Chapter 9: God And Nature
How can God act if the world is governed by scientific laws? What is God’s relation to the causal processes of nature? Any answer to such questions presupposes a view of nature as well as a view of God’s activity. In this chapter we start from the theological side, examining some of the ways in which God’s action in the natural order is currently portrayed and then evaluating these interpretations in the light of our previous conclusions. We will explore several answers to these questions within the Christian tradition.1
Our answers are crucial to the intellectual task of articulating a theology of nature. Our understanding of God’s relation to nature also has practical implications for the way we treat the environment in the face of the crises that threaten it today. In the first section, classical theism is discussed. Then some alternatives are examined: God’s self-limitation, existentialism, and ideas of God as agent and the world as God’s body. In the final section, the strengths and weaknesses of process theism are analyzed. Each of these views, I argue, holds a dominant model of God’s relation to the world, as summarized in figure 5.
I. Classical Theism
In earlier chapters we saw that the Bible includes a great variety of models of God. In relation to nature, God is represented as a purposeful designer imposing order on chaos, a potter or craftsman making an artifact, and an architect setting out the foundations of a building. Again, God is a life-giving Spirit at work throughout nature and a communicator expressing meaning and rational structure through the divine Word. God is Lord and King, ruling both history and nature to effect intended purposes. In relation to Israel, God is the liberator delivering the community from bondage and the judge dedicated to righteousness and justice. In relation to individuals, God is the judge but also the careful shepherd, the forgiving father and (more rarely) the nurturing mother. God is also the redeemer who brings new wholeness to communities and individuals -- and even to nature in the final fulfillment.
THEOLOGY DOMINANT MODEL CONCEPTUAL ELABORATION
Classical Ruler-Kingdom Omnipotent, omniscient, unchanging sovereign
Deist Clockmaker-Clock Designer of’ a law-abiding world
Neo-Thomist Workman-Tool Primary cause working through secondary causes
Kenotic Parent-Child Voluntary self-limitation and vulnerability
Existentialist None God acts only in personal life
Linguistic Agent-Action Events in the world as God’s action
Embodiment Person-Body The world as God’s body
Process Leader-Community Creative participant in the cosmic Community
Fig. 5. Models of God’s Role in Nature
In subsequent history, some of these models were emphasized and developed in theological concepts and systematic doctrines, while others held only subordinate roles. We look first at the monarchical model of divine sovereignty in medieval and Reformation theology. We then consider recent neo-Thomist and neo-Reformation writers who hold that God as primary cause works through the lawful secondary causes, which science studies.
1. The Monarchical Model
We have seen that during its early centuries Christian theology developed with a strong input from Greek thought. Neoplatonic ideas influenced Augustine and others toward a dualistic view of matter and spirit. Matter, nature, and the body are tainted by evil, they said, though not irredeemably corrupted, as the Manichaeans held. In the Middle Ages, biblical and Aristotelian ideas were brought together, especially in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, which were so influential in later Catholic theology. The biblical model of God as king and ruler was elaborated into formal theological doctrines of divine omnipotence and omniscience. The dominant model was that of the absolute monarch ruling over his kingdom, though other models were also present. A similar view of God was prominent in the Reformation, particularly in Calvin’s emphasis on divine sovereignty and predestination.
In the classical doctrine of divine omnipotence, God governs and rules the world in providential wisdom. All events are totally subordinate to God’s will and power. Foreordination was said to involve not only foreknowledge but also the predetermination of every event. Both medieval Thomism and Reformation Protestantism held that God intervenes miraculously as a direct cause of some events, in addition to a more usual action of working through secondary natural causes. There is a strictly asymmetrical, one-way relation: God affects the world, but the world does not affect a God who is eternal, unchanging, and impassible.
God’s eternity was, of course, a biblical theme, and the human quest for the security of a permanence beyond change is a perennial one. But the exclusion of all temporality from God’s nature seems to have been indebted mainly to Greek thought. Plato had pictured a realm of eternal forms and timeless truth, imperfectly reflected in the world; the perfect was the unchanging. Aristotle had spoken of God as the Unmoved Mover, the immutable Absolute. Aquinas argued that God is impassible, unaffected by the world. God loves only in the sense of doing good things for us, but without passion or emotion. God is pure act without potentiality. God’s being is wholly self-sufficient and independent of the world and receives nothing from it. Since God knows all events in advance and controls every detail, divine knowledge is unchanging, and in God there is no element of responsiveness. In the last analysis, the passage of time is unreal to God, for whom all time is spread out simultaneously.2 All of this seems to contrast with the dynamic God of the Bible who is intimately involved in Israel’s history and responds passionately to its changing situations.
To be sure, other themes qualified this image of divine sovereignty. God’s control was never sheer power, for it was always the power of love. Dante ends The Divine Comedy with a vision of God as "the Love that moves the Sun and other stars." 3 Classical theism indeed emphasized transcendence, and God is said to act occasionally by supernatural intervention from outside nature. But classical theism also defended divine immanence. God is preeminently present in the incarnation, the sacraments, and the life of the church, but the Holy Spirit animates nature as well as human life. The metaphysical dualism of spirit and matter was mitigated insofar as the spiritual realm permeates the material realm. Even though the goal of this life is to prepare for the next, many expressions of the Middle Ages and later Catholicism provided an affirmation of life in this world -- seen, for example, in artistic and intellectual creativity. In the Thomistic synthesis, grace fulfills nature rather than destroying it, and revelation completes reason rather than contradicting it.
A number of authors in this century have defended the idea of God’s immutability and impassibility. E. L. Mascall maintains that God is timeless and sees all time simultaneously. We cannot add anything, he says, to God’s eternal perfection. The highest form of love is totally disinterested and uninvolved.4 Similarly, H. P. Owen holds that God does not change in any way. God does respond to the needs of the world but without being changed internally by such a response.5 Richard Creel in Divine Impassibility argues that God is immutable in nature, in will, in feeling, and in knowledge of possibilities. God is self-sufficient, and the world is strictly unnecessary for the divine being. God’s joy and inner life are unaffected by the world. God could not be grieved by our choices. Creel grants that God’s knowledge of actualities must change as they occur, but God has decided in advance on appropriate responses to deal with all possible events; those responses can be implemented without any change on God’s part.6
Clearly, much can be said in support of a monarchical model, which focuses on God’s power. It is in accord with the awe and mystery that we earlier identified with numinous religious experience. Supreme power, if combined with supreme goodness, is an attribute that makes worship appropriate. It is also in accord with some (but not all) features of the biblical witness. The ideas of transcendence and sovereignty are indeed present in the creation story and other biblical passages (Isa. 6 and 40-48, or Job 38-41, for example). In the classical view, God’s power was uniquely manifest in the resurrection (though sometimes this was articulated in ways that are difficult to reconcile with the message of Christ’s teachings, life, and the cross). Some aspects of science may also accord well with the monarchical model, especially the power and mystery of the Big Bang, the immense sweep of cosmic history, and the marvel of biological and human life. But six problems with this model lead many theologians to qualify, modify, or reject it.
1. Human Freedom. Divine omnipotence and predestination appear incompatible with the existence of genuine alternatives in human choice. No subtleties in distinguishing foreknowledge from foreordination seem to be able to circumvent this basic contradiction. Humanity’s total dependence on and submission to an authoritarian God is also in tension with human responsibility and maturity; these ideas too often have resulted in the repression rather than the fulfillment of human creativity. If all power is on God’s side, what powers are assignable to humanity?
2. Evil and Suffering. In the previous chapter we explored the problem of theodicy: Why would a good and omnipotent God allow evil and suffering? We saw that solutions that minimize the reality of evil and suffering are inconsistent with human experience. Nor can evil and suffering be taken as the consequences of Adam’s fall if we accept evolutionary science. But if omnipotence is defended, and everything that happens is God’s will, then God is responsible for evil and suffering, and God’s goodness is compromised. We saw that many current theodicies refer to God’s voluntary self-limitation in the interest of human freedom, the lawfulness of nature, or a world suitable for moral growth. These solutions are considered again in section II below, but we can note here that they entail a major qualification of the monarchical model, if not a rejection of it. Exponents of the kenotic model speak of God’s vulnerability and participation in suffering, and they reject the classical ideas of impassibility and immutability.
