Where Does God Act?
Wiles (Maurice)
Source: Wiles, Maurice - God's Action in the World, Chapter 1
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  1. Does God act in the world? Does he affect what happens to us in the varied experiences of our daily life? If so, in what ways and by what means? Those are the kinds of question which lie behind the line of enquiry I intend to pursue. Wherever they may lead us, there is certainly nothing technical or esoteric about the questions themselves. Time and again in recent years national or international events have drawn them to the attention of the general public, and they have proved to have an irresistible fascination for believer and unbeliever alike. A service of thanksgiving was held in St Paul's to mark the ending of the Falklands War; but there was no agreement about what it was appropriate to thank God for. Part of York Minster was burnt down three days after the consecration of the Bishop of Durham; The Times leader-writer (in a leader entitled ‘Act of God') found it ‘hard not to be reminded of Elijah and the prophets of Baal'. An American airliner was hijacked to Beirut by Shi'ite Muslim gunmen; the pilot, who acted as spokesman for the hostages after their liberation, spoke of how the Lord had taken very good care of them. The form in which this question of God's action was brought into the public forum on each of those occasions was a source of profound embarrassment to many a reflective Christian. The moral implications of the implicit or explicit claims involved in each case were devastating. Does God take the British side in war? Does he, like Zeus, send out thunderbolts in his displeasure? Where was his care for the hostages when one of them was murdered and his corpse thrown out on to the tarmac?
  2. It is easy to find fault with such naive accounts of what are said to be examples of God's action. But when so many of the particular cases in which communities or individuals find themselves led to speak of God's acting prove to be cases which appear to others both morally and spiritually unacceptable, we need to give thought to the deeper underlying issue. Writing to The Guardian, the Archbishop of York, John Habgood, declared that where he ‘would want to part company with those who interpret the recent fire in York Minster as evidence of divine wrath is not on the question whether God can or cannot intervene, but on the character of God as revealed by the events which some wish to ascribe directly to Him'. We may applaud the Archbishop's chosen emphasis on the moral issue of the character of God implicit in the suggestion that the fire at York Minster was an act of divine retribution for the consecration of the Bishop of Durham. But was he right to dismiss the more general issue concerning the possibility of divine intervention as such, as one on which Christian agreement could be readily assumed? Ought we to take it for granted that every Christian is bound to give an unqualifiedly positive response to my initial question — Does God act in the world?
  3. No question is more fundamental to Christian theology today. Admittedly it assumes a positive answer to the prior question of God's existence. But if we were to affirm the existence of God without being able to go on and say something about his activity in relation to the world, we would have done little of significance for religious faith. It is what God does as creator and redeemer that has always been seen as crucial both for Christian faith and for Christian theology. Walter Kasper speaks for many others when he says: ‘The God who no longer plays an active role in the world is in the final analysis a dead God.' Deism is widely regarded as no different from atheism, as far as religious practice or religious viability is concerned.
