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How to Think About Providential Agency

Is it possible to speak of God acting providentially in the life of a particular person or community? In an account based on the Christian tradition this means also considering the question of miracle and what is for Christians the most central of actions, the resurrection of Jesus.

  • The first precept to note is that particular divine action cannot be discernible as such by naturalistic analysis of the world. This is axiomatic from the point of view of science, because such descriptions are necessarily in terms of natural systems and regularities, related at some level to the experimentally testable. Supernatural agency is methodologically excluded as an explanation of such data. It is also axiomatic from the point of view of theology - divine disclosure always invites the response of faith, it does not demand the response of acceptance, since that would vitiate the importance of faith. The resurrection of Jesus is a prime example - the Risen Lord appeared only to believers.

  • A second point to note is that our experience of personal agency is of two types:

    • we experience ourselves as mental beings influencing our physical bodies

    • as mental-physical beings we act upon other beings and on the world around us.

However, it is important to stress that science can as yet give no clear account of what these two sorts of intentionality in humans involve. So human agency is a very imprecise basis for analogies to God’s action. Nevertheless it remains the best basis we have.As Philip Clayton puts it: ‘if one is able to conceive of human intentional action in a way that is compatible with natural scientific accounts of the physical world, then one will have done the bulk...

There is a whole range of different theories as to how God might be able to act in a world which can also be understood in turns of law and chance, interacting according to the principles of science. The best recent classification of theories of divine action is by Thomas Tracy.Tracy, T, ‘Particular Providence and the God of the Gaps’ in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. by R.J.Russell, Nancey Murphy and Arthur Peacocke (Vatican City:...

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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