3. Patriarchy. The characteristics of the monarchical God are those our culture identifies as "masculine" virtues: power, control, independence, rationality, and impassibility, rather than what are stereotyped as "feminine" virtues: nurturance, responsiveness, interdependence, and emotional sensitivity. The identification of God with "masculine" qualities seems to reflect the biases of a patriarchal culture, and this model of God has in turn been used to justify male dominance in society.
4. Religious Intolerance. The exaltation of God’s power encouraged an exclusivist view of revelation. Taken with a hierarchical understanding of the authority of the church, it was used to support absolute claims to religious truth. When coupled with political and military power, it led to religious persecution, crusades, holy wars, and colonial imperialism, all in God’s name. Such views are a continuing danger in a world of religious pluralism and nuclear weapons. An extreme form of such absolutism is the assertion of some fundamentalists that we do not need to try to avoid nuclear brinksmanship, since if nuclear war breaks out it will be the final Armageddon, in which we can count on God’s omnipotence to assure our victory over the forces of evil.
5. An Evolutionary World. During the centuries when the monarchical model was formulated, a static and hierarchical view of reality was assumed. The world was accepted as a fixed order whose basic forms were unchanging, given once for all. This tended to reinforce the idea of creation ex nihilo in an absolute beginning; the biblical idea of continuing creation was virtually ignored. Each lower form served the higher in the hierarchy: God/man/woman/animal/plant. This fixed order was unified by God’s sovereign power and omniscient plan. These assumptions were, of course, challenged by evolution.
6. Law and Chance in Nature. With the rise of modern science, the idea of supernatural intervention in nature seemed increasingly dubious. By the time of Newton, God’s wisdom and power were seen only in the initial design of the universe, not in its continuing governance (except for occasional interventions). Deism took seriously the lawfulness of nature at the price of relegating God’s activity to the distant past. We have seen that more recently the role of chance has called into question both the determinism of predestination and the determinism of lawful causes.
2. Primary and Secondary Causes
As indicated earlier, with the growth of science in the seventeenth century nature was increasingly viewed as a law-abiding machine. God was the clockmaker and the world was the clock -- an autonomous and self-sufficient mechanism. Newton’s contemporary, Robert Boyle, started by defending God’s freedom and sovereignty but ended by asserting that God planned things so that no intervention was needed. The unfailing rule of law, not miraculous intervention, is the evidence of divine benevolence. Providence is expressed not by action in particular events but by the total cosmic design, the overall structure and order of the world.7 This was the inactive God of deism, who started the mechanism and then let it run by itself. Nature was viewed as a self-contained system whose interactions are to be exhaustively accounted for in the purely natural terms of lawful cause and effect.
The mechanical view of nature was conducive to the growth of technology. When we understand the laws of nature, we can use them to control and manipulate the world around us. And if nature apart from humanity is just a complicated machine, it has no rights or interests or intrinsic value over against us, and it has no organic unity that we might violate. Deism is also religiously inadequate because its God is remote and inactive; there is no place for continuing creation or personal encounter in the present, much less for the biblical view of God’s acts in history.
More recently, a number of neo-Thomist authors have tried to defend divine omnipotence and the lawful world of science without accepting the inactive God of deism. They do so by developing the Thomistic distinction between primary and secondary causes, which allows God a continuing role. God as primary cause works through the secondary causes, which science describes. Etienne Gilson invokes the model of a worker and a tool. In God’s hands "creatures are like a tool in the hands of the workman." One can say that an ax cuts the wood or that the man using the ax cuts the wood; each produces the, whole effect. Unlike the woodsman, though, God has conferred on all things their forms and their distinctive powers.8
The first level of God’s action in nature is conservation. If God ceased to sustain the world, it would lapse again into nothingness. Moreover, the powers of natural agents require a continual influx of divine power to be efficacious. Powers are only potentialities until they are actualized; every potency must be moved to act by God. Divine concurrence includes a more direct control over the actions of natural agents. God operates in the operation of created agents. God foresees and predetermines every detail in the world, ordering and governing every occurrence. This foreknowledge is itself the cause of all things.
Gilson also insists, however, on the reality of secondary causes. It is misguided to say that God is the only cause or that what appear to be natural causes are only the occasions on which God produces the effects. God delegates causal efficacy to the creatures. There are genuine centers of activity, interrelated and dependent on each other as well as on God. The conviction of the regularity of such cause-effect relationships provides a basis for science. Lawfulness obtains because each being has its essence, its natural way of behaving, and so it always produces the same effect.9
How then can the same effect be attributed to both divine and natural causality? The resolution must start by recognizing that these are not two actions doing essentially the same thing, not two causes on the same level, each contributing to part of the effect. Rather, the whole effect is produced by both divine and natural causes, but under completely different aspects. Two causes can both be operative if one is instrumental to the other. God is primary cause, in a different order from all instrumental secondary causes. God sometimes produces effects directly, as in the case of miracles, but usually works through natural causes.
Does such divine control preclude contingency and human freedom? As Garrigou-Lagrange puts it, God "infallibly moves the will to determine itself freely to act." The apparent inconsistency of a foreordained free choice, which will "infallibly come to be contingently," is resolved as follows. A contingent event is defined as one that is not uniquely determined by its natural causes. If God were merely to calculate the future from the present, as we would have to, God could not know the future. Since God is eternal, however, the future is present to God as it will actually be, a single definite outcome. God, being above time and having unchanging knowledge, does not know the future as potentially and indeterminately contained in its worldly causes, but determinately as specified in the eternal divine decree. Within the world, an act is uncertain before it takes place. But for God there is no "before"; for God it has taken place.10
In neo-Thomist thought, moreover, divine causality is rich and many-faceted, far from any simple mechanical coercion. God is the origin of form and matter but also has a role in final causation. Each being is given a natural inclination, which is genuinely its own but which also expresses God’s purposes. God endows every creature with an intrinsic nature and a way of acting and leaves it free to follow the goal toward which it strives. Divine causality can occur at various levels. In the case of the human will, God moves it from within, inclining it toward the good, calling forth its own powers, so its free acts remain its own. Here God’s influence is the final causality of attraction to the good, and God’s action becomes the power of love. This seems to me a more apt analogy than "instrumental causes" (such as worker and tool) in which the instrument is totally subordinated to the user. These aspects of neo-Thomism have much in common with process thought.
As another example, consider the discussion of double agency by the Anglican theologian Austin Farrer. "God’s agency must actually be such as to work omnipotently on, in and through creaturely agencies, without either forcing them or competing with them." God acts through the matrix of secondary causes and is manifest only in the overall resulting pattern. "He does not impose an order against the grain of things, but makes them follow their own bent and work out the world by being themselves. . . . He makes the multitude of created forces make the world in the process of making or being themselves." 11 Primary and secondary causes operate at totally different levels, according to Farrer. We can’t say anything about how God acts; there are no "causal joints" between infinite and finite action and no gaps in the scientific account. So, too, the free act of a person can at the same time be ascribed to the person and to the grace of God acting in human life.
Neo-Reformation (neo-orthodox) writers have also used the idea of primary and secondary causes to defend divine sovereignty over nature. Karl Barth asserts that God "rules unconditionally and irresistibly in all occurrence." Nature is God’s "servant," the "instrument of his purposes." God controls, orders, and determines, for "nothing can be done except the will of God." God foreknows and also predetermines and foreordains. "The operation of this God," Barth writes, "is as sovereign as Calvinist teaching describes it. In the strictest sense it is predestinating." 12
Barth insists, however, that divine omnipotence must always be considered in the light of God’s action in Christ. He feels that both Aquinas and Calvin represented sovereignty as absolute power in the abstract, which tended toward metaphysical necessity or arbitrary despotism. Our concern should be, not omnipotence as such, but the power revealed in Christ, which is the power of love. God’s power is simply the freedom to carry out purposes centering in the covenant of grace. Moreover, Barth defends both human freedom and the lawfulness of the created order. God respects the degree of independence given to the creatures, preserving them in being and allowing creaturely activity to coexist with divine activity. The divine work is not just a higher potency supervening on a lower, but an activity "within a completely different order." God’s governance is on another plane distinct from all natural causes.
