Toward a Theology of Astronaut Beavers

I reread the divine action series today which appeared on the blog in May and June. It is very good. Alvin Plantinga reminds us that the causal closure of the universe is an unwarranted assumption, and therefore divine action cannot be ruled out. Bob Russell outlined NIODA as a way between liberal subjective divine action and objective interventionist models. Christopher Knight explained how a strong theistic naturalism respects science and upholds traditional notions of God’s atemporalism. Amos Yong offers a pneumatological and eschatological view of divine action. Tom Oord challenges power as the starting point of divine action, and proposes “essential kenosis” as defining God’s approach to action. Jim Stump and Sarah Lane Ritchie so helpfully framed all of these explorations with insightful reflections on the ongoing challenges in the divine action conversation.

Reflecting on my own view of God’s action, I came up with just two words: God shares.

I came across a lovely illustration of how I think divine action works while I was reading a story of a woman who bought a new sketch book and was trying to keep it away from her four-year old daughter. When the daughter caught a glimpse of it, the situation played itself out as you might expect:

OOOH! Is that a NEW sketchbook? Can I draw in that too, mama?” I have to admit, the girl knows good art supplies when she sees them. I muttered something about how it was my special book, how she had her own supplies and blah blah blah, but the appeal of new art supplies was too much for her to resist. In a very serious tone, she looked at me and said, “If you can’t share, we might have to take it away if you can’t share. (Source)

Chastened by her own mantra, the mother handed over the book and the daughter began to add to the semi-finished sketches of people. She added dinosaur and mermaid bodies. She enveloped a face in a chrysalis, making a human-caterpillar hybrid. In my favourite, she gave a couple of heads astronaut helmets, scattered the sky with stars…and gave them beaver tails, just in case. After these additions, the notebook was handed back to the mother to color and finish detailing. The pictures are amazing. They are weird and wonderful. They are totally unpredictable. They are beautiful. You should take a look at them, right now. Go on: I’ll wait for you. [Editor’s note: The image above is taken from the blog post mentioned by Bethany.]

Wasn’t that wonderful? And this is how I picture divine action: God sets the scene, and then allows us to participate with the divine work. When we step up to add our lines, we have perfect freedom. God does not stop us from scribbling, or from making mistakes or realizing our own visions on the divine notebook of creation. As opposed to theologian Tom Oord (whose work I deeply respect), I do think that God’s giving this freedom to us is voluntary and I do not think that God never controls. I agree that God never forcibly pulls the pens from our hands, but I am not satisfied with a model of divine action that doesn’t allow us to turn to God and say, “Ok, now it’s your turn,” and have some sense that God will actually take up the pen to finish off the project. And God’s job in taking over is not primarily to correct our mistakes, but to incorporate our contributions into the work. God really and truly shares creation, and so creation becomes a final product that God would not (and I might even argue could not) make without us.

So when we talk about the “participatory nature” of God’s special divine action, it is tempting to think that the world is doing its own thing and God swoops in to act here or there in particular ways. But I think it is the other way around: the whole project is God’s ongoing project, and God graciously allows us a part to play in it. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga is right to say that the universe is not a closed system, but the amazing part to me is that we as living beings inside the system have any causal agency. It is such a shocking idea that philosophers and theologians regularly try to refute it with deterministic or compatibilist models that make it look as if God is really doing all the work after all. But something about those models seems like cheating: God ends up appearing as the universal helicopter parent, instead of the one who empowers us to act and delights in cooperation.

So, mindful that our language about God uses pictures and analogies to describe what is passed describing, what do I imagine God is doing while we draw our pieces?

Sometimes God is waiting. If this doesn’t sound very active to you, then you have probably never waited while a young partner has had his or her own go at a collaborative project. I sometimes write stories with a seven-year old. When I wait while he writes the next few paragraphs, it is a wait that is full of the utmost attention as each new line shuts narrative possibilities I had entertained or opens up new possibilities that were formerly so improbable as to not be worth considering. It is a creative waiting and is much harder work than actually writing. When God invites us to act, God waits with full attention, giving us the space and time to choose our actions—and not only us, but the whole spectrum of living creatures. The whole of creation is an improvisational drama with a billion times a billion players.

Sometimes God is suffering. As both Amos Yong and Tom Oord highlighted, the world has sorrow and suffering as well as joy and delight. I’ve written on this reality myself. When freedom turns to suffering, God suffers with creatures, sharing their pain. This doesn’t initially seem like much help: if I break my arm, it is not much help if the doctor breaks her arm too. But divine suffering is not a substitute for God being active in healing or redemption, but it means that God knows intimately what our brokenness feels like. We are not alone in it, and God has not volunteered us for suffering that God has not also undergone.

God is creating meaning. Events don’t come with their interpretations. Making meaning out of the things that happen is part of how we create our lives. Something that seemed like such a great idea at the time (remember that boy in Jr. High?…) now seems like a very bad thing. Another event that I had thought disastrous turned out to be a blessing. I think that one of God’s gifts to us is that God can also contribute to the meaning of events. With the addition of a few masterstrokes, our shaky contributions take on an elegance and beauty that was never their own. Our stumbling stories take new life as God incorporates them into wider narratives of grace. Just as Jesus’ resurrection reinterprets the crucifixion from tragedy to triumph, so everywhere and at every time, God is redeeming by giving new meaning to old events through new work.

Finally, God is inviting. I’m intrigued by the idea that there is a divine lure at the heart of creation. Augustine spoke of the restlessness of the human heart until it found its home in God. Each creature is invited, whether by longing or restlessness or something else, to share in God’s life and participate in the divine project of love. We are invited to add our imagination and effort to the mix. Some people will take up that call and become great artists or authors. Others will begin organisations that will change human history, starting hospitals or transforming governments. Some of us will just add small bits of weirdness and wonder in our own corner of the world by trying to love what is in front of us, adding beaver tails to astronauts and dinosaur bodies to actresses.

Bethany Sollereder
About the Author

Bethany Sollereder

Dr. Bethany Sollereder is a research coordinator at the University of Oxford. She specialises in theology concerning evolution and the problem of suffering. Bethany received her PhD in theology from the University of Exeter and an MCS in interdisciplinary studies from Regent College, Vancouver. When not reading theology books, Bethany enjoys hiking the English countryside, horseback riding, and reading Victorian literature.