Adventures in the Spirit: Part Four

In Part Four of Adventures in the Spirit, Philip Clayton focuses on one of the toughest theological issues, namely divine action. Abstract discussion of concepts of God are perhaps meaningless, but certainly far less interesting, unless one can give some account of what God does, of what difference the existence of God makes.

Chapter 12 begins by posing the issue sharply: theistic traditions like Christianity and Islam “have traditionally been committed to a robust account of the actions of God” and yet “Physical science, it appears, leaves no place for divine action”, with the question being whether there is a conceptual framework that can offer more than either a passive God or one who is responsible for the few remaining “gaps” in what science can currently explain (p.186). But rather than accept a choice between God as only the “Divine Architect” who makes a universe that then runs on its own, and God as “Divine Repairman” who continually acts to fix what he made (presumably imperfectly) the first time around, Clayton suggests that what is needed is a “new theory of causation” that will allow one to speak of both divine causes and scientific explanation, in a way that does not suggest one competes with the other (p.189).

Clayton then goes on to relate the key concept of emergence discussed throughout his book and Aristotle’s theory of causes (p.191), as well as quantum mechanics, which turns out to itself be entangled with metaphysical debates about causality (p.193). In introducing psychological causes into the discussion, Clayton emphasizes the potential of persons (and perhaps other complex organisms) to be open to divine influence. More ought to have been said about what forms such influence might take – would it be something imperceptible (and thus perhaps redundant), or might it be expressed more concretely (in a manner in keeping with theistic traditions) in dreams and visions and the like?

In subsequent discussion of this topic in chapter 13, the mind-body analogy will return even more explicitly than it did in chapter 12, in a way that deserves further consideration. Just as a biochemist might study any and every cell in a human body without ever detecting the intents and conscious actions of that human person, it may be that God’s own action might be the course the universe is taking, without everything that happens within the divine body expressing God’s conscious aims. Indeed, cancer might be a helpful image of evil within such a panentheistic analogy. Evil, like cancer, is part of the life of the body – it is simply a part of that whole that serves its own short-term ends of agrandisement at the expense of the whole.

Returning to Clayton’s own treatment of the theme of agency (divine and human), key dialogue partners at this juncture are Whitehead and Schleiermacher. Panentheism changes the nature of the discussion, since “every action, since it takes place “within” the divine, represents an act of God in some sense” (p.211), and “the central insight of panentheism lies in the realization that the whole is not just the sum of all agents but, beyond that, also agent itself” (p.214).

Chapter 14 approaches the subject more specifically from the perspective of Christian theology. The challenge of the problem of evil is raised in a stark and honest fashion, demonstrating a key problem facing those who defend occasional divine intervention: if a human agent was able to lower a drawbridge over a river for an express train to cross, and sometimes chose not to do so, we would hold that person accountable for failing to act (p.218). Clayton chooses to focus on the question of divine action in connection with the life of Jesus. As a bare minimum, a Christian would hold to the “religious genius” view, i.e. the notion that there is a spiritual reality accessible to all, and Jesus knew how to mine its depths, or alternatively, had a particularly good “antenna” (p.222). But such a view does not justify speaking of any sort of divine action in the case of Jesus (p.223). After discussing the resurrection in terms of the disciples living after the pattern they had witnessed in Jesus’ own life, Clayton gives an account of divine action in Jesus in terms of process theology: God’s action is to lure rather than compel, and when someone such as Jesus aligns his own life with the divine lure, we are dealing simultaneously with divine and human action (pp.224-225). A useful contrast is made with the idea of plenary inspiration, in which human minds were presumably overridden so as to determine the precise words that would be written (p.225). Those who eschew such a view of Scripture presumably ought to be consistent and not make similar claims for divine control in other areas. And in drawing to a close this discussion of what Clayton terms a “kenotic” view, he expresses his inclination to not conclude that God worked physical miracles through Jesus (p.226). Divine action is to be located and experienced in human minds and lives.

Since Clayton has already addressed some of the factors that motivate one to adopt this sort of view rather than a more traditional supernatural, theistic form of Christianity: our scientific knowledge, pluralism and the problem of evil being just three relevant considerations (p.218). But from the other side, there will be those who will ask why anyone should bother clinging to such a highly revised form of Christianity, rather than simply ditching it and starting from scratch. I cannot provide Clayton’s own answer yet (although he has a lot to say along these lines in the final part of the book, which will be the subject of the next post in this series). But I can provide my own. I assume it mirrors to at least a limited degree the answer early Christians might have given, since they too would have been asked “Why cling to a revised belief in this Jesus, rather than accepting that he was a failed Messiah and moving on with your lives?” What has made Christianity powerful from its early days and throughout the ages is precisely its act of reinterpretation of traditional categories. Rather than reinterpret Jesus as not the Messiah, early Christians reinterpreted what it means to be the Messiah. And this message has proven to have persistent value in challenging us to forego various forms of domination and to embrace the way of the cross, to not simply assume that our presuppositions are right but to subject them to close scrutiny. Those of us who have had a life-transforming encounter with Christianity wish to do justice to the power of that experience, without denying the complementary power of scientific and other rational ways of knowing.

It is the power of such a self-critical faith, as a natural expression of this core element of Christianity and as applied in recent centuries by the Liberal Protestant tradition, that Clayton will go on to explore further in the final part of his book.

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  • mortalquestions

    Hi James,I find the comments in Chapter 12 to be quite revealing (if I may use the term). I am not sure why scientific explanations rule theistic explanations. It seems that this is a false dichotomy. Many theologians made the distinction between ordinary providence and extraordinary providence. God’s ordinary providence accounts for the regularities that we see on a day to day basis, and miracles are examples of God’s extra-ordinary providence. If the objection is raised that this would undercut science I would fail to see why. Miracles are extremely rare events, and we should not expect to see them under every green tree. This is especially true for those of us who hold to a Theism that allows for Divine Revelation in Scripture.It seems to me that one has to assume one’s metaphysic, before one comes to the conclusion that it excludes God in some way. Just some thoughts,Blake

  • benjdm

    Hmmm….”We believe in one Multiverse, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.And in one inspiring person Jesus Christ, being of one substance with the multiverse;by which all things were made;who for us men, and for our orientation toward life, was born of Mary, and was made man;he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried;And in our literacy, which lets us extract wisdom spake by the prophets.In one Church; we acknowledge one baptism for a newborn ritual; we look not for the resurrection of the dead. Amen.”Does that work?

  • James F. McGrath

    Blake, I’m not sure why, on a classic theistic view of things, one would necessarily have to affirm that miracles are rare. If one did so, presumably it would make sense to connect them with rare human individuals of particular importance to God’s plan. Interestingly, that isn’t all that different from what Clayton’s position is, in certain key respects, the one major difference being the lack of physical or nature miracles, which has more to do with the problem of evil than the natural sciences, I think.Benjdm, you left out “on the third day his disciples rose up in fulfillment of the Scriptures”. :)

  • Scott F

    Does all this redefining (re-imagining?) of God just reduce to finding a gap where God can still be squeezed into? Furthermore, it seems to me that abandoning the popular conception of God in favor of panentheism or whatever also sheds the three Omni’s such that the classical Problem of Evil is defined out of existence (to be replaced by other Problems?).

  • James F. McGrath

    Scott, I’d say that most panentheists are trying to avoid the “God of the gaps” approach. Indeed, panentheism views all that exists as within God, and so if there are “gaps”, they would have to be gaps within God – whatever that might mean.I’ve posted on the last part of Clayton’s book, by the way.