Barth thus affirms both divine sovereignty and creaturely autonomy. God controls, and all creaturely determination is "wholly and utterly at the disposal of his power." The creature "goes its own way, but in fact it always finds itself on God’s way." All causality in the world is completely subordinate to God. When a human hand writes with a pen, the whole action is performed by both -- not part by the hand and part by the pen; Barth declares that creaturely causes, like the pen, are real but "have the part only of submission" to the divine hand that guides them.13
The idea of primary and secondary causality among these writers has the great merit of respecting the integrity of the natural causal nexus, which science studies. They avoid deism by insisting that the natural order does not stand on its own but requires the continued concurrence of God. Of course, such general, uniform concurrence, working equally in all events, does not fully represent the biblical God who acts. Most defenders of double agency claim that God has also intervened directly at a few points in history, perhaps in miracles, or at least in the particularity of incarnation in Christ. But it is more difficult to allow here for any forms of divine action intermediate between general concurrence and miraculous intervention. Moreover, the "paradox of double agency" employs ideas of causality that remain problematic. The woodsman causes the motion of the ax, which is his instrument, but primary causes do not cause secondary causes in a similar way. Finally, by retaining classical conceptions of God’s omnipotence, foreknowledge, and eternity, the interpretation is in the end deterministic, despite protracted efforts to allow for human freedom. If in God’s view there is only one outcome, no genuine alternatives exist, though we may think they do. Chance and evil in the world are also difficult to reconcile with such divine determination.
II. Some Alternatives
Let us consider four recent alternatives to classical theism. In the first, omnipotence and immutability are qualified by God’s self-limitation. In the second, God’s action is limited to the realm of personal life, which is contrasted with the lawful and objective realm of nature. In the third, God’s action is said to be like human actions, which are described in the language of intentions rather than in the language of causes. In the fourth, the world is viewed as God’s body.
1. God’s Self-Limitation
Divine omnipotence has been questioned by a number of theologians who have suggested that the creation of the world required God’s voluntary self-limitation. Several biblical scholars have explored the theme of God’s suffering in the Bible,14 but I will confine myself to examples from recent British theologians. A statement by the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England criticizes both the monarchical model and the clockmaker model and rejects immutability and impassibility. Two alternative models are proposed. The first is that of the artist and the work of art. The artist’s vision changes and is reformulated as the work proceeds. Moreover, the medium (the sculptor’s wood or stone, for instance) always imposes constraints on the artist. God has similarly chosen a medium that imposes inescapable constraints; God exercises a limited control and redeems imperfections rather than preventing them.15
The second model proposed in the Anglican statement is that of the parent and the growing child. As the child matures, the parent exercises persuasion and holds up moral standards rather than acting coercively. Some forms of intervention would defeat the parent’s goals. So, too, in the face of Israel’s rebelliousness, God is patient and faithful and will not abandon the covenant people. God loves like a father who suffers when a son fails to respond. In a section on "the suffering of God," the statement insists that the cross and the resurrection always go together and that new life is given amid suffering and death. God does not promise that we will be protected from life’s ills. The promise is that God will be faithful and will empower us with endurance and insight if we are open to them.
W. H. Vanstone says that authentic love is always accompanied by vulnerability. In human life, inauthentic love seeks control, as when a possessive parent holds Onto a child. Authentic love is precarious and brings the risk of rejection. It requires involvement rather than detachment, and this also makes a person vulnerable. The biblical God is affected by the creation, delighting in its beauty but grieved by its tragic aspects. Vanstone holds that there is no predetermined plan or assured program. There is, rather, "a vision which is discovered in its own realization."
The creation is "safe," not because it moves by program towards a predetermined goal, but because the same loving creativity is ever exercised upon it. . . . It implies only that that which is created is other than he who creates; that its possibility must be discovered; that its possibility must be ‘worked out" in the creative process itself; and that the working out must include the correction of the step which proved a false step, the redemption or the move which, unredeemed, would be tragedy. . . . Our faith in the Creator is that He leaves no problem abandoned and no evil unredeemed.’6
Vanstone says that evil is inescapable in the long process of creation. God must wait on the responses of nature and humanity. Nature is not just the stage for the human drama; it is the result of a labor of love and as such is worthy of our celebration and care. Here Vanstone extends the ancient theme of kenosis or self-emptying: in the incarnation God set aside omnipotence, "taking the form of a servant" (Phil 2:7). He concludes his book with a "Hymn to the Creator," ending with this stanza:
Thou art God; no monarch Thou
Thron’d in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.17
Brian Hebblethwaite suggests that though God has an unchanging goal. many paths lead to it. The future is open and unpredictable, awaiting the creatures choices. There can be no detailed foreknowledge, and God changes in response to what the creatures do. Hebblethwaite defends human freedom and also indeterminacy and chance at lower levels. He rejects the idea that God determines what appear to us as chance atomic events; he insists that there is real randomness, which even God cannot know in advance. Evolution reflects millions of years of chance; God respects the structures of creation but somehow weaves these events into unforeseeable providential patterns. In this framework, he says, the problems of evil and suffering are more tractable than under the assumption that every detail is predestined.18
Keith Ward ascribes reciprocity and temporality to God. He rejects divine omnipotence and self-sufficiency. Creativity is inherently temporal, responsive, and contingent. God’s power, knowledge, and beatitude are limited by the creatures’ power, freedom, and suffering, respectively. But these are voluntary self-limitations, since God could at any time destroy or modify the world. Chance, law, and plurality in the world produce the possibility of conflict and evil; sentience makes pain and suffering as well as pleasure and joy possible. God chooses good and accepts evil as its concomitant.
Ward says that God is neither omnipotent nor helpless but guides an evolutionary process that includes law, chance, and the emergence of novelty. God’s nature and purposes are eternal and unchanging, but divine knowledge and creativity are changing. Ward acknowledges indebtedness to the dipolar theism of process thought but claims that Whitehead’s God is helpless and passive, a "cosmic sponge" (Which seems to me to be a misreading of Whitehead). Ward accepts only God’s voluntary self-limitation, whereas for Whitehead the limitations of divine power are metaphysical and inescapable. 19
Another Anglican who appreciates but also criticizes Whitehead is John Macquarrie. He finds the traditional emphasis on transcendence, eternity, and impassibility one-sided and wants to balance these characteristics by immanence, temporality, and vulnerability. He calls his view "Dialectical Theism." God is "above time" in the constancy of a purpose that suffering does not defeat or overwhelm. Macquarrie draws heavily from such exponents of mysticism as Plotinus, Eriugena, and Eckhart, who emphasized immanence and the inward unity of all things in God. He says that evil is inescapable in such a creation, and it can be more readily accepted if we know that God participates in the world’s suffering.20
A final example is Paul Fiddes’s The Creative Suffering of God. Of all these authors, Fiddes is the most sympathetic to process thought, and he draws extensively from it, though in the end he departs from it. He gives detailed critiques of ideas of God’s immutability, self-sufficiency, and timelessness, and he accepts the process position concerning God’s relatedness and temporality. God is with us in our suffering but is not overwhelmed or defeated by it. But Fiddes does not agree with process thought that God’s involvement with the world is necessary or that God needs the world in order to be fully actualized. He maintains that God has freely chosen and accepted self-limitation for the sake of human freedom. Here he is indebted to Barth’s theme that God loves in freedom and chooses to be in relation to the world. Fiddes says that relatedness, fellowship, and community are already present within the life of the trinitarian God and do not require a world to be actualized.21
Fiddes is impressed with the process understanding of how God’s suffering affects us. We feel another person’s sympathy with our feelings. In Christ’s death we experience judgment but also an acceptance that enables us to accept the truth about ourselves. Costly forgiveness can have a transforming effect. But Fiddes holds that this can be better expressed through trinitarian ideas: "Process thought, then, points in a valuable way to the powerful effect which an exchange of feelings between us and a suffering God can have upon us, but I believe this insight can be carried through better with the more thoroughgoing personal analogy for God which is offered in Trinitarianism."22
Compared to the monarchical model, these views seem to accord better with the biblical understanding and also with evolutionary history and human experience. We have seen similar ideas expounded by Arthur Peacocke in his writings on evolution. The models of artistic creativity and parental love appear particularly appropriate. These views go far toward answering the objections raised against the monarchical model: the problems of freedom, evil, evolution, and chance. They could also be developed to answer the classical tendencies toward patriarchy and religious intolerance. I will suggest that process theology expresses many of the same insights but develops them further in a coherent metaphysical system.
