In its core meaning, providence defines an essential quality of the sacred/God that provides for humanity, such that obedience to the imperatives of the sacred is understood as aiding us to survive and prosper. But once the term is discussed in a theological context, it becomes necessary to offer explanations as to why an omnipotent God subjects us to unprovidential acts of nature or humanity such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 or the Holocaust.
GA allows us to give the notion of providence a clear meaning that includes its necessary limitations, without the embarrassment of having to explain why God allows earthquakes or genocidal massacres.
In the context of the originary hypothesis, the sacred is an intuition of interdiction that defers an act of appropriation. This “sense of the sacred” thereby thematizes our “cultural” separation from a given appetitive object, which we can then speak of as desired—a separation whose necessity stems from fear of mimetic violence. It is this separation, this différance, which constitutes the experience as taking place on a scene, a context in which human cultural communication whether through language or other means takes priority over “natural” or prehuman interactions.
In our hypothesis, this originary intuition of interdiction is providential because it makes possible a new egalitarian procedure for distributing food and other necessary items that averts the danger of conflict. Once providence is understood as exemplified by this function of the sacred, its failure to prevent deadly natural disasters really needs no further explanation. As for the evils of “man’s inhumanity to man,” they can be understood as dependent on the limitations of each separate human community, which, however it may conceive itself as potentially universal, as in the Muslim conception of the Umma, cannot be presumed to be so, whence the permanent possibility of human conflict that sheds doubt on a unified conception of Providence.
In this latter context, pre-Axial humanity’s understanding, as we can reconstruct it, was that the different human communities were each ruled by their own gods, and that in cases of inter-communal conflict, the stronger gods would defeat the lesser, providential power being relative to communal physical force. During the Axial era, in which a number of empires with sophisticated technology and writing systems had emerged and coexisted long enough to trade among each other, the idea of a super-communal deity became conceivable through a kind of informal Ockham’s razor. Just as a local God could not prevent disputes within a single community without for that reason ceasing to be understood as the source of sacred power and celebrated with the appropriate rites, so it became possible to conceive of the God of one’s community as in fact ruling over the entire human world. Such rule would not be contradicted by this God’s people’s defeat in battle, which would come rather to be understood as a punishment inflicted on them for their sins, that is, ultimately “for their own good.” The Old Testament narrative presents this perspective throughout. In this same context, even events such as earthquakes may be understood as punishment for sins, which are needless to say never absent.
The deferral of appropriation in the originary scene is providential because it makes possible (we need not say “intends”) the eventual “equal” division of the object that would otherwise have provided an occasion for conflict. What the scene adds to deferral’s extra time for reflection is the reinforcing collective performance of the sign that defines a community, linked not just fortuitously but permanently through its presence in memory.
The key question, one that has properly speaking never been posed in clear terms, is what precisely is the anthropological purpose of the sacred? What allows us to speak of the transcendental status of a sacred command, which at the origin communicated itself throughout the community through the sign, but which cannot be said to have been originally intended by the signers, having originated as an aborted gesture, drawing attention by pointing to its object as a demonstration of the signers’ renunciation of it as an object of appropriation?
The core element of this process is the constitution of the scene itself, which is in the simplest terms a zone of cultural deferral. In cultural scenes during which the participants interact and consume food, for example, or even execute other human beings or immolate themselves, these acts exist in relation to the scene as a whole and are not therefore violations of sacred deferral.
Rituals are scenes, but the originary scene is not (yet) a ritual, and it is its constitution as such that provides us with the originary model of the sacred as the “intention” of the deferral of appropriation, which from the perspective of the participants cannot have been at first the object of a human intention, since no prior model of the ultimate scenic configuration existed. But to consider the scene (which will become the basis of a ritual in which its unfolding is intended from the outset) as providential in itself is to view it as the intentional object of the sacred, hence to attribute to the sacred the quality of intentionality by which we define the human. Intentionality is not simply will, but the will to produce a certain effect, not out of “instinct” but as an at least potentially thematized reality.
But we cannot assume that the deferral originally effected by the “sense of the sacred” was performed in anticipation of the constitution of the human community that our hypothesis proposes as its result. Merely abstaining from appropriation is not in itself a solution to the problem of distribution. What deferral of the originally “instinctive” act of appropriation permits is the emergence of a mode of distribution that avoids mimetic conflict by delaying this act until all the participants can simultaneously take an “equal” share. This procedure can become a ritualized routine undertaken by a conscious collective intention only once the solution is found, which almost certainly would not have resulted the first time one participant’s intuition of sacred interdiction led him to abort his appropriative gesture.
