Hermeneutics of Providence: Theology, Race, and Divine Action in History

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2017

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Abstract

This dissertation explores the implications of the doctrine of providence for Christian life in the context of racialized modernity, offering a constructive theological response to two interrelated questions. First, how should Christians relate the doctrine of divine providence to the task of political judgment? That is, how should doctrinal accounts of the nature and shape of God’s ongoing activity in history between creation and eschaton inform attempts to come to specific judgments about what God is doing in and through particular historical events? Second, how has whiteness insinuated itself into and distorted Christian attempts to discern the movement of God in history? In short, the dissertation engages divine providence not simply as a doctrine, but as a hermeneutic—a theological lens through which to actively interpret the world in relationship to God—and, more specifically, as a hermeneutic with a problematic history of identifying God’s providential action with the interests and activities of white Christian peoples.

In dialogue with the writings of G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Barth, and James Cone, the dissertation examines the role played by the doctrine of providence in both theological justifications (Hegel) and critiques (Barth, Cone) of modern theories about European progress, the superiority of Western civilization, and white racial supremacy. I argue that Hegel articulates his problematic vision of providence through an operation of Christological displacement, wherein the figure of European man replaces Jesus Christ as the human subject in relationship to whom world history and global humanity find order, meaning, and purpose. I then turn to Barth and Cone, interpreting their writings on providence and divine action as critiques of the theological problem on display in Hegel.

Through analysis of this conversation within modern Protestant theology about providence, politics, and race, I outline a set of conditions for contemporary theological reflection on these matters. These include commitments to the centrality of the incarnation of Jesus Christ for conceptualizing providence, to the creatureliness of human beings, and to the active work of the Holy Spirit. I also argue that contemporary engagements with the doctrine must address two problems which neither Hegel, Barth, nor Cone sufficiently resolve: the persistent masculinity of Christian accounts of providence and a competitive construal of the Spirit-Son relationship.

The final chapter formulates a constructive hermeneutic of providence in light of these conditions. I develop an account of divine providence as the two-fold work of the Holy Spirit in (1) making Jesus Christ present to creation between ascension and eschaton and (2) enabling human creaturely participation in Christ’s providential presence. Building on themes in womanist theology and contemporary pneumatology, I suggest that the work of the Spirit manifests in three characteristic activities in particular: the Spirit gives life to ordinary, overlooked, and oppressed material bodies; the Spirit joins, drawing those who would normally be strangers and enemies into intimate relationships; the Spirit anticipates the end of time in the midst of the present. By way of conclusion, I suggest how this hermeneutic of providence might help to shape particular judgments about where, how, and in whom the Spirit is making Christ present in the specific context of Durham, North Carolina in the second decade of the twenty-first century in light of the resurgence of thinly veiled white supremacist politics and the rapid gentrification of historic black communities facilitated by urban revitalization initiatives.

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Doctor of Theology

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Jantzen, Matthew Robert (2017). Hermeneutics of Providence: Theology, Race, and Divine Action in History. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/20172.

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