God's Action in Us
Wiles (Maurice)
Source: Wiles, Maurice - God's Action in the World, Chapter 8
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  1. I began this book by posing a dilemma that is deeply felt by many reflective Christians — on the one hand the difficulty of giving any convincing account of how God acts in the world and on the other the conviction that a ‘God who no longer plays an active role in the world is ... a dead God'. Can Christian faith escape succumbing to either implausibility or death? I may, I suspect, appear to have done more to restore plausibility than life. But no religious person can accept that a dilemma posed in those terms represents a real choice. Truth and life belong together. If my approach to the understanding of God's action in the world is along the right lines, it cannot be destructive of true faith. So from time to time in the discussion of particular aspects of our problem, I have attempted to suggest how the view that I have been proposing might contribute positively to the life of faith. In this final chapter I want to consider more directly the implications of my position for the life of prayer and worship, as a distinctive and central aspect of Christian life.
  2. In a sensitive and probing article about petitionary prayer, Helen Oppenheimer raises the kind of problem with which I have been concerned. ‘Is there,' she asks, ‘any room in the universe for the kind of "particular providence" which real answers to petitionary prayer would have to be? Her fundamental approach to the problem is summed up in these terms:
      The required assumption is that in some fashion God does act in the world. What petitionary prayer involves is that, granted this, human beings may become associated with the divine activity.
  3. She emphasizes the ‘in some fashion'. How God acts in the world is ‘the aspect of the problem,' she says, ‘that has to remain "pending". I do not want to claim that my discussion removes it from the pending tray. But my aim has been to explore as well as I am able in what fashion God acts in the world. The strategy I propose to follow in this chapter is, therefore, first to sum up the understanding of how God acts to which I have come, and then to go on to ask, as Lady Oppenheimer proposes we should, how human beings may in prayer become associated with a divine activity so understood,
  4. I have argued that there is one act (in the sense of a piece of intentional behaviour initiated by an agent) that we may and must affirm to be God's act, namely the continuing creation of the universe. The complexity of his ‘act' does not invalidate its being described as a single act. At the human level we regularly apply such a description to complex happenings, such as the building of Solomon's temple. A complex action of that kind necessarily contains within itself a number of secondary actions, which together help to make up the one complex act. Gordon Kaufman, to whose treatment of this topic I am much indebted, speaks of the process as a whole as God's ‘master-act', and then goes on to speak of ‘sub-acts performed by God as he works out his purpose'. The illustration that he uses of the relation between a sub-act and the complex act of which it is constitutive (namely, a carpenter hammering nails and a carpenter nailing boards together to construct a house) suggests a need to speak in such terms. But, as I have argued earlier, a master-act may be made up of subacts whose agent or agents are other than the agent of the master-act. Solomon's building of the temple necessarily involves many sub-acts, but he does not himself have to be the agent of any of them in a sense distinguishable from his being agent of the one master-act. And in the account that I have given of divine activity I have not followed Kaufman in speaking of God performing any of the sub-acts which together contribute to God's one act of creating our world. I distinguished four types of happening or action which have traditionally been seen as the main forms of God's action in the world, but in each case (though for varied reasons) the description of them as acts (or sub-acts) performed by God seemed to me inappropriate or at least in need of some very careful and highly qualified interpretation. It will be helpful to list the four and characterize their differing relationships to the one master-act of God as creator of the whole.
    • 1. There are the regular patterns according to which the physical world operates and which are known to us (in so far as they are known) through the study of the natural sciences. These regularities have allowed for the emergence of life and increasingly complex organisms. Their amazing potential for giving rise to human life and human consciousness derives from the fact that they owe their existence to God's one act of creation. In that sense they are by their very nature an expression of the divine activity. But I have argued that their very regularity militates against the appropriateness of speaking of them, even in the significant stages of the emergence of new forms of life, as acts of God in any further or distinguishable sense (Chapter 3).
    • 2. There are some happenings where the normal patterns of observed behaviour do not appear to operate and some of these are spoken of as miracles. If we were to speak in terms of ‘laws of nature', we would have to say that those laws of nature were broken in such cases. If we prefer to speak rather of statistically determined regularities of observed behaviour, it would not be enough in the case of those happenings designated ‘miracles' to speak of them as exceptional cases which might at some later date be brought within the framework of some revised scientific .account. The claim in those cases is that their occurrence is due to some specific action of God designed to further God's purpose in a particular situation. I have argued that there are insufficient grounds for claiming that such cases exist (Chapter 5).
