Beyond the God of the Gaps (RJS)

Beyond the God of the Gaps (RJS) May 17, 2012

Part One of the new book by Harry Lee Poe and Jimmy H. Davis God and the Cosmos: Divine Activity in Space, Time and History asks questions about the way humans have conceived of God and the way this impacts ideas about God’s action in the world. The last two chapters in Part One Poe and Davis consider with process theology and God of the Gaps thinking.  These chapters delve more deeply into the question that frames this portion of the book – what kind of God interacts with the world – and how does he interact.

Process theology and intelligent design are two different ways of wrestling with the idea of God in the context of the materialism and naturalism that has captured Western thinking. These assumptions of materialism and naturalism are, it seems to me, in the air we breath and the water we drink. They are simply the unreflective, unexamined starting point for much of Western intellectual engagement, both in the academy and in the broader culture. Poe and Davis explore the positives and negatives of process theology and then move on to God-of-the-gaps arguments and finally to the way to get beyond these philosophical arguments to a more robust theological view.

Process theology allows natural theology to take a cue from evolutionary theory with all of being, including creation and the nature of God, evolving in time. There are rather unChristian, deistic, philosophical forms of process theology that invoke, perhaps, a spiritual nature to life, but have no room for a personal God of the sort revealed in scripture, or for a God who acts in his creation.  This is interesting, but need not really concern us in the search for ways to think as Christians about the interaction between God and his creation.

Is process theology a valid option to think about the role of God in the world?

How far can this take us? That is when does it cease to become a Christian view?

There are also some forms of process theology that are more clearly Christian. Here Poe and Davis outline the thinking of William Temple and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. These two have put some ideas forward that are worth pursuing. Poe and Davis acknowledge this, but seem to view the strength of process theology as lying in the way it underscores the inadequacy of a purely material outlook rather than its positive suggestions, although their comments about the inadequacy of natural selection leave me scratching my head. I expect the questions on natural selection will come up again in Part Two of the book. Poe and Davis sum up this discussion emphasizing the impact of process theology on one’s view of the interaction of God with the world:

Process theology makes the same error as the reductionist monarchical model makes when it assumes that God must always act in only one way. Rather than think God must always do the same thing, we may think of God relating differently but appropriately to every level of organization of the universe. He may operate in a deterministic way at some points and in an indeterminate way at other points. Like Calvinism and Arminianism, process theology would have God always do it the same way, which leaves God less free than the people who think about God. (p. 120)

Some claim God must know and determine everything, his omniscience and sovereignty demand this; in contrast many process theologians claim that God must leave everything free, action by God would deny the universe the freedom to become, and becoming is the core of process theology.  Poe and Davis suggest that both these extremes are lacking.

God-of-the-gaps provides another approach to natural theology. In this case a metaphysical framework is at play that views events as either of God or simply natural.

The God-of-the-gaps phenomenon arises as people try to fix the place in nature where God may be found to act. This understanding of divine activity is consistent with every other kind of real event in a closed material world. If the activity of God cannot be shown to be of the same kind as other events in the material world, than it cannot be understood as real. Of course, if the activity of God can be described within nature, then it must be a natural event rather than divine action! (p, 131-132)

But the view that puts divine causality on the same plane as physical causality is necessarily limited. It leads to a limited view of God and of his action, or room for action, in the cosmos. One example Poe and Davis use to illustrate there point is the incarnation.

At the heart of the Christian faith lies the ultimate expression of this conflict: the incarnation. Was Jesus fully man or fully God? We ask God to show himself in ways we can perceive, but when he does, we say he is just a man. The central event of Christian faith demands that Christians employ a metaphysic that allows for multiple levels of experience. Any activity of God in the world that can be observed can necessarily be described according to the categories of nature. Does this make divine activity and natural laws mutually exclusive? (p. 132)

Intelligent design – looking for empirical evidence for divine causality separate from physical causality – is a search for a God-of-the-gaps. This doesn’t mean that the world is not designed, all Christians believe that God designed the world intelligently and for a purpose, but that divine causality and physical causality can and do coexists in the same phenomena.

Beyond the God-of-the-Gaps. Poe and Davis proceed here to muse a bit about topics like methodological naturalism (for which they have some negative comments); naturalism of the gaps (by which they mean the imposition of philosophical naturalism beyond the limits where science can speak); and the ability of humans to  manipulate nature (heat or cool our houses, build dams, harness electricity, fly to Australia, and so forth). Some of the discussion gets a little off track (for example I would say that we have not learned to overcome the laws of nature, and we certainly don’t violate the laws of nature, but we can and do utilize the laws of nature to achieve a desired goal). By and large, however, the point is a good one. The human mind can conceive of ways to manipulate nature. Certainly the mind of God can do the same and more.

