Jim Stump
Sarah Lane Ritchie
 on June 27, 2016

Why We Can’t “Solve” the Problem of Divine Action

The difficulty when discussing how God interacts with the world, is that there is a natural pull toward two different ideas that most Christians find problematic.

A sunset sky surrounded by tall flowers

Photo by Reysla Fisher on Unsplash

Left to Right: "The Guitar Player" and "The Old Guitarist", both by Pablo Picasso, public domain

Left to Right: “The Guitar Player” and “The Old Guitarist”, both by Pablo Picasso, public domain

We’re bringing this series of articles on the problem of divine action to a close without pretending to have solved the problem to everyone’s satisfaction. In fact, our contributors may have raised more questions in your mind than you had before we started!

The difficulty when discussing  how God interacts with the world, is that there is a natural pull toward two different ideas that most Christians find problematic: 1) When we do science, we tend to describe the workings of the natural world in such a way that there is nothing left for God to do but watch it all unfold; that is deism. 2) When we do theology, we can tend to emphasize God’s sovereignty over the created order in such a way that seems to make God responsible for everything—including sin and evil. Most of us want to find a solution that avoids both of these.

Attempted solutions that are midway between these two points are also unsatisfying as a theory of general providence (I’m not talking about miracles here) to most Christians: God determines some things, but sits and watches lots of the other things unfold. That’s what Aubrey Moore called “episodic deism” more than 100 years ago, and is not really an advance in understanding God’s relationship to the created order.

Most of us want an explanation of divine action that has God intimately involved in creation at all times, without making God directly responsible for every event that occurs. We want to see how God can guarantee the outcome of the world’s drama (the good guys win in the end!) without forcing a script onto created things in every minute detail (does God determine where every leaf falls, the pattern of every snowflake, the actions of every person?).

There is a drive for us to want one comprehensive and complete explanation that tells it how it really is. I’m not so sure that’s possible. Now we see as through a glass darkly, to quote the Apostle Paul. None of our finite, human attempts at knowing will be able to capture all of reality as it really is. Even our most successful scientific explanations will ultimately be incomplete. I don’t mean this in the god-of-the-gaps sense where we don’t quite see how something works so we posit a miracle. Rather, I mean that explanations can be scientifically complete (at least in theory, in the sense of detailing all of the causes for an event), but still not tell the whole story. I think there are other stories to be told about these events that are not scientific.

As an evolutionary creationist, I affirm two claims:

  1. Evolution is the best scientific description for how human beings developed.
  2. God intentionally created human beings.

The first is the conclusion of the scientific story about how we got here; the second is the conclusion of the theological story about how we got here. The goal of much of divine action literature is to come up with a way to show how these two stories can be integrated into one story. Again, I’m not so sure that’s possible, and would point to the role of language in justifying my suspicion.

There is an under-acknowledged tradition of philosophy in contemporary science and religion dialogues in which there are two different discourses (what I’ve informally called “stories”) we humans have developed: a scientific discourse that examines “objects” and explains what they do by appealing to causes; and there is a personal discourse that examines “subjects” and explains what they do by appealing to reasons. I’m referring to thinkers like Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Buber, Ernst Cassirer, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. I’d suggest there may be fruitful research programs related to divine action (and other topics in science and religion) that engage this tradition.

As the barest adumbration of what my view might look like, I’ll say it sees all our attempts at knowing to be finite and perspectival. We are “situated” and will not achieve a God’s eye-view through our human ways of knowing. Our language does not provide us with a literal map of reality (of either the natural world or of God), but that does not prevent us from saying true things about reality.

Think of it like this (and this is only a metaphor, so don’t push it too far): Picasso’s two paintings The Old Guitarist and The Guitar Player (pictured at the top of the post) are very different representations of the same thing: a person playing a guitar. They abstract from reality different features and highlight them. So too, I’m claiming, scientific and theological discourses abstract different features from reality and highlight them. And just as attempting to combine the two paintings would result in a jumbled and incoherent mess, our attempts to integrate the scientific and theological discourses into one seamless story have been less than successful. I’m just not confident that we’ll develop scientific explanations for concepts that are part of the personal discourse, like “intention” or “free will.” And since we take God to be a person, God’s intentional actions should be described through the personal discourse instead of the scientific discourse. The effects of what God has done are best described by the scientific discourse.

