans sailed; then wealth is doubled, safety is more certain, happiness more unbroken. Could humanity live in a perfect intelligence as to the laws of nature and a perfect regard as to all duties, only a few of the many ills that now fall upon the earth would be seen. By far the greater part of poverty, of accidents, of pain, and of sorrow would be banished. Death would no more come in pestilence and famine and broken bridges and crashing trains and burning buildings and pitiless battle fields. Giving each mortal many years of work and happiness, it would come in the way nature in-tended it to come. With footfalls soft and gentle, its coming would be an errand of kindness. Much of its dreadful imagery would disappear. The old skeleton form holding the hour-glass would fade into the back-ground; and, in its place, would be seen a fairer form clad in robes of light, her forehead wreathed with flowers, her eyes shining with hope, while she whispered to the departing mortal: "O Child of earth, be of good cheer! Behold, I am a part of the Divine Providence whose far-reaching plan includes thy immortality.

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