Another reaction to the scientific view of the world has been the restriction of religious assertions to the sphere of selfhood. According to existentialists, the objectivity and detachment appropriate to the study of nature are to be sharply contrasted with the personal decision, commitment, and involvement required in the religious life. God acts only in person-to-person encounter in the present moment. Human freedom, which is problematic in the monarchical and deist models, is strongly defended by existentialists, but nonhuman nature remains an autonomous and deterministic causal network.
Rudolf Bultmann is a forceful exponent of the proposition that God does not act in the objective arena of nature but in existential self-understanding. He considers nature to be a rigidly determined mechanical order. What he takes to be the scientific view of the universe as a completely closed system of cause-and-effect laws excludes belief in God’s action in the world. Moreover, the idea that God produces external changes in space and time is held to be theologically objectionable. A myth, in Bultmann’s definition, is any representation of divine activity as if it were an objective occurrence in the world. The transcendent is falsely objectivized when it is spoken of in the language of space and time or imagined as a supernatural cause. Miracles and "supernatural events" objectify the divine as a cause and also run counter to the scientific understanding of the world as law-abiding. But Bultmann holds that rather than simply rejecting these mythical elements in toto, as earlier liberals did, we must recover their deeper meaning. If mythical imagery misrepresented the action of the transcendent as if it were an objective occurrence, we must translate it back into the language of personal experience.23
To demythologize thus means to reinterpret existentially in terms of human self-understanding. All along, the real function of myths was to provide new insight into human existence and its fears, hopes, decisions, and the meaning of life and death. Bultmann holds that he is not imposing an alien idea on the biblical message but rather seeing it for what it is -- a call to repentance, faith, and obedience. He wants us to ask of any myth what it says about our relation to God now and what new possibilities it suggests for our lives.
All religious formulations must be statements about a new understanding of personal existence. The doctrine of creation is not a neutral statement about God and the world but a personal confession of dependence, an acknowledgment of one’s life as a gift. The resurrection was not an observable event but rather the rebirth of faith in Christ among the disciples, a transformation that is repeated anew throughout the history of the church. In response to Christ, individuals can today find the possibility of achieving authentic existence, overcoming despair, and gaining an openness to the future and to other persons.
In this framework, can one say that God acts in history or in nature? We must take great care, says Bultmann, to avoid referring to God’s action as something objective and external to us. "When we speak of God as acting we mean that we are confronted by God, addressed, asked, judged, or blessed by God."24 Thus God’s action always occurs in the present transformation of our lives. Christ becomes God’s act only when we respond to him, so "the incarnation is being continuously reenacted in the events of the proclamation."
According to Bultmann, God does not violate the close system of natural causality. Thus the idea of providence is comprised entirely in the way a person looks at natural events:
In faith I can understand an accident with which I meet as a gracious gift of God or as his punishment, or as his chastisement. On the other hand, I can understand the same accident as a link in the chain of the natural course of events. If, for example, my child has recovered from a dangerous illness, I give thanks because he has saved my child. . . . I need to see the worldly events as linked by cause and effect, not only as a scientific observer, but also in my daily living. In doing so there remains room for God’s working. This is the paradox of faith, that faith "nevertheless" understands as God’s action here and now an event which is completely intelligible in the natural or historical connection of events.25
Presumably we cannot say that God’s action influenced the outcome of the child’s illness, for that would be to identify divine action with an objective event. Is the difference, then, only in how we take an outcome that was itself determined by inexorable and impersonal causal laws?
Bultmann’s reluctance to affirm God’s activity in the world and his retreat to the inner realm of personal existence arise is part form his view of nature as an inviolable and mechanically determined causal system -- a view more consonant, I have said, with eighteenth-century than with contemporary science. One critic deplores Bultmann’s acceptance of "the Kantian bifurcation of reality into nature and spirit and the expulsion of God’s activity from the realm of nature. . . . God was banished from the world of nature and history in order to secure for man s scientific conquest an unembarrassed right of way, and for faith a sanctuary."26
I agree with Bultmann that the center of Christian experience is the transformation of personal existence. But he has ended by privatizing and interiorizing religion to the neglect of its communal aspects. Personal life is always lived in the context of wider relationships in nature and society. In chapter 1, I discussed existentialism as an example of the Independence thesis, in which religion and science are compartmentalized as totally separate realms. But we have seen that the sharp line between humanity and nature can be criticized on scientific grounds. Evolutionary biology and ecology have shown us the continuities between the human and nonhuman worlds.
The existentialist dichotomy between the sphere of personal selfhood and the sphere of impersonal objects can also be criticized on theological and ethical grounds. The retreat to the realm of human inwardness leaves nature unrelated to God and devoid of enduring significance. What was God doing in the long history of the cosmos before the appearance of humanity? Is the world only the impersonal stage for the drama of human life? Should we then treat it as an object to be exploited for human benefit? In the biblical view, by contrast, the natural world is no mere setting, but part of the drama that is a single, unified, creative-redemptive work. Today we need a theology of nature as well as of human existence.
3. God as Agent
Another model of God’s relation to the world is drawn from the relation of agents to their actions. Many proponents of this model have been influenced by linguistic analysis, which holds that diverse types of language serve radically differing functions. (This was another version of the Independence thesis in chapter 1.) Writings in the philosophy of action contend that the explanation of actions by intentions is very different from the explanation of effects by causes. An action of a human agent is a succession of activities ordered toward an end. Its unity consists in an intention to realize a goal. An action differs from a bodily, movement. A given bodily movement (for example, moving my arm outward in a particular way) may represent a variety of actions (such as mailing a letter, sowing seeds, or waving to someone). Conversely, a given action may be carried out through a variety of sequences of bodily movements. An action cannot be specified, then, by any set of bodily movements, but only by its purpose or intent.27
Analysis in terms of intentions does not preclude analysis in terms of scientific laws. The physiologist need not refer to my purposes in explaining my arm movement. In addition, intentions are never directly observable. Calling it an action involves an interpretation of its meaning and often requires observation over a considerable temporal span; it may, of course, be misinterpreted and wrongly identified. The agents of actions are embodied subjects acting through their bodies. Instead of a mind/body dualism of two distinct substances, we have two ways of talking about a single set of events. An agent is a living body in action, not an invisible mind interacting with a visible body. Yet the agent transcends any single action and is never fully expressed in any series of actions.
Similarly, we can say that cosmic history is an action of God as agent. Reference to divine intentions does not exclude a scientific account of causal sequences. John Compton writes,
We can distinguish the causal development of events from the meaning of these events viewed as God’s action. Scientific analysis of physical nature and of human history has no more need of God as an explanatory factor than the physiologist needs my conscious intent to explain my bodily movements. Nor does God need to find a "gap" in nature in order to act, any more than you or I need a similar interstice in our body chemistry. Each story has a complete cast of characters, without the need for interaction with the other story, but quite compatible with it. What happens is that the evolution of things is seen or read, in religious life -- as my arm’s movement is read in individual life -- as part of an action, as an expression of divine purpose, in addition to its being viewed as a naturalistic process.28
The intentions of an agent are never directly observable and may be difficult to guess from events in a limited span of time. In the case of God’s intentions, a paradigm tradition provides a vision of a wider context within which the pattern is interpreted. There is indeed a strong biblical precedent for talking about God in terms of purposes in history. Today the linguistic approach would encourage us to treat the language of divine action as an alternative to scientific language, not as a competitor with it. The cosmic drama can be interpreted as an expression of the divine purpose. God is understood to act in and through the structure and movement of nature and history.