But these two discourses cannot be cordoned off from each other. They are not non-overlapping magisteria as Stephen Jay Gould so (in)famously described them, but different perspectives on the same thing. Each of us is limited and perspectival. We come to better explanations by listening to others about how things look from their perspectives, and entering into dialogue. This does not devolve into radical relativism so long as we’re committed to realism: the truth of our perspectives and discourses depends on the way things really are. But our access to them comes through our limited and finite ways of knowing. Thankfully, we trust God as the author of both the created order and Scripture.

Again, lots more needs to be said to unpack and defend such a view. It is one of my long-term projects. In the meantime, I want to practice what I’m preaching and invite other perspectives to comment on divine action and this series in particular. If you’ve been following along, I’d love to hear what thoughts this series has sparked in you. Our goal for this series was to get people thinking and talking. Some of that has happened in the comments sections, but perhaps we’ll put together another blog article or two with reactions from readers. If you have something you’d like to have considered, send me a paragraph or two in an email. Of course there are some parameters for what we’d run on the blog (no flying spaghetti monster solutions), but I don’t intend this to be just preaching to the choir. Tell us what you think are the prospects and perils for developing a solution to the problem of divine action.

As an example of some substantive reflection on the series, I’ll close this post with my co-editor’s reflections. Here is what Sarah Lane Ritchie has to say:

Concluding Thoughts by Sarah Lane Ritchie

In considering this blog series as a whole, I am grateful for the sheer diversity of perspectives represented by our contributors. Much of the divine action conversation over the last several decades has focused on identifying specific under-determined points in the natural world in which God might have ‘room’ to act without intervening in laws of nature — quantum mechanics, chaos theory, emergence, etc. My sense in this BioLogos series, however, is that leading thinkers in the science-theology conversation are moving away from this understanding of divine action, instead questioning the presuppositions on which such ‘causal joint’ projects seem to rely. That is, it seems that several of the contributors to this series have used their distinct theological and philosophical perspectives to collectively challenge (sometimes unacknowledged) metaphysical presuppositions about the God-world relationship. They suggest that the traditional natural-supernatural dichotomy may be unhelpful in its portrayal of the world as somehow self-sufficient and naturally autonomous. Might it be better, then, to reexamine our understanding of what is properly ‘natural’? Several of our contributors have suggested theological models that emphasize God’s ever-present, ever-active immanence in the world, which render divine interaction with the physical world as normative and properly ‘natural.’

I find this questioning of metaphysical models to be a fruitful one for the divine action conversation. One concern with this shift (from causal joint models to examinations of the God-world model) is that it might obscure the causal joint ‘problem’. That is, even if divine action and presence are to be seen as truly normative for the God-nature relationship, don’t we still need to articulate how a transcendent God can exert causal influence or agency in physical processes? Even if one affirms a robust theistic, Trinitarian, or pneumatological ‘naturalism’ in which all physical processes are inherently and intimately bound up with God’s active presence, the precise relationship between God and those physical processes remains to be expressed. Classical theism affirms a strict delineation between God and nature, so how do we think about the exact interaction between created, physical entities and divine agency? Of course, this problem of the causal joint may well be inherently unintelligible from a human perspective; I emphasize it here only because it is worthy of nuanced explication by the metaphysical approaches to divine action that many find so compelling. One goal for the future, I suggest, is an examination of robust forms of ‘naturalism,’ or rather an understanding of how the ‘natural’ is inherently bound up with divine agency. However, I do suggest that thinkers in this field need to be acutely aware of the specific claims being made in such models—regarding created physical processes and uncreated divine presence and agency.

This was the last document in the series "Divine Action: A BioLogos Conversation".

About the authors

Jim Stump

Jim Stump

Jim Stump is Vice President of Programs at BioLogos. He oversees the editorial team, participates in strategic planning, and hosts the podcast, Language of God. Jim also writes and speaks on behalf of BioLogos. He has a PhD in philosophy and was formerly a professor and academic administrator. His books include, Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design; Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues; How I Changed My Mind about Evolution; and The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. You can email Jim Stump at or follow him on Twitter.
Sarah Lane Ritchie

Sarah Lane Ritchie

Sarah Lane Ritchie is Lecturer in Theology and Science at the University of Edinburgh. She has a PhD in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh, where her doctoral work focused on the question of divine action in the human mind. A Michigander by birth, Sarah also holds a BA in Philosophy and Religion from Spring Arbor University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and an MSc in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh. Her published work focuses on questions arising from the intersection of theology, philosophy, and the various brain-related sciences. Sarah’s research interests include divine action, philosophy of mind, naturalism, cognitive science of religion, and the psychology of belief formation.

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