The Creation and God's Action
Wiles (Maurice)
Source: Wiles, Maurice - God's Action in the World, Chapter 3
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  1. In the previous chapter I offered a defence of the traditional Christian doctrine of creation as creation ex nihilo. But I sought at the same time to dissociate myself from the strong doctrine of divine providential control of the detailed happenings within the world that has so often accompanied it in traditional Christian teaching. Instead I put a strong emphasis on the radical degree of freedom of action with which I believe the human creation to have been endowed. Whatever account of divine agency we finally offer must be consistent with the evident fact that we are agents, capable of effective and responsible action, contributing to what happens in our world.
  2. How then can we best understand and speak of God's relation to this world of his creation? The brief and indirect attention I have so far given to that topic needs more careful elaboration. In the last chapter I made positive, if somewhat uncritical, use of two traditional ideas. I accepted that the fundamental nature of creation itself was best understood as an act of divine will; and I spoke of a reciprocal divine-human relationship as a religious reality for which any appropriate understanding of creation must leave room. But neither of those two ideas has stood unqualified or unquestioned within the tradition itself, nor is either free from those contemporary difficulties about divine action of which I am trying to take particular account.
  3. The idea of creation as an act of divine will may have won out over the alternative idea of emanation, but it was not unaffected by it. For if we speak of creation as an act of divine will, we can hardly allow that language to suggest a picture of God deliberating whether or not to create, and somehow weighing up the relative advantages and disadvantages of particular possible forms of creation. If our aim is to provide the most truly personal conception of God's work of creation that we can envisage, the alternative emanationist picture may have something of importance to offer. For conscious deliberation is not a necessary mark of the most profoundly personal actions at the human level. We value the spontaneous generosity that flows naturally from the kind of person the agent is more highly than the nicely calculated less or more of the conscientious but emotionally detached giver. Thus that which naturally flows out of a person may offer a more, and not a less, personal image of action than that which is the outcome of conscious deliberation and choice. So the two images have come to influence one another. Though it was creation that emerged as the only acceptable concept, in the long run it was an understanding of creation substantially changed from that suggested by talk of an act of will. As Aquinas was to insist, the work of creation is best seen as the natural overflow of God's goodness. If that picture is to be described as incorporating an element of necessity, it is a kind of necessity that we commend at the human level. It is no externally imposed necessity, but one that springs from within the nature of the agent. It is the mark of the saint who is unable to act other than out of love.
  4. Nor is the conception of a reciprocal relation between human persons and God the only model of profound religious experience within the Christian tradition. God may have spoken to Moses face to face as a man speaks with his friend; but God also met with Moses in the thick darkness on the summit of Mount Sinai. And that entering of Moses into the deep darkness at the top of the mount has become an important symbol within one strand of Christian mysticism, where ‘reciprocal relationship' would be an unnatural terminology to describe the experience affirmed.
  5. It is important to recall the degree to which these more straightforwardly personalist images of God's relationship to his creation have been qualified in the past, as we take up our own particular quest: how is the idea of God's action most appropriately used in the context of our proposed understanding of creation? An action is to be distinguished from a mere happening or accident. We cannot always tell just by observation whether what we have witnessed is act or accident. A car swerves off the road and over a cliff. We may not be able to discover whether it was a deliberate act of suicide or the accident of either an exhausted driver fallen asleep1 or mechanical failure of the brakes — or yet again whether, if the driver's drink had been drugged or the brake cables deliberately cut, it might be an act, but the act of someone not even present at the scene of the happening. An act always involves an intention and a goal. Billiard balls banging into one another do not as such constitute an ‘act'. They only do so if they are part of an act of potting, with a human intention of making one of the balls fall into a pocket. To call something an ‘act', then, is to give a unity to what would otherwise appear only as random occurrences, and to do so by bringing them together as contributory to some overall intention.
  6. With this understanding of action in mind, the proposal that I want to make is that the primary usage for the idea of divine action should be in relation to the world as a whole rather than to particular occurrences within it. Preliminary support for this proposal can be found in the final chapter of John McMurray's book, The Self as Agent. For he claims there that ‘the only way in which we can conceive our experience as a whole is by thinking of the world as one action'. The category of action, he argues, is more fundamental than that of process. For action can incorporate process, but not the other way round. The unifying intentionality which is the distinctive and constitutive feature of ‘action' cannot be fully brought within the idea of an on-going process. ‘It is therefore possible,' McMurray concludes, ‘to think the world as one action. It is not possible to think it as a unitary process.’
  7. So for the theist, who is necessarily committed to a unitary view of the world, the whole process of the bringing into being of the world, which is still going on, needs to be seen as one action of God. This idea has been firmly enunciated by a number of contemporary theologians. Thus Gordon Kaufman writes:
      For a monotheistic theology ... it is the whole course of history from its initiation in God's creative activity to its consummation when God ultimately achieves his purposes, that should be conceived as God's act in the primary sense.
