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2. Divine Action

The second example involves the relation between divine and natural causality, often formulated in terms of “divine action.”For an anthology and careful analysis of the contemporary theological literature on divine action see Owen Thomas, ed., God's Activity in the World: The Contemporary Problem, Studies in Religion Series/American...It is a central issue in philosophical theology which underlies the entire scope of constructive, systematic theology from creation to redemption. It surfaces explicitly in discussions of special providence (or continuous creation) and of miracles, including the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Typically, one starts with a theology of creation in two inter-related forms: according to creatio ex nihilo, God eternally brings the world as a whole of space and time into existence and gives creation its rational, intelligible structure reflected in the laws of nature. God also in time continuously creates (creatio continua) the world and providentially directs all processes and events in general towards their telos and consummation in the eschatological future, where they return to God. Given the dynamic character of the universe as we now know it from science, general providence is usually reformulated in terms of ‘continuous creation’. Special providence adds to this the claim that God also acts occasionally in individual processes and particular events with special intentions.A further distinction is between those who argue that it takes the ‘eyes of faith’ to recognize an event as God’s objective special providence and those who believe it is obvious to anyone....‘The mighty acts of God’ signify events in history and in nature which would not have happened the way they did had God not acted there and then in special ways. Miracles, in particular, refer to events which actually occurred and which are coherent with an overall theological understanding of God’s intentions but which seem to fall outside what nature ‘on its own’ might be sufficient to cause, although God may indeed work in, with and through natural processes to bring about miracles and events of special providence.John C. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World, 1st Shambhala ed. (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1989), Ch. 3, 4.(We will return to the subject of miracles under Part 2, E, redemption theology below.)

The possibility of objective special providence has divided conservatives and liberals over the past two centuries. A crucial factor in causing this division is the radical change in our view of nature brought about by the rise of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the philosophical responses science triggered in the eighteenth century Enlightenment.

Science minisummary: Classical physics and the rise of a mechanical philosophy of nature.A "Teachers’ File" on chemistry is available in Allen R. Utke, "Chemistry: What Does One Need to Know?" Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 31.3(September 1996). See also Trefil...Recall that in classical physics, nature is described as a closed causal system of ‘matter in motion’ and governed by Newton’s deterministic equations of motion. This means that the future is, in principle, entirely predictable as long as we know all the forces acting on a system and if we obtain an exact knowledge of its initial conditions. This view, rooted in classical physics, was carried over and applied to all macroscopic systems in nature, including those described by thermodynamics, geology, meteorology, evolutionary biology, and even those now studied using chaos theory. Chance events occur in all these fields, but the notion of chance here is purely epistemic, the ignorance of underlying causes. There are two distinct kinds of ‘epistemic chance’For an early discussion of these two types of chance as epistemic, see A. R. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science: The Bampton Lectures, 1979 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), esp. III/I/B and III/II/a...: i) Random walk: Individual events can occur along a given trajectory, from the motion of microscopic plankton to tossing a coin.The locus classicus in physics is probably the highly successful program to reduce the kinetic theory of gases in elementary thermodynamics to classical dynamics.ii) Crossed trajectories: Epistemic chance also denotes the juxtaposition of two apparently unrelated causal trajectories, such as a car crash or the combination of a genetic mutation expressed in a phenotype and the adaptivity of that phenotype to a changing environment.For a pivotal discussion see Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity; an Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Vintage Books, 1972).In either case, even when statistical methods are used, they are used for practical purposes and do not indicate ontological indeterminismSee below for a discussion of quantum physics and the possibility of interpreting it in terms of ontological indeterminism. See also the discussion of chaos theory below. ; indeed the ubiquitous role of the Gaussian distribution (the ‘bell curve’) in classical science underscores this fact.Examples in biology include Mendel’s rules and the Hardy-Weinberg law.As Murphy depicts it, the combination of determinism in physics, epistemic and causal reduction in philosophy, and an ontology of atomism, completed the case for the mechanistic world view by the nineteenth century.Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1996), esp. Ch. 3.

In essence, Newtonian physics led to a philosophy of causal determinism and thus to the “mechanistic world view” which has re-shaped Western thought and undermined the intelligibility of both human and divine agency. For God to act objectively in special events in nature means that God must intervene in the causal order of the world, either breaking or suspending the laws of nature. Human free will would seem an illusionAt least on an incompatibilist view of human free will.if our bodies are completely subject to Newtonian physics.See the top half of Figure 1 and the accompanying text, Section 3.4 of Robert John Russell, "Introduction," in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. Robert J. Russell,...This led to a theological ‘forced option’: Conservatives would maintain that God acts objectively in special events in nature, even at the cost of divine interventionism.For some, it takes ‘the eyes of faith’ to recognize an event as due to God’s objective action. For others, faith is not a prerequisite. Liberals would adopt a non-interventionist approach though this led to a strictly subjectivist account of special divine action: we attribute particular religious significance to what are in themselves ordinary natural events.Interesting examples of conservatives include Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 Volumes (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1891); Donald G. Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration and Interpretation...Even such powerful movements as neo-Orthodoxy and Biblical theology in the first half of the twentieth century were unable to overcome this deep divide coherently, as Langdon Gilkey eloquently recounts.Langdon Gilkey’s penetrating analysis of the failure of neo-orthodoxy suggests how crucial this problem is. See Langdon B. Gilkey, "Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language,"...

Remarkably, even as science played a key role in creating this division, science may now play a pivotal role in overcoming it. Wide ranging changes in 20th century science from quantum physics to evolutionary biology may move us beyond Newtonian mechanism in ways that make possible a variety of new views of divine action. These in turn could have wide-ranging implications for a renewed defense of theism and for the construction of robust theologies of providence and continuous creation, as well as to the plausibility of miracles, as many scholars in theology and science have urged. (See for example Part 2,C,2 below.) Of particular importance to the intra-Christian rift over divine action and the inability of neo-Orthodoxy to heal it, such views seek to combine the crucial elements of both liberal and conservative positions into what can be called “non-interventionist, objective, special divine action.”Since 1990, CTNS and the Vatican Observatory have sponsored a series of biannual research conferences focused broadly on the theme of ‘divine action’ as it arises in a variety of specific scientific...

There are actually several approaches here.The following is a briefer exposition of my presentation in Russell, "Chaos and Complexity," Sec. 3.3. which, in turn, was an adaptation of the types of approaches articulated in Thomas, God's...A) Agential models of God’s interaction with the world make explicit use of science in reshaping the concept of divine action; there are at least three varieties of such models, as described below. B) Agential models in combination with embodiment models of the God/world relation (i.e., the world as the ‘body of God’), as well as C) agential models deployed within the context of broad metaphysical systems which include God’s action in every event, make a more generic use of science in reshaping the concept of divine action.

Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell

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