Providential Progress – Part 3 (Prescriptive Providence)
Defining a political worldview offers the same challenges as defining a religion. I may offer a surface-level definition of Christianity, say, that all professing Christians find agreeable enough. But the more clearly I try to define Christianity the more I’ll bump up against innumerable disputes within Christendom. So too with conservatism. The worldview is not monolithic, and the more nuanced the explanation the less likely those who call themselves conservative will be inclined to agree with what is being described as “conservative”.
What follows in the post below is a prime example. I have often said that I am both a conservative and a Christian and, while I do not believe one has to be a theist or Christian to be a conservative, certain elements of conservative thought are challenging at best apart from a Biblical view of God. While many conservatives have offered compelling variations of conservatism that are not dependent on Christianity—e.g. George Will and Sir Roger Scruton to name but a few—I will be focused on a decidedly Christian point of view for today.
With those qualifiers in mind, let’s turn to the question we ended with last week: does conservatism offer us any hope of progress? That is, given the conservative’s rather sobering view of humanity’s potential for lasting progression, is the conservative only interested in the immediate problem of conserving what we have or is there an idea in mind that a brighter future awaits?
I say yes. But this brighter future doesn’t necessarily mean the utopic vision of equality and fraternity and liberation of societal constraints envisioned by the Left. In fact, the conservative doesn’t dare to claim they understand perfectly what all this brighter tomorrow entails. Nor do they trust humanity’s ability to bring it about. This conservative idea of hope for humanity is called Providence.
What is Providence?
Providence is the Christian doctrine of God’s provision for humanity. But it extends far beyond physical provisions. It includes the idea that God is orchestrating events across the whole of creation for His purposes that has humanity in mind on down to each individual. In other words, Providence is the hope that we are created for a purpose by a good God who loves us. “A man's heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps,” reads the Book of Proverbs. God is at work in each life, pulling together the infinite actions, thoughts, and experiences of us all for His great purpose.
The implications of such an idea are hard to overstate. As Russell Kirk summarizes:
“There is a God; and He is wise; and this world is His design; and man and the state are God’s creations…How is God’s purpose revealed? Through the unrolling of history. And how do we know God’s mind and will? Through the prejudices and traditions which millenniums of human experience with divine judgments have implanted in the mind of the race. What is our purpose in this world? Not to indulge our impulse, but to render our obedience to divine intent.”
There’s a lot to unpackage here. Let’s begin with Kirk’s assertions about God—“There is a God; and He is wise; and this world is His design; and man and the state are God’s creations”. Now, anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the Christian faith would recognize this as Christian dogma. Yet it must be stressed that this was the dominant belief of the Western world for many centuries among Christians and even many non-Christians. Deists such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would have held this notion as incontrovertibly true.
As he is wont to do, however, Kirk looks to his hero Edmund Burke as the prime example for how this idea manifests itself politically. Burke added a twist to this nearly universal belief of the day by addressing the nagging question Kirk asks: “how do we know God’s mind and will?” History has shown that those who seem most convinced they are in tune with the will of God make problematic leaders, to put it mildly. The Christian doctrine of divine revelation is of little help here for the Biblical text offers few specifics on statecraft. It may provide a general, moral framework, but falls far short of the specific details necessary for governing.
What is Prescription?
In a word, Burke’s answer to this question is prescription. “Prescription,” Kirk explains, “means those ways and institutions and rights prescribed by long—sometimes immemorial—usage.” Burke connects the conservative notion of prescription—the idea that we should reverence the tried-and-true norms of the past—with this notion of God’s providence. God guides human endeavors gradually over many generations and communicates His purposes to us through both divine revelation but also through the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors.
Prescription does not mean blind faith in the past nor the inability to criticize historical events. But it is the starting point from which we may attempt progress. This, to Burke, is self-evident because of the great advantage humanity as a whole has over each individual. “Man is a most unwise and most wise being,” Burke begins, “The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it always acts rightly.” This sort of evolution of the social and political order is prescription at work.
To the conservative, then, prescription joins divine revelation as an unfolding truth revealed, piece by piece, across a multitude of generations. No one generation has complete access to Truth. But, through our combined efforts, we can see Truth slowly begin to take shape. “Authority, prescription, and tradition undergo in every generation a certain filtering process, by which the really archaic is discarded,” argues Kirk, “yet we ought to be sure that we actually are filtering, and not merely letting our heritage run down the drain.”
Political scholar Yuval Levin describes the Burkean notion of prescription thusly: “Prescription is above all a means of controlled and gradual modification in response to felt public needs—not to oppose all change, but rather to pursue change carefully, preferring changes to substance over changes to form where possible, and incremental over radical reform where necessary.” Burke, Kirk, and Levin present an argument for change that involves patience, caution, reverence for the past, and faith in the providential guidance of our Creator. Through this gradual, incremental process we may hope to achieve progress as God makes His will known.