  8. And John Hick has written in a similar vein:
      The most basic and general conception of an action, as we use the word in relation to humanity and as we may apply it analogously in relation to deity, is that of an event enacting an agent's intention. In this basic sense God's continuous creation/salvation of the world is his action.
  9. If we adopt this view, as I believe we should, two questions follow:
    • 1. Does speaking of the world as a whole as a single act of God inhibit our use of the language of God's agency in relation to more specific occurrences within the world? And if we are to speak of God as agent in these other more limited respects also, how are those actions of God to be understood in relation to the one overarching action of God of which they form a part?
    • 2. Can we characterize this single act of God in some more specific way? Since actions are of many kinds, we need to ask whether there are particular types of action which are specially appropriate analogues of this one fundamental act of God.
  10. The first question is one that will continue as a major concern throughout this book. Important aspects of it lie at the heart of the discussions of providence and grace to which we shall be coming later. I propose to leave until that stage, therefore, any consideration of that whole range of activity in which human intentionality is involved. At this stage I want to take up only the question of whether we should speak of divine agency in relation to particular physical occurrences at the non-intelligent level. The distinction that I am drawing here is not entirely straightforward. Unless we are extreme dualists in our understanding of the human person, there is always an important physical element in every historical and personal occasion. Nevertheless it is a distinction that we naturally do make and can quite properly make, if we do not thereby imply an absolute separation between the two.
  11. In one respect this aspect of the question, in which our concern is only with the physical or natural world, would seem to be the easier part of the task. Since by definition we are concerned with occurrences where no human intentionality is involved, we are not faced with the issue of two, possibly conflicting, intentionalities in relation to the same occurrence. If we are right to speak of ‘action' at all in such cases, God would seem to be the only candidate for the role of agent. Nevertheless there are serious difficulties. Traditional Christian understanding has seen the divine intention for the world, which alone justifies our speaking of it as a single act, in terms of the creation of men and women in God's own image and bringing them to their proper fulfilment in a perfect relationship to himself and to one another. If we claimed that as a complete account of the divine intention, we might justly be accused of being unduly anthropocentric. It may be that we need also to speak of intentions in relation to the being of God himself; or there may be other intentions of which we are in no position to know anything. But if we are right to speak of the world as a single intentional act at all, it seems undeniable on any score that human consciousness and human loving must be seen as vital elements in that intention. Thus the purely physical occurrences, with which alone we are concerned at the moment, provide the substructure that serves to make that intention, and therefore the one divine action, possible. Their contribution to that single act is all-pervasive, but in large measure indirect. It is therefore a questionable enterprise to try to speak of God's agency in relation to particular physical occurrences, as if that were something that could be done in even relative separation from the question of their contribution to the one act that constitutes the world as a whole.
  12. The nature of these difficulties may become a little clearer if we consider the very different ways in which the problem has been tackled by three theologians or theological schools in recent times. Bultmann's answer to our question was univocal. No such links can be made at all. To speak of divine agency in relation to purely physical occurrences is neither possible nor permissible. It is important to recognize the reasons for this refusal. It is not a straightforward denial that there may be such links; it is a denial that we are in any position to speak of them. This is because of the radically different ways which, according to Bultmann and the existentialist tradition, our knowledge of physical occurrences and our knowledge or God are grounded. In the former case our knowledge is built up by a method of study which sets the subject or observer over against the object or thing observed. But that method, however effective in its own sphere, cannot serve as an approach to the knowledge of God. God is not an external reality who can be an object of our observation and therefore of that kind of knowledge. The only way in which God can be known is in and through our experience of him; it is a way that has more in common with the acquisition of knowledge through personal love or poetic insight than with the way in which scientific knowledge of the world is established. The knowledge thus obtained cannot be extrapolated from its given relation to human experience and human existence, and then expressed in a form that would enable us to speak of God's relation to the inanimate order of creation as such. Bultmann speaks for himself as well as for St Paul when he describes Paul's teaching in these terms:
      God's creatorship is not, for Paul, a cosmological theory which professes to explain the origin of the world and its existence as it is. Rather, it is a proposition that concerns man's existence ... Knowledge of God as creator contains primarily knowledge of man — man, that is, in his creatureliness and in his situation of being one to whom God has laid claim.
  13. Bultmann's reluctance to allow any answer to our question must be taken seriously. He can muster some good theological arguments in its support. Nevertheless it cannot be allowed to settle the question. Personal and scientific ways of knowing cannot be as sharply separated off from one another as Bultmann's account of them implies. And it is the absoluteness of the distinction that he believes to exist between them that leads to the absoluteness of his bar against our speaking of God in direct relation to the purely physical occurrences within the world.
