INTRO BY JIM: Yesterday I introduced the series that we’ve started on divine action, and I briefly introduced today’s author, who is also the co-editor with me for this series. Today, Sarah Lane Ritchie gives the first part of her introduction to the topic of divine action.
Does God act in the world? For many Christians, the answer to this question might seem to be an obvious, affirmative, resounding “Yes!” After all, if anything can be said of Christianity, surely it is that the Judeo-Christian God attested to in Scripture, church history, and personal experience is a God who actually does something in Creation. The parting of the Red Sea, Jesus’ healing miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, the countless experiences of answered prayer attested to by individuals and communities throughout church history—these are all constitutive elements of the Christian narrative, and it is difficult to imagine a robust Christian theology devoid of this affirmation that God is present and active in the world.
At the same time, however, the remarkable success of contemporary science has caused many Christians (theologians, philosophers, scientists, and others) to seriously question whether one can still maintain an intellectually credible affirmation of divine action. Indeed, the natural sciences have proved strikingly successful at providing increasingly specific explanations on their own terms for hitherto “unexplainable” phenomena. Given that we live in a world seemingly governed by natural laws, many Christians are thus questioning whether it is still possible to endorse God’s action and governance as well. Unsurprisingly, this dual commitment to theological realities and scientific truths has led to a fair bit of cognitive dissonance for many. There is a lot at stake in this issue; if scientific realities naturally lead to the conclusion that God cannot or does not act in the world, then much of Christian theology is undermined. Prayer itself could no longer be considered efficacious, and the notion of God responding to human needs would become unsustainable. This is exactly why the issues surrounding divine action need to be identified and examined carefully. While the contributors in this divine action series will present their unique methods for affirming divine action in human lives and the natural world, we first need to look at what, exactly, is the problem with divine action in the first place. To that end, I here briefly examine the scientific and theological challenges to traditional conceptions of divine action.
When discussing science and divine action, one might reasonably ask why science should undermine theological affirmations of divine agency in the first place. After all, if God created the world, surely it is within the divine prerogative to act within that creation. This is a fair point, but the issue is a bit more complex than that. Certainly scientists could not use scientific methodologies to disprove the possibility of miracles; proving a negative is notoriously difficult, if not outright impossible. Nevertheless, the scientific endeavour has arguably been the most overwhelmingly successful explanatory project in the history of humankind. History is riddled with examples of scientists producing naturalistic explanations for phenomena previously thought to be inherently shrouded in cloaks of mystery or attributable to divine action alone. Many Christians throughout history have identified the providential hand of God in seemingly unexplainable phenomena, only to be later confronted with detailed accounts of the physical underpinnings of those very phenomena. This approach to divine action has come to be described as “God of the gaps” theology: identifying divine action in those physical or mental events that seem fundamentally unexplainable in scientific terms. As scientist and author Charles Alfred Coulson quipped back in 1955, “There is no 'God of the gaps' to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking.” The point, then, is that there is a methodological problem with identifying divine action in areas that currently seem to lie outside the scientific purview (quantum mechanics, consciousness, and chaos theory are contemporary examples that come to mind). This is a strategy that has a terrible historical track record.
A related challenge to divine action comes from the practice of science itself. Put simply, the success of science is predicated upon the assumption that every physical event has a physical cause; the explanatory success of the scientific method leads us to expect that this is the case, and it is indeed difficult to imagine how science could work apart from this physicalist assumption. The technical term for this is “the causal closure of the physical,” defined by philosopher Jaegwon Kim as the thesis that “no physical event has a cause outside the physical domain.” Here, of course, one might question the assumption that all events in the world are caused by purely physical factors – and rightly so! The causal closure principle is indeed a philosophical assumption, rather than a scientific fact, and will be addressed in the coming weeks. However, the argument goes that humans have very, very good reason to rely on the causal closure principle; it is precisely this assumption that has allowed science to be so successful at discovering the natural laws underlying so many complex natural events. Thus, the issue is not so much that science can disprove the occurrence of divine action, but rather that scientifically—discovered natural laws seem to be so effective at explaining and predicting physical phenomena. To put this another way, it seems that we simply do not have good reason or evidence to attribute any particular phenomenon to divine causation—even if it seems miraculous at the present time. For any given physical or mental event, we have far more reason to expect a purely natural explanation than a spiritual one (some may recognize this as a long-debated argument of David Hume). Again, while none of this actually disproves the possibility of divine action, it does—for many people—make it far more difficult to affirm God’s agency when the success of science and the efficacy of natural laws seem such powerful arguments against it.
Perhaps ironically, recent critiques of divine action have just as often come from theological quarters as from the natural sciences. This has everything to do with the overall picture of the natural world springing from the causal closure principle discussed above, as well as the iron-clad characterization of natural laws. That is, once one has accepted a picture of the world as governed by natural laws and scientifically-analysable processes, one might find it necessary to conclude that God can only act in the world by “breaking” natural laws. And this, as it turns out, has found significant resistance in the theological community. As John Polkinghorne writes, “the divine will is always self-consistent, and the last thing that the rational and faithful God can be is a capricious, celestial conjurer.” The argument here is that if the natural world has been intricately orchestrated to operate within the framework of divinely-mandated natural laws, it would be inconsistent, imperfect, and irrational for God to “break” those laws. The fear, it seems, is that contemporary science has painted a picture of the natural world that is so bound up with, and governed by, natural laws that any divine intervention of those laws would undermine God’s integrity.
These conclusions are certainly debatable, and our contributors in the coming weeks will offer various ways around (or through) these issues. They do raise one final area of concern, however, and this involves the philosophical presuppositions that we bring to the table when discussing the possibility of divine action. That is, what sort of model of reality are we working with when we use words like intervention– was philosopher David Hume right to define a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature”? Do the consistencies and regularities demonstrated by the scientific community necessarily dictate the possibilities for divine interaction with the world? What is the relationship between God and nature, such that Creation is assumed to be self-sustaining and capable of “getting on with it” apart from divine presence and activity? Is contemporary theology working with a God-Creation model that is theologically inadequate? These are the sorts of foundational metaphysical questions raised when discussing the supposed conflict between science and divine action. With these questions in mind, tomorrow we will look at a few of the approaches undertaken in the effort to be faithful to both scientific truths and the theological commitment to divine action.