  4. Yet the notion of God's acting in the world is highly problematical. Nor are the difficulties inherent in the notion simply the invention of modern scepticism. Even if it is true that they are felt in a particularly acute way at the present time, they are not wholly new. The notion has been problematic throughout Christian history, and it is important to recall that fact as we embark on our search for an appropriate understanding of it in our own day. Admittedly, what makes it problematic is not something that has remained unchanged through the centuries. There is a difference between the ways in which the difficulty is most often felt today and the ways in which it was mainly experienced in the early formative centuries of Christian thought. And that difference is not merely a matter of degree; it concerns where the heart of the problem lies. Some brief consideration of the nature of that difference offers, therefore, a useful way in to the study of our central theme. The contrast can be set out in very general terms in this way. One important conviction within the Hellenistic world in which early Christianity developed was the utter changelessness of God. The tradition that springs particularly from the Plato of the Phaedo stresses the radical separation of the divine from the phenomenal realm of our experience. The essential nature of the divine was precisely its freedom from the transience of the phenomenal world. Would it not then be a contradiction in terms to speak of God as an agent involved in the changing scene of that passing world of human experience? Yet clearly that is what Judaeo-Christian faith had to do, if it was not to abandon its traditions altogether. For at the heart of that faith was the idea of God's intimate involvement with the history of a people. The fundamental source of the distinctive Jewish belief in God was the experience reflected in the story of the Exodus and the Jews' recognition of themselves as a particular people with a particular history and a particular destiny; in other words their faith in God was grounded in the discovery of a profound meaning within the particular events of history. For the first Christians this understanding of God was reinforced by their conviction that he had acted decisively in Jesus and was very much at work in the emergence and establishment of the Christian church. They knew that God was at work in the world; they knew where God was at work in the world. That was not in doubt; that was not where for them the problem lay. Their problem was how these unquestioned data of faith could be true of a God whose transcendence they understood in essentially Platonic terms. How could that eternal and changeless God be also the God so actively involved in the particularities of redemptive history? The primary difficulty was located in the being of God: was such action compatible with the changelessness of God? So it was a struggle to clarify their understanding of the nature of God that dominated the theological endeavours of the early church and in time gave birth to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
  5. That, in broadest outline, was the general form in which the difficulty was primarily felt by most early Christian thinkers. But for most modern Christian thinkers the difficulty is located at a different point. There is a greater readiness to speak in a relatively direct way of the personal nature of God. And to be an agent is a primary feature of personal being. But the various forms of scientific study which dominate our culture have done much to disclose patterns of regularity in the way the world functions. The world as we experience it appears to us a much more regularly ordered world than it did to our predecessors in the faith. Our difficulty in conceiving of God's action is more likely to be focussed on how and where that action is to be located or identified within the world of human experience. The problematic character of God's action remains; the way in which the difficulty is primarily experienced is different.
  6. The contrast that I have drawn is, it must be emphasized, a very broad generalization. Many qualifications would be called for in any more detailed account of it. Some of these at least will, I hope, emerge later as the course of the argument develops. But if not over pressed, the general contrast is, I believe, valid and not unimportant. It might seem at first hearing to be evidence of a masochistic perversity in theologians. If the difficulty comes to be felt less acutely (though certainly still felt) in relation to the being of God, the theologian proceeds to emphasize more strongly the difficulties in relation to the experience of the world. But this is the fruit neither of perversity nor, to go to the other extreme, of chance. It is inherent in the nature of religion. For what is felt to be religiously important is always closely related to what men and women are conscious of lacking in the experience of their lives. Thus we tend to emphasize in our understanding of God what is particularly problematical for us. Where death, disease and natural disaster are frequent and little understood features of human existence, faith is liable to stress the contrasting character of God as wholly removed from all such change and suffering. But where such occurrences are seen rather as part of an inexorable and impersonal law of the universe, then it is God's character as free, personal being that is most firmly apprehended and insisted on by the person of faith. Thus the difficulties that are felt at any one time will never be identical with those that have been most felt in the past, but will always have subtle elements of similarity and dissimilarity in relation to them. Human understanding of God's relation to the world will, and should always expect to, have about it an aspect of standing over against the wisdom of its day. Any religious tradition which does not acknowledge difficulty in the formulation of its faith is the poorer for that fact both religiously and intellectually. A faith that is not hard to hold on to is worth little, but the process of ‘holding on' requires continued wrestling with the difficulties that make that faith hard to hold on to. As the early Fathers grappled with their difficulties in the understanding of God's nature, so we need to grapple with the question: Does God act in the world? And, if so, in what ways and by what means?
  7. Traditional Christian teaching about God's action in the world takes a variety of forms. Central are the claims about God's action in the person of Christ, while miracle is frequently emphasized as the most dramatic and most problematic example of such action. But the all-encompassing range of God's more hidden providential activity, which is the essential background to the affirmation of any more specific claims about particular divine actions (whether miraculous or not), is every bit as important and poses problems every bit as acute. I have chosen to raise this broader question first, and will be concentrating on it in the first part of this book, before turning to the more distinctively Christian claims about the person of Christ, because apart from that broader question the more specific claims about Christ cannot even be coherently formulated, let alone appropriately discussed.
