How Does God Act in the World? – POB pt. 4

In our series on Clayton and Knapp’s The Predicament of Belief we have been left with the following question: if God doesn’t actually act in such a way that involves intervening and breaking the laws of nature then how does he act?

Clayton and Knapp offer an interesting answer to this question: God acts through the minds of his creatures.

Let me explain:

Scholars have observed that the behavior of individual creatures becomes increasingly difficult to predict as the particular creature under examination becomes more complex. In other words, the behavior of a single cell organism is easier to predict than that of an ant. Despite being somewhat predictable, the behavior of an ant is less lawlike than that of a single cell organism. In the same way, human behavior is even less lawlike given the fact that we are more complex than simpler organisms. This idea could be cited as evidence for the theory of emergence that I referenced in one of my earlier posts. In essence, the lawlike universe can, if given enough time, yield creatures that are so complex and individual that they act in non-lawlike ways given their mental capacity and complexity. Understanding the behavior of complex creatures requires more complex explanations that cannot be reduced to references to basic natural laws.

The authors explain:

Of course, generalizations still can be drawn across many instances of human behavior or across many behaviors of a given individual. Thus we speak of character, dispositions, patterns of behavior, and distinct tendencties manifested by particular groups, societies, and cultures. But there are no grounds for concluding that human behaviors (or, for that matter, behaviors of nonhuman intelligent beings, if any such exist) are merely instantiations of some underlying set of mental or physical laws.

Thus, Clayton and Knapp conclude that human actions, despite being somewhat lawlike, are not determined by the operation of natural laws or regularities.

Establishing this helps the authors articulate how God could then act in the world:

Suppose that, above the level of the mental, there is a yet higher type of property; call it the spiritual. If the emergentist account of mental causation is correct, then it is possible to apply the same logic to this new level. Just as no natural laws are broken when one explains the behavior of human beings in terms of their thoughts and intentions, so also no laws are broken when one explains human behavior in terms that include the causal influence of spiritual properties on their thinking and consequent actions….[Thus], an emergentist theory of mind opens up the possibility of divine influence at the mental or spiritual level that does not require an exception to any natural laws.

The fact that God acts by means of the mind does not require one to conceive of God’s communication with rational agents in terms of a clean and polished set of ideals that everyone everywhere is being called to abide by. Instead, God’s action could be said to come in the form of a lure, albeit a highly differentiated lure that looks different depending on the creature’s personality, context, etc. God’s lure “becomes a definite message as it is interpreted and formulated by each recipient.” Therefore, there is no easy way to separate the divine from the human contributions to any particular instance of divine-human interaction. We are dealing with a highly complex relationship at this point.

This view of divine action can be related to a number of other posts I have written in the past that have to do with God’s power. If God does indeed act coercively then intervening in order to bend the laws of nature would be no problem. Of course, Clayton and Knapp have shown why this would be problematic. The notion of God having persuasive power, on the other hand, is absolutely compatible with the theory of divine action that I have been describing here. If God acts by means of the mind then it makes sense to say that he  persuades creatures to act in a certain way depending on the situation. Whether or not God’s lure is heeded remains the choice of the autonomous agent.

While I’m thinking about it, here’s a really interesting, semi-related video on the topic of God’s power and action in the world:


2 responses to “How Does God Act in the World? – POB pt. 4

  1. I always find the Brugg interesting to listen to.

    His comments on violence in scripture are insightful. He notes how many are inclined to write off violence in scripture as ideology and human projection (something I hear frequently).
    However, he also says, if you view scripture as a reliable discloser of God, your hands are tied and the issues must be dealt with; including God’s coercive qualities. An interesting point, as it somewhat flows against Clayton and Knapp’s thoughts.

    I would have to say my (semi-conservative) view of scripture doesn’t allow me to see violence as projection either.

    Interesting thoughts Garrets; you are a gentlemen and a scholar.

  2. Jimmy, thanks for the comments. I admit that I am inclined to view the violence attributed to God in the OT as human projection although Brueggemann’s view really got me thinking. What I like about his perspective is that he still does not legitimate God’s violent side despite his affirmation of the text as an accurate disclosure of God’s nature. On the contrary, God is repentant and is in recovery from his violent tendencies. Thus, it becomes impossible to justify one’s own violent tendencies (something that I think is more common than many would wish to recognize when it comes to wanting to defend God and his violence) by referencing the passages in the OT where God is violent.

    I have a problem when people want to insist on violence as an appropriate response for God even to this day. It’s almost as if some read the OT passages and assume that since God acted in this way then, he must still act this way now. I think even Brueggemann would take issue with that view.

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