    • 3. There are actions by human agents, who have no conscious intention to further any believed purpose of God, but which do in fact achieve results that Christians believe to be of great significance for the furtherance of that divine purpose. Those actions may or may not at the same time be successful in achieving the quite different (and sometimes evil) intention of the human agent. I have argued that, however great the coincidence of the result of such an action and the furtherance of God's purpose in the world, it is inappropriate to speak of it as an action of God. There does not seem to be any intelligible way of relating the intention of God and the human deed performed, which would be a necessary condition for describing it as a specific action of God. When St John puts into the mouth of Caiaphas the words ‘it is expedient that one man die for the people' and goes on to comment that ‘he did not say this of his own accord' (John 11.50-51), we should not take the words at their surface level and puzzle over how the divine puppeteer prompts the high priest to speak such prophetic words. It is rather a matter of the dramatic irony of the evangelist vividly portraying the important truth that the evil intentions of men and women do on occasion bear fruit that will be for the healing of the nations (Chapter 5).
    • 4. There are actions by human agents, who freely intend to further the purposes of God, seek God's grace to enable them to do so, and do in fact achieve their intended goal. Here the relationship to God's act is much closer. But even in such cases the problems concerning divine grace and human freedom make it uncertain whether and in what sense one can appropriately speak of them as God's acts (Chapter 6).
  5. Since actions of this last type are not only those most intimately related to the activity of God but are also those most immediately involved in the life of prayer and worship which is our present concern, we must consider in rather more detail how they are most appropriately to be understood in relation to the action of God. The way in which we speak about action at the human level varies in accordance with the purpose and style of our speaking. All significant human actions have a complex ancestry. For certain purposes it may be sufficient and true to say ‘I chose to do it and there's no more to be said'. But for other purposes (for example, if I want to contrast my action with that of someone from a very different cultural background) I may go on to talk about a wide range of social expectations and social restraints. I may even make the point by saying it was my upbringing that led me to act as I did. Nor need there be any conflict between those two accounts, if I have so internalized that upbringing that it works with and not against the grain of my choosing. Nor indeed is the use of language, including action language, always intended to be understood in a directly descriptive way. Human speech fulfils many roles and the appropriate style of speech varies accordingly. ‘It's all thanks to you! It's all your doing!', I may say to the friend who has stood by me and encouraged me to make my own choice. That is a proper use of language in the context of the expression of gratitude, though it would be misleading if taken literally as a straightforward account of the genesis of my action. Since so much religious language has its place in a context of thanksgiving, the analogy may not be without significance.
  6. With these examples in mind, let us turn to a consideration of Christian prayer and worship. And we shall do so with two expectations. First, we ought to expect that problems about the relation of such prayer to God's action may well remain incapable of solution as long as we approach them in terms of the particular occasion of prayer alone, without giving serious attention to the ‘complex ancestry' of that occasion. Secondly, we ought to expect to find considerable divergence in the use of language about God's action in the very different contexts of worship and of critical reflection. Such differences may well appear to amount to direct contradictions at the surface level, without actually involving real contradiction when appropriately understood from within their different contexts.
  7. Despite the gospel promise, ‘Whatever you pray for in faith you will receive' (Matt. 21.22), it has always been recognized that there are some things which it is absurd to pray for because they conflict with the given structures and regularities of the world. Thus Origen could write:
      It would be utterly absurd for a man who was troubled by scorching sun at the summer solstice to imagine that by prayer the sun could be shifted back to its spring-time place among the heavenly bodies.
  8. Once that principle is acknowledged, it is difficult to define its limits. I have argued against the reasonableness of expecting any special divine modification of the physical ordering of the world. I do not therefore propose to discuss prayers of that kind, but rather prayers for God's grace. To do so does not rescue us at a stroke from the kind of difficulty I have been adumbrating. Does not such a move, it can be objected, however popular in today's church, involve essentially the same kind of divine intervention as the prayer for change in the external world? The objection is raised by unbeliever and believer alike. Thus Michael Goulder argues that the deflection of an Exocet missile and the deflection of Mrs Thatcher’s judgment would involve equally crude forms of divine intervention — with the implication that both forms of praying had better be abandoned. Stuart Hall argues very similarly that to stop ‘praying against bad weather, drought, flood, storm and pestilence' and to pray instead for the generosity needed to respond to such adversities ‘does not in fact get rid of the difficulties it perceives' and is both ‘illogical and seriously atheistic' — but with the apparent implication in his case that we should go back to the older forms of praying. Both support their case by arguing that psychological change itself involves a form of physical change in the brain circuits. But their conclusion does not follow from the fact that psychological changes may always involve concomitant changes in the brain circuits. But their argument would only be valid if we were to hold a false form of physical determinism according to which psychological change could only be brought about by a prior modification of the brain circuits. Nevertheless the substantive point they make is not without force. My own misgivings about any direct ascription of election or conversion to some special action of God were of a similar character. Can prayers for the grace of enlightenment or for the grace of spiritual strength be understood in ways that are free from such objections?