  8. An important aspect of the problematic character of this broader concept of God's providential direction of history is the question of intelligibility. God's activity is asserted to be operative on a universal scale. But its relation to the finite activities within the created order has to be affirmed in radically differing forms. God is dissociated from the evil in a way that is claimed to remove all divine responsibility for it, while being so intimately associated with the good as to be the proper recipient of all gratitude and praise. In order to mark those differences, sophisticated forms of appropriate linguistic distinctions were developed. But doubts about how cogently those linguistic distinctions can be made to fit the confused pattern of evil and good in human history are not easily met. And where this conviction of God's general providential guidance is related to specifically Christian history and Christian experience, there is an added dimension to the problem: that concerns the relation between divine grace and human freedom. In the history of Christian thought the intention to do justice to both is almost always in evidence. The successful achievement of that intention is less clear.
  9. These problems are still with us. But they impinge on us in distinctive ways. I spoke earlier of the heart of the contemporary problem as ‘likely to be focussed on how and where God's action is to be located and identified within the world of human experience'. Those two words, ‘location' and ‘identification', may serve to indicate two major features of our contemporary situation. The undeniable advances in historical and scientific knowledge have been achieved by setting on one side any appeal to divine agency. It can rightly be argued that that is only a methodological assumption necessary for practical purposes, and does not necessarily involve any rejection of divine agency as such. Historical and scientific studies do not provide us with the whole truth about the world. What they disclose is valid truly within the limitations inherent in their own assumptions as scholarly disciplines. Nevertheless their evident success and the validity, even if limited, of their findings do not leave the position unaltered. Christians in the past have had difficulty enough in trying to relate God's claimed activity to the physical and historical events of the world. The already problematic character of such attempts is increased by our fuller understanding of the ordered patterns of the natural world and of history. The possibility of affirming divine activity is not ruled out, but its specific location is still harder to detect.
  10. The advances in knowledge of which I have just been speaking were dependent on the abandonment of another traditional appeal as well as the appeal to divine agency. That was the appeal to authoritative sources of belief, which were thought to require careful exposition rather than critical assessment. Throughout the greater part of Christian history it has been possible to assume that, whatever the difficulties in interpreting contemporary events, certain events in the past could be known without question to be special divine acts. That knowledge was directly given by the authoritative revelation of scripture. The vigorous intellectual activity that characterized the continuing process of reflection was designed not to determine whether they were divine acts — that was not in question — but how. Appeals to traditional sources as such are not, of course, ruled out for us. They are essential to historical and other forms of knowledge. Indeed we may properly approach them with an a priori expectation in their favour; but they can make no absolute claim on our acceptance. Even in the case of scripture, appeal can no longer take the direct, authoritative form that it took so often in the past. Thus not even the most hallowed example of claimed divine action can be accepted as something whose distinctively divine status is directly given; it has to establish its credentials. In this sense the initial identification of what might constitute instances of divine action, as well as their more specific location, is increasingly problematic.
  11. But to be problematic is not to be impossible. It is rather a powerful stimulus to serious theological work. And recent decades have seen considerable attention given to this question of divine action. The work that has been done has taken various forms. The two most obvious forms are biblical and philosophical reflection. Each is indispensable, but neither on its own, nor even the two together, can do the full theological job that is called for. But before we go on to consider how their contribution needs to be supplemented, we must take brief note of the nature of the work that has been done in those two fields.
  12. A stress on the acts of God as the fundamental category for any properly Christian reflection on the nature of God was a leading feature of the ‘biblical theology' movement of some thirty years ago. It found symbolic expression in the title of a book by G. E. Wright published in 1952: God Who Acts. As a description of a primary feature of the biblical writings, even if one that finds it a little difficult to know what to do with the Wisdom literature, no serious fault need be found with that title. What subsequent work has tended to show is that, however central to the Old Testament the idea of historical events as divine revelation may be, it is nothing like as distinctive a trait as the older tradition of ‘biblical theology' had thought. It is, in the words of Bertil Albrektson, ‘part of the common theology of the ancient Near East'. That fact does not remove its significance for the Christian theologian altogether, but it raises a question as to how direct or absolute that significance may be.