Thus the original providential gift was the “free space” of deferral in which to work out the solution, which would also have extended to the entire group the realization that the aborted gesture could be considered the sign of this deferral of action in reference to the central object of contention—in a word, the imposition of a sacred/scenic/cultural/non-instinctive deferral within which inter-human conflict was excluded.
It is only once this new procedure became codified as a preestablished routine that the members of the group would all expect to perform, that this primary function of the sign would become the property of the community as a whole. At this point we should not hesitate to speak of this function as the sacralization of the referent of the sign, confirming our notion that the sacred and the significant are originally identical, so that the “profane” scenes of everyday life all derive in the first place from the originary sacred scene, since they all ultimately concern matters of significance to the community as a whole.
Once we de-banalize the scene of representation and understand it as originally a new, specifically human phenomenon, we have no difficulty understanding the communal salience of the exchange of signs among the group and its consequent lending itself to symmetry-enhancing esthetic effects such as rhythm and simultaneous repetition, as well as vocalization to enhance the imperative nature of the signifying gesture that had come to communicate its referent’s interdicted status.
All the discussions of the emergence of language that I have seen fail to take into account the emergent presence of the scene of representation whose participants tacitly agree not to act in any way that might destroy the unity of the scene. The “carnival” scenes that so interested Bakhtin and even those to which Girard referred as le rite qui tourne mal, where the scene’s deferral of worldly action breaks down in chaos and/or violence, are derivatives of the original constitution of the scene as a new form of specifically human behavior, one that we so take for granted that anthropologists are no longer concerned, or able, to recognize its specificity.
If we understand the new egalitarian distribution procedure, a model that exists to this day in hunter-gatherer cultures as well as in meals of all kinds shared in common, to be the originary scene of human culture, we can grasp not only the coeval relationship between the sacred and language but also the impossibility of representing this relationship itself within a cultural scene, that is, as other than a self-contradicting paradox.
The sense of the sacred, the intuition that is experienced as an interdiction and that aborts the original appropriative gestures of the participants, can thus be understood as ultimately motivated by a fear of violent conflict. Is this still the case when two hands reach for that last canapé? One’s withdrawal feels “instinctive,” like a reflex, but clearly it is not comparable to the reflexes tested by the doctor’s little hammer. For although seemingly automatic, it takes into account the scenic situation, in which the party guests replay the originary event before the plate of hors d’oeuvres.
We may call this sense of interdiction our originary intuition or “sense” of the sacred. The originary participants could know this only upon the success of the new procedure and its subsequent ritualization. But once the original deferral of appropriation has been confirmed by having led to a successful egalitarian distribution scheme, one that remains throughout human history the default mode for human groups not bound by social or other hierarchy, the sacred as a will-to-interdiction has every reason to be considered providential.
That this does not imply protection against earthquakes nor the impossibility of interhuman violence is something that theologians must deal with when discussing Providence, for it is at this point that the sacred’s intentionality becomes a subject of speculation. The emergence of the sacred is not a product of Darwinian evolution, regulated by the “survival of the fittest” through gene-selection, but a new behavior motivated in the first place by an intuition of the necessity of deferral, or of, to use the terminology of L’être et le néant, the addition to the worldly en-soi of a new, néant-filled pour-soi. The sacred as a “transcendent” influencer of our intention enters so to speak into dialogue with us as a figure of authority, and however this begins, its establishment through ritual makes the tension between the sacred “will” and our own the constituent factor of the scene itself, which the repetition of the sign reinforces.
One cannot of course imagine that the first participants in such scenes would have had any idea of the limitations of the Providence that the sacred/scenic/signifying human universe provides. Certainly the system of human culture makes us in the long run more capable of defending ourselves even against earthquakes than other creatures, whose experience of them is not frequent enough to permit the evolution of biological remedies other perhaps than flight from zones of frequent seismic activity. Yet is this enough to explain how God can permit such death and destruction?
It is because the first task of the sacred is to defer mimetic violence within a given community and in so doing create that community that its providential quality with respect to humankind as a whole must remain enigmatic. Each human shares equally in the scenic totality of culture, and in the first place of language. His internalization of the ethic of his society generally offers him the best chance of survival, but when faced with a given worldly decision, he cannot always rely on his sense of the sacred to provide the answer, despite his fundamental belief in its transcendent providentiality.
It is for this reason that what we call religions as publicly shared sets of beliefs require of their believers an act of faith that affirms the extrapolation of this divine providence to the overall welfare of the human community, however conceived, despite our knowledge that we can never have definite proof of this providential protection.