The more intelligent we become, the more we realize just how open the universe really is. As Polkinghorne has observed, “science’s description of physical process is not drawn so tight as to condemn God to the non-interactive role of deistic spectator.” God is at least as free and able as humans to interact with the universe. (p. 137)

A Trinitarian God. Poe and Davis consider the nature of God as a relational being, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be significant for a proper understanding of the God who acts in his creation. Taking any one of these alone as a model for the interaction of God with the cosmos will be limited and flawed.

Theological systems from classical theology to Calvinism to process theology have in common the tendency to conceive of God as acting in the same way at all times, a view unsustainable from Scripture but perfectly consistent with a philosophical approach to faith. Polkinghorne has argued that “God’s utter perfection lies in the total appropriateness at all times of the Creator’s relationship with creation, whether that creation is a quark soup or the home of humanity.” (p. 137)

The Trinity allows for this appropriate interaction at all times. God can be in time, transcend time, localized in space, and everywhere at once. The Father is, they suggest, “constantly aware yet forever removed from the world of space and time.” Transcendent, eternal, perfection, absolute holiness are attributes of the Father. The Father interacts with his creation through the Holy Spirit and through his messengers (angels). The Holy Spirit is the most significant here as it proceeds from the Father as part of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit extends into time and space and exercises the power of God in time and space. The Holy Spirit is extended, wave-like. The Son on the other hand is particular. The Son entered into space-time in the incarnation.

In God’s incarnation, however, God comes to grips with a fundamental problem posed by a universe in which people can have freedom: theodicy, or the problem of suffering. A trinitarian God experiences this problem from the inside and not merely from the vantage point of ultimate wisdom and knowledge. As Father, Son, and Spirit, the trinitarian God becomes part of his own physical creation as the Son while never ceasing to be distinct from it as the Father. God experiences the pain and suffering through participation in the cosmos. (p. 141)

The Holy Spirit interacts with the universe, the material creation from quark to black hole and everything between in its openness and process. The Son interacts personally with humans created in the image of God by becoming one of us. The Father transcends space and time.

The chapter finishes with a brief reflection on the world to come – the eschaton. This will be something new and different with the disappearance of the apparent contradictions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and a new physics allowing for resurrection, new heavens, new earth, in continuity with the resurrection of the Son of God.

Does this trinitarian view of God’s action in the world make sense to you?

Do you agree that theological systems limit the role of God, and thus inevitably miss part of the picture?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Bev Mitchell

    OK, now you have convinced me to read this book. 

    According to Scripture, there are two realities, material and spiritual. Depending on one’s theology, these realities are very close to one another, even inter-penetrating; or they are some distance apart, perhaps very far apart and non-interacting. Events  like the Incarnation, and subsequently the resurrected body of Christ, strongly suggest an extreme closeness that we can only glimpse in the weakest of ways. As the authors suggest, a good understanding of the Trinity probably is absolutely essential to this kind of thinking – a full-orbed Trinity, with Father, Son and Holy Spirit being both three persons (not its) and one being: equal.

    We have been given a great capacity to deeply understand material reality, perhaps right up to some of the places where it meets and interacts with spiritual reality. By contrast, our understanding of spiritual reality is so poor that science, by and large, does not even want to concede its existence. Even some Christians speak of it in only the most general of terms (God is spirit, or in the horribly misused word ‘spiritual’). Scriptures leave us with the distinct impression that a full understanding of reality, of creation, of ongoing creation, of the sustenance of creation, will require extensive knowledge of both material and spiritual reality.

    This leaves us with a conundrum. We are dependent on our intelligence for knowledge of material reality and on revelation from God for our (limited and faith based) knowledge of spiritual reality. It appears that God wants it this way, at least for now. The eschaton will probably provide a rather large does of revelation along these lines. Until then, we truly are dependent on the Holy Spirit – not a bad deal, all things considered.

    All this does not mean that we cannot speculate (we will anyway) so there is great value in books like this. As for how our understanding of the Trinity influences any of this, I find the thinking of T.F. Torrance a great help. Unfortunately, his writing is opaque. Scholars who study him usually recommend his “The Mediation of Christ” as the place to start. A new book by Paul D. Molnar “T.F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity” is really quite helpful, and for laypersons like me, probably sufficient for the purpose.

  • Scott W

    Trinitarian theology proper in its classical sense bound with the spirituality flowing from it is the answer to the concerns raised in this post. Every day, at least 3x daily, I pray the Trisagion Prayers, the basic ‘start-up” prayers in Orthodoxy: Glory to you O our God, glory to you O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth who are in all places and fill all things, the Treasure of good things and Giver of life, come and abide in us and save out souls, O Good One. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us (3X)…The Trisagion Prayers end with the Lord’s Prayer.

