About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

On Primary Causation (2)

The concept of primary causation implies more than God’s granting existence to all things and their subsequent sustainment. It seems to me that according to the logic of primary causation, God must guarantee the emergence of specific outcomes. On a preservation-only schema, such as that implied by Ian McFarland’s definition of primary causation, secondary causes merely constitute an endless chain of causal interactions. If God only grants existence to secondary causes and upholds them in their efficacy, it appears quite possible that life on this planet, for example, need not have emerged. Thus primary causation hardly ever solely affirms God’s preservation of all things, for the concept also suggests that God concurs with all things and directs or governs them to particular ends – all of which means that secondary causes act and effect only as God as primary cause enables them to act in particular ways and effect specific things. Consider these two quotations from a recent paper by Denis Edwards:

I opt for an approach to divine action in which God is thought of as acting through secondary causes because it represents a foundational metaphysical understanding of the God-world relationship that is at the heart of the Christian tradition and that I find both intellectually coherent and religiously meaningful. At its center is the idea that the Creator is present to all creatures, closer to them than they are to themselves, conferring existence and the capacity to act on every entity and every process.

How, then, might we speak about God’s action in, for example, the emergence of life on our planet 3.7 billion years ago? In the approach I am advocating, this can be seen as a special act of God in the sense that God chooses, eternally, that the universe would bring forth biological life on our Earth by means of emergence and increasing complexity. What makes this act special is that (1) this action of God has a specific effect in creaturely history, the emergence of life in the universe; and (2) this specific effect is intended by God. Through the creative act of God in the eternal Word and through the immanent Spirit, inert matter becomes something new. God’s one act of self-bestowing love is expressed in the specific and special act of the emergence of life on Earth.

Denis Edwards, ‘Exploring How God Acts’, in Philip J. Rossi (ed.), God, Grace, and Creation. College Theology Society, Volume 55 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), pp. 124–146; quotations from pp. 132, 133–134
Note that in the first quotation, God is said to act through secondary causes; some form of mediated divine action is assumed. Notice also that God is said to confer existence and the capacity to act on every entity and every process. There is no suggestion here that God does anything other than to allow created entities and processes their own space to evolve and unfold.

But a question must now be asked: If God acts through secondary causes, exactly what is it that God enacts? I am convinced that God sustains the act of my raising my arm to throw a ball, granting existence to the necessary and allowing me the capacity to act. However, if God acts through the secondary causes involved in that simple action (‘me’, my arm, the action of arm-raising), then it appears that God is somehow acting through me (the secondary cause) to ensure that the ball is thrown (the intended effect). And the causal chain can be explained at various levels of created reality, rendering it possible to say that God acts through the various physiological impulses required to effect the actual raising of my arm, and so on. My overall point is that on this account, God’s action is not simply undergirding the world of secondary causes, but is also present within the world of secondary causes to effect particular things in the world of secondary causes. If God acts through secondary causes, it suggests that God acts through every action performed by a secondary cause – and if this is not the case, then once more it is necessary to ask precisely what it means to speak of God’s action unless simple preservation is the total content of divine action.

The second quotation from Edwards indicates that God’s action is qualified as God’s decision that biological life will emerge – even if according to the nature of secondary causes, it takes considerable time to do so. Edwards’s argument suggests that God not only grants existence and the capacity to act to the blossoming universe, but that God tends to the universe so that it blossoms in certain ways. Thus it is not too much of a stretch to claim that on this account, God wills to act in the world through secondary causes. If God wills that Homo sapiens should emerge from the evolution of earlier hominids, or that a ball should pass through the air as the result of my arm-raising action, then it seems that divine action is voluntaristic and necessitates the employment of created causes understood as secondary causes to ensure that the divine will achieves its goals.

Even from this limited discussion, it should be clear that talk of primary causation seldom remains focussed on the matter of preservation alone. It seems almost inevitable that the conceptuality of primary causation moves freely from talk of preservation to talk of concurrence and governance; for if God simply preserves all things, it is difficult to show that God actually acts in the world.

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