Putting Prescription in Practice
What might this look like in practice? Let’s turn to another of Burke’s disciples, Alexis de Tocqueville. In his masterpiece, Democracy in America, Tocqueville identified the democratic, equalizing spirit itself that had been at work in the world for centuries as an act of Providence. As Tocqueville writes in the introduction to his work:
“The gradual development of the equality of conditions is…a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress…The whole book which is here offered to the public has been written under the impression of a kind of religious dread produced in the author’s mind by the contemplation of so irresistible a revolution, which has advanced for centuries in spite of such amazing obstacles, and which is still proceeding in the midst of the ruins it has made. It is not necessary that God himself should speak in order to disclose to us the unquestionable signs of His will; we can discern them in the habitual course of nature, and in the invariable tendency of events: I know, without a special revelation, that the planets move in the orbits traced by the Creator’s finger. If the men of our time were led by attentive observation and by sincere reflection to acknowledge that the gradual and progressive development of social equality is at once the past and future of their history, this solitary truth would confer the sacred character of a Divine decree upon the change. To attempt to check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot warded to them by Providence.”
As evident from the text, Tocqueville’s outlook on the seemingly unstoppable democratization of the world was closer to fear than celebration. While there was much good he recognized in democracy and equalization, he was also keenly aware of the inherent dangers in upsetting the older aristocratic order. Yet his remedy was not to seek to reverse the democratic spirit, but to channel it in as productive and healthy a manner as possible. “The impulse which is bearing [the nations] along is so strong that it cannot be stopped,” cautions Tocqueville, “but it is not yet so rapid that it cannot be guided.”
That word “yet” is key. The statesman would be wise to discern the unstoppable progression of events while being equally mindful of the urgent need to mitigate the harmful effects of too rapid a change that could eventually sweep away everything in its path. For sometimes the question isn’t whether change is good or bad, but how quickly it can be tolerated. The conservative isn’t trying to dam the river but direct its flow towards fertile farmland and away from the village. This means that the conservative isn’t entirely certain of the outcome, and is fully aware they play a tiny, albeit important, role in the whole affair. They didn’t create the river or empower its flow, but they are not powerless to channel its course.
This does not mean that humans upset God’s purposes if they fail to carefully cultivate the changes put into motion. But it may mean a detour that can be catastrophic for the present generation. “Providence ordinarily operates through the opinions and habits of men,” Kirk assures us in expanding on Burke’s views, “and if mankind neglects the laws for human conduct which are made known through revelation, prescription, and the study of history, then a vengeful Providence may begin to operate.”
While it is true the Bible warns of God’s wrath befalling those who do not heed His commands, it should be stressed the vengeful side of Providence doesn’t necessarily mean we are actively invoking God’s anger. It could be we are simply behaving imprudently or foolishly, and the forces of Providence sweep us away like a raging river. Just as failure to dam the river may jeopardize the village, failure to employ a prescriptive approach will likely lead to eventual ruin.
Yet even in the devastation of a generation or entire civilization, God’s good purposes towards humanity are not ultimately foiled. “Difficulty is a severe instructor,” Burke assures us, “set over us by the supreme ordinance of a parental guardian and legislator, who knows us better than we know ourselves, and he loves us better too.” In other words, the Burkean faith in progress rests in the belief God’s good purpose for humanity will ultimately prevail, and that it will come about by the multitude of actions and decisions we make.
This means then that humanity’s assurance of progress does not mean we get to define what progression would look like. This is God’s doing, and though we may affect the outcomes we don’t control them. As Kirk noted above: “What is our purpose in this world? Not to indulge our impulse, but to render our obedience to divine intent.” We are trying to redeem the created order, not undo it and remake it in our own image. “If the state of the world is the consequence of God’s design, we need to be cautious about our reformations,” Kirk continues, “for though it may be God’s will to use us as His instruments of alteration, yet we should first satisfy our consciences and our intellects on that point.”
It was for this reason that Burke and Kirk disdained fully philosophical political arguments. The conservative believes the gradual accumulation of wisdom through prescription is superior to the individual’s stockpile of reason. The art of statecraft is less about sheer brainpower than it is a careful analysis of history and a people’s common experience because the latter depends upon the embedded knowledge of generational experiences.
This view does not fit with many modern, ideologically driven ideas of what progress entails. “The attack upon Providence and purpose has been the distinguishing characteristic of modern society,” bemoans historian Stephen Tonsor. Unsatisfied with the hope for a brighter tomorrow when so much around us is unjust, some have found solace in the belief it is our prerogative—even our duty—to progress beyond our ancestors. In fact, such progression is—in their view—inevitable as history is bent towards progress.
The final component of Kirk’s summation above also refers to history: “How is God’s purpose revealed? Through the unrolling of history.” Is history an “unrolling” of providential events whereby God reveals Himself or an inevitable force that marches us onward towards a perfected society? This is where we’ll pick things up in Part 4.