    Implicit in these prayers are the conception of God as Spirit as the source, energy and foundation of creation, working immanently in creation. But this is also a part of the covenantal narrative of the Scripture, the human/cosmic predicament of sin and evil and its cure, and, specifically, the story of the Kingdom, culminating in the Lord’s Prayer.

    Where there is no real sacramental understanding of reality, Christianly speaking, you end up with these incorrect binaries. It’s really a matter of “back to the future” in renewing Christian theology(e.g., in the likes St. Maximos the Confessor) to enable it to fully embrace science as we understand it today, in my opinion.

  • JJ

    As a Whiteheadian, I must say that the authors do not seem to understand process theology all that well (although we are used to being misrepresented/misinderstood, especially by fellow Christians). There is more to process theology’s theory of divine action than what is presented here. First, the statement “action by God would deny the universe the freedom to become” is false. It seems to be saying that God doesn’t really do anything in process. Not so. Just because freedom is inherent in all levels of creation does not mean that divine action is insignificant in any way. Without it, nothing would be able to become. God provides various possibilities for each moment of becoming, lures toward a particular possibility that aligns with the divine vision, and responds accordingly depending on which possibility is chosen. Also, the author’s statement that the process God can only act one way is very misleading. For one, depending on the level of complexity of a particular actuality in creation, divine action may indeed be basically deterministic while at other levels (e.g., human consciousness) be highly indeterministic. And process thought affirms variable divine action, contrary to what the authors seem to be implying (see David Ray Griffin on this point). Lastly, there is also a statement in the post saying God’s nature changes like everything else. Yes and no. Process theism is famously dipolar. While I will skip the technical details here, one pole of God changes in response to the world while the other is the eternal divine vision that provides the world with infinite possibilities. Because of this dipolar structure, God becomes like everything else but in a other sense remains the same: God is always creative, loving, persuasive, redemptive, etc.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I’m not a Whiteheadian, but you are correct that we often misunderstand Process Theology. I think it’s because we get worked up to the point of distraction about how PT, at lease partly, has God developing along with nature. This concept is so outside orthodoxy, that we tend not to hear anything else – even if we read it, most having been scared off by the self-appointed gatekeepers.

    The Incarnation alone, if we really believe it completely, should make us less sure about the Platonic/Augustinian view of God. God certainly knew what it is  like to be a creature, from before the ‘beginning’. However, he actually experienced what it is like in the Incarnation. ‘Knowledge of’ and ‘experience of’ are different. (Consider two surgeons, the first with complete knowledge of a complex procedure, the second with that knowledge plus experience performing it.) In some sense, God does develop as things unfold – at least, as his revelation to us unfolds.

  • @Bev Mitchell – I think it would be a mistake to couple Platonic and Augustinian; I think Augustine might bear a closer reading, especially if you think that the Incarnation obviously causes problems for Augustinian theology somehow.

    @JJ I do not understand all that well / am not very familiar with process theology, but your last comment about ‘dipolar’ caught my eye and I’d be interested to hear more about that. You said that on one hand God changes (as the universe changes) but on the other hand God remains the same (creative, loving, redemptive etc.). I’d like to parse out the sense in which God remains the same within process theology because it is on this point that I sense much difference from what many consider orthodox theism. Would you say (from the perspective of a process theologian) qualities such as those you listed – that remain the same – are predicates describing God as he is in himself (as something like “omniscient” would be, despite the obvious limitations and qualitative difference between God as he is in himself and God as we are able to perceive him within classical theism) or qualities that describe sort of “master classes” into which God’s actions or responses can always be fit by those who perceive them but that do not necessarily describe unchanging “attributes”? I discern an important difference between those two classifications but maybe this isn’t as clear in print as it is in my head.

  • RJS


    The question of whether or not Poe and Davis do a fair job of describing process theology is an interesting one – and not one that I am well qualified to evaluate. My summary here is quite cursory, while they devote a chapter to the topic. I expect, however, that process theology describes a continuum of positions taken by different people unified by a few common themes. Is process theism dipolar – or are there, in fact, deep disagreements between theologians on the nature of God?

    Rory Tyler,

    One of the dominant theses running through Poe and Davis is the influence of philosophy on the veiw of God’s interaction with his creation. While it is inaccurate to equate Augustine and Plato, Poe and Davis certainly claim that Augustine’s views were heavily influenced by Platonism and this steers some of his understanding, even of the incarnation. Why would you think this is not true?

  • I haven’t read the book yet but I do wander what scientific argument there is against some kind of consistent relationship between God and the world. The critique above of Process thought (& determinism) seems to imply it’s problematic – why? Aqunias, Calvin, & John Cobb reject the notion. Seems weird to have that as a the main criticism.

