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.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

An Abhorrent Theodicy

Robin Collins, ‘Divine Action and Evolution’, in Thomas P. Flint and Michael Rea (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 241–261

In my previous post, I noted that Robin Collins’s insight about anthropomorphizing creation has challenged my ideas about the autonomy of creation. But the remainder of his essay on divine action and evolution isn’t quite as impressive. It’s simply too speculative (Collins admits this) and doesn’t seem to warrant any place for God conceived as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The main aim of the paper is to provide a reason for why God has chosen to create indeterministically through chance processes, a decision that ostensibly requires a proper place for the suffering of living organisms. Collins’s proposal is this:

The evolutionary process allows for certain types of interconnection between human and nonhuman creation that are potentially of significant value. (p. 247).

And what does Collins mean by ‘interconnection’? An interconnection is:

a special sort of relation between persons or between persons and non-personal aspects of creation. (p. 247).

These interconnections are perceived connections between people, or between people and things, that are so deeply felt that, in part, they somehow constitute the self. Collins goes further and identifies three different types of interconnection. Emergent interconnections point to the origin of the human body and soul from the basic stuff of the universe (strong emergent connections), or simply the human body from stuff (weak emergent connections) – the soul comes directly from God. Here, Collins asserts that if strong emergent connections hold true, and if libertarian freedom is an inherent product of the universe, then these indicate why God has chosen to create through an indeterministic evolutionary process. Put more clearly, a universe with strong emergent connections is greater (in value?) than one with weak emergent connections. But as I’ve hinted, this, to me, seems to be no more than an assertion. It is by no means obvious that strong emergence is greater in value than weak emergence, although it does seem to grant more protection against dualistic depictions of the human person. The second and third types of interconnection are ancestral interconnections (all creatures, including humans, are ancestrally linked with other organisms) and redemptive interconnections, where humans are effectively God’s agents to enable the whole of creation to participate in the divine life. And with these definitions made, Collins takes time to summarize his position:

A world created to evolve and eventually produce human beings in a partially chance-driven way allows for the realization of emergent, ancestral, and redemptive interconnections. Further, it is at least difficult to conceive of how God could have created the world by some alternative means and at the same time for these interconnections to be realized to as great an extent. Thus, given that these interconnections are of significant value, they provide a reason for an all good God to have created the world in this way. (p. 253).

Perhaps; perhaps not. It strikes me that according to this scheme, the whole point of creation is for these three types of interconnection to exist and give meaning to what would otherwise be meaningless existence. Indeed, if the evolution of the universe is inherently indeterministic, as Collins seems to suggest, then surely God runs the risk that there never will be emergent, ancestral or redemptive interconnections.

There’s more. Collins also bases an approach to theodicy on his idea of interconnections. As the three types of interconnection are valuable because they allow us to enter deeper communion with ourselves, one another, the world and God, there is a place for suffering in the world because suffering allows us to forge deeper connections with one another by assisting others during times of trial, by acts of forgiveness, and so on. This theodicy Collins dubs ‘connection-building theodicy’ (CBT), and its heart is the idea that connection-building far outweighs the evils that allow connections to be made.

It’s my hope that I’ve missed some subtlety in the argument here, as I find this theodicy abhorrent. Tell the families of those shot dead in Norway recently that they grieve so that they can enter into deeper relationships with one another and even forgive Anders Behring Breivik; tell the starving millions in eastern Africa that the children are dying so that they can all realize their interconnectivity with the world around them; tell a rape victim that her torture, objectification and degradation is so that she and her counsellor can become better human beings through dependence and supporting acts of loving kindness. If Collins’s theodicy is a necessary corollary of his theory of interconnections, then I suggest that that theory is modified – and fast.

Collins’s essay is certainly stimulating, but I find it too speculative when it describes emergent, ancestral and redemptive interconnections (and let’s face it: it’s not like the concept of interconnectivity is actually that novel – many scientists, philosophers and theologians are noting the connections between all areas of life, the universe and everything), and too objectionable in the theodicy it pushes.

1 comment:

  1. I think John V. Taylor expresses this theme of connectivity very well. But it's quite different in scope and tenor. I don't have the book right here but he talks of the Spirit calling all particles to reach out to an 'other' and connect. He draws this from the romans verse of the spirit drawing all creation together. I probably should show you the relevant paragraph sometime

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