  9. Certainly the most immediately obvious interpretations of such forms of prayer do seem to run into difficulties of this kind. Praying to God for enlightenment may suggest that we are looking for a way to understanding that bypasses the normal critical procedures; praying to God for strength may suggest that we are looking for a way to achievement that makes the customary expenditure of effort unnecessary. But however much the outcome of our praying may seem to confirm such expectations, that kind of interpretation is to be firmly rejected. It is neither necessary nor desirable. Insight in any field of understanding may come at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. To ascribe such knowledge to a direct divine source, with the implication that it is therefore exempt from critical scrutiny, is to open the floodgates to fanaticism. The person who prays for strength may learn that his previous efforts were a hindrance to achievement. But he might have learnt the same lesson to relax and not strive too hard in a non-religious context; what is involved may be more properly seen not as the replacement of human activity by divine, but rather as the substitution of a more appropriate form of human acting. Again we may picture our prayers as giving rise to knowledge not otherwise accessible to us or as providing strength beyond the limits of our normal psychological capacity. Such pictures spring naturally enough out of the obvious human analogies. A friend enlightens us on issues that fall within the competence of his or her experience but lie outside our own; or he adds his strength to ours and enables us to achieve some feat that we could not have done single-handed. But here too the concept of a special divine communication of an additional quantum of knowledge or strength above that which would have been accessible to us naturally is highly unsatisfactory. The picture follows too closely the analogy of one human person's relation with another. And even at the human level, as soon as we move beyond the more trivial examples and seek to understand the full range of mutual enlightenment and co-operation between individuals within human society, we are aware of a need to extend the scope of our reflections before an adequate answer can be given. We are faced, as we foresaw, with the need to take into account what I have called the more ‘complex ancestry' of our prayers for grace.
  10. What then is the nature of this broader account? Prayers to God have their place within a continuing story, and just because they are prayers to God they cannot be adequately understood in isolation from that full story, however immediate or precise the language in which they are expressed. That story is the story of God's action in the creation of the world. The mysterious phenomenon of human consciousness has arisen in it not by chance, but as a result of the intention that constitutes the world God's act. The capacity to attain, however incompletely, some awareness of that intention is a part of what it is to have been created free beings in God's image. Such recognition, and very partial realization, of God's purpose as the world has seen in the past have been primarily forwarded by those who have used their God-given potential to open themselves to and identify their own goals with what they have grasped of the will of God. In the language of process theology they have responded to the lure of the divine love available to them, and it is that that has enabled them to contribute to this still very partial recognition and realization of God's will. And we, in our turn, stand on their shoulders. Apart from them we would be in no position to be seeking God's grace in prayer in the way that we do.
  11. This dependence on the ways in which God's intention has found its very partial fulfilment so far is not evenly spaced in relation to past history nor does it simply take the form of reaching back and learning from that past. For the Christian the figure of Jesus as presented in the New Testament stands out. He stands out as a fulfilment of many early intimations of God's purpose for the world, as in himself the fullest expression of that divine intention for human life and thereby as creative of future possibilities of appropriate response to God. But the transformative power of Jesus is not something that exists only in the past, available to us as we go back in search of it. It has transformed the world by giving birth to new images and symbols, which in making possible new ways of perceiving the world thereby make possible new ways of living in it. These new ways of perceiving the world find expression not only in the belief systems of the church, but also in the imaginative creations of poets and artists and in the varied forms of Christian worship. Particularly important examples are the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, which in this perspective are more clearly seen as effective, and not merely commemorative, symbols of Christ's death and resurrection. In other words the divine intention does not only find expression spasmodically in the lives of the saints occurring at scattered points in human history; it also finds more institutional expression (though still, of course, very incomplete expression) in a Christian vision of the world, particularly as enshrined in the sacraments of the church.