The theologian Gordon Kaufman suggests that the whole course of evolutionary development can be considered as one all-encompassing action, unified by God’s intentions. Within this master action are various subactions -- the emergence of life, the advent of humanity, the growth of culture -- which are phases of a total action moving toward greater consciousness, freedom, and community. Kaufman sees the history of Israel and the life of Christ as special subactions decisively expressing the divine intention. He maintains that the evolutionary process is at the same time an unbroken causal nexus, which the scientist can study without reference to God’s purposes.29
Maurice Wiles has recently elaborated the thesis that cosmic history is one overarching action. He rejects the traditional understanding of particular divine actions in the providential guidance of individual events:
Think of the whole continuing creation of the world as God’s one act, an act in which he allows radical freedom to his human creation. The nature of such a creation, I have suggested, is incompatible with the assertion of further particular divinely initiated acts within the developing history of the world. God’s act, like many human acts, is complex. I have argued that particular parts of it can rightly be spoken of as specially significant aspects of the divine activity, but not as specific. identifiable acts of God.30
Wiles proposes that God’s intention is unvarying and God’s action is uniform, but our responses will vary in differing contexts:
God’s fundamental act, the intentional fruit of the divine initiative, is the bringing into existence of the world. That is a continuous process, and every part of it is therefore in the broadest sense an expression of divine activity. Differences within the process, leading us to regard some happenings as more properly to be spoken of in such terms than others, are dependent not on differing divine initiatives but on differing degrees of human responsiveness. The players in the improvised drama of the world’s creation, through whom the agency of the author finds truest expressions, are not ones to whom he has given some special information or advice, but those who have best grasped his intention and developed it.31
Wiles differs from deism by holding that God acts in the whole of cosmic history, not just in its initial design. But he agrees with deism in holding that God does not act with particular intentions at particular points in that history. It seems to me that by abandoning the idea of particular divine initiatives in history. Kaufman and Wiles have departed significantly from the biblical witness. Moreover, in their interpretation Christ seems to be special only because of the way we respond to him, not because of any special divine action in his life.
4. The World as God’s Body
Several theologians have developed the model of the world as God’s body. Sallie McFague’s use of this model was mentioned in chapter 2. Grace Jantzen. in God’s World, God’s Body, starts by defending a holistic understanding of the human person as a psychosomatic unity, citing support from the Old Testament and recent psychology and philosophy. She rejects the classical mind/body dualism with its devaluation of matter and the body. The God/world relation is analogous to that of person/body, rather than mind/body or soul/body. Jantzen thinks that the classical view of God as disembodied spirit is a product of the Christian Platonism that contrasted eternal forms with a lower realm of temporal matter; this view held that God is immutable and therefore immaterial. But a few church fathers, such as Tertullian, accepted the Stoic assertion that God is embodied, though they rejected the determinism and pantheism of Stoicism.
Jantzen acknowledges that there are significant differences between God and human persons but suggests that these can be described in terms of God’s perfect embodiment, rather than disembodiment. We have direct awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and many events in our bodies, but much is going on in our bodies of which we are not aware (for example, the processes in our internal organs). God, by contrast, has direct and immediate knowledge of all events in the cosmos. God as omnipresent perceives from every point of view, not from a limited viewpoint as we do. With such directness, God needs no analogue of a nervous system. Again, we can directly and intentionally affect a limited range of actions of our bodies; much that goes on, such as the beating of our hearts, is unintentional. God, however, is the universal agent for whom all events are basic actions, though some events may be more significant and revelatory than others. Instead of treating all of cosmic history as one action, as Wiles does, Jantzen holds that there are particular actions arising from God’s response to changing situations.32
Though God is free of many of the limitations that the human body imposes, the presence of any body does impose limitations, but Jantzen maintains that in the case of God these are voluntary self-limitations. God is always embodied but has a choice about the details of embodiment, which we do not have. A universe has always existed, but its present form is a voluntary self-expression. God could eradicate the present universe and actualize something different; God could exist without this world, but not without any world. God is always in complete control and the world is ontologically dependent. Yet God has voluntarily given the creatures considerable independence and autonomy. At this point Jantzen resembles the proponents of God’s self-limitation discussed earlier, though she departs from them when she says that God and the world are "one reality." But she maintains that God transcends the world, just as we can say that a person transcends physical processes if we reject a mechanistic reductionism. She also suggests that the idea of the world as God’s body would lead us to respect nature and would encourage ecological responsibility.33
Thomas Tracy, on the other hand, argues that God is a nonbodily agent. In the human case, he says, embodiment means (1) existence as a unified organic process, and (2) limitation by subintentional, automatic processes. But the world, says Tracy, does not resemble a unified organism. Instead, there seems to be a looser pluralism, a society of distinct agents. Moreover, God is not inherently limited by involuntary processes, though some self-imposed limitations accompanied the choice to create other agents and to respect their integrity. Tracy accepts the more traditional position that God could exist without any world. God’s vulnerability is the result of love and not necessity. Tracy describes his position as intermediate between classical theism (in which God’s being is independent of the world) and process theism (in which God and the world affect each other). He concludes that God is a nonbodily agent with unrestricted intentionality who interacts temporally with the world in mutually affecting relations.34
I would agree with Tracy that the world does not have the kind of unity that a human body possesses. To be sure, the mystical tradition has testified to an underlying unity and has sometimes referred to God as the world-soul; but mystics speak of an undifferentiated identity wherein distinctions are obliterated, which is very different from the organized integration of cooperatively interacting parts that characterizes the unity of a body. Every body we have encountered also has an external environment, whereas with a cosmic body all interactions would be internal. The most serious objection to the model is that it does not allow sufficiently for the independence of God and the world. God’s relation to other agents seems to require a social or interpersonal analogy in which a plurality of centers of initiative is present.
III. Process Theism
In process thought reality is envisaged as a society in which one member is preeminent but not totally controlling. The world is a community of interacting beings rather than a monarchy, a machine, the setting for an interpersonal dialogue, the action of an agent, or the body of an agent. We look first at the advantages of process theism in comparison with the options considered above and then analyze some of the problems it entails.
1. God as Creative Participant
We have seen that the process view ‘s social in that it portrays a plurality of centers of activity. It can also be called ecological in that it starts from a network of relationships between interdependent beings, rather than from essentially separate beings. We can think of God as the leader of a cosmic community. It is neither a monarchy nor a democracy, since one member is preeminent but not all-powerful. God is like a wise teacher, who desires that students learn to choose for themselves and interact harmoniously, or a loving parent who does not try to do everything for the members of a family. God’s role is creative participation and persuasion in inspiring the community of beings toward new possibilities of a richer life together.
Some process thinkers have used the mind-body relation in a distinctive way as an analogy for God’s relation to the world. Hartshorne is willing to call the universe God’s body, provided we remember that a person’s character can remain unchanged amid major bodily changes and that God’s essence is uniquely independent of the particulars of the universe. Like Jantzen, Hartshorne points out that we have only dim awareness of some portions of our bodies and our pasts, whereas God knows the world completely at every point and forgets nothing. Hartshorne proposes that the mind-body analogy, if appropriately extended, provides an image of God’s infinitely sympathetic and all-embracing participation in the world process, a mode of influence that is internal rather than external.
Hartshorne goes further, however, by showing that in process thought the mind-body analogy is itself social in character, because a human being is a society -- a network of living cells plus one dominant member, the mind. The immediacy of our knowledge of the body and the directness of our action through the body can appropriately be extended as images of God’s perfect knowledge and action. Hartshorne says that the relationship between human persons is indirect and is mediated by language or physical objects, so that a human society is a less apt analogy for God’s relation to the world.35
Hartshorne’s development of the mind-body model is helpful, but I believe that interpersonal social models best represent the combination of independence and interdependence that characterizes individual entities in relation to each other and in relation to God. We have more independence than cells in a cosmic organism. Here Whitehead’s more pluralistic model allows a larger role for both human and divine freedom, intention, and action. In his scheme we can think of God as the leader of the cosmic community.
Drawing on the discussion in the previous chapter, we can see that the process model offers distinctive answers to each of the six problems in the monarchical model, which were indicated earlier.
1. Human Freedom. Human experience is the starting point from which process thought generalizes and extrapolates to develop a set of metaphysical categories that are exemplified by all entities. Self-creativity is part of the momentary present of every entity. It is not surprising, then, that process thought has no difficulty in representing human freedom in relation to both God and causes from the past. In particular, omnipotence and predestination are repudiated in favor of a God of persuasion, whose achievements in the world always depend on the response of other entities. Process theism strongly endorses our responsibility to work creatively to further God’s purposes, as well as recognizing human frailty and the constraints imposed by the biological and social structures inherited from the past. We are participants in an unfinished universe and in God’s continuing work. God calls us to love, freedom, and justice. Time, history, and nature are to be affirmed, for it is here that God’s purposes can be carried forward.
