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.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Book Review: Denis Edwards, How God Acts (10)

Chapter 10

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 (first part), Chapter 3 (second part), Chapter 4 (first part), Chapter 4 (second part), Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9

The final chapter in How God Acts deals with prayer; specifically, how we understand prayer from within a scientific outlook that also presumes the reality of noninterventionist divine action. Edwards has already argued at length that whenever God acts in the world, it is through created causes. Thus even divine action interpreted as an answer to prayer must take place through created causes. So what does this mean for prayer as a human action?

First, Edwards explains that prayer is participation in God’s own action. When we pray for something good to happen – Edwards’s own example is for peace in the Middle East – we can be sure that our own prayers are caught up in God’s own passion and action for peace. And Edwards is also sure that praying for the world opens us to the Spirit’s present action and ‘sensitizes us to the deeper reality at work in the persons in our lives, in the concrete situations we encounter, and in the events of our world.’ (p. 170). When we pray earnestly for something, it seems that God’s response to that prayer is very often to motivate the pray-er, or the community of pray-ers, to become the answer to his or her own prayers.

Secondly, prayer is about intimacy with God, about being honest with God in all things. This means simply that we share with God those things that matter to us, including our own state of mind as we pray. So prayer is an opportunity, perhaps, to admit to God that we are fed up with waiting for God to answer prayers, especially when we get out of bed at five in the morning to present our requests (with thanksgiving) to God. But prayer, being about intimacy, is also space to listen to God, whose response may be discerned in a variety of ways – and for Edwards, this variety is important, as it shows that God responds through created things such as other people or a-ha! moments. And through the conversation that is prayer, the pray-er develops the skills to know how to pray as would Jesus.

Edwards’s third comment is that in prayer, we entrust ourselves to God’s care on a daily basis. We pray for our daily needs but in doing so learn not to sit back and wait for things to happen, but actively devote ourselves to God. In this sense, the pray-er participates in Jesus’s own prayer in Gethsemane, where initially he prayed for the cup to pass before he accepted the path God had chosen for him. And this leads to Edwards’s fourth and final point, that while it is legitimate to pray for those things that contribute to our happiness (note: happiness, not pleasure hedonistically understood) and enjoyment in a good life, eventually all these things will lead to God, in whose triune life alone we find true happiness and fulfilment.

All of these accounts of prayer ring true with me, but I would like Edwards to have linked these more thoroughly to the foregoing discussions of divine action. Is a negative response to prayer – that is, the traditional ‘unanswered’ prayer – simply the absence of a secondary cause in the equation? In a country suffering a severe drought (Edwards mentions his homeland, Australia, but we could easily mention the current eastern African drought as well), is the lack of rain simply due to the absence of rain clouds? What does it mean to ask God to ‘send rain’? Does it mean asking God literally to send the rain clouds? If so, how does God do it? And what are we to think when drought continues and worsens? As I say, much in this final chapter rings true with me, but I wonder how far this is because of piety than because it makes sense within a providential framework. The fact remains that for all of Edwards’s insights throughout How God Acts, the causal distinction he employs complicates rather than clarifies issues of providence and divine action.

… … … …

I’ve now come to the end of How God Acts. It’s a very good read, and should be regarded as a positive contribution to discussions about the doctrine of providence. I especially appreciated Edwards’s intent to show how divine action should be conceived in connection with human origins, and his attempt to demonstrate what deification could mean for the non-human world. Anyone doing research on the doctrine of providence or divine action will need to read this book. It offers some unique takes on the common problems in this research area.

But now that I have completed my review of How God Acts, I need to think about how to do future book reviews. By reviewing each of the ten chapters of How God Acts, I’ve actually produced twelve posts! This is too long, really. I plan to serial-review Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology next, which is a bigger volume that Edwards’s book, so I’ll make sure I think through a suitable way to review it very soon. If you have any suggestions to make on this score, do let me know.

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