  • Darren King

    This is kind of a bit of an aside, but fits in with these general discussions on science and spirituality: I think it’d be helpful to review and discuss books such as those by Ken Wilber. He’s an example of someone who offers a perspective that doesn’t resort to either religious fundamentalism or scientism. And his approach is life and spirit affirming. Something about these discussions so far seems (IMHO) to vacillate between only two poles, when other perspectives exist.

  • Bev Mitchell

    By writing / I did not imply = 🙂
    I did, however, mean to refer to the Augustinian view of the immutability of God. John Sanders in “The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence” sums up this position and its effects as well as anyone in a lengthy discussion in  Chapter 5.3. In one of several summary statements Sanders points out “Augustine made God’s immunity to time, change and responsiveness to his creatures axiomatic for much of Western theology.”

  • Poe and Davis show evangelicalism’s belated relization of modernity’s affects upon the church and its doctrines but don’t go far enough, if at all, with postmodernity’s relevance to the church. I was thoroughly unimpressed by their analysis of process theology. And their God in the gaps philosophy cannot even begin to bridge the “gap” between the evangelical understanding between science and faith. Like has been observed in the comments above there is just too much here that is not spoken well. It does however impress me with evangelical theology’s benighted state of affairs. In sports speak, unless a team can see itself for what it is there can be no improvement to what it can become. You cannot build up without first tearing down. Which is what postmodernity is all about – first deconstruction. Then reconstruction. Evangelicalism’s foundation has become fragmented and is no longer orthodox except in its own opinion of itself. Thanks RJS for your review. I highly enjoy your commentaries but think on this one you could do better.

  • RJS


    I expect I could always do better. With respect to this book, I haven’t read the last half yet and want to get through the entire book before passing judgment, so I intentionally avoided commentary on some of the issues raised. If you’ve read the whole book you are a step ahead of me.

  • Thanks RJS. Process Theology has a lot to offer but what I’ve been working on this past year is a synthetic position between Classic theism and PT – not an open theology so much as a relational-process theism that removes the panentheism from it – that “God is one or dependent upon the world… hence, if no world there is no God and vice-versa.” To my version of a God who is in “partnership and collaboration with the world that He created, maintains and is ordering… where both experience the other in real time.” So panentheistic-like but w/o its version of a hindu-like philosophy. I’ve got a long way to go with this so am still in the early formative stages of piecing it together. But open theology isn’t the answer… it better fits with classic theism as its updated 20th Century twin… note that I didn’t say its postmodern, 21st Century twin. To do that I think it’ll need the relational piece of process theology that is missing. Moreover, this form of relational theism is not the same as relation-process theology… it’s a synthesis of it that leans towards a non-panentheistic base which I’ve yet been able to find stated anywhere. You either have to be in one camp or the other. In the meantime its important to know what PT is and is not, one which Poe and Davis did not comprehend, and gave it an unnecessary black eye. Thanks again.

  • kom

    “Intelligent design – looking for empirical evidence for divine causality separate from physical causality – is a search for a God-of-the-gaps. This doesn’t mean that the world is not designed, all Christians believe that God designed the world intelligently and for a purpose, but that divine causality and physical causality can and do coexists in the same phenomena.”

    Intelligent design proponents, like Dembski, argue that divine causality and physical causality can and do coexists in the same phenomena:

    “It’s certainly conceivable that a supernatural agent could act in the world by moving particles so that the resulting discontinuity in the chain of physical causality could never be removed by appealing to purely physical forces. The “gaps” in the god-of-the-gaps objection are meant to denote gaps of ignorance about underlying physical mechanisms. But there’s no reason to think that all gaps must give way to ordinary physical explanations once we know enough about the underlying physical mechanisms. The mechanisms may simply not exist. Some gaps might constitute ontic discontinuities in the chain of physical causes and thus remain forever beyond the capacity of physical mechanisms.

    Although a non-physical designer who “moves particles” is not logically incoherent, such a designer nonetheless remains problematic for science. The problem is that natural causes are fully capable of moving particles. Thus for a designer also to move particles can only seem like an arbitrary intrusion. The designer is merely doing something that nature is already doing, and even if the designer is doing it better, why didn’t the designer make nature better in the first place so that it can move the particles better? We are back to Van Till’s Robust Formational Economy Principle.

    But what if the designer is not in the business of moving particles but of imparting information? In that case nature moves its own particles, but an intelligence nonetheless guides the arrangement which those particles take. A designer in the business of moving particles accords with the following world picture: The world is a giant billiard table with balls in motion, and the designer arbitrarily alters the motion of those balls, or even creates new balls and then interposes them among the balls already present. On the other hand, a designer in the business of imparting information accords with a very different world picture: In that case the world becomes an information processing system that is responsive to novel information. Now the interesting thing about information is that it can lead to massive effects even though the energy needed to represent and impart the information can become infinitesimal…”