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A fascinating theology of divine action
on July 28, 2010
A major part of contemporary theology is developing models of divine action in dialogue with science. How does God interact with the world? How should we think about miracles? These are important questions, particularly for Christian theologians because of the historic belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as well as the redemption of the cosmos that the Christ-event brought about. Denis Edwards, a theologian from Australia, has written an insightful book about divine action with "How God Acts". Edwards is very influenced by Karl Rahner's idea of creation as divine self-bestowal, utilizing Rahner's theology frequently throughout the book. Additionally, he is very influenced by Thomas Aquinas, and proposes some important revisions to his theology of miracles. He also credits Ted Peters and Robert John Russell at GTU in Berkeley for helping him develop many of his proposals about divine action.
The struggle for a Christian theology of divine action is in dealing with special divine acts - the incarnation, resurrection, miracles, and God's answering of prayer. Can we think about these ideas in a way that doesn't put forth a God who micromanages and aggravates the problem of evil? Edwards believes that we can at least do better than we have done in the past, and he is setting out to develop a theology of divine action that is deeply relational and also noninterventionist. In fact, he thinks that it is due to our limited perspective of scientific knowledge, and impoverished concepts of God that makes us interpret special divine acts as "interventionist." At the same time, Edwards issues a strong caution against believing that we can ever develop a satisfactory theodicy, or that even his integrated model of divine action will remove or explain "the intractable theological problem of suffering, [although] it may remove something that exacerbates the problem."
Edwards sets up three requirements for a theology of divine action that properly responds to the costs of evolution: 1) It must be "noninterventionist that sees God working in a through the world, rather than as arbitrarily intervening to send suffering to some and not others." 2) God's act of creating the universe needs to be understood in light of the resurrection and eschatological hope 3) It understands God as "actively waiting upon finite creaturely processes, living with the constraints of these processes, accompanying each creature in love, rejoicing in every emergence, suffering with every suffering creature, and promising to bring all to healing and fullness of life."
We are presented with a fascinating doctrine of creation that builds on Raher's theology of divine self-bestowal - that God chooses to give God's self in love to what is not divine, and so creation comes to be. In this theology of creation, it is the divine self-bestowing love that enables evolutionary emergence, creates through natural processes, and enables and respects creaturely autonomy. Key to this theology of creation is the assertion that although we experience God's actions in creation (limited by time and place) as differentiated and specific, they are all actually part of one divine act, "...an act of faithful, creating, and redeeming love." Also key to this theology is that the incarnation has always been the central purpose in creation. The incarnation was not "plan B" to deal with sin, but with Duns Scotus, the incarnation is understood as the giving of God's self to creation in love. So creation is intimately bound up with incarnation as one act of self-bestowal. Additionally, final fulfillment (eschatology) is also part of this one divine act. God is the core of the world's reality, directing all of creation from within towards final fulfillment - which is itself the same act by which all of creation is being directed.
Edwards then moves into a discussion of noninterventionist divine action. First, God does not occasionally intervene from outside, but is constantly present within all of creation, enabling and empowering creaturely processes and existence itself. God never violates the laws of nature, but works through them, within them. Additionally, because of the revelation of the cross, God puts Godself at risk by sharing in the joys and pains of creation by being present within all of creation - closer to creation than it is to itself. The resurrection offers the hope that God will ultimately achieve God's purposes with creation. Still, God has freely accepted limitations by creating in love. God respects the autonomy of creation: "It appears from the Christ-event that God's way is that of being committed to allowing events to unfold, even when they are radically opposed to the divine will, and to bring healing and liberation in and through them." Like a jazz musician, God improvises and responds to creation as events unfold. God has inscribed chance and randomness in the universe to "ensure variety, resilience, novelty, and freedom in the universe, right up to humanity itself" (quoting Elizabeth Johnson). Once again, God takes risks because randomness is real. It is, in fact, an expression of divine creativity. So God is not a rigid God bound by natural laws, but does work through them as well to achieve his purposes. God also works through chance to bring out the potentialities of creation, "enabling the new to emerge."
