Miracles and the “Problem” of Divine Action (RJS)

IMG_1211 crop 2One of the blogs at BioLogos is run by Jim Stump, formerly a professor of philosophy at Bethel College in Mishawaka, IN, now senior editor at BioLogos. I first “met” Jim virtually when he sent me a copy of the book Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, that he co-edited with Alan Padgett.   I have since had the privilege of speaking with him in person on several occasions. I wish I had a better picture to post, but to the right Jim is listening intently to a tour guide in Oxford. (I, on the other hand, was taking pictures and only “listening” on the side.)

Introducing his blog Faith and Science Seeking Understanding Jim writes:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” -C. S. Lewis

Since the Middle Ages, fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) has been the Latin phrase used to indicate a commitment to the Christian faith along with a commitment to working out the implications of faith in light of all we know. This blog extends that commitment to “faith and science” and seeks to understand all we know through the lens of faith.

I introduce Jim’s blog because I think he deals with issues that many who read these posts will find interesting. Philosophical issues that are at the intersection between science and Christian theology.  He has begun hosting a series of posts by a number of different authors on the topic of divine action.  There are seven posts in the series as I write this with more to come.  In the opening post Jim wrote that he’s noticed four particular areas of theological concern that Christians often have when considering evolution in light of their faith:

  1. What do we do about the Bible’s depictions of Adam and Eve?
  2. If we share ancestry with other life, what about human uniqueness and the image of God?
  3. Doesn’t evolution make the problem of evil more difficult?
  4. If science can explain the development of life, is God’s action consigned to starting things off and then watching from a distance?

We’ve dealt with many of these over the years, working through a number of different writers and Christian thinkers. How are we to understand divine action, whether a miracle or not, in an age of science?  My recent walk through Robert Asher’s book Evolution and Belief raised the question on several occasions. Although Asher is a Christian, he finds the idea of miracles at odds with modern science.The view he presented on this particular topic stood at one Christian extreme, almost a deistic position. Many of us take a less extreme view. The God of the bible is a personal God and as such he interacts with his creation. A personal God interacting with creation will, at times, appear “miraculous.”  At other times it will be indistinguishable from so-called natural processes.  But how do we reconcile an event as both natural and divine?

Jim provides this example as an introduction to the series on divine action:

By way of introduction, let me attempt to frame the discussion affirming the following two claims:

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

I think both of these claims are true (and they are consistent with the official BioLogos belief statement). But it is one thing to affirm them, and another thing entirely to show how they are consistent with each other. The attempt to do so is one of the ways we are ushered into what philosophers call the problem of divine action. We’re going to feature posts on the topic for a couple of days per week for the next six or seven weeks. Here too, I doubt this will result in the adoption of an official BioLogos position on the topic, but perhaps it will help us to see some things more clearly and understand the range of defensible views.

creation of Adam dsSix posts on the topic have appeared thus far: two by Sarah Lane Ritchie entitled Does the Success of Modern Science Leave God Unemployed?, two by Alvin Plantinga Where is the Problem in the Problem of Divine Action and Why Can’t God Intervene? and two by Robert John Russell entitled Miracles and Science: A Third Way.  You can read the posts in their entirety at the links given, and learn more about the authors as well.  Today I wish to consider just a few ideas.

 In her second post Sarah Lane Ritchie outlines the difference between “general” and “special” divine action:

General divine action, or providence, is taken to indicate God’s initial act of creation ex nihilo, together with the assumption that God is undergirding and preserving the natural laws that God has set in motion, as it were. This is in marked contrast to “special” divine action, which is depicted as the specific actions God undertakes—either in response to human needs and prayers, or to bring about some divinely intended purpose. Miracles would fall into this category as well. The distinction between general and special divine action has become an important one for theologians, and marks a point of departure for those wishing to affirm God’s ongoing activity in the world.

Some Christians, like Asher, don’t think there is much of a place for special divine action (incarnation and resurrection may be exceptions though). Others see divine action best considered in the intrinsic openness of creation. John Polkinghorne’s discussion of quantum uncertainty and chaos provide examples of places where God can act without overturning any “laws of nature.” This is a non-interventionist approach. Sarah continues:

It is worth noting that these non-interventionist approaches are generally not talking about miracles per se, or at least not miracles as defined in the Humean sense as “violations of the laws of nature.” Rather, divine action is to be seen as occurring in and through the natural world, and precisely at the level of inherently under-determined or indeterministic processes.

Of course there are also Christians who take explicitly interventionist position. God intervenes directly in the world in a manner that would be scientifically obvious at the time of the occurrence.  This is a genuine miracle by all forms of reckoning. One problem with this approach is that it often assumes a view of a God reaching down into creation, tinkering from time to time. This does not seem consistent with the biblical view of God either.

Against the objection that intervention would indicate a inconsistency in the nature of God Alvin Plantiga counters (Why Can’t God Intervene?):

But is this really true? There would be arbitrariness and inconsistency only if God had no special reason for acting contrary to the usual regularities; but of course he might very well have such reasons. This is obvious for the case of raising Jesus from the dead: God intends to mark the special status accruing to Jesus by this mighty act of raising him from the dead.

Why should any of this be in any way incompatible with his unsurpassable greatness? Well, many seem to think of God as like a classical artist, one who prizes economy, restraint, discipline. Perhaps; but also, perhaps God is more like a romantic artist; perhaps he revels in glorious variety, riotous creativity, overflowing fecundity, uproarious activity. Perhaps he is also very much a hands-on God, constantly active in history, leading, guiding, persuading and redeeming his people. None of this so much as begins to compromise his greatness and majesty, his august and unsurpassable character.

As we consider the nature of God’s divine action in the world it is useful to consider the current state of knowledge. Quantum mechanics and chaos provide an openness that leaves room for divine action. Plantiga considers quantum openness explicitly in the first of his two posts. But if, sometime in the future, this openness is found to be, instead, “closed” and entirely deterministic, nothing changes when it comes to the bottom line for divine action.

What we should think of special divine action, therefore, doesn’t depend on current science. The sensible religious believer is not obliged to trim her sails to the current scientific breeze on this topic, revising her belief on the topic every time science changes its mind. But where Christian or theistic belief and current science can fit nicely together, so much the better. Who knows what the future will bring? But we can say at least the following: at this point, given this evidence, this is how things look. And that’s as much as can be said for any scientific theory.

This is enough to chew on for one post. If the topic is one that interests you, I recommend reading the posts on Jim’s blog and interacting in the comments on the upcoming posts. Jim is always happy to engage with serious questions.

Is divine action a serious problem for science and Christian faith?

How are scientific accounts and divine action compatible?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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