  13. Philosophical concentration on the theme in the 1960s was partly a reaction to the claims of the biblical theologians, as is witnessed by the title of an article by a professor of philosophy, Frank Dilley: ‘Does the "God who acts" really act?' . A series of articles at that time, with titles like ‘What sense does it make to say "God acts in history"?’ or ‘On the meaning of Act of God', aimed to achieve some conceptual clarity about what was meant by such language. Much subsequent writing has continued to pursue that objective in similar vein, drawing particularly on more recent work in the philosophy of action.
  14. These two areas of study are both essential preliminaries to the work of the theologian, but they do not render the theologian's task unnecessary. For Christian theology is not simply a matter of testing the intelligibility of biblical concepts, and reaffirming them when they pass that test. The theologian has to be concerned not only with the biblical roots of the faith that he or she is seeking to understand, but also with how that faith has been developed and understood in the course of Christian history. He has to satisfy himself not only that the traditional claims of that faith are intellectually coherent in themselves, but that they constitute the most appropriate way of understanding the whole range of our human experience and practice.
  15. But if the theological task is as alarmingly wide as that description asserts (and I do not believe it can in the end be more narrowly drawn, however much particular pieces of theological work may rightly set themselves far narrower goals), it is incumbent on the theologian setting out on it to give some account of how it is to be assayed.
  16. No theologian, any more than the proponent of any other scholarly discipline, starts from scratch. However radical his inclinations or intentions, he is heir to a tradition without which he could not even embark on his scholarly task. We have to acknowledge the contingency of the tradition within which we stand. We inherit a vocabulary, patterns of images, categories of thought and established traditions of interpretation. The basic language of our discipline comes to us as something given. This fact has led some theologians to speak of that language and its images as specially given by God and thereby uniquely empowered to express the truth about God. I hold back from speaking of it in this way as a ‘revealed' language. To emphasize, as I have done, that its givenness is a givenness from the past is not to rule out some further sense in which it may be said to be given by God. What it does exclude is the idea that there is something demonstrably unique about the manner of its origin or that its givenness is recognizably different from the givenness of other forms of human language or cultural tradition. It does not have a privileged status which confers on it or on particular parts of it immunity from criticism or change. This denial of anything radically different about the origins or status of our Christian language is not to be understood to imply a grudging attitude towards it. It is not simply a matter of there being no serious alternative starting-point for theological reflection. The view that I am outlining is fully compatible with a thoroughly positive attitude, which values the language of Christian tradition for the way it has served and continues to serve as the vehicle of genuine faith. Indeed it is important to remember that the tradition itself has normally acknowledged that however effective a vehicle of faith its language may be, it is always an imperfect vehicle. The intellectual difficulties with which it has had to wrestle throughout its history are witness to that fact.
  17. The basic reason for the imperfection of the language is clear enough. If we are using finite, human language to speak of a transcendent God, it cannot be other than an imperfect vehicle. From the earliest days of the church, many of her theologians have expressed the reluctance with which they have felt constrained to articulate truths that lie beyond the range of human speech. It is important to recognize that theology is something that can only properly exist on the other side of silence. Even if Bultmann's rejection of the use of any language directly about God as a form of false objectivization may be overstated, the claim of a theologian like Austin Farrer that our language can only function as a distant analogue in its reference to God is surely justified. But there is a second reason also, whose recognition, though not its operation, belongs more exclusively to recent times. Language and ideas do not exist in a vacuum. They are an integral part of the culture and the world-view of their time. Changes in culture and world-view cannot leave religious language unaffected. They do not make the old language wholly inaccessible or powerless. But they stimulate change, sometimes conscious sometimes unconscious, in relation both to the language and to the ideas. The process is never easy. But it is both inevitable and proper. Modern historical and sociological study has not created this phenomenon, but it has made us more aware of its operation both now and in the past. In the light of that greater awareness we should be in a better position to combine a positive attitude to Christian tradition with the recognition that such an attitude does not mean that we ought simply to take it over without change. Just as it has in fact gone through substantial modification in the past, so it still calls for continuing modification today through interaction with our experience.