2. Evil and Suffering. Human sin can be understood as a product of human freedom and insecurity. Suffering in the human and nonhuman world is no longer a divine punishment for sin or an inexplicable anomaly. The capacity for pain is an inescapable concomitant of greater awareness and intensity of experience. Greater capacity to hurt others is a concomitant of the new forms of interdependence present at higher levels of-life. In an evolutionary world, struggle and conflicting goals are integral to the realization of greater value. By accepting the limitations of divine power we avoid blaming God for particular forms of evil and suffering; we can acknowledge that they are contrary to the divine purposes in that situation. Instead of God the judge meting out retributive punishment, we have God the friend, with us in our suffering and working with us to redeem it.
3. "Masculine" and "Feminine" Attributes. The classical view of God was heavily weighted toward what our culture thinks of as "masculine" virtues: power, rationality, independence, and impassibility. By contrast, process thinkers also ascribe to God what our culture takes to be "feminine" virtues: nurturance, sensitivity, interdependence, and responsiveness. These authors refer to God’s tenderness, patience, and responsive love. The typical male image of control and self-sufficiency is rejected in favor of images of participation, education, and cooperation. In reacting against the monarchical model of God’s power, process thinkers may sometimes seem to make God powerless, but in fact they are pointing to alternative forms of power in both God and human life. The goal in picturing both divine and human virtues is to integrate masculine/feminine attributes within a new wholeness, like the wider unity within which the Taoists held that the contrasting qualities of yin and yang are embraced.
4. Interreligious Dialogue. In contrast to the exclusivist claims of revelation in classical theism, process thought allows us to acknowledge that God’s creative presence is at work at all points in nature and history. But it also allows us to speak of the particularity of divine initiatives in specific traditions and in the lives and experience of specific persons. Unlike deism, existentialism, and the language of cosmic agency, it defends the idea of God’s continuing action in the world -- including actions under special conditions that reveal God’s purposes with exceptional depth and clarity. Such a framework would offer encouragement to the path of dialogue among world religions as an alternative to both the militancy of absolutism and the vagueness of relativism (chapter 3). We can accept our rootedness in a particular community and yet remain open to the experience of other communities.
5. An Evolutionary and Ecological World. We have seen that process thought is in tune with the contemporary view of nature as a dynamic process of becoming, always changing and developing, radically temporal in character. This is an incomplete cosmos still coming into being. Evolution is a creative process whose outcome is not predictable. Reality is multileveled, with more complex levels built on simpler ones, so we can understand why it had to be a very long, slow process if God’s role was evocation and not control. Also fundamental to process metaphysics is a recognition of the ecological interdependence of all entities. Moreover, it presents no dualism of soul and body and no sharp separation between the human and the nonhuman. Anthropocentrism is avoided because humanity is seen as part of the community of life and similar to other entities, despite distinctive human characteristics. All creatures are intrinsically valuable because each is a center of experience, though there are enormous gradations in the complexity and intensity of experience. In addition, by balancing immanence and transcendence, process thought encourages respect for nature.
6. Chance and Law. Within the monarchical model, any element of chance is a threat to divine control (unless God controls what to us appears to be chance). Within both deism and existentialism it is assumed that all events in nature are objectively determined. Process thought is distinctive in holding indeterminacy among its basic postulates. It affirms both order and openness in nature. Here divine purpose is understood to have unchanging goals but not a detailed eternal plan; God responds to the unpredictable. Process thought recognizes alternative possibilities, potentialities that may or may not be realized. There are many influences on the outcome of an event, none of them absolutely determining it.
2. Problems in Process Theology
I take seriously three criticisms of process theology, though I believe that there are answers to each.
1. Christianity and Metaphysics
The context of religious discourse is the worshiping community. Writings in process theology, by contrast, often seem abstract and speculative. God is described in philosophical categories rather than through stories and images. But we must remember that differing types of discourse can have the same referent. A husband can refer to his wife in the personal language of endearment or in the objective language of a medical report. Moreover, process metaphysics is not proposed as a substitute for the language of worship but as a substitute for alternative metaphysical systems. Metaphysics is inescapable as soon as one moves from the primary language of worship (story, liturgy, and ritual) to theological reflection and doctrinal formulation.
The use of philosophical categories in theology is not new. Augustine was indebted to Plato, Aquinas to Aristotle, nineteenth-century Protestantism to Kant. In each case the theologian had to adapt the philosopher’s ideas to the theological task. In turn, the theologian’s philosophical commitments led to greater sensitivity to some aspects of the biblical witness than to others. The components of any creative synthesis are themselves altered by being brought together. Whitehead, like Kant, was a philosopher already deeply influenced by the Christian vision of reality. Whitehead recognized the tentative and partial character of his attempt at synthesis; he held that every philosophical system illuminates some types of experience more adequately than other types, and none attains to final truth.
At certain times in the past the imposition of a rigid philosophical system has hindered both scientific and theological development. The dominance of the Aristotelian framework from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries was in some ways detrimental to both science and theology. In the search for unity and coherence, we must avoid any premature or externally imposed synthesis. We can expect no complete and final system; our endeavors must be tentative, exploratory, and open, allowing a measure of pluralism in recognition of the variety of experience. Christianity cannot be identified with any metaphysical system. The theologian must adapt, not adopt, a metaphysics. Many process insights may be accepted without accepting the total Whiteheadian scheme. These insights can lead to the modification of classical religious models so that they more accurately reflect the experience of the Christian community as well as contemporary scientific understanding.
2. God’s Transcendence and Power
It has been said that the God of process philosophy lacks the transcendence and power characteristic of the biblical God. One critic says that such a weak God would evoke our pity rather than our worship.36 Transcendence is indeed less emphasized in process theology than in classical Christianity, but it is still strongly represented. God is distinct from the world and not identified with it, as in pantheism. Every entity is radically dependent on God for its existence and the order of possibilities that it can actualize, God’s freedom and priority in status are upheld; God alone is everlasting, omniscient, and omnipresent. God is perfect in love and wisdom. God’s unchanging purposes for good are not contingent on events in the world.
The process God does have power, but it is the evocative power of love and inspiration, not controlling, unilateral power. It is power that is also creative empowerment, not the abrogation of creaturely powers. The power of love and goodness is indeed worthy of worship, commitment, and also gratitude for what God has done, whereas sheer power would only be cause for awe and fear. God’s love is not irresistible in the short run, but it is inexhaustible in the long run.
Several themes in Christian thought support the portrayal of a God of persuasion. Christ’s life and death reveal the transformative power of love. We have freedom to respond or not, for grace is not irresistible. In the last analysis, I suggest, the central Christian model for God is the person of Christ himself. In Christ it is love, even more than justice or sheer power, which is manifest. The resurrection represents the vindication rather than the denial of the way of the cross, the power of a love stronger than death. Process theology reiterates on a cosmic scale the motif of the cross, a love that accepts suffering. By rejecting omnipotence, process thought says that God is not directly responsible for evil. Whereas exponents of kenotic self-limitation hold that the qualifications of divine omnipotence are voluntary and temporary, for Whiteheadians the limitations are metaphysical and necessary, though they are integral to God’s essential nature and not something antecedent or external to it.
Process theology does call into question the traditional expectation of an absolute victory over evil. In chapter 5 we traced the historical development from the prophetic eschatology of God’s Kingdom on earth to the apocalyptic eschatology of a final supernatural victory. Process thought is more sympathetic to the former. It holds that God does not abolish evil but seeks to turn it to good account by transmuting it and envisaging the larger pattern into which it can be integrated. This is a God of wisdom and compassion who shares in the world’s suffering and is a transforming influence on it, and who also preserves its accomplishments forever within the divine life. Process thought does not look to a static completion of history but to a continued journey toward greater harmony and enrichment. We have seen that subjective immortality is affirmed by some process theologians, while others defend only the objective immortality of contributing to God’s everlasting experience.