  12. This then is the fashion of God's acting in the world — making possible the emergence, both individually and corporately, of a genuinely free human recognition and response to what is God's intention in the creation of the world. And it is with this that we associate ourselves in prayer and worship. Indeed our association of ourselves with it is not merely a means towards its furtherance in other aspects of life (though it is that), but is also itself a part of the fulfilment of that purpose.
  13. Little objection will, I think, be raised against such an account of the ‘complex ancestry' in the light of which our individual acts of prayer and worship are to be understood. But is it a sufficient account? I have stressed a number of strands that constitute the indispensable background conditions of any particular experience of grace: God as the ultimate source of the conditions in which our lives are set; the availability of an awareness of his purpose of love as a source of guidance for our lives; the ways in which that love, having been apprehended and responded to in the past, is accessible to us now in such forms as the writings of the saints and the sacraments of the church. And just as there is a cumulative response to God in human history embodied in the continuing life of the church, so there is a cumulative response in individual human lives. We do not come to particular occasions of prayer for God's grace as newly minted or unformed entities. We come with characters developed in specific ways, ways partly determined by the extent to which we have opened ourselves to God's grace in the past. But even when all that has been said and full allowance has been made for its contribution to the form and effectiveness of our prayers for grace, the question remains: does not our account need to be completed by an insistence on some supervenient personal address of God, involving the kind of particular divine action postulated by Galilee and Hebblethwaite? Whatever the difficulties such a concept may pose for the understanding, it may seem that unless we allow for some such specific address within our account, we will be unable to give a religiously satisfying description of prayer. The most we would be doing, it might appear, would be to give a description of prayer as a means of bringing our lives into relation not so much to God as to some generalized conception of God's will for the world.
  14. That difficulty, though widely felt, can, I believe, dissolved by more careful reflection and analysis. The nature of God's action in creating a world of which genuinely free human creativity is a vital constituent can only be spoken of in the most general of terms. For God's purpose is no pre-packaged blue-print to which men and women must conform or be broken. Our human actions affect the way the world develops for good and ill. It is God's will that they should. So God's will for the world can properly be spoken of not only in the generalized form that characterizes his one fundamental act of creation; It can also be spoken of in more precise and changing ways that take account of how the world now is as a result both of human achievements and of human sin. But what that more particular will of God is at any time is something we have to discover; it is not directly given and we need to exercise great caution in any claim to know what it is. And what is true about the world at large is true about our individual lives also. We are not born into the world with a predestined role to fulfil — or to frustrate and be frustrated. When we speak of God's will for our lives as individuals at a particular time, as we may, it is always an open concept of which we are speaking. Since human freedom is an integral part of God's purpose in the creation of the world, his will for individual human lives must also be one that allows us freedom to choose between various ways in which our potentialities may be developed and used; it is something that is always open to change in the light of past choices and actions both our own and others'. This open and creative character of the search to discern and to realize God's will for our lives serves to make the whole process a profoundly personal one. Our prayers for grace are an integral part of that search. In them we are not involved merely in an intellectual attempt to discover what God's will for us might be; we are involved in bringing to special awareness the fact of the presence to us of the God whose will we are seeking. And that presence, like the presence of the human friend which prompts us to say ‘It was all thanks to you! It was all your doing!', needs no particular identifiable initiative to give it its significance. So what seems at first to be a depersonalizing interpretation, because it leaves no place for a specific divine initiative, turns out in the end to have precisely the opposite effect. It not only avoids the age-old difficulties inherent in ideas of election — why this person is called and not that, why this prayer is answered and not that; it can also claim to offer a more deeply personal and thereby a more deeply religious account of grace as a whole.
  15. If that is an adequate account of the way in which our prayers for grace are related to the activity of God, why should prayer take the form that it does? In our prayers we ask God to do things in a way which certainly suggests particular individual divine actions in response to our requests. The language we use is, of course, very largely language that we have inherited, and it has been understood in very different ways at different times and in different places. But even allowing that it is open to a variety of interpretations, is it compatible with the kind of account that I have been giving? In any response to that question, it is vital to begin by recalling the different styles of language appropriate to religion and to theology. The language of religion, like the language of poetry, uses the direct and concrete image to make vivid for us the underlying realities of our life. That is the only way in which they can be brought to bear imaginatively and effectively upon the well-springs of our being. But it is easy to be misled in the process of spelling out what such imaginative language involves. Indeed the task on which I have been involved throughout the course of this book has been an attempt to counteract some misconceptions that arise when such religious language is understood too simplistically. And my goal in so doing is not to wean us away from the use of such language altogether (though we may well be led to want to modify it in some respects), but rather to enable us to use it in a way which does not conflict with other aspects of our understanding of life.