  18. ‘Experience' is a crucial but highly problematic concept. It is not some raw stuff that can be set over against tradition as something wholly independent of it, and therefore able to function as a wholly distinct element in the interaction of which I have just spoken. What we experience is intimately affected by the intellectual and religious tradition within which we stand. But it is not simply an epiphenomenon of that tradition either. It is not wholly determined by it, and can therefore properly contribute to its modification. Within the broad category of ‘experience' various distinctions can be drawn. One basic distinction is that between lived experience and formal reasoning. Both can play an influential role in prompting the modification of earlier beliefs. In relation to God's action in the world, a primary motivation for a modified account may be that many people do not any longer experience what happens to them in the world in those terms in the way that they used to do. Alternatively, the primary motivation for a changed view may be that earlier reasoned accounts of how God's action is to be understood in relation to secondary causation1 in the world no longer appear as intellectually convincing as once they did. A combination of practical and theoretical changes of this kind can rightly contribute to the modification of past tradition, sometimes in quite extensive ways.
  19. At a formal level, there is a comparatively close parallel with the development of science. The scientist too inherits a scientific orthodoxy without which he could not function as a scientist at all. That orthodoxy includes both a number of widely agreed beliefs, and a language, including a standard selection of models, in terms of which those beliefs are expressed. There is even an element of contingency about the selection of the theoretical models the scientist employs. They are not self-evidently the only models that could have been used. Their choice may sometimes have been influenced sociologically, by for example the technological needs of a: particular society at a particular time. This inherited orthodoxy, in the form both of its agreed beliefs and of its models, is always subject to modification, by interaction with experience. That experience may take a primarily practical form. Life is no longer perceived as the prevailing orthodoxy suggests it should be. New experiments do not work out as expected. But it may also take a more theoretical form. Old theories may come to seem clumsy and unsatisfying. Tidier formulations are worked out to take their place. Motivations of both kinds work together to effect a continuous process of modification to the prevailing pattern of scientific beliefs.
  20. That process, though continuous, is not uniform. A moment may come which calls for a particularly drastic alteration of the old picture. The accepted model of the sun revolving round the earth has to give way to one of the earth going round the sun. The appropriate moment for such a change is not self-evident. For a time it may be possible, and may well seem better, to accommodate the new experiences with appropriate and ever-increasing alterations to the old picture. But there comes a point at which a shift of paradigm becomes the only appropriate response. Theology is even more reluctant to embrace such far-reaching changes for two reasons. The necessarily analogical nature of its language means that it has a flexibility of interpretation more akin to that of literature than to that of science. The alternative strategy of modifying the sense in which the old language is to be understood can be more readily sustained there than in the scientific parallel. Moreover the language of theology is closely related to the practice of faith, and the repercussions of major shifts in language and belief are not easily accommodated at that level. There is therefore a proper pressure towards conservatism in theology. Nevertheless what we may call the two strategies of revisionism (modification of detail of belief and shift of basic paradigm) both have a place in theology, as in other areas of knowledge. There comes a time when any further stretching of the old language becomes too great and cannot honestly reflect the intended changes in sensibility. Some more far-reaching change of underlying image or conceptuality is required. It is called for both by the changes in lived experience and in reasoned reflection. It is needed in the service both of faith and of reason.
  21. The problems posed by the questions ‘Does God act in the world? And if so, in what ways, and by what means?' are of such magnitude that it seems highly probable that some significant shift away from traditional answers to those questions may be called for. Indeed, we cannot rule out in advance that what is called for may prove to be some even bigger shift in conceptuality in relation to the underlying notion of divine agency itself.


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