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:

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Divine Action and the Problem of Evil: POB pt. 3

…it is impossible not to notice how close the concept of the UR at which we have arrived stands to what the theistic traditions have meant by the notion of God. Theists conceive ultimate reality as an infinite personal reality, a reality that has no intrinsic need of the others whom it freely and lovingly creates. We seem then to have arrived at, or close to, a theistic view of UR. Indeed, this theism or almost-theism might also be said to have a “christological tinge,” insofar as it conceives the UR as intrinsically involving the compassionate and self-giving relation to others that is associated in Christian thought, with the character and actions of a particular human being. – Clayton and Knapp pg. 42

This is where Clayton and Knapp have landed after their first two chapters. It could be said that these two chapters serve as a response to the first of five reasons for doubt that the authors raised at the beginning of their book, namely science. Indeed, the author’s arrival at a view of the ultimate reality as a mindlike, personal and benevolent (non)being has come by means of a scientific, or more specifically, a cosmological examination of the universe we find ourselves in.

What about the problem of evil? Does the reality of suffering in the world serve as a barrier to theism? How do Clayton and Knapp deal with this problem?

To answer this question the authors lay out an argument for divine action that is essential to the rest of their argument throughout the remainder of the book. Essentially, it could be summarized as follows:  The purpose (or at least one of the purposes) God created our universe was to bring about the existence of finite rational agents capable of entering into communion with God’s self. It would seem that God has achieved that purpose by creating a universe in which events are consistently governed by the laws of nature. It is hard to imagine how beings with rational agency could evolve in a world without such regularities and laws or, in other words, in a world in which God could intervene and break the laws of nature whenever God pleases.

Let us assume for a second that God can and does break the laws of nature in order to bring about the greater good. For example, let us say that God intervened in order to stop the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 from ever happening. It must be asked: if God has this type of power why does he not use it more often? Indeed, it would seem that such an action would then require God to act in order to alleviate suffering in any and all instances. Of course, if God did indeed intervene in all instances then we are faced with our first problem once more: a universe without the regularities of natural laws cannot yield rationally autonomous creatures like ourselves.

To summarize: God cannot act in such a way as to break the laws of nature. If he did it once he would be obligated to do it every time and if he did it every time then we would be left with a lawless universe unable to allow for the evolution of rationally autonomous creatures.

If not in this way then how does God act? This will be the topic of my next post.

Does God Act Supernaturally?

I recently visited a church that liked throwing around the word “supernatural” like it was going out of style. Belief in God, according to this church, requires belief in the supernatural.

Is this true?

I’m not so sure that it is and here’s why:

Talk of the supernatural is, at its very heart, binary and dualistic. What I mean is that this sort of language pits the natural order of things against the “supernatural” order of things. God is said to operate primarily in the latter category. When someone is healed, it is said, God supernaturally bends the laws of nature in order to accomplish his will. In the same way, if a natural explanation can be provided for something then, within this particular framework, it becomes harder to see and understand God’s involvement in it. In short, either God did it (supernaturally) or nature did it.

A short story from my brother’s experience at this church illustrates this point well. As my brother was sharing with a friend of his who was very involved in this particular church about his struggle with asthma, this friend’s response was as follows: “Next time you have an asthma attack, don’t be so quick to reach for your inhaler but instead, look to the healing power of God to grant you your breath back.”

The point is made clear. If one’s breath is restored by means of an inhaler (modern medicine’s response to asthma) then God had nothing to do with it.

Not only do I think this approach is dangerous (It sounds very similar to the family who, in 2008, withheld medical treatment from their daughter because they believed God was going to heal her supernaturally through the power of  prayer. Spoiler alert: the girl died.), but I also think those who espouse this view are going to be sorely disappointed as modern science continues to provide “natural” explanations for events that are presently understood by many to be supernatural acts of God.

What I want to propose is a view that does not pit God and nature up against each other. Instead of attempting to understand events as either natural or supernatural I suggest that we attempt to understand God as intimately involved in the natural order of things. Simply because we have a natural explanation for why the sun rises each morning does not exclude us from seeing God’s involvement in such a process. In the same way, the inhaler that grants breath to my brother in the midst of his asthma attack is, from my perspective, a gift from God that grants life where there could have potentially been death. I understand God to be intimately involved in our attempt to offer medicinal care to those who are experiencing sickness and death. In a very real sense, I can thank God for sparing my brother from an asthma attack because of his inhaler.

To conclude: does God act supernaturally? I don’t think so. I think, if given enough time, we could probably come up with a “natural” or scientific explanation for everything.

Does this mean that miracles can’t happen? Not at all. Just because we can provide a natural explanation for healing does not mean that it was not miraculous. For example, many speak of the “miracle of birth” despite the fact that we can explain the process of conception and birth scientifically.

This is, of course, something that I am continuing to work through. What are your own thoughts?