  16. It may seem to some that what I have actually done is to replace a simplistic view of religious language with a highly sophisticated, or even sophistical one. Yet a little reflection will show, I believe, that I have only been extending more widely and consistently an approach that is in fact shared even by the most conservative believer. Christians have always prayed and continue to pray with the utmost regularity ‘Give us this day our daily bread'. How is such a prayer to be interpreted? It has the particularity not merely of direct request to God, but of a request to be met today. Yet we are not asking God for a supply of manna that would increase the unemployment rate among bakers. Nor are we asking God to influence the mind of the secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers' Union against the option of calling for a strike. What we are doing, surely, is acknowledging the givenness of the world, with its remarkable physical balance which has made possible the emergence of human life and the conditions to sustain it. But with that acknowledgment goes also the recognition that it is human creativity that has learnt and is still in process of learning how best to use those conditions for the growing of the corn and that it is co-operative human labour that is needed to turn it into bread. Moreover the inclusive ‘us' reminds us that if the prayer is to be fulfilled for Ethiopian children, as well as those in the Western world, there will have to be a development of managerial skills and a radical reordering of priorities that are a challenge both to our creativity and to our values. It expresses in concrete form the same fundamental petition as the clauses that stand alongside it in the Lord's Prayer, for the doing of God's will and the coming of his kingdom. So it is not a straightforward petition. It appears to be asking for God to do something quite specific now, but that is not how we understand it. Nor do we regard ourselves as behaving in an unreasonably sophisticated, let alone sophistical, manner when we refuse to take it in that way. The broader interpretation I have suggested is as natural to us as the directness of its linguistic form is welcome and appropriate.
  17. If that is an acceptable analysis of this central clause of the Lord's Prayer, why are we so hesitant to allow a similar analysis in other cases? Other forms of prayer to God to do things and other affirmations of what God has done or is doing are patient of the same basic kind of interpretation. And many of the problems that arise through critical reflection invite such an approach. It may sound sophisticated, or even reductionist, at first in contexts where we are not used to its application. But it is not really so. We ought not to wait until we are forced to make a series of such moves separately in relation to each particular form of petitionary or intercessory prayer or in relation to each specific example of purported divine action, as one by one more traditional interpretations become too implausible to maintain. We should rather be seeking to develop over a broad field the kind of understanding of divine action that I have been seeking to commend as a constructive and religiously helpful style of interpretation.
  18. How can that understanding be best set out in summary form? God's fundamental act, the intentional fruit of the divine initiative, is the bringing into existence of the world. That is a continuous process, and every part of it is therefore in the broadest sense an expression of divine activity. Differences within that process, leading us to regard some happenings as more properly to be spoken of in such terms than others, are dependent not on differing divine initiatives but on differing degrees of human responsiveness. The players in the improvised drama of the world's creation, through whom the agency of the author finds truest expression, are not ones to whom he has given some special information or advice, but those who have best grasped his intention and developed it. The personal character of God's love is shown in the fact that the world that he is bringing into being is designed to elicit a fullness of personal life through the exercise of freedom. The additional affirmation of particular divine acts in the form of special immediate or mediated divine initiatives seems at first hearing to enhance that basic Christian conviction about the personal character of God. What the survey of the areas of Christian teaching that we have considered in suggests is that that teaching does not need to be understood in a way which requires us to make that further claim, and that if we do so it does not in fact strengthen a personalist account of Christian faith in the way we would initially expect. Moreover, although the idea cannot be simply ruled out as logically impossible, the difficulties of integrating it into an awareness of the world that seeks to take full account of recent developments in human knowledge are enormous. A modified account of divine agency along the lines that I have been suggesting here is not without its own problems. But they do not seem to me as severe as those that other accounts have to face.
  19. ‘The God who no longer plays an active role in the world is ... a dead God.’ Walter Kasper's phrase, ‘playing an active role in the world', may not be an appropriate description of the God whose agency I have been seeking to describe. But that God is no dead God. He is the living God, the source of all life and the source of that authentic life which his worshippers seek to realize in grateful awareness of his all-pervasive and sustaining presence.


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