In process thought, God’s power over nature is indeed limited. Lower-level events are essentially repetitive and mechanical, though this in itself accords with God’s intentions. Yet even the inanimate included an infinitesimal element of new potentiality, which only the long ages of cosmic history could disclose. Continuing creation has been a long, slow travail, building always on what was already present. Evolutionary history seems to point to a God who acts not by controlling but by evoking the response of the creatures.
It is in human life, then, that the greatest opportunities for God’s influence exist. In religious experience and historical revelation, rather than in nature apart from humanity, the divine initiative is most clearly manifest. Here our earlier methodological assertion that theology should be based on religious experience and historical revelation is supported by our understanding of God’s mode of action.
3. Criteria for Theological Reformulation
Process theology has been criticized for departing too far from classical theology. Can its reformulation of the earlier tradition be justified? The answer must make use of all four of the criteria presented in chapter 2.
The first criterion is agreement with data. This refers to the continued intersubjective testing of beliefs against the experience of the religious community. Since all data are theory-laden, and religious experience is influenced by theological interpretation, this criterion cannot be decisive, but it is nevertheless important. The process view of God as creative love accords well with what I described as the Christian experience of reconciliation. I have suggested that the numinous experience of the holy can also be adequately accounted for in the process understanding of God’s transcendence and moral purpose, despite its emphasis on immanence. The experience of moral obligation has often been mentioned in process writings. And, of course, the experience of order and creativity is given a central place in all process thought.
Mystical experience of the unity of all things has been less prominent in the West than in the East, and process thought agrees with the Christian tradition in rejecting monism. But process theologians have often been sympathetic to meditative practices and more open to God’s presence in nature than many forms of Western theology. They have appreciated the contribution of the Franciscan tradition to environmental awareness and welcomed the combination of mysticism and concern for nature in Teilhard’s writing and in some of the classical Christian mystics.
I suggested earlier that the stories and rituals of a tradition are part of the data that must be interpreted. This would mean that process insights should be tested against the biblical record and the subsequent life of the religious community, rather than against previous theological formulations alone. The Bible itself is a diverse document, and process thought seems more in tune with some of its themes than with others. We have said, for example, that it finds prophetic eschatology more consistent with the overall biblical message than apocalyptic eschatology. Process theology directs attention to Christ’s life and the suffering love of the cross, and it sees the resurrection as evidence of the transforming power of that love rather than as an independent manifestation of God’s power.
The second criterion is coherence. Any reformulation must be consistent with the central core of the Christian tradition. We saw that, according to Lakatos, the "hard core" of a tradition may be protected by making modifications in "auxiliary hypotheses" in order to accommodate discordant data. I take the central core of Christianity to be belief in God as creative love, revealed in Christ. Omnipotence is then treated as an auxiliary hypothesis, which can be modified to accommodate the data of human freedom, evil and suffering, and an evolutionary cosmos. I have suggested that the new view of nature requires reformulating our understanding of God’s relation to nature, but this can be done without abandoning the tradition’s core.
Process theology deserves high marks for internal coherence. It brings together within a single set of basic categories the divine initiatives in nature, history, religious experience, and the person of Christ. I maintained that this coherence is also expressed in the biblical idea of the Holy Spirit at work in all of these spheres. This can in turn help us to integrate the personal, social, and ecological dimensions of our lives.
Scope is the third criterion. Process thought seeks comprehensiveness in offering a coherent account of diverse types of experience -- scientific, religious, moral, and aesthetic. It tries to articulate an inclusive world view. It pays a price in the abstractness of its concepts, but its basic categories allow for a greater diversity of types of experience than most metaphysical systems. In particular, the idea of levels of experience and evolutionary emergence provide a better balance between continuity and discontinuity (both in history and in ontology) than do either materialist or dualist alternatives. Process theology is responsive to the experience of women as well as men. Its scope is also broad in its openness to other religious traditions. It can accept the occurrence of divine initiative in other religious traditions, while maintaining fidelity to the central core of the Christian tradition, in accordance with the path of dialogue in a pluralistic world.
Fertility is the fourth criterion. Lakatos says that a program is progressive only if it leads to new hypotheses and experiments over a period of time. Process thought has stimulated creative theological reflection, and it has been extended to new domains and disciplines in recent decades. But the fertility of religious ideas has many dimensions. Is ethical action encouraged and sustained? Process theologians have given distinctive analyses of some of the most urgent problems of our times, such as the ecological crisis and social injustice. Process theology has the capacity to nourish religious experience and personal transformation. It must be expressed in individual religious life, communal worship, and social action, as well as in theological reflection. I believe that by these four criteria the reformulations of classical tradition proposed in process theology are indeed justified.
Theology is critical reflection on the life and thought of the religious community. The context of theology is always the worshiping community. Religious experience, story, and ritual are the starting points for articulating doctrines and beliefs.
The biblical tradition starts with response to God as Redeemer. For the Christian community, renewal and wholeness have been found through confrontation with historical events. Here people have known release from insecurity and guilt, from anxiety and despair; here they have discovered, at least in a fragmentary way, the power of reconciliation that can overcome estrangement. Here they have come to know the meaning of repentance and forgiveness and of the new self-understanding and release from self-centeredness that are the beginning of the capacity for love. They can only confess what has occurred in their lives: that in Christ something happened that opens up new possibilities in human existence. The purpose of creation is made known in Christ, "the new creation," who is at the same time the full flowering of the created order and the manifestation of continuing creation. The power of God is revealed as the power of love. God is thus encountered in historical events, in the creative renewal of personal and social life, in grace that redeems alienation. These aspects of the biblical witness are well represented in neo-orthodoxy, existentialism, and linguistic analysis.
But I have urged that while theology must start from historical revelation and personal experience, it must also include a theology of nature that does not disparage or neglect the natural order. In neo-orthodoxy, nature remains the unredeemed stage for the drama of human redemption. In existentialism, the world is the impersonal setting for personal existence, and religion is radically privatized and interiorized. In linguistic analysis, discourse about phenomena in the natural order has no functions in common with discourse about God. These positions minimize the continuity between nature and grace, between impersonal and personal realms, and between language about nature and language about God. But the Bible itself takes a predominantly affirmative attitude toward the natural world; God is Lord of all of life, not of a separate religious realm. The biblical God is Creator as well as Redeemer.
Each of the models of God examined in this chapter has its strengths and its shortcomings. The monarchical model dwells on the transcendence, power, and sovereignty of god. These attributes correspond to the numinous experience of the holy. This model was already present in the biblical view of God as Lord and King. It is appropriate for many aspects of the three main biblical stories: the grandeur of the creation narrative, the liberating events of the exodus and covenant, and the transforming experience of the resurrection of Christ. Some parts of science are in keeping with this model: the awesome power of the Big Bang, the contingency of the universe, the immense sweep of space and time, and the intricate order of nature. But the elaboration of this model in the classic doctrines of omnipotence and predestination conflicts with the evidence of human freedom, evil and suffering, and the presence of chance and novelty in an evolutionary world.
The neo-Thomist model of worker and tool (or double agency) shares many of the strengths of the monarchical model. It is expressed in the idea of primary and secondary causes, which operate on totally different planes. Some scientists welcome this idea, since it upholds the integrity of the natural causal nexus. God’s normal role is to maintain and concur with the natural order, yet all events are indirectly predetermined in the divine plan. Thus all the problems inherent in the concept of omnipotence are still present. Furthermore, any particular divine initiatives (in Christ, or in grace in human life) are supernatural interventions of a totally different kind. Creation and redemption are contrasting rather than similar modes of divine action.
The kenotic model of God’s voluntary self-limitation answers many of the objections to the monarchical model. Here the proposed analogies are artistic creativity and parental love. Love always entails vulnerability, reciprocity, and temporality rather than impassibility, unilateral power, and unchanging self-sufficiency. God’s self-limitation allows for human freedom and the laws of nature, and it thereby renders the problems of evil and suffering more tractable. Yet because the self-limitation is voluntary it does not imply any inherent limitation in God’s ultimate power. Such a view accords with the Christian experience of reconciliation and with many features of the biblical witness, such as Israel’s free choice in accepting the covenant and Christ’s acceptance of the cross. It also seems to fit the pattern of evolutionary history as a long and costly process. I find it a very valuable contribution to theological reflection. It shares many of the assumptions of process theology. When its metaphysical implications are systematically developed, I expect that it will move even closer to process views.
