The Neatly Ordered Ordinary

(Posted by Paige Britton)

On Canon, Providence, and Robinson Crusoe

{Belated disclaimer: This is not a full-orbed defense or description of the Protestant doctrine of canonization. I could write that if I wanted to; in this case, I didn’t want to.}

It’s been remarked recently, in our discussion on the canon, that it is necessary for the supernatural gift of the Scriptures to have reached the church in nothing other than a supernatural way. This is, of course, the Catholic version of the story, which identifies the Roman Church’s divinely-appointed magisterium as the supernaturally endowed channel that protects the church from error. Ordinary means are good enough to transmit something natural or ordinary, like the Pythagorean Theorem; but the extraordinary must be delivered by the extraordinary.

Protestant appeals to “Providence” in this matter understandably ring hollow in Catholic ears, for how can the mundane course of historical events safely support or explain the holy? And isn’t “Providence” almost synonymous with “fate,” “luck,” or “chance,” since the outcome of, say, Roe v. Wade, or the formation of the biblical canon, are by this account equally matters of God’s incomprehensibly mysterious machinations? Surely something as important as communicating which books belong in the Bible would have been accomplished in a more obviously supernatural and officially authoritative way!

Now, I am sensing a sort of leitmotif in RC theology here. Those things and people that are considered holy are wrapped in a kind of protective glow, like a halo on a Christmas card, that sets them apart from the merely earthly. There is an intimation here of extreme tidiness; these things are clean and sparkly, unsullied by association with the common. This has a sort of spiritual, even biblical, logic to it: after all, a high and holy God would never stoop to deliver the supernatural by natural means! Too risky!

Or would he? What’s more fitting than that the God of the universe, who slipped into human history by way of a woman’s womb and a feeding trough, should so arrange things that his written word could be identified (yea, even identified as inspired!) by the ordinary expedients of time, text, and people? Why wouldn’t such a God intend that knowledge of the supernatural be mixed up cleverly with the stuff of earthly life?

There is a scene in Robinson Crusoe that is as nifty a parable about Providence and our expectations of it as anybody could write. Here’s Crusoe on his island, not yet converted, and one day he is floored by the discovery of a small stand of cereal grains growing in a corner of his compound. He knows he didn’t plant them, and he has seen nothing of the sort anywhere else on the island. The best conclusion he can come to is that he has been the recipient of a miracle of spontaneous germination! For days he walks around in the glow of a spiritual high – until it occurs to him that a little while ago he’d dumped a pile of old, rat-gnawed husks in that corner to free a feed sack for another use, and no doubt some overlooked kernels must have sprouted. Immediately the supernatural collapses into the natural, the extraordinary into the ordinary, and his spiritual glow is extinguished. It’s not till long afterwards, when the eyes of his heart have been enlightened by the Spirit and the Word, that he has sense enough to be stunned by the neat ordering of ordinary events that led to viable seeds scattered accidentally in the only place they could have safely grown, thus providing for him the stuff of life.

If we are looking for a tidy, safe way to know what we need to know, Roman Catholic theology offers a package deal, appealing to our preference for certainty over trust and our fascination with the otherworldly and the miraculous.

Trouble is, the biblical God doesn’t tend to live up to these expectations;

…and after all, it’s the neatly ordered ordinary that should bring us to our knees.

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