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Providence Lost
Providence Lost
Genevieve Lloyd
Harvard University Press, 2008
384 pp., $38.00

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Reviewed by Stephen H. Webb


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Freedom, necessity, and God.

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To be modern is to be torn in two. We celebrate freedom as if we can do anything we want, if we put our minds to it. At the same time, we bemoan the way our genes, our childhood, and social forces determine everything we do. When we grow bald, lose our temper, or get laid off, experts tell us that we really have no choice in the matter. Life is preordained by factors that outflank our feeble will. Yet at the same time we celebrate will power as if everything is contingent and subject to our control. The decline of providence has left us intellectually schizophrenic. We define freedom as the opposite of submission and obedience but end up feeling hardly free at all.

How do we submit to necessity with gratitude and joy, rather than stubbornness and resentment? How do we accept the contingent and accidental in our lives with courage and patience? To return to my friend Jim, we have to act surprised by what happens to us, even though we know that somebody else has already made the plan. We need to live as if every day were full of surprises—surprises that nonetheless follow a tight script, written by someone who guarantees that, no matter what, the ending will be a happy one. In more technical terms, we have to face every event as if it were contingent (and thus dependent on our free will) while recognizing that we are not in charge (and thus are freed from the burden of control). In a word, we have to be Augustinian.

That is my conclusion, not Lloyd's. She is content to tell the story of the loss of providence, and she does not think it is possible to return to Augustine. "Little in his argument," she writes about Augustine, "could persuade a nonbeliever; in the end it depends on the appeal to a shared faith in God, as a being already assumed to care about human well-being." Lloyd has persuaded me that even if Christianity were not true, Augustine's version of providence would be superior to all the alternatives, but her book also demonstrates that from the shadows it is hard to see the light.

Stephen H. Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. He is currently working on a book about creation and evolution, entitled The Dome of Eden.

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