Existentialist authors rightly insist that personal involvement, decision, and commitment are essential characteristics of the religious life. We are participants in the story, not detached spectators. We encounter God as individuals in the I-Thou dialogue of personal life. But existentialism tends to leave Out the social context of dialogue, the religious community. And it leaves out the natural context, the community of life. Restricting God’s action to the sphere of selfhood and viewing nature as an impersonal system governed by deterministic laws leads to an absolute separation of spheres. I have suggested that such a sharp line between humanity and nonhuman nature is not consistent with either biblical religion or current science. Nor does existentialism provide the basis for an environmental ethic.
The model of God as agent is in keeping with the biblical identification of God by actions and intentions. The linguistic analysts who use this model have made helpful distinctions between the functions of scientific and religious language, but they have ended by isolating them in completely separate spheres. Causes and intentions should be distinguished, but they cannot remain totally unrelated, in either human or divine action. When Wiles and Kaufman speak of cosmic history as one divine action, they have given up the biblical understanding of particular divine initiatives, and they have jeopardized both divine and human freedom.
The model of the world as God’s body emphasizes divine immanence, which has been a somewhat neglected theme in traditional theology. Advocates of this model say that the relation of God to the world is even closer than that of the human mind to the body, since God is aware of all that is and acts immediately and directly. This model would indeed give strong encouragement to ecological responsibility. As developed by Hartshorne, the mind-body analogy can be considered one form of social analogy, since in process thought a human being is a society of entities at many levels, with one dominant entity, the mind. I have argued, however, that the cosmic organism image does not allow sufficiently for the freedom either of God or of human agents in relation to each other. It also has difficulty in adequately representing God’s transcendence.
In the process model, God is a creative participant in the cosmic community. God is like a teacher, leader, or parent. But God also provides the basic structures and the novel possibilities for all others members of the community. God alone is omniscient and everlasting, perfect in wisdom and love, and thus very different from all other participants. Such an understanding of God, I have suggested, expresses many features of religious experience and the biblical record, especially the life of Christ and the motif of the cross. Process thought is consonant with an ecological and evolutionary understanding of nature as a dynamic and open system, characterized by emergent levels of organization, activity, and experience. It avoids the dualisms of mind/body, humanity/nature, and man/woman. Of all the views considered here, it gives the strongest endorsement of environmental responsibility.
Process thought represents God’s action as Creator and Redeemer within a single conceptual scheme. God’s action in the nonhuman and human spheres is considered within a common framework of ideas. The biblical stories can be taken as a single story of continuing creation and renewal, the story of life and new life. The logos, the divine Word, is the communication of rational structure and personal meaning. The Spirit is God’s presence in nature, the community, religious experience, and Christ. Creation and redemption are two aspects of a single continuing divine activity. We can therefore tell an overarching story that includes within it the story of the creation of the cosmos, from elementary particles to the evolution of life and human beings, continuing in the stories of covenant and Christ -- with a place in it for the stories of other religious traditions.
In volume 2, I will consider an ethics of obedience and an ethics of natural law, but I will defend a view of Christian ethics as response to what God has done and is doing. In previous Christian thought, an ethics of response has been understood primarily as response to God as Redeemer rather than to God as Creator. The tradition has also focused on what God has done, rather than on what God is doing. I will suggest that an ethics for technology and the environment must involve response to both redemption and creation, and that in each we must look at both past and present. The reformulation of the doctrine of creation in the current volume will thus play an important role in the subsequent volume.
The process model thus seems to have fewer weaknesses than the other models considered here. But according to critical realism, all models are limited and partial, and none gives a complete or adequate picture of reality. The world is diverse, and differing aspects of it indeed may be better represented by one model than by another. God’s relation to persons will differ from God’s relation to impersonal objects like stars and rocks. The pursuit of coherence must nqt lead us to neglect such differences. We need diverse models to remind us of these differences. In addition, the use of diverse models can keep us from the idolatry that occurs when we take any one model of God too literally. Only in worship can we acknowledge the mystery of God and the pretensions of any system of thought claiming to have mapped out God’s ways. We must also ask which models lead to responsible action in today’s world. This is the topic of the second volume, which deals with the intersection of theology, ethics, and technology.
1. For an overview of some of these options, see Owen Thomas, ed., God’s Activity in the World (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983). See also Ian G. Barbour, Issues in Science amid Religion, chap. 13.
2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q. 22, art. 4; q. 19, art. 4; q. 105, art. 5, etc. See also Ètienne Gilson, Time Christian Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (New York: Random House, 1956).
3. Dante Alighieri, The Paradiso, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 1970), canto 33.
4. E. L. Mascall, He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism (London: Longman’s, Green & Co., 1945).
5. H. P. Owen, Concepts of Deity (London: Macmillan, 1971).
6. Richard Creel, Divine Impassibility: An Essay in Philosophical Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
7. Robert Boyle, "The Usefulness of Experimental Philosophy," in The Works of the Hon. Robert Boyle, ed. T. Birch (London, 1772); Richard S. Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958).
8. Etienne Gilson, "The Corporeal World and the Efficacy of Second Causes," in God’s Activity in the World, ed. O. Thomas.
9. Ibid.; also Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940), chap. 7; Brother Benignus Gerrity, Nature, Knowledge, and God (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1947).
10. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, God: His Existence and His Nature (St. Louis: Herder, 1934).
11. Austin Farrer, A Science of God? (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966), pp. 76 and 90. See also his Faith and Speculation (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1967), chaps. 4 and 10.
12. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, pt. 3 (Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1958), p. 148.
13. Ibid., pp. 42, 94, 106, and 133.
14. H. Wheeler Robinson, The Cross in the Old Testament (London: SCM Press, 1955); Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984). "The divine pathos" is discussed by the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel in The Prophets (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 24, 237, and 483. A Christian rendition is given in Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, trans. R. A. Wilson and J. Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1974).
15. Doctrine Commission of the General Synod of the Church of England, We Believe in God (London: Church Publishing House, 1987), chap. 9.
16. W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense (London: Dartmon, Longman and Todd, 1977), pp. 63 and 64.
17. Ibid., p. 120.
18. Brian Hebblethwaite, "Providence and Divine Action," Religious Studies 14 (1978): 223-36, and "Some Reflections on Predestination, Providence, and Divine Foreknowledge," Religious Studies 15 (1979): 433-48.
19. Keith Ward, Rational Theology amid the Creativity of God (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982).
20. John Macquarrie, 1n Search of Deity: Aim Essay in Dialectical Theism (London: SCM Press, 1984).
21. Paul S. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).
22. Ibid., p. 157.
23. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), and Kerygma and Myth, ed. H. Bartsch (London: SPCK, 1953).
24. Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, p. 68.
25. Ibid., pp. 62 and 65.
26. Robert Cushman, "Is the Incarnation a Symbol?" Theology Today 15 (1958): 179.
27. Alan White, ed., The Philosophy of Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968).
28. John J. Compton, "Science and God’s Action in Nature," in Earth Might be Fair, ed. Ian G. Barbour (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 39.
29. Gordon Kaufman, "On the Meaning of ‘Act of God,’ "Harvard Theological Review" 61 (1968): 175.
30. Maurice Wiles, God’s Action in the World (London: SCM Press, 1986), p. 93.
31. Ibid., p. 107.
32. Grace Jantzen, God’s World, God’s Body (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984).
33. Ibid., p. 156.
34. Thomas Tracy, God’s Action and Embodiment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).
35. Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God (Chicago: Willet Clark, 1941), chap. 5, and The Logic of Perfection (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1962), chap. 7.
36. Colin Gunton, Becoming amid Being: The Doctrine of God in Charles Hartshorne amid Karl Barth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).
Additional note: David A. Pailin in God and the Processes of Reality (London: Routledge, 1989) defends a revisionist Whiteheadian theism. Pailin accepts "dipolar panentheism" but rejects panpsychism and the idea of particular divine purposes or actions in nature and history. As one model for divine-human relationships he suggests the role of an imaginative play-group leader who stimulates children to explore their potential and encourage their creative activity (Pailin, p. 124).