  14. By way of contrast, process theology has a strongly unitive approach to knowledge, as is to be expected of a theological tradition which finds its primary inspiration in the scientist-philosopher, Whitehead. It is also, as we saw last time, strongly opposed to any conception of God as absolute controller. God’s power is always exercised by way of suasion rather than coercion. Now in relation to the human creation, there is much to be said for such a view, and we shall come back to it in that context in due course. But in process thought there is no fundamental difference between the way God relates to human or historical events and the way he relates to natural processes. There too God as the source of all future possibilities sets before each occasion the possibility of novelty. But this is not coercive or determinative. The outcome depends on the internally determined response of the occasion itself, however rudimentary or lacking in consciousness that occasion may be. The striking nature of this pan-psychic vision of reality is well illustrated by Whitehead's remark that ‘the Castle Rock at Edinburgh exists from moment to moment and from century to century, by reason of the decision effected by its own historic route of antecedent occasions'. The implausibility of such language needs no underlining. Yet it has proved attractive to a number of theologians not closely identified with process thought. Thus John Taylor speaks of the Spirit as he ‘who confronts each isolated spontaneous particle with the beckoning reality of the larger whole and ... lures the inert organisms forward by giving an inner awareness and recognition of the unattained.' The novelty that characterizes the emergent evolution2 by which our world has developed is a mysterious phenomenon. But to try to account for it in terms of the lure of divine love winning a response from the most primitive forms of physical existents is to add confusion to mystery, however carefully the meanings of such words as ‘response' and ‘awareness' are qualified. The attempt to describe God's action in relation to purely physical phenomena in such terms lacks all credibility.
  15. Since neither the radically dualistic approach of Rudolf Bultmann nor the unitary approach of process theology offers a satisfactory answer to our problem, I turn for my third example to someone who follows the more traditional approach of primary and secondary causation3. In his use of this traditional schema, Austin Farrer does not wish to mitigate in any way the traditional stress on God's ‘ultimate mastery over all existence'. But he develops the approach in a way that takes full cognizance of advances in scientific knowledge. And this leads him to stress, even more than Aquinas, the genuine independence of the patterns of causal activity within the world. Moreover, his understanding of science leads him to stress that the basic stuff of the created order is not things, however rudimentary, but energy. And he sees this fact as highly significant for any attempt to understand the relation between God and creaturely reality. For it means that there is no 'comfortable cushion' of created object between the creative activity of God and creaturely energy or activity, since energy or activity is the most basic form of created reality. ‘If God creates energies, he creates going activities. What he causes is their acting as they do.’ Thus the coexistence of divine and creaturely action in respect of the same act is not some further truth to be argued for or against in addition to the affirmation of divine creation. Since energy or creaturely activity is the basic form of created reality, the coexistence of the two distinct forms of activity is already given in affirmation of divine creation.
      Running oneself one's own way is the same thing as existing. If God had made things to exist, but not to run their own way, he would have made them to exist and not to exist.
  16. Finite existents, then, all do their own things in their own ways. That is what it is to be created. But there is also an analogously divine doing at the same time in relation to those activities. How is this divine doing to be characterized? What kind of intention can be ascribed to it? Farrer takes as an example the difficult case of a natural disaster like the Lisbon earthquake. The answer that he gives has nothing to do with judgment on sin or warnings of mortality, as might have been expected from many of his predecessors in the faith. What he says is:
      The will of God expressed in the event is his will for the physical elements in the earth's crust or under it: his will that they should go on being themselves and acting in accordant with their natures.
  17. So the divine intention in such a case is of a very general kind. God makes the world, as Farrer puts it, ‘from the bottom up'. Energy and its physical expression constitute the basic building bricks out of which the whole universe, with all its human and spiritual richness, is constructed. So it is God's will that physical elements should continue to be themselves and the energies to function in their own way. The divine intention of which Farrer speaks is uniform in the same way that the primary causation4 of Aquinas' scheme is a uniform enabling of the secondary causes' power to act. Farrer's account does not help us to speak of divine action in relation to particular physical occurrences in a way which adds anything to what is already being said in the affirmation of the whole creative process as God's single intentional action.
  18. What would be the implications of accepting the conclusion that there are no good grounds for speaking of particular divine actions with respect to particular phenomena at the sub-human level? In my view they are remarkably small. That may well seem a surprising judgment, since the difference is often seen as the difference between an unacceptable deism on the one hand and an acceptable theism on the other. For confirmation of it I want to spell out what those implications might be in terms of the two most sharply contrasting models of God's relation to the world that have been characteristic of the history of Christian thought. This will have the added advantage of preparing the way at the same time for moving on to our second question as to what kind of action we should conceive God's act of creation to be.
