God and Creation, Part 2: Immanence
This series is drawn from David’s podcasts, which are available on his website.
My first essay in this series discussed God’s transcendence. Today we will cover a complementary topic: God’s immanence.
God’s “immanence” refers to God’s presence in creation. If we were to speak only of the ways in which God is “transcendent” – how He is other than, above, and hidden in creation – we would be left with a god that seems more like an abstract force than a person. Such a being might resemble the pre-Christian metaphysics of Platonism or the Enlightenment Deist’s post-Christian God. The God of the Bible, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, however, is a personal and relational God. This sort of God does not merely wind up creation like a watch and then sit back to watch it run. This sort of God is always intimately involved with His creation. God’s immanence in creation is bound to God’s character as a relational being characterized by love. In scripture, various properties or states are attributed to God, but perhaps the most amazing summary is in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.”
Creation is a product of love. God did not need to create. God in Himself knows no shortage of anything. The fact that God did create, then, reflects an outpouring of God’s generosity and love. Indeed, this is echoed in the poetic refrain of Genesis 1: God declares the creation “good.” It is profitable to let this truth sink deep into our souls: the world God made is good because all of it participates in God’s love. It is sadly true, of course, that the creation is affected by our sin. But it is still God’s creation, and therefore it is still in its essence good.
In fact, creation is continually sustained by God’s love. An important corollary to God’s immanence in creation is the contingency of the creation. If God were an absent watchmaker, the creation could run on its own, without anything from God beyond the initial wind-up. But if the creation is such that God is immanent in and throughout it, then the creation does not exist apart from God. The entire creation depends utterly on God’s sustaining will and power for its ongoing existence. From the perspective of Christian theology, there is simply no such thing as “nature” without God. And despite our sin, God has not abandoned the creation. This too is a thought worth meditating upon: God has never withdrawn His presence from the creation (if He did this, creation would cease to exist!); He has not given up on what He has made; it all remains entirely His and it all continues because of His love.
This is not to say that God’s immanence in creation deprives creation of its own integrity. Creation is characterized by a beauty and order that reflects God’s own character. In His love, God has graced creation itself with causal freedom, within the probabilities of quantum physics and emergent physical laws.
Consider, for example, the Bird of Paradise, which engages in elaborate mating displays involving the construction of bowers out of colorful flowers and other materials. A female might be courted by several males, and ultimately will choose one as a mate based in some way on the quality of its display. We should not imagine that God somehow directly instructs the female about which mate to choose. The causal relationship between the male’s display and the female’s choice of mate possess an inherent integrity, as does the evolutionary history of the birds’ plumage and social rituals. We can understand these causal relationships without invoking immediate Divine intervention. Classical theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas called this “secondary” causation.
But creation cannot run on its own, because there is a deeper, “primary” level of causation, which is God’s creative and sustaining will and power. In classical theological terms, all “secondary” causes, because they are entirely dependent on God’s “primary” causation, are subsumed within God’s “primary” causation. In this way, we can think of creation as possessing inherent created freedom while at the same time existing entirely under God’s sovereignty and as a product of God’s creative will.
Yet, if creation possesses causal integrity at least at the level of secondary causation, why should we invoke God at all? Does God become an unnecessary appendage, to be elided by Ockham’s Razor? Should we repeat the famous adage of the astronomer Laplace – who, when the Emperor Napoleon asked where God fit into the cosmos, replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis?”
No, for several reasons. First,the brute fact of the universe’s existence alone does not adequately explain all – or even most – of what we as human beings believe is important. We might suggest that the universe as brute fact alone cannot explain the fact of itself. Why does this universe exist? Why does this universe seem so finely tuned to produce the sort of carbon-based life that results in human beings who are able to reflect on the meaning of it all? The best responses of materialist scientists to date are variations on the multiverse theory – a fascinating set of ideas that, even if it is “scientific” and in some way correct, merely push the “why” question, and indeed the “how” question of the origin of physical laws, further back into the mists.
Perhaps more importantly, the universe as brute fact alone cannot explain what is “good” or “just” or “beautiful” or “true,” unless we strip those terms of any real meaning. The universe as brute fact alone cannot account at all for “love” – again, unless we reduce and redefine the meaning of “love” to a mere interaction of brain chemicals, in which case we are no really speaking of “love” at all.
Finally, from a Christian perspective, most importantly of all, the universe as brute fact alone cannot explain the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, a truly Christian perspective is one that views the universe through the lens of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and not the other way around. We start where the Gospel starts: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). We understand the immanence of God in creation most directly through Christ, the Word, the Logos, by whom all things were created, in whom all things hold together, and who himself took on flesh and became both creator and creature.
And this brings us back to the notion of God’s immanence. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…”, we read in John 3:16. Everywhere in creation, we should see the cross of Christ. We should see God present to such a degree that God Himself was willing to suffer and die in the person of the Son, in union with the groaning of all creation. All of creation – all of its beauty, all of its majesty, all of its power, all of its complexity, all of its simplicity, all of its suffering – points to the Logos, the Christ, who shaped it, who suffered with it and for it, who continually sustains it, and who will redeem it. This means that Christ himself is never far from any of us. He is not absent or far off; he has not abandoned what he has made. With the eyes of faith, wherever we look, we can see him; with the expectation of hope, in every season we can turn and find him right there; with the delight of love, we can enjoy and care for all the good things he has made as though he were enjoying them and caring for them along with us – for he is indeed Emmanuel, God With Us.
David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School. He is also working on a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham and is Pastoral Science Scholar with the Center for Pastoral Science.