Edwards traces five different approaches that have developed over the last few decades to special divine action: 1) process theology (Barbour, Cobb) 2) God acts within the indeterminacy of quantum events to bring about particular outcomes (Murphy, Russell) 3) God acts in the openness of nature, in chaotic and complex systems, through top-down imparting of information to bring about particular outcomes (Polkinghorne) 4) God acts in and through and under every aspect of nature, acting on the system as a whole (Peacocke) 5) God acts consistently through secondary causes in nature (Stoeger). While acknowledging the value of all of these positions, Edwards represents the fifth view: "God acts in the whole of the natural world, by God's immanent and differentiated presence to all things, not only through the laws of nature of which we have a partial understanding, but also through those processes and regularities of nature that are still unknown to us." God's action is not another cause within the empirical world, but yet has always been constantly working within all of creation through secondary causes to achieve the divine purposes.
Edwards is proposing an alternative natural theology of miracles, which take place through purely natural causes, not through God breaking in to the natural order. Importantly, "natural causes" includes not just the laws of nature we already know, but also as yet un-modeled and mysterious aspects of our universe. For a variety of reasons, much of reality observed in science is inevitably missed. The quantum level provides all kinds of mystery, for instance. But that is not all - patterns of relationship between different levels of emergence are largely mysterious to us at this point. The important point in all of this is that every field of study describes reality as it is observed, but certainly does not prescribe it. Natural laws are human descriptions of observed regularities - even good descriptions and models of reality - but they are not the "cause of the regularity that is observed." They are not discovered as something that exists in and of themselves, but are imaginatively constructed through rigorous observation of phenomena. "The laws of nature as we know them are provisional...and not well equipped to deal with important areas of life, including not only the metaphysical, but also the mental, the ethical, the interpersonal, the aesthetic, and the religious." The consequences of this realization is that something less abstract like an occurence of physical healing may defy explanation within our current models of reality, but that does not mean that we will never be able to model them well. For Edwards, a miracle is a manifestation of the grace of God, and this requires `eyes to see and ears to hear' - faith is important. Miracles are not just brute facts detached from their meaning.
The resurrection of the crucified Jesus as the central expression of God's one act of divine self-bestowal, as the culmination of an evolutionary Christology, and as the sacrament of salvation to the world is vital to a robust Christian eschatology. The creation of the world had as its purpose the Christ-event, which is itself directed towards eschatology. God is the one who enables the self-transcendence of the universe from material existence, to life, and finally to human consciousness. In this context, Jesus is the most radical product of self-transcendence within the universe - which is enabled by God, but through the human Jesus. Jesus dies after a self-sacrificial life in a radical act of love for God, and is raised up and transformed by the Spirit: "In this paschal event [the entire Christ-event], part of evolutionary history gives itself completely into God and is taken up and transformed in God, as the beginning of the reconciliation and transformation of all things." Edwards believes, in line with the Eastern church, that the resurrection is the beginning of the "adoption and divinizing transformation of all things." The resurrection is an ontological event. In this context, Jesus' transformed body is taken up into God and able to be present to all things. The "return" of Jesus will be the "disclosure of this new relation to creation that is attained by his resurrection." The resurrected Jesus radically unites creation to God.
But doesn't the resurrection of Jesus bypass the laws of nature? Edwards is cautious in his claim that the resurrection can be seen as noninterventionist, but he persists. Because we do not have direct access to the actual act by which God raises up and transforms Christ crucified, Edwards focuses on the proclamations of resurrection, the appearances of the resurrected Christ, and the empty tomb stories. First, when we mystically experience the risen Christ in community, it is always mediated through secondary causes - whether this is through Eucharist or nature. What about the appearance stories in the gospels? Edwards suggests that the disciples really experienced the risen and radically transformed Jesus, yet only through the creaturely mediation of things like community, the breaking of bread, the natural world, the love of another human, and prayer. These experiences are neither imaginary visions nor the same as ordinary sense experience. They transcend both as the unique manifestation of the meaning of creation. There is no exact analogy for these experiences.
Finally, Edwards quotes Robert John Russell to bolster his claim that the universe was created to be transformable. As such, the eschatological transformation of the entire universe that the resurrection promises should also be understood as noninterventionist. There is no need for God to introduce a new law into nature at the resurrection as Russell proposes. Creation is made to be transformed. This is what the resurrection points us to.
This is a lengthy review, but it is really only an overview of the first two-thirds of the book. Edwards goes on to discuss original sin, eschatology, and intercessory prayer in the context of his theology of divine action. There is much in this book that deserves serious consideration for anyone interested in these topics. I found it highly stimulating and helpful in many ways. His writing is clear, and his sometimes mystical use of language and imagery were quite inspiring.