  19. The first model is that of the craftsman, of the potter and the clay. In the case of the divine analogue the potter has endowed the clay with its distinctive properties. Those properties have become properties of the clay and there does not seem to be any need to relate divine agency directly to the regular manner of their functioning. Divine agency relates rather to the way they ultimately come together to form the one divine act of the creation of the whole as an intentional unity. Such a way of looking at the matter is likely to be rejected as unacceptably deistic. The alternative model, on the other hand, wholly avoids that particular objection. It is the immanentist account, which sees God's relation to the world not as that of a person to some external reality but rather as that of a soul or self to its own body. The physical processes of the world are the means of God’s self-expression, as the unconscious physiological functioning of our bodies is for us. Here too it hardly seems natural to speak of divine agency at work, any more than we would peak of the agency of a human self in continually maintaining the pumping activity of the heart. Thus the two apparently contrasting models begin to coalesce. They conflict in their spatial imagery, but not in what they suggest about divine agency at the level of physical occurrence within the world. But it encourage us to see it as part of that on-going activity which contributes to the one divine act of God's creation; neither encourages us to speak of specific divine action in relation to particular physical occurrences.
  20. At this level, therefore, the difference between a deistic picture according to which the emergent properties of evolving matter are in some sense inherently programmed in advance and a theistic model according to which God is the ever-present ever-active creator, calling out those emergent properties in via is the difference between two alternative imageries, each with its own weaknesses, rather than between two substantially conflicting claims. Thus Hugh Montefiore speaks of the mutation at the heart of the evolutionary5 process as due to a ‘bias implanted in matter' and then goes on to say that ‘another way of describing this bias would be to call it the Holy Spirit working within the matter of the universe, unfolding the purposes of the Creator by immanent operation'. The two accounts are used as alternative ways of indicating the same single reality of God's relation to the evolutionary6 process. Whether the difference between the two will be equally small when we move on to consider the human and the historical sphere remains to be seen.
  21. For the moment, however, we must take up our second question. If it is the creation of the world as a whole that is most appropriately spoken of as God's act, can we characterize the nature of that act more fully in ways that will do justice to our emphasis on the gift of freedom to finite beings as a distinctive feature of that creation? We have just been considering two traditional models, that of the potter and the clay and that God as soul of the world. Even in relation to the natural world only, they have emerged as of limited value. If they are proposed for wider use as expressive of God's creative relationship to the world as a whole, our attitude towards them needs to be far more critical. Here, too, despite the prima facie contrast between the two pictures, the objection to both is essentially the same. Neither allows for the measure of human freedom that I have argued is essential to any satisfactory doctrine of creation. The shortcomings of the model of the potter and the clay are clear from scripture itself. Paul is misled by it into a disastrous attempt to stifle the human sense of moral outrage at the apparent injustices in the ordering of the world. ‘Who are you man, to answer back to God? Can the pot speak to the potter and say "Why did you make me like this?" Surely the potter can do what he likes with the clay' (Rom. 9.20-21). Commentators, ancient and modern, have been left to make what they can of such a sentiment within the sacred text. But the other picture of God as the soul of the world is clearly no better. Whatever value it may have for depicting God's relation to the inanimate order, it leaves no room at all for human freedom. And even if human consciousness and human action could in some way be accommodated within such a picture we would have to acknowledge that the self who is claimed to find expression through them could not (even allowing for some unresponsiveness or malfunctioning of the body) be the God of Christian faith. Too much sin and evil would come within those things that the model requires us to see as forms of God's self-expression.
  22. Is there then any other model open to us, which will leave more room for the independence on which I have been insisting? Austin Farrer suggests at one point the model of ‘the good novelist who ... gets a satisfactory story out of the natural behaviour of the characters he conceives'. Dorothy Savers regarded that as the best available analogy to creation out of nothing. She claims that ‘the free-will of a genuinely created character has a certain reality, which the author will deny at his peril'. But she is properly cautious about this claimed independence of characters within the novel. It is certainly something very much less substantial than the independence of real people. The model may be strengthened a little if we move from the idea of a novel to that of an improvised drama, in which the actors are each given the basic character of the person he or she is to represent and the general setting in which their interaction is to be worked out but in which they are left free to determine experimentally how the drama is to develop. In the process of getting deeper into their parts and discovering their reactions to one another in the given situation, they may be led on to enact the kind of drama which the author had always intended and already envisaged in principle though not in detail. The resultant drama would be both the author’s and the actors', though we would be more ready to speak of the author as agent of the drama as a whole than as agent of any the individual speeches or incidents within it.
  23. All such analogies are inadequate to their task and this one is no exception. But there are differing degrees of inadequacy and the older better established pictures do much less justice to the necessary concept of human freedom. Whatever the limitation of my own suggested picture, it will have served a useful purpose if it helps to oust some of the other, seriously misleading pictures that we have inherited from the past. For the moment I put it forward as a working model, to be further tested as we move on to consider the problems of evil and of providence.


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